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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > Arthurian Articles > Graham Sumner (1)

Guest Author:
Graham Sumner
Graham Sumner

Graham Sumner, (1958), Graham Sumner was born in 1958. He studied illustration at Wrexham Art School and has specialised in archaeological reconstruction drawings. He has written a number of articles on the Roman Army for Military Illustrated magazine and was the author of the popular Roman Army: Wars of the Empire in Brasseys' History of Uniform series. a member of the Association of Archaeological Illustrators and Surveyors MAAI&S. His publications include:

Roman Military Clothing (1/3)
Roman Military Clothing (1/3)

Roman Military Clothing (2/3)
Roman Military Clothing (2/3)

Roman Military Clothing (3/3)
Roman Military Clothing (3/3)

Graham Sumner - Wars of the Empire
Roman Army - Wars of the Empire

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A review of 'King Arthur', the movie

Graham Sumner

“Who is this Arthur?” Cerdic (‘King Arthur’).
King Arthur. Director’s Cut (DVD).
Touchstone Home Entertainment 2004

Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by David Franzoni


Clive Owen……….Arthur
Keira Knightly……Guinevere
Ray Winstone……..Bors
Ioan Gruffud………Lancelot
Stellan Skarsgard….Cerdic
Stephen Dillane……Merlin
Til Schweiger……...Cynric

My initial reaction when I saw the first images from King Arthur on the Internet was that this was a cheap British version of Gladiator but at least some effort appeared to have been paid to the armour and equipment. It turned out that I was wrong on both counts!

The first released pictures appeared to show a group of Roman cataphracts equipped with draco standards. Initial publicity announced that the film would depict a more realistic version of King Arthur set during the more historically correct Dark Ages rather than the medieval period. The story itself was based on the attested character of Lucius Artorius Castus and his connection with the Sarmatian heavy cavalry employed in Britain by the Romans. The cast was mainly British including Clive Owen as Arthur, Ray Winstone and Keira Knightly as Guinevere but also included other acclaimed international actors.

What was surprising was that the film turned out to be quite a big budget affair by the same American production team that made ‘Pearl Harbour’ and the box office smash of 2003 ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. The script was by David Franzoni who wrote ‘Gladiator’ and the music was by Hans Zimmer who also scored the music for ‘Gladiator’. ‘King Arthur’ was therefore set to be the big summer blockbuster of 2004. In the event things turned out somewhat differently.

The chief faults can perhaps best be described as follows. Although it was a really brave decision casting British actor Clive Owen in the lead role with hindsight it was possibly not the best of choices. Although Owen physically looks the part he does not always deliver his lines with either authority or conviction, which is a pity because the dialogue generally in this film especially Arthur’s is actually rather good.

Clive Owen is still chiefly known in Britain as a TV actor although that looks set to change with a series of more high profile film performances beginning with his role as King Arthur. Many people in America had probably never heard of him before and it would seem the films marketing team were well aware of this. It is Keira Knightly who featured prominently in all the promotional material and posters, Clive Owen is off somewhere to the left. At first glance you could almost be forgiven for thinking that ‘King Arthur’ was going to be about a woman!

Knightly herself seems to have been around for ages so it amazing to think that she was only eighteen when she made this movie. She continues to prove to be a versatile actress swiftly changing from demure heroine to formidable warrior dispatching her foes with apparent glee. Her skimpy battle gear predictably attracted much adverse comment. We first meet her after she has been tortured and left for dead. Arthur and his men save her and Arthur mends her injured fingers by pushing them back into place. In true Hollywood fashion the next time we see her is shooting a bow, even Lancelot wittily remarks “your hands seem to be better!”

Ioan Gruffudd is also perfectly cast as Lancelot but has little to do except act as Arthur’s conscience, questioning many of his decisions. Of Arthur’s other knights only Ray Winstone’s Bors is fleshed out in any detail. He provides some humour especially with regards to his children. He has so many he knows them by numbers rather than names and is constantly worried that some of them are actually Lancelot’s!

The second major fault is the storyline that ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Once again while the filmmakers took the brave and correct decision to set the film in the Dark Ages the medieval mythic epic is nevertheless constantly struggling to get in. This ranges from the names of familiar characters from the Arthurian legends like Gawain, Galahad, Merlin and Lancelot to the obvious medieval influences in costume and equipment (some of the Roman equipment is clearly the same as in ‘Gladiator’). The mysterious lighting effects on faces, lightening flashing behind the actors, swords being pulled from the earth and even a round table are also concessions to the modern audience expecting a medieval epic. Scattered amongst the historical and legendary names are some very odd ones indeed like Dagonet, Jols and Horton!

At times there is also a total lack of credibility most strikingly when one of Arthur’s knights performs an incredible feat of archery killing someone in a tree when he could not possibly have known he was even there. Bishop Germanus is surprised to see that Arthur only has six knights remaining and yet he has the exact number of discharge scrolls ready for them something that would not have been in a Bishops jurisdiction anyway! Furthermore the Northern gates on Hadrian’s Wall have apparently never been opened in centuries and require a team of horses to release them. Incredibly they are later seen to open and close like automatic doors by a combination of sloppy editing and just plain stupidity. When a few hundred Saxons are slaughtered by Arthur and his knights leaving only one survivor to return back through the gates I almost expected him to come out with the line from the corny old joke “it was a trick there were six of them!”

The historically documented Cerdic and his son Cynric lead the Saxon army, although to my knowledge we never actually hear their names. They are documented because they are supposed to have founded the kingdom of Wessex but in the film they are both killed making this impossible. Many people have pointed out that as the Saxons have landed north of Hadrian’s Wall they are invading Britain from the wrong direction! Cerdic is also depicted as some sort of proto nazi believing in a Saxon master race. He saves a British woman from being raped not out of pity as he then orders her death, but because “we don’t mix with these people… what sort of offspring would that yield? Well I thought ‘the English’ was the answer to that one!

The film is also peppered with clichés from practically every other recent movie about the ancient world. Of course all Roman soldiers come from Rome, which is where they are obviously heading at the films finale. The battles must include all the pyrotechnic special effects available, soldiers whatever their nationality will fight like samurai warriors, a defeated army will always be completely annihilated usually by improbable tactics and all ancient costumes were apparently limited to shades of dark brown or black (apart from the Roman soldiers of course who are quite rightly depicted in red).

In Gladiator the Praetorians wore black uniforms so they would look like SS Stormtroopers so it makes you think what the logic was in this film were all the supposed good guys wear black clothes! Considering the amount of costume personal listed in the films credits the total lack of any obvious authentic period clothing is particularly woeful! In the case of the Roman families personal bodyguard, actually a nice touch, more effort and expenditure went into getting their costumes wrong! A simple tunic and helmet would have been more appropriate rather than the anachronistic armour that they wear. The Saxons use armour piercing crossbows when in fact what little evidence we have would suggest it was in fact the ‘Woads’ or really the Picts who should have used them!

The film supposedly is set in 467 AD. The Romano-British Arthur and his six remaining Sarmatian knights are dispatched on a final dangerous mission before they are given their discharge by Bishop Germanus sent from Rome. They have to rescue a Roman family north of Hadrian’s Wall before an advancing army of Saxons engulfs them. After avoiding death by both the hostile native Britons known as ‘Woads’, and an advance party of Saxons the mission is accomplished and Arthur and his knights return to the wall but the main Saxon army is hot in pursuit.

During the expedition Arthur has also rescued a young British woman, Guinevere who turns out to be the daughter of his old enemy Merlin, leader of the ‘Woads’. Merlin has realised that the main threat to them all is now posed by the Saxons and that Arthur’s military leadership is their best hope of survival. The course of events and his burgeoning relationship with Guinevere makes Arthur realise that his destiny no longer lies with Rome but in Britain amongst Britons. The stage is set for a final dramatic showdown with the Saxons.

So if you arrived at the cinema expecting to see Arthur and his knights in all their medieval splendour you will either find this film a huge disappointment or something of a revelation. Nevertheless the filmmakers assert that the film not only depicts the true story behind the legend but is also based on recently discovered archaeological evidence! Sadly if you arrive expecting to see the true story you are also going to be disillusioned for even a minimum of research will reveal gaping holes in the story not least the fact that there is no general consensus amongst historians that Arthur even existed. It is therefore very easy to pick out the inaccuracies beginning with the period in which the film is set long after the Romans are supposed to have withdrawn from Britain in 410AD.

There appears to be little knowledge of the history or politics of the Roman military, the empire at large or Roman Britain in general. The various races represented on screen include Romans, Romano Britons, native Britons, Sarmatians and Saxons and yet they can all converse directly to one another without translators. We are also led to believe that Sarmatian recruits were still being sent into Britain as late as the middle of the fifth century!

Many people have questioned what a Roman family are doing living in a villa far north of Hadrian’s Wall, maybe this is the mysterious archaeological evidence that the film makers speak of? Nevertheless we are informed that the Roman family in particular their son Alecto are favourites of the Pope and that Alecto is destined to succeed him. In spite of this they appear to have been banished to the Roman equivalent of Siberia! As there never was a Pope Alecto then presumably the mission to rescue him was also a complete waste of time!

The Romans refer to the hostile Britons as ‘Woads’ Presumably ordinary Roman soldiers called the enemy Britons many disparaging things and I have always found Britunculli as recorded in the Vindolanda writing tablets something of a mouthful in this respect. ‘Woads’ is as good as anything but the better known ‘Picts’ would have sufficed and perhaps made things less confusing. That is presuming the ‘Woads’ are meant to have been the Picts, that point is never made clear.

Bishop Germanus actually did visit Britain around but around 430AD not 467. He was a former soldier as the film mentions and he was opposed to the teaching of Pelagius who is Arthur’s mentor in the film. Germanus led a British army to victory over a combined force of Saxons and Picts. Firstly he baptised the Britons and then ordered them to shout “Alleluia”, which so frightened their enemy that they fled, many of whom drowned in a nearby river. Local tradition maintains this took place at Mold in North Wales. Pelagius himself is supposed to have died before 420 AD so it would have been impossible for him to be Arthur’s mentor. Arthur could have been a follower of Pelagius as his teachings were especially popular in Britain hence the visit of Germanus but he would have already known of the death of Pelagius and that he had been banished.

The Pelagian heresy was due to the fact that he did not believe in mans original sin not in ‘free will’ and ‘freedom’, which are popular modern movie concepts rather than ancient ones. Another modern aspect is that it is obviously not cool for the hero to be a devout Christian. Germanus and the other Christian monks are portrayed as being corrupt and devious and the monks at the villa appear to have invented the inquisition centuries before it happened. Arthur’s faith is therefore challenged when he learns that Pelagius has been excommunicated and executed on the orders of Germanus and the church. Consequently when Arthur marries Guinevere at the films end it is in a Pagan stone circle rather than a church. This contradicts one of the stories connected with Arthur who is said to have carried an image of the Virgin Mary into battle at Badon Hill. Historically Pelagius was banished not executed and there is no known link between King Arthur and his teachings and Germanus had no involvement in his excommunication.

The setting of the film in and around Hadrian’s Wall is another departure for those who are accustomed to Arthurian tales set in the South West of England. The Saxon leader Cerdic at one point says to Arthur “everywhere I go in this wretched island I hear your name”. The truth is that King Arthur can be connected with virtually any part of the country including Cumbria and Hadrian’s Wall. Arthur’s final battle at Camlann is supposed to have been at Camboglanna, Castlesteads, one of the forts on the Wall while the battle of the Caledonian forest would almost certainly have taken place north of the Wall.

There is certainly evidence for the continuation of Roman style life at Carlisle well into the sixth and seventh centuries AD. A Roman fountain was still working when St. Cuthbert visited Carlisle in 685AD! So it would have been more plausible for the Arthur character to have been based at Carlisle rather than at a fort along the wall and to portray a far more senior commander such as Dux Belli (war leader) instead of being in charge of a decimated group of heavy cavalry. Admittedly this might have been more expensive to incorporate into the films budget but it could have least have been mentioned in the script.

The fort set is nevertheless quite impressive. It would appear to have been modelled on Housesteads due to its lengthways position along the wall and proximity to a detached Wall gateway just like the Knag Burn. However the actual setting looks more like Vindolanda or Chesters rather than Housesteads true dramatic position along the crags. Nevertheless in spite of the films Irish locations some of the opening scenes actually look like they are in Hadrian’s Wall country. Whether by accident or design the filmmakers show the families of the garrison living in the fort, which we know to be true at the end of the Roman period. Many forts by then appear to be no more than fortified villages. Unfortunately the interior layout of the fort set does not reflect this state of affairs and shows no effects of ageing. The big plus of course is when did Hadrian’s Wall (apart from Robin Hood and Kevin Costner) ever feature in an epic movie before? A far bigger plus though would have been an attack on the fort as the films climax, beaten off with the use of onagers rather than the hand powered trebuchets seen in the film!

The historical background to the story is based on the life of a Roman officer Lucius Artorius Castus who lived and died in the second century AD. Castus is connected with both Britain and the Sarmatians. He fought in Britain and later led an expedition to Amorica in France to put down a rebellion. He may have died at the battle of Lyon in 197AD fighting for the future emperor Septimius Severus, ironically against the British troops of the usurper Clodius Albinus including the Sarmatians who he may once have led.

It is well known that after their defeat by Marcus Aurelius, 5000 Sarmatians were sent to Britain. What is perhaps less well known is that there are many interesting parallels with the Arthurian legends amongst the Sarmatians themselves. They apparently ate at round tables, carried dragon standards into battle, had shaman like leaders, told stories of ladies in lakes, swords pulled from the earth and they even had a mythic hero with a magic sword which he threw into a lake at the end of his life. Some scholars therefore believe that the military exploits of Castus and his Sarmatian knights entered into folklore and became the basis of the later Arthurian myths and legends. The dragon standard itself later became part of the panoply of the Roman military.

There are three battle scenes in the movie but by far the most spectacular moment in the movie is the battle on the ice. The first and last are typical Hollywood with the usual one on one fighting styles. In fairness to ‘King Arthur’ there are no disciplined infantry troops engaged so for once this is not actually a problem. In fact the battle scenes give a good effect of the use of cavalry, especially the horse archers, against irregular infantry. In the extended DVD version many of the restored deleted scenes from the cinema release are from these battles. They are probably both as violent and bloody as mainstream cinema allows far more so than even ‘Gladiator’.

Even so things pale by comparison when Arthur and his small band encounter Cynric and his followers on a frozen lake. This is probably the one moment when the film really achieves something out of the ordinary. The scene is especially impressive when one learns that the entire shoot in Ireland took place during a heatwave! As Cynric and his men advance the ice breaks and most of them disappear into the murky depths. You are well aware that computer graphics are used but you are still left wondering how it was all done. With a little tweaking of history Germanus could have been present at the battle and the shouts of ‘Alleluia’ could have caused the ice to crack.

Considering its pedigree ‘King Arthur’ is disappointing especially when compared to ‘Gladiator’, which is a pity because at times the dialogue is intelligent, moving and humorous. Yet in spite of everything I actually find myself enjoying this movie and would recommend it as simple entertainment. I like the fact that the characters are almost aware of their mythic status and as Guinevere remarks in the film they are “both blessed and cursed” by this. When Lancelot questions Arthur about embarking on their suicidal mission Arthur say’s “we are knights, what other purpose do we serve if not for such a cause” The impressive battle on the ice is also a scene not easily dismissed.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is probably as good as his score for ‘Gladiator’ but because ‘King Arthur’ made less of an impact it will probably not receive the attention it deserves. However it is well worth buying if you like epic movie soundtracks and where else would you find titles like ‘Another brick in Hadrian’s wall’ and ‘Do you think I’m Saxon!!!’

When ‘King Arthur’ was released it received mainly negative reviews but was briefly number one at the British Box office. Its poor showing in America was understandable given the lack of a major American male lead but the critical reaction in Britain was quite scathing. The Guardian for example said that ‘King Arthur’ was one of the worst films in the historical genre ever made chiefly because the film had done away with “the jousting, sacred quests and piteous damsels”. They declared, “Britain’s national myth had suffered a catastrophe.”

Touchstones declaration that this was “ The untold truth that inspired the legend” on the movie posters led to an interesting footnote when a disgusted viewer in Warwickshire took them to court. His objection was that this would mislead people into believing that what was shown would be historical fact. They lost their case because the judge basically said you couldn’t believe everything you see in the movies to be fact and that most audiences were aware of that.

Although the DVD contains almost twenty minutes of scenes deleted from the cinema version this is still not the complete film as some scenes from the cinema release have actually been cut out! Presumably a ploy to make you buy both DVD’s. Nonetheless the final mystery about this movie is that in spite of the Irish locations medical assistance was provided by the Welsh Ambulance service!

A review of 'King Arthur', the movie is Copyright © 2005, Graham Sumner. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Graham Sumner


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