RECAP: King Arthur

King Arthur (2004): Antoine Fuqua

Saddle up for another ride with the greatest king in English history, Arthur, a king who never existed.

Or did he? The makers of King Arthur, would have us believe that this new tale is based partly on the real past, on “recently discovered archeological evidence.”

(Keep in mind, the natives of northern Britain were Picts. Legend had them wearing blue woad dye in battle. All references to “Woads” are meant to be Picts.)

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: In 452, Arthur, the man who would be king, takes his knights to the north of England to save a Roman boy and repel the Saxon invasion.

Hero (4/10)

Before he was king, before he united Britain, Arthur was a Roman. (Record scratch) What? King Arthur purports to be based on new, historical information about Arthur. What that information is we never learn.

The scene is northern Britain, mostly along the ancient barrier of Hadrian’s Wall, for centuries the northern extension of the Roman empire. In the time of the movie, the wall is already more than three centuries old, and one of its best protectors is a Roman named Arthur.

Seeing the future King Arthur in Roman garb is as strange as it sounds, but casting the quintessential English gent Clive Owen eases that tension. Arthur leads a small group of Sarmatian knights, fulfilling Roman orders across Britain.

Arthur opens the movie as a lackey for Rome, but he has more on his mind than killing. Pelagius is an influential reformer living in Rome whose ideas on freedom and equality attracted Arthur. That makes Arthur on outcast among the Roman elite, such as Bishop Germanius, who smashes Arthur’s image of the man.

These ideas ripple through the plot. Mostly Arthur is concerned with his own freedom, promised to him and his knights after 15 years loyal service. And he’ll get it, just as soon as he completes his most dangerous mission yet.

A Roman family lives north of Hadrian’s Wall (for some reason), and a boy there named Alecto, the pope’s favorite godson, must return to Rome. First, he and his family need a military escort to navigate the territory of the treacherous Woads, the natives living north of the wall who have harassed Rome for as long as Rome has meddled in the north of Britain. The Woads are moving south of the wall, seemingly for the first time, unsettling Arthur. They don’t move to conquer Roman territory, but for another, more dangerous reason: the Saxons are coming.

Arthur, Woads (led by Stephen Dillane as Merlin), and Saxons converge in this plot, leaving little room for discussion of Arthur’s ideals. Still, we see that Arthur is a man of principle, dedicated to freedom of all men and women, not just the rich and powerful. Mythical Arthur has stood for freedom for centuries, so it’s no surprise to see the same here.

The famous round table is there, this time in a Roman fort. Challenged to fight one “final  mission,” Arthur prays to God that He be merciful to his knights in their hour of need. Arthur offers himself as blood sacrifice if it means his knights would live.

Contrast these beliefs with Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Arthur’s longtime friend, who doesn’t like anything that demands kneeling and doesn’t give a damn about Britain. Arthur, meanwhile, finds his strength from God. He fights for a world that, in Lancelot’s eyes, will never exist–a world without war.

Philosophy aside, Arthur is a great warrior. He does not fear death in battle, and that makes him dangerous. He’s ready to fight the Saxons singlehandedly if need be. He rides his horse like a demon, killing all comers.

It’s Arthur’s work north of the wall that sets him apart from other Romans and from other Britons. Already famous in Britain, Arthur cements his legend in a single day.

The knights reach the house of Alecto and his angry, bulbous father, who doesn’t want to leave. The Saxons are coming, so near their drumbeats are heard. Still, he won’t go.

Arthur threatens to kill him if they don’t leave. That puts a spur in his britches. But wait, what’s going on on this homestead? Outside the mansion’s wall a group of peasants labor, tossing hay into piles and such. There’s an old man, shirtless, chained up outside in the frigid air.

Arthur takes the time to find out why he’s chained. Turns out it was the village elder, who only asked that his hungry villagers keep a little more food for themselves. Arthur cuts him down. “All of you were free from your first breath,” he says. With moments to spare, the knights are nervous about leaving before the Saxons arrive.

Over by the wall are some workers hurriedly walling up a door. Arthur wants to know what for. Alecto’s greasy father won’t say. After some hacking and kicking, Arthur breaches the door, which was locked from the inside. Strange.

Arthur and the knights tour a moldy prison, where “men of God” house local prisoners who wouldn’t worship God. This place is nas-tay. The walls are the color of either puke or pus. Many prisoners are dead, and still are chained to floors and walls. An enraged Lancelot kills a Man of God.

Arthur rescues the two surviving prisoners, a blond boy and Guinevere (Keira Knightly), and forces the knights to escort the peasants to relative safety south of the wall. Lancelot opposes this with tough talk. “Save your anger for them,” Arthur shoots back. Fearless aggression and unwavering compassion in the span of a few minutes–that’s Arthur.

Let’s flashback. Arthur is a young boy. His mother is a native and his father a Roman. The locals, led by Merlin, dislike this. They raid his home and kill his parents. Later, Arthur draws Excalibur from his father’s burial mound. A legend is born. It was love of his mother that freed the sword, not hate for Merlin.

Uh, OK. This scene felt tacked on, like the producers felt obliged to give Excalibur an origin story. Not necessary. What is important is knowing that Merlin, leader of the Woads, wants Arthur alive, to lead all the peoples of Britain.

And, in the end, after losing his friends, that’s just what he’ll do.

Villain (4/10)

As Rome prepares to abandon Britain, Saxons march across the island. The Saxons don’t care much about the centuries of warfare between the Woads and the Romans. They kill everyone.

Leading these marauders is Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård), a long haired, long bearded warrior long tired of warfare and conquering. He never states he’s weary of war, but Skarsgård injects such pathos and boredom into the character that his lines are barely audible.

Cerdic knows exactly how to divide his forces, and he swiftly marches them across Britain toward Hadrian’s Wall. Everything and everyone in their wake suffers. Rape and murder are morning exercises for these shaggy punks.

Cerdic faces Arthur, an island legend, before their final battle. Afterward, Cerdic mutters to himself, “Finally, a man worth killing,” the only time the Saxon shows interest in conquering Britain.

Years of fighting take their toll on Cerdic, who can’t keep his energy fighting Arthur. The latter tricks him into a backward stab in the stomach, ending his invasion plans.

Action/Effects (4/10)

King Arthur is light on the bloody spectacles and steel-on-steel clashes. Braveheart: AD 452 this could’ve been but ain’t. That’s OK. Fuqua is more interested in the character interplay, which has always been the hallmark of the Camelot legends.

Nevertheless, these men (and a woman!) shed blood. The opening fight scene takes place in northern Britain, south of Hadrian’s Wall, 15 years after Lancelot was tapped to serve his antecedents’ blood debt to Rome. Lancelot rides with Arthur and his band of merry thieves.

Sorry, getting my British myths confused. Arthur and company ride in the open fields of what is not yet England, where they find a small contingent of Roman legionaires escorting a wagon carrying a bishop in the fledgling Roman Catholic Church.

Interspersed amongst the nearby woods are dozens of blue-painted raiders. Stop what you’re thinking; I said this wasn’t Braveheart. These are Woads (remember: they were Picts, really), and they don’t like Romans much.

They don’t like Romans so much that they try to kill them! Can you believe it? Anyway, the Woads shoot some arrows at the Roman cavalry like cowards. They charge.

Arthur’s crew, galloping in a flying V, arrives on scene and start taking scalps. Killing men from horseback is perhaps the easiest thing in the world, this movie would have us believe.

It’s a fast decimation of the Woads from that moment on. Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) head butts a guy. Another gets shot and flips backward into a water hole, which was pretty cool. Gawain (yes, that Gawain) (Joel Edgerton) nearly dies when a Woad leaps on his back.

Before you know it, the bishop is safe. They open up the wagon door to find him…ah, he’s dead. Shot through the heart. Turns out, though, he’s not the bishop but a decoy. The real bishop was pretending to be a Roman commander, killing dudes from horseback.

The other two fights are detailed later. As for effects, forget about it. This movie, for all its violence, offers little gore. I’m not averse to spewing arteries, but I don’t need to see that. A little blood splatter can go a long way.

Sidekicks (6/8)

King Arthur‘s strongest plank is the stellar cast. Gruffudd, Joel Edgerton, the Rays (Winstone and Stevenson), and Mads Mikkelsen make for fine companions. Their banter helps adhere to the Magnificent Seven-adjacent characterization.

These men are not strangers. They have fought together for a decade and a half. They know each other so well that each man can repeat Bors’s favorite saying about the size and appearance of his cock.

Bors (Winstone) stands out the most. The loudest and ugliest, Bors says what everyone else thinks, and he even says that he says what everyone else thinks. Bors is one of these men that knows he will die in battle, and he’s gonna live the hell out of his life until he does. He’s got eleven children, all bastards, and got tired of naming them, so he gave them numbers. “I like the little bastards. Especially Number Three. He’s a good fighter!”

Many men love chiding each other, especially about sex, and Lancelot is not too pretty or noble to skip the tradition. He constantly needles Bors about the paternity of his bastards, and Bors is a bit nervous that Lancelot might be the real father of at least his youngest baby.

Lancelot, closest to Arthur, is the problem. He argues with the future king and hungers for his (future) lady, the latter getting him killed. Until then, he’s Arthur’s closest confidant.

Gawain, Dagonet, Galahad, and Tristan fill out the septet. The latter has a pet raptor that understands human speech so well that Tristan can tell it, “You’re free,” and the bird will understand it. He’s also the group’s top marksman. Consider the moment when he shoots a man hiding in a tree from 300 yards. Probably the best arrow shot in the history of British lore. He’s no lucky duck; Tristan pulls the Robin Hood trick by throwing a knife into another knife stuck in a wall.

These other guys are your regular back ups. Some live, some die, all fight and are loyal to Arthur.

The wild card is Guinevere. We and Arthur meet her languishing in a moldy cell, thrown there by an evil Roman. Her fingers are all broken, and Arthur resets them that night. From that moment, Guinevere regains her strength, as much moral as physical. She taunts Arthur starting the next day, forcing him to question who he fights for–Rome or Britain–and knocking him off his pedestal in the manner of the best sidekicks.

Her bow skills return as quickly. She kills the man who imprisoned her, and the next day she’s shooting down Saxons on a frozen lake. In the Battle of Badon’s Hill, Guinevere eschews the bow to fight in the trenches with the men, taking on Cynric for a few blows before Lancelot steps in.

Guinevere is saved the agonizing choice between Arthur and Lancelot, sucking that particular slice of melodrama from this particular legend, marrying Arthur after Lancelot’s death in the battle.

Henchmen (2/8)

Cerdic has a son named Cynric (Til Schweiger), a bald man with a beard braid. This guy would love Rammstein were he living in the present.

Cynric is eager to kill and just as eager to challenge his father, though he might not know he’s challenging his father. “As long as my heart beats, I rule,” Cerdic tells his son soon after they land in Britain.

Cynric takes a battalion north to pillage and murder, and he comes upon Arthur as he and the knights escort the last Romans north of the wall to safety. They meet on a frozen lake.

The Saxons are slaughtered. They bunch together on the ice, weakening it and eventually breaking it. Hundreds of men die in the icy water. It’s a bad day for Cynric, and you can guess he’ll lick his wounds later.

In the Battle of Badon’s Hill, Cynric gets a chance to redeem himself, and he dies. He can’t kill an unarmored woman, he kills Lancelot with a crossbow, and he dies when Lancelot, in his death throes, throws a sword into him. Bad way to go out. Daddy wouldn’t approve. All the points in this section come from Schweiger’s facial hair.

Bishop Germanius is the man who started this whole thing when he sent Arthur north of the wall to rescue a chosen godson of the pope. He’s a sleazy man, his five o’clock shadow would have us believe. His worst act is showing the knights their freedom papers, only to take them back when orders them on a final, suicidal mission. Jerk face.

Stunts (1/6)

With so many swords at play, one of them a famous sword named Excalibur, you expect baller sword fight scenes. Not so in King Arthur.

Most of the cuts were made in the editing room. You might see a shield broken in half here, a man punched in the face there, but few blood packets and fewer extended duels. Is it an issue of money? Perhaps.

Swing, hit, cut. That’s the order and speed of weapons blows. Forget long lines of extras clashing; here it might be four. Often times a character swings a blade and hits an enemy, but the contact points are off screen.

I want to discuss now one of this century’s more interesting showdowns. Arthur, the knights, and Guinevere lead the party of rescued Romans onto a frozen lake. With no other way forward, they are forced to cross on foot, spread out, and slowly.

About a third of the way across the lake, they hear the Saxon drum beats, famous throughout the Isle. Arthur sends the civilians away through another path that would lead them down the coast and away from other Saxon parties, undermining most of the reason for the scene.

The knights, seven plus Guinevere, form a line. They each produce bows I never saw them carry before as the Saxon unit, 200 strong, eases onto the ice. When they stop, Cynric orders an archer to fire. He does. The arrow skids across the ice. Bors and Tristan loose their arrows and kill Saxons. How did they get better bows? That’s never explained.

The Saxons charge. Arthur orders the knights to shoot the edges of the formation so they will bunch toward the center, which they do, making the Saxons easier to hit and more concentrated on the cracking ice.

When Arthur declares that the ice won’t break, Dagonet grabs an ax and charges. We think he’s lost it. Arrows fly in both directions, as the Saxons fire their armor-piercing bolts. Dag swings his ax on the ice, smashing it bit by bit, until a fault opens up toward the Saxons. Providential.

Dagonet pays the ultimate price for his daring. He’s dragged back by his brothers, but three arrows in the gut will fell the heartiest of men. Guinevere and Tristan haven’t yet missed a Saxon, but the cracking ice is doing their work now. Men are sliding down ice packs like trip-happy polar bears, grabbing at their comrades’ legs.

Arthur and Cynric order retreats. Their forces will meet again on Badon’s Hill.

Climax (2/6)

The time between the arrival of the Saxons outside Hadrian’s Wall and the final clash between Cerdic and Arthur is long. First we must wait for Cerdic to sort out his father-son issues.

Cerdic orders his son to send “what’s left of your infantry,” a sly dig at the lack of martial skill shown on the frozen lake. Cynric moves to join them, but is ordered to stay and watch with Dear Old Dad.

The infantry run through the open gate and find…a barren field. No enemy to fight. Arthur and his knights are unmoved on a hill beyond. Smoke envelops the Saxons.

The Woads, hidden in the trees, shoot arrows. They send hundreds through the black sky toward the enemy forces, killing several. Arthur’s knights charge. They break the line easily. More arrows fall, killing the men not properly sheltered behind shields.

The knights turn back and attack the line from the rear. They disappear into the smoke like demons, avoiding Saxon crossbow bolts. Saxons die from friendly fire as well.

One of these soldiers stumbles through the gate. Cerdic has seen enough and sends the rest of the army through the gate. They find dead bodies and black smoke. Cerdic sends his son on the left flank.

The Woads finally get wise and light their arrows on fire. Hundreds streak through the sky, and enough land on the oil tossed on the ground earlier to ignite a line that divides the left flank.

The Woads bring up the catapults. Where did they keep those? They shoot enflamed balls of debris toward the Saxons, which explode in front of the lines, scaring more than killing. The Woads charge. Guinevere gets the first kill. Arthur’s knights attack. Arthur spots Cerdic.

There’s plenty of one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat to go around. Guinevere rolls on the ground, slashing quickly. Later she chokes a guy with rope. She and the other Woads are dangerously out armored; it’s hard to imagine them surviving any blow.

The knights kill plenty from horseback. Arthur is dehorsed, and Gawain is shot, though not fatally. I don’t understand how it’s so easy to kill from horseback when they horse is just standing there. An enemy would only need to hack at either the horse’s legs or the riders, and sword swipes would be easily dodged. Yet the bad guys never do this.

Tristan is the first to face Cerdic alone. He look hesitant about it, but when his sword comes out, it’s all business. Tristan is swift with his sword strokes, but Cerdic disarms him with power. Cerdic wants more of a challenge, so he kicks to Tristan his sword. It won’t matter. Cerdic ensures that Arthur is watching as he kills Tristan with a knife to the neck and a full sword slash to the face.

While this is going on, Guinevere faces Cynric. She’s a bit outmatched; he’s got size and armor on her. But Guin’s a fighter, game for the battle. Still, it’s not enough, and Lancelot recognizes this after he kills a guy. He’s forced to choose between aiding Guinevere or Arthur, each struggling.

Cynric puts Guinevere on the ground and brings his sword down, until it is met with the crossed double swords of Lancelot. He chose wisely. Lancelot repels Cynric. The son of Cerdic finds a dead body, kicks it over, takes a crossbow, and shoots Lancelot in the chest. Lancelot, angry, throws his sword into Cynric’s gut. They both die as Guinevere watches.

No time for tears yet. Arthur has spotted Cerdic on the field and, as promised, runs toward him. Horns on the soundtrack blurt as Arthur takes about five swipes at Cerdic in the film’s longest fight take.

Cerdic lands two blows, punching and kicking Arthur, who might be too armored for this duel. Still, Arthur cuts Cerdic’s leg. The Saxon chief shows the weeks of marching and fighting, slowing down during this most critical of fights. Arthur is the man he was excited to fight! Goes to show you that life is a long parade of disappointment. Arthur cuts him in his back.

Cerdic recovers long enough to slice Arthur’s back and fell the hero to his knees. Cerdic approaches from behind for the death blow, but he forgets that Arthur has a sword. Arthur back stabs Cerdic in the gut. A no-look kill shot. Baller move. Arthur stands and slashes his sword, backhanded, across Cerdic’s face to end the fight. As promised, Arthur’s face was the last thing Cerdic saw.

Now is the time for tears. Arthur finds Lancelot’s body amongst the scores of dead. “It was my life to be taken,” he shouts to his cruel, cruel God. Arthur apologizes to his knights as they look upon their fallen friend. He neither took them from Britain nor died trying.

I guess you can call this a happy ending. Arthur won, though he seems more grieved from it than had he died. He marries Guinevere in a henge and gets a 2,100-arrow salute for it and is proclaimed King Arthur by Merlin, who I guess has that power. Arthur declares that from this day onward, all Britons will be united in one cause, which pretty much never happened.

They defeated one Saxon band, but they won’t win in the end. We know the Saxons overrode Britain. But as Lancelot narrates the end, we can take solace in remembering the names of those men who died fighting for freedom. They weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last, but they will be known for all times.

Jokes (1/4)

Bors is in here for comic relief. He’s brash and bald and would never survive today’s PC culture. His penis is like “a baby’s arm holding an apple,” a comparison his buddies have heard many times.

The best joke comes courtesy of Guinevere. On the ice, facing a hundred or more Saxons, the knights are not worried. Lancelot, however, is worried for Guinevere. “There’s a large number of lonely men out there,” he says. Guinevere, smirking, responds, “Don’t worry, I won’t let them rape you.” Brava!

Setting (2/4)

Actually filmed in the British Isles, King Arthur is set where it’s made. Modern Britain is far less tree covered than in times of Roman legions, but I liked having the place I see be the place it was meant to be.

They find some trees anyway, especially in a cool scene inside a narrow, cramped forest as the horsed knights run from Woads shooting at them. The lake scene was great.

I’ll take away the Roman fort guarding Hadrian’s Wall. According to Wikipedia, the wall section built for the movie was the largest movie set ever made in Ireland. A huge fort stands behind it, but I guess it’s mostly faked.

Commentary (0/2)

Freedom lies at the heart of King Arthur, in words more than deeds. One day away from retirement, Arthur is sent on the most dangerous mission of his career. Arthur fights for his freedom, though he believes in the freedom of all. But he understands the limit of that freedom.

Arthur believes he’s served Rome, and he could walk away from it–he has the choice–but Rome will hunt him throughout the empire for desertion, and is that freedom? That’s a question left unanswered.

The early Catholic Church is examined. Bishops control the the army and the pope controls the bishops. Ultimately, the pope orders Arthur on the final mission. So-called Men of God imprison and kill pagans unwilling to convert. It’s an ugly start to the new faith.

Offensiveness (-2/-2)

In interviews, director Fuqua discussed changing the name of the native Picts to Woads. He believed the word “pict” sounded weird. Yeesh. It was their name! You only have to have a character say it one time, maybe twice. That’s it. What sounds weird about it?

Also, they made Knightly’s boobs bigger for the US poster. That is terrible and stupid. She’s plenty good looking.


  • Tristan was basically a Hun living as a Roman, despite the movie set 42 years after Attila sacked Rome.

Summary (24/68): 35%

An interesting take on the Arthurian legend, King Arthur makes the British legend into a British Roman, torn between two worlds, one receding and another subsuming.

Antoine Fuqua and company try to pack too much into these two hours. Freedom, being torn between one’s duty and one’s people, being torn between one’s duty to one’s friends and one’s duty to one’s country, the suppression of native people and the opposition of invading marauders, King Arthur would have been better as a miniseries, in which each of these themes could be explored over an hour. Episodes could also let the strong cast expand on its acting skills, adding depth to the legends we know by a single name: Arthur, Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad, Guinevere.

This is not a bad movie by any means; too many talented people helped make it, but it falls short because it’s spread too broadly.