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Photograph by Jonathan Hession

Woad Is Me: Keira Knightley, the fetching lead of the Woads, leads her forces into battle in 'King Arthur.'

Briton Spears

'King Arthur' shows us the gory that was Rome

By Richard von Busack

THE BLOCKBUSTER King Arthur picks the embroidery out of 1,500 years of legend by dispensing with Mordred, Morgan Le Fay, the romance of Lancelot and the quest of Galahad. These legends endure; Jerry Bruckheimer's movie, however, may be forgotten by the end of the month. Working from a script by David Franzoni (who did the story for Gladiator), director Antoine Fuqua is on sturdier historical grounds than usual when it comes to the story of the Once and Future King. Set in 452 C.E., at Hadrian's Wall, it proposes Arthur (Clive Owen) as a half-Briton Roman general who is the right man at the wrong time. The empire is fraying, and the Roman army is about to pull out of England. There are too many raids from the blue-painted tribesmen on the far side of the wall. And there is also a hairy army of Saxons knocking on the gates; their leader, led by a whispering plug-ugly named Cerdic (Stellen Skarsgard) is ready to help himself to England.

On the day they are to be paroled from Caesar's army, Arthur and his knights, stationed at the Fort Apache of Cumbria, are required to go fetch a Roman citizen from his villa (outside Hadrian's Wall—how did that happen?). During the march back, and after a Nevskian battle on the ice, Arthur becomes a democratic hero to the non-Roman tribes. He brings with him the fiery Woad princess Guinevere (Keira Knightley), saved from fanatical Christians. (Ioan Gruffudd's Lancelot gets exactly one smoldering look at her.)

Actually, the conflict between the amateur historians who argue about the historical merits of the Angles and the Saxons in the forums at the Internet Movie Database offers more spirited and bloodthirsty combat. It's free, too. Even though Arthur triumphs, what a depressing movie Fuqua has made of this legend. To be fair, it may have resonance for those Army Reservists who suddenly found their tours of duty extended.

Having to act around a Roman helmet is no joke. And Owen—as in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead—can be a moper; the film is every bit as humorless as Owen has been at times. (The failed comedy relief is by Ray Winstone, a crude knight named Bors, who tells dick jokes that are inelegant by the standards of a dick joke.) When Knightley dons a leather barbarian war-bikini and some modern primitive makeup, she's momentarily fun—the blue makeup and those fearsome white teeth make her look like a lithograph of Kali on a Bombay calendar. But she's lockjawed and stiff-upper-lipped. Just as Winstone is apparently supposed to be the ancestral patriarch of all Cockneys, she seems like she's going to be the mother of all Kensington misses to come. As the shock of Knightley's beauty slowly wears off, she's in that stage where you can't tell if she can't act, can act but isn't trying or just doesn't feel like it. Fuqua directs his battle scenes in the accepted mode: smoke and choppy digital editing so you can't tell who's smiting whom but you can see the slo-mo bouncing of the hair in the nostrils of the swordsmen swinging their blades.


King Arthur (PG-13), directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by David Franzoni, photographed by Slawomir Idziak and starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, plays at selected theaters valleywide.


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Web extra to the July 7-13, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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