If you don't expect much from summer movies, King Arthur may not disappoint. And if that sounds like faint praise, I'm afraid it's all I can muster.

The film sets out to tell the true story behind the Arthurian legends familiar to most of us only through movies and children's books, and while its claims to history are pretty questionable, I got a kick out of seeing bits and pieces of the well-known stories juggled around and fit into an unexpected historical context.

Even though the setting is primitive-Celtic instead of shining-armor-medieval, we start spotting unusual twists on familiar stuff right away. There's Arthur—some folks call him Artorius—and half a dozen knights, some with familiar names like Galahad, Tristan, and Lancelot. Merlin name is mentioned, Arthur's sword gets called Excalibur, and eventually we even get a convincing enough rendering of the sword in the stone business. We even get a damsel-in-distress Guinevere (a feisty and fetching Keira Knightley, the best thing about the movie), and though she definitely fits the "fair maiden" bill, this warrior princess is more Lucy Lawless than Vanessa Redgrave. Kinda fun.

Plot spoiler—the big table in this film is ROUND

Plot spoiler—the big table in this film is ROUND

The idea here is that the Knights of the Round Table are Roman conscripts, the sons of fierce warriors who were the only survivors of the empire's military campaigns in Sarmatia. Think Afghan horsemen and you won't be far wrong. Nearing the end of 15 years service protecting Roman interests in the south of Britain, these boys want only their freedom. It's time to go home.

It turns out the Romans are feeling pretty much the same way. It's half past A.D. 300, and the empire is a bit overextended. After decades of fending off nasty northern natives who paint themselves strange colors (a la Braveheart) and now faced with would-be-orc Saxon hordes who've invaded the north and are bent on the destruction of everything non-Saxon, the Romans are wondering whether discretion might not be the better part of valor. Maybe it's time to head back to their Mediterranean villas.

Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and Arthur (Clive Owen)

Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and Arthur (Clive Owen)

On the day of their promised release from service, Arthur (played by a humourless Clive Owen) and his not-so-merry men are handed one last assignment: Go to the heart of enemy territory and rescue a Roman family, one of whom is destined to be a great leader in the Roman church. It's practically a suicide mission, but Arthur is a soldier under orders—and a committed Christian, interestingly enough—and his men are the only ones capable of carrying out the assignment.

Article continues below

It's a bad sign when you keep thinking of other films that are "just like" the one in front of you. It's a worse sign when each movie you think of was a lot better than the one you're actually watching. In the early stretches, as we see this Dark Ages Magnificent Seven ride to the rescue, arrayed in various picturesque formations—seven is a good number for that kind of thing—there's some pretty nifty soldier banter amongst Our Heroes that begins to distinguish one amazingly gifted warrior from the next. It's sort of Seven Samurai, transported to the wilds of ancient Britain instead of the wild west of not-quite-so-ancient America. One problem: this kind of movie depends on well-drawn, interesting characters who we come to care about as they carry out their various heroics. But in King Arthur, most of the character development that starts out so promisingly—Bors (Ray Winstone) is particularly well drawn, and the soldierly comraderie convincing—falls completely into the background once the main plot kicks in.

Lancelot and his medieval backscratchers

Lancelot and his medieval backscratchers

You see, when Arthur and his posse find the folks they're supposed to evacuate, they can't bring themselves to leave the family's serfs and slaves and such to be slaughtered by the savage Saxons. Of course it's impossible for the seven of them to safely transport all these village people to safety, pursued by the blood-thirsty enemy soldiers, but they can't leave these defenseless people to be slaughtered.

There comes a point where the Roman-led forces stare down the fur-clad barbarian hordes, and I could only think that even though the tables were somewhat turned, we'd seen this before. When I got home I found out screenwriter David Franzoni also penned Gladiator, and I remembered where.

You get the idea: for all its claims to be offering a fresh spin on the Arthur legends, this bit of summer bombast is mostly a massive cinematic recycling project. If you're content simply to get out of the summer heat and settle in for some more-or-less diverting riffs on about twenty familiar story ideas, you'll have a reasonably good time. There's lots of chilly mountain scenery, including a pretty cool (if ultimately improbable) showdown on a frozen lake. There's plenty of Legolasian archery, great horse riding, and stirring adventure music, and all kinds of neat fighting (though the obligatory climactic battle scene ends up a confusing mess).

Stephen Dillane is the wizard Merlin

Stephen Dillane is the wizard Merlin

Most intriguing—and, when all's said and done, most disappointing—is King Arthur's effort to address spiritual and philosophical issues. I don't want to give too much of this away, since part of the movie's interest lies in figuring out what's going on with the central character himself, but let me say that Arthur is torn between loyalty to his men (central Asian conscripts), service to his country of allegiance (Rome), and an inescapable sense of identification with their enemy (the land and the people of Britain). It is to the movie's credit that the religious life of each of these groups is an important part of their identity, and I was fascinated to see that Arthur himself is passionately committed to serving the Christian God, even when he stands alone in that belief. Historical theology students will be intrigued at the medallion of Pelagius that Bishop Germanius finds in Arthur's quarters, but I'm afraid in the end that the character's (and the film's) spirituality ends up being mostly a way to talk about far more conventional themes of freedom, earthly and political.

Article continues below

That's the problem with the whole movie: it nods in the direction of tons of potentially interesting developments of plot, theme and character, but doesn't bother to follow through on any of them enough to pay off. It could have been a pretty good movie. It could have been a dozen pretty good movies. But it settles instead for being merely good enough.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. In this film, Arthur is a strong Christian who is not afraid to stand alone in his convictions. How do you see that expressed in the choices he makes, and in his treatment of other people?

  2. At one point, Arthur offers his own life if God will spare the lives of his men. How is this prayer answered? What do you think the filmmakers are saying about Arthur's faith? About God?

  3. Arthur is a follower of Pelagius, a Roman Catholic monk from the British Isles who taught that the moral strength of a person's free will can attain virtue. How do you think Arthur's ideas of free choice fit with your own understanding of the Christian faith? Do we choose God, or does God choose us?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

if I had a 10-year-old son, I'd be thrilled to take him to this film, then go out afterward for dessert to talk about Arthur's heroic faith. I think this movie could be incredibly inspiring to a not-quite-adolescent boy. That said, we'd need to talk through some slightly "adult" content—there's onscreen violence, but it looks like a much more graphically violent film has been edited to win a PG-13 rating (for intense battle sequences that are nothing compared to Lord of the Rings, and some language, mostly soldierly banter about who fathered whose kids). There's also one pretty sensual scene, but even that is almost old-fashioned in how little it shows and how quickly it cuts away. More troubling might be the scene where a Saxon soldier begins attacking a woman (who is saved from her fate only to be killed offscreen), or a reference to the possibility of rape at the hands of the invading army.

Article continues below
What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 07/15/04

With the recent successes of such blockbuster epics as Braveheart, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, and Troy, and with two film narratives about Alexander the Great in the works, it was inevitable that the legend of King Arthur would find a new manifestation at the movies.

Judging from his reputation with film, it has also seemed inevitable that actor Clive Owen will become a superstar. Owen's supporting roles in films like Gosford Park and The Bourne Identity got viewers' attention, and his starring role in Mike Hodges' Croupier earned him high acclaim. The rumor mill has made noises about his potential as the next James Bond.

So it seemed like a sure thing when Owen won the lead in King Arthur, from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun). The actor and the famous character seemed poised to storm onto the screen in unforgettable fashion.

They'll both have to try again. King Arthur, according to most critics, is a disappointment. And moviegoers gave the film a lukewarm opening, preferring to give Spider-Man 2 a second week at #1 and Anchorman an impressive debut at #2. Even the popularity of actress Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), in the role of a scantily clad Guinevere, was not enough to give the film a blockbuster opening. Owen will have to wait a few more months to attain the predicted superstardom, when he'll star opposite Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, and Jude Law in Mike Nichols' film Closer. And Arthur will probably have to wait much longer than that for a makeover.

The Arthurian epic has always been of particular interest to religious audiences. But most religious press film critics are unimpressed with the way screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator, Amistad) treats this aspect of the story.

"[King Arthur] nods in the direction of tons of potentially interesting developments of plot, theme and character," says Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies), "but doesn't bother to follow through on any of them enough to pay off. It could have been a pretty good movie. It could have been a dozen pretty good movies. But it settles instead for being merely good enough."

Article continues below

Regarding this film's take on Arthurian spirituality, Reed remarks, "Historical theology students will be intrigued at the medallion of Pelagius … but I'm afraid in the end that the character's (and the film's) spirituality ends up being mostly a way to talk about far more conventional themes of freedom, earthly and political."

"The tragedy of Arthur continues in the ongoing Hollywood butchery of his tale," rants Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "The worst thing about … Fuqua's King Arthur, is that Fuqua and writer David Franzoni haven't even tried to get it right. Despite marketing claims about 'the truth behind the legend,' King Arthur bears virtually no resemblance either to Arthurian fact or legend. Instead of demythologizing the legend, or working with what little data exists regarding an historical Arthur, Fuqua and Franzoni simply discard virtually all the data and craft an entirely unrelated story in its place. Along the way, they find time not only to disparage Rome, the Church, and historic Christianity, but also to mount a curious rehabilitation campaign for the founder of the Pelagian heresy, which taught that man can achieve salvation by his own effort, without divine grace."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "By divesting the tale of its fairy tale trappings, Fuqua has also emptied it of its romance—and, ultimately, its timeless allure. The Gladiator-like battle sequences … are impressive, but are much too intense for children and push the boundaries of the picture's PG-13 rating. More troubling however is the film's paganizing of what has traditionally been a quintessentially Christian myth."

Gen Edward Veith (World) says, "In many ways, it is a good movie, with strong characters, a good story, and terrific battle scenes. It is just not quite ancient enough."

"So what does King Arthur tell us about today?" asks Steve Lansingh (Film Forum). "Plenty. [It's] a movie steeped in modern (and quite American) sensibilities: The church is depicted as corrupt and unfeeling, but Arthur's faith in God is affirmed because it gives him personal strength. Guinevere is a fierce fighter and strong woman; the macho, tough-as-nails Bors finds he has a tender heart. The rest of the knights are reluctant warriors, not relishing danger but willing to follow their leader anywhere. Arthur believes in the freedom and free will of all people, although he is willing to slaughter those who don't agree with him. In short, the movie is every bit as admirable and frustrating, noble and deceitful, lovely and horrible as life in America is today."

Article continues below

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Fuqua and … Franzoni bypass the ancient myths and create a new one fashioned after the spirit of our times—postmodernity—where do-it-yourself faith and feminism are the hallmarks. A disappointment on many levels, King Arthur consists of mostly fighting, all of it vicious and violent (though apparently not enough to warrant an R rating)."

Not all Christian film critics arrived at this negative opinion.

"It's refreshing to see King Arthur draped with such a convincing Christian heritage," writes Tom Neven (Plugged In). "Up until his pagan wedding, it's made plain that everything Arthur does is motivated by his faith. And while a few Christian figures are negative, it's clear from the context that they're corrupt, not their religion." He adds that the film "features many positive lessons on loyalty, courage and self-sacrifice."

"Franzoni is very clever in how he takes the elements of the legend and inserts it into this story," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Clive Owen has a commanding presence as Arthur. His character is driven by an overwhelming sense of morality and righteousness and he conveys strong charismatic leadership qualities that make it easy to believe that men would risk their lives for him. The rest of the cast form a fine ensemble."

A veritable "round table" of scowling mainstream film critics are criticizing the film as well.

King Arthur
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality, and some language)
Directed By
Antoine Fuqua
Run Time
2 hours 6 minutes
Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, Keira Knightley
Theatre Release
July 07, 2004 by Touchstone Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: