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00566 – King Arthur

MovieHype00566 – King Arthur

Prologue #1: Previews

I know I have preached this for years (#127), but why oh why do movie executives feel the absolute moral imperative to ruin a whole film for us with the trailer? A movie preview needs to do two things: whet our appetites so we want to see the picture but without giving away the plot or the ending. Is that so much to ask? (Seriously; I’m putting this in my presidential platform. You wait.) This brings us to the previews before King Arthur:

There was Anacondas: the Hunt for the Blood Orchid. (I am not making that up). Not that I would see it anyway, but they should take a hint from my man Spielberg: you NEVER show the monster until you have to; especially in the preview.

Next was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Ugh.

The Exorcist: The Beginning. Please stab me now.

National Treasure. This actually looks really cool (Nicolas Cage searching for a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence), but they gave away so much in the previews. (Grr.)

The Village. M. Night Shyamalan is the greatest trailer guy alive today. The 6th Sense made you want to see it without telling you what the hell was going on. The Village is more of the same. Love that guy.

Prologue #2: Bruckheimer

I know I always say that a movie’s quality is not nearly as much about the actors as the writers and directors. The one quasi-exception to this is Jerry Bruckheimer. I’m torn on Jerry’s movies. On the one hand, I liked Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Black Hawk Down and last year’s surprise Pirates of the Caribbean. But he’s also had Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor, Dangerous Minds, and Days of Thunder. Even enjoyable popcorn flicks like Armageddon and The Rock aren’t great films. So, I didn’t know what to expect. Bruckheimer is known for flash and sizzle, which can be good or bad (or possibly both).

Prologue #3: The Legend

There have been many attempts at filming the King Arthur legend. Just some of the ones I’ve seen: Excalibur (perhaps the best), Camelot, Quest for Camelot, Mists of Avalon, First Knight (an awful awful movie; I’m convinced I’d still be going out with the girl I was with if we’d seen a better film), The Sword in the Stone, and perhaps the best attempt at historical reenactment, Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.

Prologue #4: The Adaptation

Another thing I’ve been preaching all year: when you see a movie based on a previous work, you have the judge the movie for what it is, not for what it comes from. In King Arthur’s case, there isn’t one definitive word, but rather a collective body of work that chronicles the honor and the horror, the lives and the loves of the Knights of the Round Table. (I very much think the Arthurian legend is Great Britain’s mythology.) The main characters are still there (Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin; a few others), but Bruckheimer and Co. and have decided to take a completely different path and give us the “true” story of Arthur behind the legend.

I don’t have a problem with this per se. In fact let me take a moment to appeal to readers who like historical fiction. (You illiterates jump to the next paragraph…wait for it…) Jack Whyte has written a phenomenal (at least, the ones I’ve read) series called A Dream of Eagles imagining what it must have been like in the time leading up to Arthur. Starting two generations before with The Skystone and striving to get all the little details of history correct, Whyte deftly weaves a fascinating tale of life in Britain under Roman rule, and what happened when the Legions of Rome left. If you like that sort of thing, check out The Skystone.

Anyway, what we get here is a re-imagining, with most of the same characters, but a completely (and I mean that utterly, up to the last name) different back-story, and none of the fabled mysticism. (Even the Excalibur-out-of-the stone scene can be explained by the heat). I suspect that the movie makers (in their minds, at least) worked very hard to come up with something interesting and different, so I’ll let you glean the details yourself if you see the film.

The reason I bring the whole thing up is that many people love Arthur for the characterization. You have the Love Triangle (arguably the most famous in history if you don’t count that one in the New Testament) between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. You have Merlin the Magician. There are the Knights’ quests. And on and on.

You’re not going to get that here. I admit, in spite of myself, I missed the deep back-story. I missed the Lady of the Lake and the intrigue and the incest and the insane relatives and all that stuff. For a while I was thinking they were setting it up for sequels, but I don’t think that will happen now. So, you should be prepared for that.

Prologue #5: Stop, Thief!

One characteristic of Bruckheimer-itis is stealing from other movies. There is a bunch of that here, so we should just deal with it. At times this will feel like Gladiator (and even more so like Braveheart), and at times I got some Excalibur déjà vu. What are you going to do? It’s not like any of those movies made stuff up themselves. I’d love a movie to be completely inventive and original, but for the most part this blatant cribbing isn’t all that distracting.

Prologue #6: The Characters

Merlin: He’s there in name only. I have nothing to say here.

Cerdic (the bad guy): they never even said his name, as he’s not the focus. Nonetheless, Stellan Skarsgǻrd is pitch-perfect as the intelligent but contemptible (in a fascinating way) villain of the piece.

Lancelot: Perhaps the only misfire. The actor does fine, but Lance comes across like a big ol’ pussy ‘till the end. That part felt fake.

The Other Knights: the film doesn’t do a good job of telling you who is who, but the actors do fine nonetheless. Nothing bad here. I feel compelled to single one of them out: Bors (played by Ray Winstone). He’s easily the funniest and most watchable of the characters. As all 11 of his children are bastards (to the same woman!), they’ve only named one, and all the rest go by number. Bors will be reminiscing about how “#3…he’s such a good little fighter.” Bors consistently got the big laughs.

Guinevere: She is played by Keira Knightley, who you may remember I predicted big things for after Pirates of the Caribbean. Nothing has changed. Her role is smaller, and less showy, but she still manages to bring grace to the part. Here Guinevere is not some fragile queen to be admired and protected, but more like a cross between Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy, and Clan of the Cave Bear. She’s sexy and manipulative, arrogant and cunning, and a bit of a bitch. My kind of woman.

Arthur: Clive Owen does stellar work, and here’s hoping that after a decade of toiling in smaller roles, he’ll get the credit he deserves. I’ve always found it strange that most movies (and even books) don’t focus enough on Arthur. In this version we get as fully realized character as possible Arthur inspired me. Watching the screen, his speeches didn’t feel cliché, his actions didn’t seem trite, and he never felt holier-than-thou. This is a man to admire; this is a hero to follow.

Prologue #6: The Dialogue

Any time you’re talking about honor and freedom you’re going to get some cheesy stuff. For example, Lancelot to Arthur: “You fight for a world that will never exist!” Or Guinevere, trying to manipulate Arthur into something: “You stayed and fought when you didn’t have to; you bloodied evil men when you could have run…” And Cedric, after meeting Arthur: “Finally, a man worth killing.” If you can get past the eye-rolling factor, it’s not too bad. (And I’m not kidding when I tell you that every other word out of Bors’s mouth is hilarious.)

Prologue #7: The Feel

The film starts slowly, and like I mentioned, can’t figure out how to introduce people organically so it feels natural but you’re not wondering who is who. Besides that, the fighting isn’t any improvement on any previous film (although it’s not bad, either). My biggest complaint was that I wished it were longer. I wish there was more epic, so that the love triangle wasn’t confined to a few glances, so that Merlin and Cedric could shine, and so we could the see the molding of a great leader in more than a scene or two.

But I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t enjoy this. Once I got into it, I had a great time with King Arthur. I found Arthur compelling and believable, the story inspiring, and even if we didn’t get the richness and complexity of the Arthurian legend, what was on screen was entertaining too. If you’re open-minded, I don’t see why you couldn’t like King Arthur as well.

Hyperion’s Rating System (based on #121)

Suspension of Disbelief Scale (from 0-10, with 0 being real life and 10 a cartoon): 4. They try very hard to make this feel real (maybe too hard). There is very little here that couldn’t have conceivably happened.

Genre Grade: Under Swashbuckler, a C+, but under Quasi-Historical Epic, a B+.

Pantheon Percentile (50 is average and 99 if the best possible): This doesn’t stand up to Excalibur, but a worthy effort anyway. 70.

Hyperion

July 9, 2004

Credits

Thanks to Marcellus

Thanks to Koz

Thanks to Lady Jane

Editing by Tufloi

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