Arthur taking on Roman shades in latest movie version of legend

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- In "Excalibur," he held his sword aloft and cried, "Any man who would be a knight and follow a king, follow me!"

In "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," he was upbraided by a peasant proclaiming, "Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government."

King Arthur has gone Hollywood in many guises, from noble to farcical, in live-action spectacles, musicals and cartoon tales. Now he rises again with a gritty epic that aims to take the leader back to his historical roots as a Roman-British warrior battling Saxon marauders.

"King Arthur" is Arthur without his shining city of Camelot, the solemn quest for the Grail, or the sword-and-sorcery appended to the legend by medieval romantics. Also gone is the calamitous love triangle involving Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.

Arthur does bear the sword of his father, but an ordinary blade, not the Excalibur of myth that marked him as Britain's destined ruler, a weapon bestowed on the world of men by the otherworldly Lady of the Lake, the "aquatic tart" of "Monty Python."

"The take on this for me was, well, where did it all begin? Every legend starts somewhere. This idea was more about the man as opposed to the sword," said "King Arthur" director Antoine Fuqua. "Why not ground him? Why take away from his heroism by making it, 'Oh, he had a magic sword. Of course he did all these deeds,' as opposed to making him a human being?"

"King Arthur" stars Clive Owen as the title character, a war-weary soldier of Rome leading a band of warriors from the Russian province of Sarmatia, who are charged with maintaining order in Britain.

As Rome crumbles

With Rome pulling out of Britain as the empire crumbles, Arthur looks forward to departing for a tranquil life in Rome, while his men are eager to return to their Sarmatian homes.

Instead, Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and other native Britons fearful of encroaching Saxon hordes convince Arthur to stay and lead the fight against the invaders. Guinevere and Merlin, Arthur's sorcerer mentor in traditional legend, are depicted as Celtic guerrilla warriors who strike up an uneasy alliance with Arthur, previously their enemy.

"It won't ultimately satisfy those that are passionate about the very traditional, more romantic version, but we never set out to do that," Owen said.

Guinevere becomes Arthur's queen, but she does not strike up an affair with his best friend and lieutenant, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd). A few wordless glances between Guinevere and Lancelot are all that remain of the love triangle.

Other than character names and the notion of a unifying king, the only notable trappings left of medieval Arthur lore are his round table and a nonmagical variation on the sword in the stone that he drew to become ruler of Britain.

Medieval scholar Christopher Snyder, author of the book "The World of King Arthur," called it a noble effort to examine Arthur's roots but said that without more of the familiar romantic elements, the movie could end up appealing mainly to "history nerds or people who go for the battle scenes."

While the love triangle and mystical components were added centuries later by medieval writers, they are so strongly associated with Arthur that audiences may feel cheated without them, said Snyder, associate professor of history at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

"You have to be wary of Hollywood arrogance and hubris in making films like this, that say we as writers and directors can do it better than it was done in medieval literature," Snyder said.

Many elements of the new movie have no historical basis, such as the notions of Guinevere as a warrior princess or Merlin as a guerrilla leader, Snyder said. So the filmmakers could have taken other liberties by including some of the medieval trappings, he said.

"King Arthur" producer Jerry Bruckheimer said no matter what approach the filmmakers took, segments of the audience would be dissatisfied. He said this new version was as valid as any other.

"Every generation has created their own King Arthur, starting with the 7th century, and he constantly evolves," Bruckheimer said. "I try to warn audiences that it's not the storybook Arthur. This is the historical Arthur."

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