King Arthur: knight falls.

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July 7 2004 6:50 PM

Arthur: On the Rocks

The once and future king, in his dreariest picture yet.

Woad trip
Woad trip

Forget Camelot. Forget Merlin the wizard and the Sword in the Stone. Forget the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay, and Guinevere getting moist over Robert Goulet. Forget all the fancy fairy tales that have come down to us from Malory, Tennyson, T.H. White, Lerner and Lowe, John Boorman, and Monty Python. "Historians agree that recently discovered archeological evidence sheds light on [Arthur's] real identity," proclaims the prologue to the new, action-packed King Arthur (Touchstone), directed by Antoine Fuqua. As a nonhistorian who hasn't kept up with the latest archeological finds but who still likes to go around singing, "I wonder what the king/ is doing tonight/ What merriment is the king/ pursuing tonight," I could hardly wait to meet the authentic once and future king. I wondered what the king was doing that night.

Lopping off the limbs of insurgents, apparently. This verisimilitudinous Arthur (played by Clive Owen) is a battle-hardened warrior at the northernmost outpost of the Roman Empire, circa 452 A.D.: not a king as yet, but a king in spirit, sort of like Nat "King" Cole. He is a Briton, but he commands a Sarmatian cavalry for the occupying country. He likes the Romans. He fights against his own people because he considers Rome the fount of democracy, religious tolerance, and the credo that men (and women) control their own destinies. Given the bloody repression practiced by Rome at the time, this is moronic, but Arthur is not presented as a moron, merely a soldier who is a tad out of touch—as much of a bleeding-heart liberal-humanist as a man who has lopped off thousands of insurgents' limbs can be. Arthur goes where his superiors tell him to go and fights with manly honor, mostly against native guerrilla units of "Woads," led by one Merlin (Stephen Dillane). His principal allegiance is to the soldiers conscripted to serve under him—a bunch of party animals with names like Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, and Tristan.

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This is all pretty revisionist: no court, no jousts, no chivalry, no religiosity. No Holy Grail, for that matter, since no one in Arthur's squadron has a use for those sadistic Christians, who'd torture you as soon as look at you. Just good old-fashioned fightin' and whoopin'! A wild bunch. Apt to grouse about their orders but carry them out anyway, with uncommon valor. These could be any soldiers, anywhere. They could even be the soldiers in Fuqua's last picture, Tears of the Sun (2003), which was also about a manly follower of orders (Bruce Willis) whose liberal-humanist conscience gets the better of him.

Like Willis, Arthur finds himself in conflict, for the first time, with the military brass. On the day that his men are supposed to be given their freedom to leave the rainy, backward island and return to the sunshiney land of gladiators and Christian zealots, a bishop with a ratlike countenance orders Arthur to embark on one last (suicide) mission, beyond Hadrian's Wall, into the land of Scots, Woads, and invading barbarian Saxons. A Roman family favored by the pope is under siege by Injuns—I mean, Saxons. Although Arthur is supposed to protect only this noble Roman family, he knows that "Saxons only claim what they kill" and decides he can't leave the Scottish peasants—men, women, and kids—behind. As the soldiers in Tears of the Sun put it, it's a mission "for his sins."

Arthur even joins forces with Merlin's Woads, including a hotcha Woad who looks like Winona Ryder stretched out (Keira Knightley), whom Arthur's men liberated from the dungeon of a fanatical Roman. "He tortured me," she says. "With machines." Then she adds, "I'm Guinevere." That's some revision! At first too weak to talk, Guinevere is soon lecturing Arthur nonstop in perfect Oxbridge know-it-all diction about his habit of killing his own people, whereupon I thought about torturing her with machines myself. But it's hard to hate her too much when she wriggles into a fetching halter, paints herself green, and picks up a bow and arrow, determinedly setting that long fish jaw. You go, you saucy Woaden wench!

I did not know much about Saxons until now. Apparently, they were heavy-metal RoadWarrior types with exceptional hearing. I infer the latter trait because their leader, Cerdic, played by Stellan Skarsgård, does a lot of hoarse, Methody mumbling in between long pauses in which he paces randomly and stares at the dirt. "Arthur! Who is this Arthur?" he rasps, inserting the thorn into his own side before Arthur has actually done anything to provoke him. It's difficult to see how the Saxons got anywhere in Briton on the basis of their fighting in this movie. In one scene they allow themselves to be lured onto thin ice by soldiers doing a lot of stomping and pointing their crossbows down. Oops. In another, Arthur opens a door in Hadrian's Wall, and a bunch of Saxons obligingly rush in and get turned into pincushions.

King Arthur is profoundly stupid and inept, but it's an endless source of giggles once you realize that its historical revisionism has nothing to do with archeological discoveries and everything to do with the fact that no one at Disney would green-light an old-fashioned talky love triangle with a hero who dies and an adulterous heroine who ends up in a nunnery. Not at these prices. It's too bad the big battle scenes are so confusingly staged and that they appear to have been denuded of splatter for a PG-13 rating: Splatter would help. So would a Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) who isn't a cipher given to intoning thesis lines like, "Arthur, you fight for a world that no longer exists!" But Mads Mikkelsen has a great face for Tristan, and Ray Winstone brings some Cockney bully-boy force to another of Arthur's men.

And then there's Clive Owen, rising above it all. Aloof yet watchful, the actor cultivates an inner stillness that is perfect for faintly ironic brooders. He neither distances himself from this risible material nor pulls out the stops and opens himself to ridicule. His King Arthur tells us little about Arthur, but much about protecting one's flank. The mark of a box-office king?

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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