King Arthur: Director’s Cut
Director: Antoine Fuqua / Screenplay: David Franzoni / Editing: Conrad Buff / DP: Slawomir Idziak / Score: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Clive Owen / Ioan Gruffudd / Mads Mikkelsen / Joel Edgerton / Hugh Dancy / Ray Winstone / Ray Stevenson / Keira Knightley / Stephen Dillane / Stellan Skarsgård / Til Schweiger / Ivano Marescotti / Ken Stott / Pat Kinevane
Ongoing as I write this, in April 2020, the Coronavirus lockdown has given me the chance to explore the nether-reaches of my ‘box of shame’: that sad haven of impulse purchases, common to many of us with a passion for film.
This week alone, I’ve endured Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and its tenuous, desperate prequel The Huntsman: Winter War (2016). I confess, however, to lasting just ten minutes into that last one, before it dawned on me that I was watching a live-action Frozen, presciently made years before Disney actually get-round to ‘doing it for real’. That was followed by Independence Day: Resurgence (2016): a movie that evidently performed an alien mind-trick on me, because here I am a few days later, having already forgotten much of its banal, humourless vapidity.
Talking of humourless banalities, let’s get into today’s offering: King Arthur: Director’s Cut.
could should have been great, right? The first big-budget version of the legend, since John Boorman’s camp classic Excalibur (1981). A story populated with characters who remain as evergreen as those of Robin Hood.
For that’s the essence of legend & myth: they remain popular, because they can be reworked to fit the tastes of each generation that rediscovers them. It’s a theme I’ll often return to in my film writing: the notion of the enduring power of story. Of heroes and villains. From Homer to the present-day Marvels, the ‘Valiant Hero’ remains a potent ingredient.
However. If your version omits key details or characters, then you risk undermining the entire foundations of your project. My first witness to such folly? Producer Jerry Bruckheimer: the very definition of a one-man mover and shaker. Look at any of the most bombastic franchises or one-offs from the last few decades and there’s a good chance that Mr. Bruckheimer (along with late partner Don Simpson) would’ve been behind them. Which is why my heart sank a little on seeing his logo at the top of the show. Suffice to say, that Mr. Bruckheimer typically doesn’t make ‘films’. He makes culturally-disposable cash-grabs, that in-turn, inspire cross-promotional ‘collectible’ cups from McDonalds.
Buoyed by the amazing returns from the first Pirates of the Caribbean flick, Bruckheimer teamed-up with experienced screenwriter David Franzoni on a new version of ‘Arthur’s tale; Franzoni had already written the first draft of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, so his reputation at handling period material was sky-high. But after four years of script development – and with Michael Bay in-line to direct (I shudder to imagine) – it still wasn’t coming together, so Bay left. With the project in-limbo, Bruckheimer turned to Antoine Fuqua.
Huh. Funnily enough, another entry in this week’s cornucopia of crap, was Tears of the Sun (2003); another action vehicle for Bruce Willis, as-envisioned by Fuqua. Evidently, it was this material (military bro’s on a ‘do-or-die mission’ behind enemy lines to rescue some reluctant-to-leave, but otherwise noble civilians) that caught Bruckheimer’s attention. As a result, the script that had been languishing for so long, was re-tooled by Franzoni and emerged as a Tears of the Sun clone. I can only speculate as to why. Perhaps contracts on talent & locations had already been exchanged and the wheels of production spun-up, leaving no time for yet more navel-gazing. Fuqua had already made the movie. Now, he just had to make it again, but with a different wrapper: such is the movie business.
It begins with an origin story for Lancelot who, as a boy, is plucked from his family’s yurt, somewhere on ‘The Steppe’, and pressed into service as a cavalryman for Rome, along with a ragtag group similarly oppressed. All will end-up with seats at Arthur’s ‘Round Table’. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For what this sequence is supposed to achieve, is to have us believe Lancelot and the others later-on, when they gripe about wanting to complete their indentured servitude and return home. Which would’ve been fine, had we been shown a land flowing with milk and honey. Instead, the production was shot in the Irish Republic, with the result that ‘home’ resembled just more of the same, but with yurts instead of wattle-and-daub huts. To a critical eye, the prologue has to serve a purpose, both in establishing character & motivation, but also to give the movie that follows, an emotional core that leads to a satisfying pay-off. If it bottles-out on that point, the whole premise is negated.
Offset that, with our introduction to ‘young Arturious’, son of a Commander at a garrison on Hadrian’s Wall. As he watches the boys arrive, his tutor schools him – and us – in what it means to ‘be a leader’, which is as much backstory as we’re going to get. No childhood in the company of Merlin, or even the part about being the ‘secret son’ of Uther & Ygraine. Nope. Apparently, Fuqua didn’t feel it was ‘necessary’ to his vision (in other words, it didn’t fit a remoulding of Tears of the Sun).
Before we know it then, the boys have become men. Bland Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd is Lancelot here; the fabled knight and Arthur’s closest friend, who later betrays him with Guinevere. Gruffudd will get to do NONE of that, beyond casting a knowing glance in Guinevere’s direction. In this telling, Lancelot’s merely the ‘Sergeant Major’ to a boisterous, though good-hearted bunch of British character actors, with the noted exception of Mads Mikkelsen’s Tristan; a diffident loner with an eagle for a companion. They all like their women & ale (especially Ray Winstone’s Bors), but as a bunch, are without either humour or evidence of ‘the chivalrous code’ that, so the story goes, was imposed upon them by Arthur, as integral to the administration of the realm of Camelot (yet another casualty in this version).
Which brings me to Arthur himself. Elsewhere on Avvaganda.com, I’ve covered Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006); a stunning picture that showcased Clive Owen as an idealised schlub, who looks good in a rumpled suit, doing his best to function in a broken society. But enough wish-fulfilment, what of Clive Owen as Arthur? Well, let me put it this way. Back in 2003/4, Owen was considered a shoe-in to replace Pierce Brosnan as 007. Ahead of his widely-expected coronation, Bruckheimer signed him up betting that, even if the movie turned-out to be every bit the turkey it promised to be, at least its residual earnings would eventually come-good, thanks to Owen’s involvement.
Some you win, some you lose…
Still, when ‘Arthur was in production, Daniel Craig had yet to happen, which must’ve made the dailies coming out of the Irish moors look like a safe return on Bruckheimer’s investment. So it’s sad to report, that when taken out of the urban setting and parachuted-into the costume of a Roman soldier, Clive Owen looks either bored, unconvinced by the material or plain homesick. Consider this exchange with Lancelot:
Arthur: ‘I want peace, Lancelot. I’ve had enough. You should visit me. It’s a magnificent place, Rome. Ordered. Civilised. Advanced.’
Lancelot: ‘A breeding ground of arrogant fools’.
Arthur: ‘The greatest minds in all the lands have come together in one sacred place, to help make Mankind free.’
This isn’t normal conversation! This is movie-speak. A way of smuggling-in reasons, in this case, to explain why that (unseen) ideal is worth dying for. In other words, ‘the great unwashed horde beyond the Wall, don’t deserve plumbing and aqueducts.’ However, by extension, doesn’t that also apply to Lancelot and comrades, pining for the yurts of their homeland? And what about the tosh claiming to ‘make Mankind free’? I guess Arthur hasn’t heard of Spartacus or ever questioned the concept of slavery? I don’t know what’s worse: its lack of grace or the fact it came from the mind behind Gladiator…
At which point, one recalls my opening argument, about the legends & myths being reinterpreted by every generation that comes to them. 2003/4 saw the ongoing Iraq War and the trials of the Coalition forces to ‘liberate’ Iraq and in-light of that, it’s clear in hindsight, that Franzoni (and Bruckheimer) were trying to create allusion to-then current events. Trouble is – then as now – one man’s freedom is another’s oppression.
In order to set-up for events yet-to-come, we need to see Arthur and the boys in action, which cues-in the trivial escorting of a wagon-train in which lurks a Bishop from Rome, with one of those ‘do-or-die’ missions in his pocket. It turns-out that Arthur, along with his knights, is nearing the end of his service. Indeed, the Bishop’s even got their ‘discharge scrolls’ ready in a presentation wooden gift-box (that you just know ended-up in someone’s office or den, once filming was over).
The catch? Cross the Wall. Go North, into enemy territory. To rescue the sone of a Roman family under-threat from advancing Celts.
Okay… Never mind that the exchange of correspondence that must’ve gone-on between this family and Rome, must’ve taken months. Or that this Bishop’s trip to Britain must’ve taken even longer. What were the Celts doing all this time, one wonders? More to the point, if it’s so dangerous ‘North of the Wall’, what were a Roman family doing up there in the first place? Especially if their boy really is ‘the Emperor’s favourite Godson’. Who would the Emperor really send: a conniving Bishop or a flippin’ Legion?
This is the kind of reductive thinking that keeps me awake at-night. It’s the fault of movies that aren’t doing the heavy lifting at their end. As a result, this farrago ends-up as merely ridiculous. Little more than an exercise in block-building with ‘story’, in order to fabricate ‘situations’; narrative paper bags, out of which our heroes can struggle.
Moving into a grim North, that looks little changed from what we’ve already seen, at least gives us a good look at the kilometre-long section of ‘wall’ that Fuqua ‘insisted’ on for the shoot, as a way of ‘grounding’ his actors. To be honest, Sir, I don’t think anyone on-screen really looks that bothered… A few Dublin-based scaffolding & tarpaulin contractors would disagree, but you’d have been better off investing in some green-screen work and putting whatever was left of the inflated budget, into hiring a script-doctor. At least they could’ve told you the film you were really making at this point.
The objective turns-out to be something of a McGuffin as far as plot goes; the casual manner in which it’s dealt with, leads only to the most glamorous occupant of the farmhouse’s en-suite Abu Al Ghraib dungeon: Keira Knightley as Guinevere.
I get it. Evidently Bruckheimer thought she had some presence after her turn in the first Pirates movie, but she’s the very definition of mis-casting here, being too slight-of-build and too porcelain-featured to be anything other than symbolic tokenism. Consider her introduction. Decaying corpses and barely-living souls dress a dungeon that best resembles a Victorian opium den. Yet Knightley emerges, along with a plump-cheeked scallywag, with nary a scratch!
After collecting both of them, along with their objective, Arthur returns to the Wall without incident. But here’s the thing: what does Guinevere do or say, that marks her out as special enough, to warrant travelling in the wagon, swaddled in-fur and looking like an out-take from a perfume commercial? She’s had practically no dialogue to speak of (‘traumatised’, I fancy) yet there she is, riding up-front with the boss. What’s worse, is that when she DOES speak, Knightley delivers in her cut-glass Oxbridge RP, when what the part is ACTUALLY crying-out for, is some regional inflection. After all, she’s a Celt, not a blue-stocking from Surrey! This is moving so far into the realm of parody, I almost expected Mel Brooks to appear. Or one of the Pythons.
They reach the Fort. Somewhere between dinner and lights-out, Guinevere acquires an immaculate hairdo and a flattering Romanesque gown and, after exchanging nothing but portentous dialogue and the aforementioned Significant Glance with Lancelot, wanders into the forest to meet Merlin (Stephen Dillane must be forever grateful that he’s unrecognisable here). Their reunion is interrupted by Arthur, who’s been spying on her (not creepy at all). Now we get to it: at just over an hour and change into the movie: Merlin wants his blue-skinned band of ‘Woads’ to team-up alongside Arthur and his dwindling band-of-brothers to fight a marauding band of Vikings.
Somewhere in there, is a battle on a frozen lake with some of those Vikings. A contractually-obliged sex scene between Arthur and Guinevere, which looks to have been as embarrassing to shoot, as it is to watch. Then, before we know it, Guinevere’s back in woad herself and wearing what must’ve been a freezing tweedy sports-bra (surgically enhanced for the posters).
Stellan Skarsgård plays the Viking chief Cerdic with a studied nonchalance I imagine he found liberating; at least he could act as bored as he felt, unlike his fellow sufferers and assorted refugees from Pirates. Still, to give the man his due: at least Skarsgård looks the part. The tragedy for his under-written character, is that there’s no time to explore what there is of it, beyond waffle intended to paint Arthur as the Good Guy.
All of which, brings us to a typically grey, muddy final battle scene, strangely devoid of blood & gore, despite the addition, in this longer cut, of a few (bloodless) dismemberments. And amidst it all, there’s Knightley’s Guinevere looking handy with her bow, but in truth, carrying all the saintly gravitas of Julie Andrews.
A decade on from such tosh, things would be different.
Long-form dramas on (uncensored) subscription TV, coupled with advances in cost-effective CGI, would put such risible nonsense to rest. Audiences would demand better & expect more. Think of combat sequences in Game of Thrones for example, or dialogue from Black Sails, or even Vikings. Little wonder then, that after this sorry excuse, Fuqua would migrate to TV himself. Bruckheimer, it turned out, had already been busy in TV for years by the time he financed ‘Arthur, which begs the question: Why? Aside from being made possible by advantageous tax-breaks in Ireland (I’m guessing), perhaps he just fancied a holiday; I hear the fly-fishing’s particularly good in-places.
Oh, and I almost forgot. There’s a clifftop wedding, in the shadow of a few conspicuously-placed ‘standing stones’. As both Celt and Roman become, err, ‘British’, we get the first mention of the ‘K-word’ in association with this Arthur. Now that’s what I call burying the lede!
Then it stops.
Hans Zimmer’s score sounds like a remix of his earlier work on Gladiator. DP Slawomir Idziak delivers the requisite amount of leaden gloom in his work, but Fuqua never gives his DP anything unorthodox to to do. Tears of the Sun, was all about Bruce Willis in rainy close-ups, but – ironically for a picture shot in Ireland – the best Idziak gets to work with, is a flurry of snow. Key talent is collectively going-through-the-motions on this picture and it shows.
In summary? Both Fuqua & Bruckheimer broke the Cardinal Rule about revisiting legend: Don’t Break It! Just because you don’t believe in a certain element, is no reason to ditch it, for what remains is unavoidably weaker. And it’s in this, that I detect the invisible hand of Disney – the studio behind this drab mess. For what is at the heart of the Arthurian legend, but an eternal love triangle, that leaves the King fatally weakened, his best friend exiled to the wasteland and Guinevere mouldering in a convent? Hardly the stuff of empowering dreams, is it?
The result? An Arthurian tale that conflates Guinevere with Boudicca, strips Merlin of both magic and presence and basically does-away with all the trappings of Excalibur, the stone in which it sits, the Round Table and even leaves Arthur’s ascension to the throne as a throwaway for the last seconds, has no right calling itself ‘King Arthur’.
If Arthur were around today, I’m sure he’d be phoning his lawyer on seeing this rubbish.
As it is, he’s just turning in his grave.
‘Oh, merciful God. I have such need of your mercy now. Not for myself, but for my knights, for this is truly their hour of need. Deliver them from these trials ahead and I will repay you a thousand-fold with any sacrifice you ask of me. And, if in your wisdom, you should determine that that sacrifice must be my life for their’s, so that they may once again taste that freedom that has for so long been denied them, I will gladly make that covenant. My death will have a purpose. I ask no more than that.’