Kevin: For our first edition of “The Rewind” – where we see how a certain popular hit or notorious flop holds up on a second viewing – I discovered that the weaknesses of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” were even more pronounced on the small screen. With Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” stinking up the multiplexes this opening weekend, I decided for our latest entry to re-examine Hollywood’s previous failed attempt at turning the Knights of the Round Table into box office slayers with 2004’s “King Arthur”:
If you’re one of the many who have never seen the Antoine Fuqua-directed film, it’s one of those that purports to tell the “historically accurate” (i.e much less interesting) version of events that never actually happened in the first place. Using alleged archaeological findings from the Dark Ages as its basis, this version presents Arthur as a Roman officer named Artorios (Clive Owen) who commands a group of fierce Samartian warriors in service of the Catholic church, which in exchange for their freedom orders the men on one last mission to rescue an important official ahead of an invading Saxon army (led by Stellan Skarsgaard, whose admirably bizarre performance may lead you to wonder if he was drunk in every scene).
Gone are typical Arthurian elements like the Holy Grail, the Lady in the Lake, and Morgana the witch. Meanwhile, Merlin is now more of a religious leader rather than an actual magician, Excaliber is just a sword that was somewhat hard to extract, and Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is a half-savage Celtic warrior who stills cleans up real nicely when she wants to …
These kinds of deviations from such a well-known and beloved tale may have helped seal “King Arthur’s” fate both critically and commercially, as the badly reviewed $120 million epic barely made more than $50 million at the U.S. box office. However, the fact that the film was severely compromised by the studio didn’t help.
Fuqua and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had always planned on filming “King Arthur” as a bloody R-rated war film in the vein of “Braveheart” and “Gladiator.” But when the Bruckheimer-produced “Pirates of the Caribbean” turned into a huge hit for Disney in the summer of 2003, the studio abruptly ordered the producer halfway through filming to transform “King Arthur” into a PG-13 summer tentpole. In alienating adults and trying to appeal to teenagers who were never going to show up anyway, the studio ended up with a movie made for no one.
(Actually Disney had similarly shot itself in the foot the year before with “The Alamo,” which director Ron Howard had originally envisioned as a bloody and realistic depiction of the 13-day siege that would have starred Russell Crowe as Sam Houston. When the studio got cold feet at spending $100 million on an R-rated film, they let Howard and Russell walk, cut the budget to $75 million, and made a neutered PG-13 version directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Dennis Quaid as Houston. So instead of an Alamo movie from a commercially popular director and a bankable movie star, the studio ended up with a still-expensive version that held no interest to anyone outside of the Lone Star State.)
I had originally seen “King Arthur” when it first came out on video, and while I didn’t hate it I certainly didn’t kick myself for missing it in the theater. But as a fan of Fuqua’s style and skill at directing action – especially when he is allowed to indulge his taste for violence and mayhem in movies like “The Equalizer” and “Olympus Has Fallen” – I figured I’d check out his bloodier director’s cut and see if my opinion had changed after more than 12 years.
Well the first thing I discovered is that time has actually been kind to “King Arthur” in the sense that the studios just don’t make these kinds of big budget historical epics for adults anymore. The visuals – from the cinematographer of “Black Hawk Down” – are stunning, the music by Hans Zimmer is majestic, no expense was spared on locations, sets, and costumes, and Fuqua has a great eye for depicting manly heroes doing heroic things.
And speaking of those heroes, in retrospect the filmmakers assembled a pretty damn great cast for their group of badass warriors: In addition to Clive Owen, the other knights are played by Ray Winstone, Joel Edgerton, Ray Stevensen, and Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy nine years before they reunited in NBC’s “Hannibal.”
The only weak link is possibly Ioan Gruffudd as the cocky and charismatic Lancelot, a role that cries out for a young Daniel Craig or Gerard Butler, but even so he at least makes a surprisingly convincing fighter. (I did have a laugh about the fact that several of the characters are depicted early on as young boys before being conscripted into service, after which the film fast forwards fifteen years and asks us to buy the idea that Clive Owen and Ray Winstone are supposed to be in their mid-20s.)
I also can’t help but notice the similarities between the main storyline of “King Arthur” – with seven highly trained fighters on a seemingly impossible mission to help defenseless civilians against an overwhelming force – and that of a certain Western remake Fuqua would later direct with Denzel Washington.
Most importantly though, a movie like this lives and dies with its battle scenes, and the biggest fault with the theatrical version of “King Arthur” was that you could feel the director pulling his punches in order to avoid showing any actual blood during the bloodshed. But freed from the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, the well-staged skirmishes in the director’s cut are noticeably more visceral and exciting, and there are enough memorably brutal kills to make you wish Fuqua had been allowed free reign to make his own “Braveheart.”
While “King Arthur: The Director’s Cut” obviously cannot hold a candle to Mel Gibson’s Best Picture winner, it at least makes you appreciate what Fuqua and Bruckheimer were originally trying to go for, as well as lament how much better the final film could have been. And who knows, we may say the same thing about Guy Ritchie’s version someday (probably not), but for the time being if you want a different take on the King Arthur legend you could do worse than Fuqua’s preferred version.
Post Script: And actually by “you could do worse” I mean 1995’s “First Knight,” helmed by “Ghost” director Jerry Zucker and starring Sean Connery as Arthur and a wildly miscast Richard Gere as Lancelot. Like “King Arthur,” Zucker’s version eschews the most fantastical elements of the Knights of the Round Table legend, and instead makes the bizarre creative choice to almost entirely focus on the part where Lancelot tries to fuck his best friend’s wife.
The film is mainly notable for being part of the effort in 1995 at turning the bland and unremarkable Julia Ormond into the next great movie star. During that one-year period, Ormond played the woman who Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn competed for in “Legends of the Fall,” the woman Connery and Gere competed for in “First Knight,” and the woman Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear competed for in “Sabrina,” and now more than 20 years later people compete over who can remember her name without having to check IMDB first.