Pseudo-mystical, isn’t it? King Arthur, one of the great mythic folk figures of all time, has spawned thousands of stories and songs, and hundreds of books, but only a handful of movies. Tragically, most of them have been really, really bad.
In that respect Arthur is a lot like Jesus.
As fate would have it, King Arthur movies are among my very favorites, along with zombie westerns and musicals about cannibalism. I’ve loved Arthur movies ever since I was three years old, parentally escorted to a matinee of Walt Disney’s animated Arthurian obscurity “The Sword in the Stone”. Everyone knows today that the movie sucked, but I’ve been hooked on Round Table cinema ever since, waiting in breathless anticipation for each new filmic embodiment of the great King Arthur. It’s a pathetic enthusiasm to bear, I admit it, since Arthur films are few and far between, and with rare exception, seldom are they ever worth the wait.
Praised be the gods, then, for “King Arthur”, the new big-screen incarnation of the lofty legend. Directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, “King Arthur” is arguably the best movie ever made about the reluctant king and his (traditionally) two-timing squeeze Guinevere. It’s the ‘Lord of the Rings’ of King Arthur movies. Ironically, this version barely resembles the classic myths, and will probably be vilified for that, by some, but not by me. Allegedly based on freshly uncovered evidence about the real King—who might have actually reigned in the 5th century—the new film strips the legend of all but the faintest hints of magic and sorcery. That’s just the first of many deviations from the Arthurian norm; in this version, Arthur is a half-Roman soldier, and his knights are a band of uncouth, conscripted pagans. Merlin is non-wizardly Celtic warlord battling the Romans and Arthur, who is not crowned “king” until late in the show. There is a sword named Excalibur, but the way Arthur acquires it has nothing to do with ladies in lakes or magical spells placed on ancient rock formations. It’s simpler than that, and cooler. The most significant switcheroo is the way the film has reinvented Guinevere. Played by Keira Knightley, she’s no preening virginal princess with a reluctant soft spot for hunky Frenchmen; she’s a blue-painted, arrow-slinging, skin-baring, sexually-aggressive warrior babe as likely to bed Arthur as slit his throat.
She’s the hottest Guinevere in movie history.
Arthur, portrayed by Clive Owen (Bent), is not so bad himself. Principled and good-hearted but aggressive and physical, he’s believable as a warrior who dreams of peace. It’s easy to see what his knight’s see in him (and what Guinevere sees, for that matter), and though he’s more man than myth, the core roots of the legend he will become are more than obvious.
Of course, this new Arthur & Guinevere have much to live up to, for good and bad. How do they stack up to the portrayals that have come before them? You’ll have to see the film and make your own conclusions, but, that said, here’s what I think.
• MGM’s very first wide-screen film was 1953’s “Knights of the Round Table”. Robert Taylor (“The Time Machine”) was Arthur, and while there are plenty of eye-pleasing battle scenes and sweeping shots of armored knights riding like the blazes across various English hills, Taylor’s Arthur is so stiff and straight it’s as if Excalibur had been rammed directly up his sadly boring butt. Guinevere fares better. Played by a young Ava Gardner, she’s believably torn between her respect for poor, stuck-up Arthur and her love for the French guy, but like the rest of the movie, she’s more eye-candy than meaty myth.
• It says a lot about Richard Harris’s impressive soul-level embodiment of Arthur in the movie “Camelot” that, even in the fairly depressing 1968 adaptation of Lerner & Lowe’s dreamy-nostalgic stage musical, Harris creates an Arthur that is now considered one of greatest. And it is. In 1980, when Richard Burton (the original stage Arthur) became ill during a long touring production of “Camelot”, it was Richard Harris who was brought in as a last-minute replacement—and ticket sales nearly doubled. This Arthur is smart, intellectually-driven, impassioned, idealistic, and grounded in decency. Unfortunately, Vanessa Redgrave, as Guinevere, is way too weepy and blubbery. It’s a shame. Against Arthur’s bold dream of a new world order, the ooey-gooey fling she has with Lancelot seems hardly worth destroying a king and kingdom for, especially when the king is as memorable as this one.
• In John Boorman’s psychedelic blend of Arthurian myth and sexed-up Jungian wack-o-babble, Nigel Terry played Arthur, from wild-eyed, stammering youth to a withered old king waiting for delivery of the Holy Grail. The imagery is cool and creepy—who can forget the infamous “conception” scene involving a naked Igraine (played by Boorman’s own daughter) and a h***y knight in full armor—but Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) comes off as the Queen of tarts and Terry is, ahem, a bit soft, playing Arthur as more of a limp philosophy major with a minor in English poetry than as a warrior who forged a nation out of blood-soaked spare parts.
• Sean Connery seemed a natural to play an aging King Arthur (19 years after he played an aging Robin Hood in 1976’s Robin and Marian), but Arthur the King is not really the star of “First Knight”, a pitifully-poor patchwork adventure that ignores the main man and instead focuses on the relationship between Lancelot (Richard Gere?) and a ravishing but slightly stupid Guinevere (a stupid but slightly ravishing Julia Ormand). As played, Arthur is kingly enough, but the ending is preposterously wrong-headed (no true King Arthur fan could stomach the way the famous love triangle is resolved), and even the great Connery can’t pull this one out of the stone it was cast in.
• Most people celebrate “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for its spoofy riffs on witch burning, corpse collecting and the rudeness of the French, but what few have made note of is the fact that the late Graham Chapman might just be the best King Arthur ever put on film. With all that inspired silly idiocy going on around him, it’s no small feat that his Arthur comes off as strong and purposeful and—though ever-so-slightly clueless—even strangely sexy. It’s easy to believe he’s the King, not just because he’s the only one who, as one peasant explains it, “hasn’t got any s**t on him.”