Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 take on the Arthurian legend, King Arthur, is mediocre. Obviously, in the age of review aggregation sites, this much should be certain; daring to peek at the Rotten Tomatoes page should produce an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth. But why is it mediocre? Honestly, even if we ignore the massacring of the Arthurian legend, what we have here is just another vague action film glossed with layers of melodrama. To pass the film off as an adaptation of the great king, seems vulgar.
To summarize the film: during Rome’s expansion, they fight the Sarmatians, people who bravely resist Roman invasion but ultimately are defeated in battle. Rome becomes impressed with their warrior skills and spares their lives in exchange for generations of their sons to enlist as knights in the Roman legion. Fast forward some decades, and the offspring of these knights are nearing the end of their term of service—this is where the viewer is introduced to Arthur and company. But, before they are released from Roman control, they must complete one last mission: rescue a high-ranking noble family from the encroaching Anglo-Saxon invaders who have become trapped behind enemy lines. Along the way, Arthur and company must decide where their loyalties lie during the tumultuous Roman withdrawal from Britain.
So… yeah, history has been weirdly crushed into this fan-fiction like tale. Historically speaking, Sarmatian knights have no role to play in the Arthurian mythos whether we discuss the legend as the real-life Arthur-figure or as the mythology which sprung up in the wake of the crusades. Anglo-Saxon invaders did come at the heel of the Roman withdrawal but they fought against the native Britain’s’, not any residual Roman force. The Arthur-figure, meanwhile, was one such native figure, likely a war chieftain, who won a desperate battle against a large Anglo-Saxon force; he was not a Roman. Also, not to put too fine a point on it which the happy ending of the film seems to imply, the native Britain’s did not live their happily-ever-after: the Anglo-Saxon invaders won, hence why today we speak English.
As I said, history has been mashed up into this odd ball of inaccuracy. It is like an intelligent high-schooler found some revisionist history textbooks and proceeded to make his own history for fun.
Is this to say, then, that there is nothing redeemable about King Arthur? Thankfully, there is one or two interesting tidbits worth mentioning.
Firstly, as a film dealing with the Arthurian legend, it is terrible. But, if we were to abstract ourselves from the Arthurian aspect and watch the film as a story about Roman slave-warriors trying to find their balance in a rapidly changing world, it becomes watchable. The idea of conquered people forcefully fighting for a hostile power while remaining conflicted about their status as Roman subjects despite their ethnic dissimilarities from the Roman host remains a fascinating topic. Had the film dealt with this material from the onset, instead of crudely mashing in the Arthurian legend, then it would have made for a far more engaging piece of cinema, something, perhaps, which could have achieved a distinct feel among medieval films.
Secondly, though the history is iffy and the mythos unneeded, Fuqua clearly knew what he was doing. Maybe this makes the film even more deplorable since the director was well-aware of the changes he was making, but after listening to his director’s commentary on the extended and unrated version, his changes become less obnoxious when we find the modern parallel with the invasion of Iraq.
In history, of course, Roman warrior-slaves wouldn’t have been greatly concerned about freedom in the same way that the Sarmatian knights of the film endlessly repeat the word. But, if we think about the film as an artifact of Bush-era policies, then the historical revisionism becomes a bit less repellant as it is directed toward a fairly radical end. This is where the lengthy historical backlog becomes relevant: between soldiers conflicted about their role within imperial militaries to imperial withdrawal from invaded territories, much of the film resonates with the struggles of contemporary soldiers coming to terms with their role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq; from the way Arthur is referred to as “killing his own people” to the eventual reversal at the end where Roman might is revoked in favor of national autonomy, aspects of the film take on liberationist overtones. For a film made just a year after Bush’s invasion, and in an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism, these undertones to King Arthur make is more appreciable.
None of this is to say that the film is revolutionary or anti-capitalist or that it promotes a national liberation mindset against U.S occupation (though Fuqua’s commentary does at times come extremely close to advocating as such with him even praising the Vietnamese National Liberation Front). Knowing this politicization at least gives some coherency to a film deeply historically incoherent. It rationalizes the irrational and paints a picture of a director wanting to disseminate an anti-nationalist message in a time of rabid nationalism while using a tried and true mythos—Arthurian—as the vehicle to move the message. Does this improve the film much? Hardly, but it provides some closure to an otherwise poorly done movie.