11 February 2022

52 for '22: King Arthur

Movie: King Arthur (2004)
Method: Hulu

Suddenly a generation was a lot more interested in Arthurian Legend

Why Did I Watch This?

Like so many of the movies on this list, oftentimes I sit back and think..."Why DID I watch this?" I had never seen King Arthur. It felt like a big movie at the time it came out, but I also looked up that it finished third at the Box Office its opening weekend, to Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Anchorman (2004). That's awesome. It's in a weird zone where it was a mindless blockbuster movie from my childhood that no one ever saw, which always intrigues me, plus I do generally like movies about medieval times. The vibe I got was fun, brainless fun.

What Did I Know Going in?

Well...I knew that Keira Knightly was in it. In a costume that just seems really dumb for combat. It's definitely a 2004 outfit, though, check out that straight up tube top. I firmly remember the marketing at the time bragging that this was the REAL take on King Arthur, and that it was based on concrete historical evidence that would blow all other interpretations out of the water. It starred Clive Owen and Mr. Fantastic. That's really about it.

What Did I Think?

Haha! Okay. To get this out of the way, there is no level that exists that this could be a good movie. The plot is incomprehensible, motivations extremely blurry, the action is middling, and the acting is remarkably flat and uninteresting. However, I enjoyed bits and pieces of this, mostly because this snuck up on me as the most 2004 movie of all time.

First of all, the whole thing is clearly an attempt to ride the Lord of the Rings / Gladiator (2000) wave of the early 2000s, but it just doesn't get anything right. Like I said about The Dark Tower (2017), it feels like it's cheating itself out of epicness. It's more like it's trying to get some quick cash and ride everything that was popular in 2004 and it lacks any identity of its own.

I did not realize the cast this thing had. Arthur's knights are composed of Ioan Gruffudd, Madds Mikkelsen, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, Hugh Dancy, and Joel Edgerton. Dude - this is like a dream cast of mid-2000s stars waiting to break out. Gruffudd did Fantastic Four (2005) the next year, Mikkelsen did Casino Royale (2006), Winstone did The Departed (2006), Stevenson did Punisher: War Zone (2008), and Joel Edgerton did...well, it took him a bit to catch on, maybe his next big big role is Warrior (2011). And Dancy, I dunno, that's always a name I hear that can't place. Always one dud in the bunch! Totally true, I straight up did not recognize that dude as I was getting pumped for all the other Knights.

Joel Edgerton is really fun because he plays Gawain here, and later he started in The Green Knight (2021), not as Gawain, but you should check out this way better movie based on Arthurian Legend! I kept thinking about that over and over again, not only because both films share a particularly mist-filled England, but to see an interpretation of valiant Arthur at the beginning of his reign juxtaposed with a dying corrupted Arthur at the end. This movie needed more weird foxes.

And it's a film that has Ray Winstone and Ray Stevenson! I got those two confused for the longest time. I remember watching The Other Guys (2010) and thinking, "That doesn't look like the dude from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)!" They're both really good in this, in fact, all the Knights have pretty defined personalities and you get hang-out time with them that serves way better than a film like Transformers (2007) that never lets you into the personalities of the team beyond caricatures.

Anyway, it's all Clive Owens' show. Or...is it? He was the most about-to-blow-up actor of any of them, cranking out Sin City (2004), Inside Man (2006), Children of Men (2006), and Shoot 'Em Up (2007) in subsequent years. I forgot how big Owens was as just a cool dude in the mid-2000s. I question if this is actually his film or not, because we never really get into his viewpoint. We don't really get into anyone's viewpoint. It opens on Lancelot being taken as a child in Samartia to fight for Artorius as Roman...mercenaries? Guards? I don't know. I thought, "Oh, we're going to follow Lancelot," but he's really far from a main character. He's slightly more developed than the other random knights, but it's not his story to tell.

So, it's Arthur's, right? I guess so, but he's also kept at a sincere distance. It's like an ensemble that was too afraid to be an ensemble and a character study that was too afraid to have a protagonist. It's bizarre. We need to talk about Keira Knightly, though, because she takes so damn long to appear in this movie. At the time it was released Clive Owen was 40 and she was 19, no big deal. He finds her in a whole and then she becomes like, a Woad Warrior Queen? I can't figure out her arc at all, but she does throw herself into this role for some reason and gets to fight a lot of people. She's like one of two women, though, this might be one of the worst Bechdel tests ever. Keira was obviously coming off Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), and had that trilogy to ride for a while while also crushing Atonement (2007) and shit.

There's this really out of place sex scene between Keira Knightly and Arthur. I mean, I know she's supposed to be Guinevere, but they don't set up the romance more than he saved her. I also cringed at the end when she's battling as good as anyone...but STILL needs Lancelot to save her. It's insane. No one else needed anyone to save her. (SPOILER - Lancelot does actually die fighting Til Schweiger, but it really feels like her character was cheated out of a heroic moment to complete her arc as...Woad Commander or whatever).

And Stellan Skarsgard shows up as the villain! He's a bad Saxon dude who is invading Roman territory. He's reliably wacky, as his Til Schweiger, who didn't really break out until Inglorious Basterds (2009), but he fits our star bill as well. Skarsgard is really just in every movie ever made, he was well past his breakout role.

This is one of many muddled messages in this film. The Saxons are bad because they want to invade Roman territory as the Empire is collapsing. This in itself is a really interesting point in history, and the characters ask often, "What are we fighting for? What are we preserving?" It's odd to think of King Arthur as protecting British freedom on behalf of the Romans against the Saxons. They also fight the Woads, which are really just the Picts. Did anyone here watch Braveheart (1995) and know what's coming up in a few hundred years? It seems so misguided, and it's really just an attempt to elevate Arthur's morality, but he always had that sense of virtue and chivalry. Just do that. Be like The Green Knight.

No one in this movie has any functional reason to do anything. They instead all just do the war because they're told to. None of them want to. We don't see any of them relishing the killing (except maybe Mads Mikkelsen), or learn a lesson, or have a deep intrinsic desire for anything that they are trying to achieve. Well, they do I suppose, they're all trying to go home, but it feels like their wants are trampled and they all easily sidestep those desires for baseless reasons. I don't know how to fix that, I think they really needed to unearth the entire premise. Maybe introduce the Bishop earlier as their taskmaster or show more how 15 years of fighting a cause they don't believe in has taken its toll on them. Make them soldiers who don't know how to go home. Surely that'd have no relevance in 2004 right...

I don't know what is about King Arthur movies that they keep making them. I guess it's just easily recognizable and in the public domain. Yeah, that's enough. I actually enjoyed Charlie Hunnam's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) - that's an underrated film. What are the other big ones? Excalibur (1981). We need a decent King Arthur movie every 20 years or so. Just update to whatever kind of blockbuster filmmaking we're doing at the time.

This was admittedly fun, it's a fine way to spend a mindless evening, but nothing in this really works. The supporting cast is solid, though, and you get to see a little bit of Keira Knightley's boob, so they fulfilled that promise.

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