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Knightley of the Round Table: The warrior babe leads the charge in 'King Arthur,' only the latest of many attempts to tell the Arthur fable on film.

The King and I

One writer's unhealthy fixation with films about Arthur and his ka-niggits

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Pseudomystical, ain'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 3 years old, parentally escorted to a matinee of Walt Disney's animated Arthurian obscurity, The Sword in the Stone. Everyone today knows 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. I admit that it's a pathetic enthusiasm to bear, since Arthur films are few and far between, and, with rare exception, are seldom 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 fifth 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 a nonwizardly 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; rather, she's a blue-painted, arrow-slinging, skin-baring, sexually aggressive warrior babe as likely to bed Arthur as slit his throat.

In short, she's the hottest Guinevere in movie history.


Hunk King: Between Clive Owen's quests, he sequins vests, and impersonates Clark Gable.

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 knights see in him (and, for that matter, what Guinevere sees in him), and though he's more man than myth, the core roots of the legend that he will become are more than obvious.

Of course, this new Arthurian couple 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 widescreen film was 1953's Knights of the Round Table. Robert Taylor 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 that 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' impressive soul-level embodiment of Arthur in the movie Camelot that, even in the fairly depressing 1968 adaptation of Lerner and Lowe's dreamy-nostalgic stage musical, he creates an Arthur that is now considered one of the greatest. And it is. In 1980, when Richard Burton (the original stage Arthur) became ill during a long-touring stage production of Camelot, Harris was brought in as a last-minute replacement--and ticket sales nearly doubled. His 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 1981 psychedelic blend of Arthurian myth and sexed-up Jungian wack-o-babble, Excalibur, Nigel Terry plays Arthur from wild-eyed, stammering youth to a withered old king still awaiting 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 horny 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 Ormond). 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 that he's the king, and not just because he's the only one who, as one peasant explains it, "hasn't got any shit on him."

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From the July 14-21, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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