John Ford's famous maxim was: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This new King Arthur turns the principle back to front, and purports to offer us historical "fact" before the legend bent it out of shape. Ditching the pageantry and poetry that have accrued around the Arthurian myth, the screenwriter David Franzoni has located a possible real-life model for the king in a Roman commander named Lucius Artorius Castus who, alongside a posse of knights, defended Britain from the invading Saxon hordes during the late fifth century AD.
It sounds plausible enough, but before we get carried away by the promise of Dark Ages authenticity we should remember that King Arthur is, in the end, a movie. And what's more, it's a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, whose record on even recent history (Pearl Harbor) is far from sound. Indeed, it isn't history that movie-makers usually defer to, it's other movies, and on that front King Arthur is generously caparisoned with the insignia of Hollywood lore. Who needs Malory when you can borrow from The Magnificent Seven?
Count them: Artorius Castus - Arthur to his mates - heads up a righteous band of brothers comprising Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), all of them nearing the end of their military service to the Romans.
Hans Zimmer's music isn't a patch on the score Elmer Bernstein wrote for Yul Brynner et al, but this seven cut the same heroic poses on horseback, exchange ribald badinage about pecker size and toast it with gales of hearty male laughter. The plot, too, follows the template, a final mission so perilous against an enemy so heinous that you know instantly they'll undertake it. Arthur and his knights must journey north through woad country to rescue a Roman nobleman (the Pope's "favourite godchild", if you please) from the advancing forces of bloodthirsty Saxons.
The twist, if it can be so called, is that Arthur, half-Roman and half-Briton, is a conflicted hero. He thinks he wants to return to Rome and its ordered, civilised ways (not to mention its decent weather and food) but heeds the call of the green and pleasant land he's been defending these many years past.
Did I say pleasant? Make that wintry, wet and wild, a place where your journey is likely to be ambushed by shock- ingly hairy men wearing animal pelts and wielding axes. This is known as "Woad Rage". The director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) does a good job of making fifth-century Britain look the sorriest outpost on earth; when it isn't snowing or raining, the place is enveloped in thick mist. There is more dry ice used here than in a Spinal Tap gig.
One might be less flummoxed by Arthur's loyalty to the place if there were something in Clive Owen's performance that suggested a poetic soul, or at least a natural affinity for these harsh northern climes. But his flat Estuary voice and oddly immobile features struggle to convey a majesty of feeling, and there is very little humour to leaven his dourness. The first knight of the Round Table is, I'm afraid to say, a bit of a square.
In any case, Owen's is not the name on which the film is being sold. The star attraction here is Keira Knightley who, for all her fame, has not yet been tested in a major role. As Guinevere she enters the picture late, looking as pale as a marble effigy, and doesn't get a great deal to do beyond wearing strappy leather armour and face paint. Her willowy grace and athleticism are pleasing to the eye, though on the ear her cut-glass tone rather grates: she sounds less like a warrior princess than a girl on tour with the Cheltenham Ladies' netball team.
Nor is this Guinevere the lady who came between Lance- lot and Arthur; no sexual complication is risked within the macho confines the film stakes out. Merlin, too, is a different creature from legend, played in defiantly unwizardly guise by Stephen Dillane - he looks more like Catweazle. Yet the film does have a couple of things going for it.
Arthur's antagonist, a Saxon chief played by Stellan Skarsgard, is a stupendously unpleasant brute who slays his own lieutenants at the merest hint of insubordination, and he leads an army of fur-clad marauders that announce their advance with giant, ogreish drumbeats. "Burn every village - kill everybody", he says, not in a booming war-cry but in a matter-of-fact undertone, which is far more chilling. Even his son, a shaven-headed bruiser with a plaited beard, looks terrified of him. Skarsgard is all the more compelling a presence given the shortfall of charisma among the good guys.
The film's other strong suit is its battle scenes, a mêlée of blood and steel shot in the jumpy, hand-held style of Braveheart, which perhaps spearheaded the present renaissance of warrior movies. The charging lines and chest-thumping cries are standard for the genre, and certain effects have an obvious source: a gloomy sky dotted with flame-tipped arrows looking like so many fireflies is borrowed from Ridley Scott's Gladiator (and he may have got the idea from Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket). But here, too, there's a scene out of the common run, a face-off between opponents across an icefield that looks about to crack open at any moment; the camera ducks beneath the ice to reveal how precarious is the army's every step.
King Arthur is a curiously stolid, downbeat piece of work, moderately well acted and staged, though as historical drama about as convincing as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Legend has been stripped away to reveal not "fact" but another legend, this one derived from the immemorial precepts of Hollywood screenwriting: a king struggling with his destiny, a last, desperate mission to save a vulnerable outpost, a big showdown with the bad guys. You've been here before: only the names are different.