Great movies are easy to love, and easy to talk about. But writing about them holds little interest for me. Instead, I like finding reasons to enjoy films that fall short – sometimes far short – of greatness. With that, let’s start with King Arthur, a 2004 misfire with an abundance of talent on both sides of the camera.
What is It?
King Arthur is one of those modern-day swords and sandals pictures that released in the wake of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (itself an instant classic that almost single-handedly revived the genre). Think Troy or Alexander, both also released in 2004, but with knights. In King Arthur’s case, the film focuses on its titular hero (Clive Owen, Children of Men, Sin City) before he became King.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) opts for a “grim and gritty realism” style, going so far as to use a title card to inform us that “recently discovered archeological evidence sheds light on [King Arthur’s] true identity.” Yes, never mind that Arthur and his fellow knights (er, fellow Roman-enslaved warriors from parts unknown) all have perfect teeth, or that Keira Knightley’s (Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement) Guinevere has found that the clothing most suitable for cold and rainy Britain is basically none at all. This is a true story, because archeology!
Here, Arthur is a Roman commander (although British by birth), leading a band of legendary Sarmatian knights who have been forced into mandatory 15-year terms of military service for the Roman Empire, as a result of events that do not really matter much to the story. While the heroes spend an awful lot of time talking about their disparate religious faiths, homelands, and philosophies, none of it registers much. Instead, we’re treated to a sort of Dirty Dozen in Sandals mission where these feared/revered knights take on “one last job” for the Roman empire, but go off book to save a bunch of innocent people. It’s a familiar take on a familiar story, so don’t expect anything else.
Does it Work?
King Arthur is, for the most part, ok. Yes, there are some really bad parts, including an incredibly cheesy flashback to the sword in the stone part of the myth. But those moments are blessedly few. The story gets the job done with a breezy pace that does not feel its 2-hour plus running time, but most of it quickly fades from memory. The sets don’t look obviously cheap, but you get the sense that’s a result of careful camera placement more than quality investment in building this world. The action is relatively engaging, including an opening battle that lets each knight display his unique personality in combat (mostly by somewhat stupidly dismounting from their horses and fighting stuntmen one on one), but it is also lacking in “holy cow!” moments. And it all sets up a predictable conclusion that lets Arthur triumphantly step forward as King.
And as soon as Arthur takes that step, audiences will be forgiven for not remembering anything that preceded it. This is probably a result of a breathless pacing that doesn’t let the cast of characters, well, breathe. Because boy, when you look at the cast, it sure seems like a wasted opportunity.
So Why Watch It?
The supporting cast is special. Just look at this embarrassment of riches: behind our leading man and woman, we have a cast of knights that includes NBC’s Hannibal alums Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Midnight Special), Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four, W.), Ray Winstone (The Departed, Black Widow), and Ray Stevenson (Rome, Punisher: Warzone). Some are given more to do than others, but they work strikingly well as an ensemble, often signaling bigger careers to come. Re-watching the movie in 2021, perhaps the best moment comes from future Hannibal stars Mikkelsen (as Hannibal Lecter) and Dancy (as Will Graham). In a delicious exchange that proves time travel is real, Dancy remarks that he does not kill for pleasure, to which Mikkelsen quickly responds “try it sometime, you might get a taste for it.”
But the real star of the show has less screen time than any of Arthur’s knights. Stellan Skarsgård (Thor, HBO’s Chernobyl) wholly inhabits the role of the villainous Cerdic, leader of the Saxon army bent on capturing all of Britain and killing everyone in its path. First appearing about 30 minutes into the film, Skarsgård immediately makes an impression in an otherwise stock, minute long scene introducing his rather nasty character. Cerdic does some pretty awful bad guy things, like stopping one of his soldiers from raping a woman only because he does not want Saxon blood “diluted” by mixing with others, then ordering the woman killed. Standard fare for this type of movie, but the quiet menace with which Skarsgård imbues the character is astounding. He barely speaks above a whisper, and with an odd cadence, effectively conveying a fierce warrior lurking within an aging, world weary man. His eyes almost lazily look around the scene while he commits casual acts of cruelty, letting the viewer know – without a single line of dialogue – just how much war he has known over what must feel like a million lifetimes.
Skarsgård carries, and builds upon, this menacing introduction throughout his all too brief appearances as Cerdic, right up to a pre-battle showdown with Arthur. Cerdic strides purposefully forward to meet his foe, his weight shifted to one side, indicating better than words ever could just how dangerous he remains despite the toll a lifetime of strife has taken on his body. As Arthur remains atop his horse, he immediately tries to intimidate Cerdic by circling him while making a big-time hero speech. When Arthur has had his lengthy say, the counter is chilling – a simple “ah,” while whispering to himself “finally, a man worth killing . . .”
Alas, we are left with the impression – through no fault of Skarsgård – that those words are not necessarily true. A better movie might have found a way to establish Arthur’s greatness without the need for side characters to constantly remind audiences that they know the stories of brave Arthur and his knights. But whether as a fault of the writing, direction, or perhaps the normally great Owen’s performance, King Arthur fails to convince that its hero is up to the title. Which is too bad, because Skarsgård gives us one heck of a villain, who really deserved a better opponent.