A retelling of the Arthurian legend set in the final days of the Roman Empire.
This is going to be a different kind of movie review. I… erm… loved this movie when I was a teenager. It came out when I was fourteen (I know, I’m so young), I saw it in theaters, and thought “Yeah, that was okay.” BUT THEN- the director’s cut came out, and holy freaking cow was I impressed! I remember raving about this movie, watching some of the battle sequences multiple times. I compared this director’s cut to the directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven- both of the films' theatrical cuts were run-of-the-mill, frequently-boring knights tales (not to be confused with A Knight’s Tale); but the directors' cuts, I was convinced, were great! Not cinematic gold, by any means, but certainly worth the hours you’d put into watching them. It’s been years since I’ve watched King Arthur, so I thought I'd rewatch it.
I remember the film through a filter of rosy-red nostalgia, and I wanted to know if it lived up to my expectations. The best way to do that is to make comparisons.
Before the Rewatch...
As I said, it’s been years since I’ve watched this, but I remember a decent amount of it (though how well, I can’t say until after the rewatch). I remember this film being gritty and gory (remember, I’m watching the director’s cut- not that pansy pg-13 crap). In particular, the ice battle and the final battle bring back awesome memories. Ice cracking beneath soldiers, crimson blood splashed greedily over virgin white snow. The trebuchets on the fields; flaming arrows falling from the skies; the smoky hellscape and a silhouetted Germanic warlord… (I’m getting chills thinking about this… this movie has a lot to live up to). I remember the song sung by the woman at the beginning, lilting of home (maybe?). Strangely, I remember weird details about the characters: Ray Winstone and his bastard children, Mads Mikkelsen and his hawk, Keira Knightly and the super-feminist-warrior-princess-thingy she had going on. There are certain lines I remember clearly too (“Finally, a man worth killing”), the strange humor between Ray Winstone and some of the others… Wracking my brain, I can’t think of too many reasons why critics universally panned this movie (right now its sitting at a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes). Now, as many of my friends are acutely aware, I have a soft spot for fantasy. My bookshelves are stuffed with magical worlds that have never made it to screen, or would look terrible, if ever adapted. If I want my fantasy fix on screen, I’ve got to settle for cheap sword and sorcery films or tawdry adventures set in ye olde England. They don’t make that many big budget fantasy films, and they rarely make them well. If I want to see a knight go up against a trio of witches or fight off an ice dragon then I’ve got to settle for b-movie schlock… Heck, I’ve watched the abysmal Nick Cage film Season of the Witch (2011) a couple times (that film is far worse than this). As I remember it now, King Arthur is tailor made for me: I just eat this crap up. I’m calling this a guilty pleasure review, but really I just want to go back and watch this movie again. The memory of this film has cast a long shadow, and I really hope that it at least lives up to my expectations in at least some aspects.
All right, I’m about to sit down and watch this… and possibly ruin a totem from my teen years.
After the Rewatch...
I still (kind of) love it.
Alright, look… this movie is not perfect. There are moments of melodrama and incredible overacting. In particular, Ioan Gruffudd was terrible. Like, just awful. I realized that I’d seen him in Fantastic Four (2005), but then it came to me I haven’t really seen him in any major roles besides this. Well, it’s because he can’t act. Okay, he can, but he’s stage acting. And that’d be fine if this were a stage play. On screen, however, his overacting comes off as hockey, even eye-roll worthy. He’s terrible. He’s the worst part in this movie. If he wouldn’t have been in it, this film might have received better reviews.
There is some extremely corny dialogue, too, but nothing worse than what I’ve seen in any type of sword and sorcery film. Most of the writing is actually okay (not great, but passable), and most of the actors know how to deliver a line well, even if it is corny (save the Ioan the Dreadful). The voiceovers that bookend the film (once again delivered by Ser Gruffudd the Ghastly) are incredibly cheesy.
There are a few moments where the CGI or composite backgrounds look a little dated, but for the most part the visual effects have aged well. This film is, after all, fourteen years old. Other than those small nitpicks, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this film. In part due to nostalgia, true, but mostly because it’s a very solid adventure film (again, not perfect, but extremely entertaining).
The best part of this film is the diverse characters, many of which have complete arcs, hints of backstory, their own specialized weapons, and things they have to accomplish throughout their quest. Clive Owen is actually a little wooden in his performance as Arthur, but he’s put in multiple situations that drastically change the course of his character’s journey, and because of that, he still remains an interesting protagonist. Bors (played by Winstone) is the most entertaining character of them all; he’s funny, he’s a boss in battle, and his side plot with all his bastard children gives us reason to care about him. Tristan (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is also a pretty awesome character. He’s a little less verbose than the others, but Mads has a way of showing personality without saying much; he’s also got a trained hawk (or maybe a falcon- I don’t know birds, I know movies) and a katana, so that’s cool. Lancelot’s character is written well, but as I’ve mentioned before Ioan the Ignoble is incredibly inadequate and can't deliver a line. I guess I should mention that Hugh Dancy is in this too; he's fine. But it’s kind of weird that Mads and he were the leads in NBC’s Hannibal nine years after this. Stellan Skarsgard is a fantastic villain, and the way we’re introduced to him is brutal and memorable.
There are some pretty interesting moral dilemmas that Arthur faces in terms of religion. His men were recruited from the tribes of across Britain when they boys, and they maintain their pagan religions. Arthur is dedicated to the Roman Church. When a Bishop questions Arthur why his men have not converted, Arthur defends them, saying he lets his men worship who they please because he believes in free will. Throughout the story we’re shown two opposing sides of the Church: the church persecuting people, and the church helping to save one man’s soul. It’s an interesting detail to the story that I hadn’t remembered up until this point, and it adds a lot of depth to Arthur’s character and the story in general.
As far as cinematography, the film looks pretty great. There are tons of sweeping landscapes shots of horses riding across mountain ridges or undulating hills. Yes, there are some shots that are clearly composite images, but compare that to Avengers: Infinity War where nigh every shot was riddled with CGI. This film is still mostly practical. The sets, armor, and unique character designs all lend themselves to improving the depth of this world.
This review was going to be a guilty pleasure review. I honestly thought I was going to hate this film after my rewatch, but I found myself getting chills during some of the battles, smiling at Bors's jokes, and thoroughly enjoying myself through the two hour and twenty minute runtime. People could pick this movie apart and ruin it, because there are some truly terrible moments (thank you, irksome Ioan), but overall I was thrilled that something I loved so much as a teen still held up (or me over a decade later. I’m sure if some of you watch this film you’ll hate it. That’s okay. As I mentioned before my rewatch, this movie is tailor made for me, and for me, it still works. It will always have a soft spot in my heart, and I’ll honestly probably watch this again soon.
If you do watch this, let me know what you think (watch the director’s cut). I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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