Film / King Arthur

Let me sing with inspiration
Of the man born of two nations,
Of Rome and of Britain...
...Arthur the blessed
Led his assault from the Great Wall...
— Poem used in promotions, attributed to the 6th century Welsh poet, Taliesin. Actually made up.

King Arthur is a 2004 film directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by David Franzoni, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and released by Touchstone Pictures. It stars Clive Owen as the title character, Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, and Keira Knightley as Guinevere.

King Arthur is introduced not as a king but as an officer in the Roman army in Britain. A reluctant leader, Arthur wishes only to leave Britain and return to the peace and stability of Rome. Before he can head for Rome, one final mission leads him and his Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Galahad, Bors, Tristan, Dagonet and Gawain to the conclusion that when Rome is gone, Britain needs a king—someone not only to defend against the current threat of invading Saxons, but to lead the isle into a new age. Under the guidance of Merlin, a former enemy, and the beautiful, courageous Guinevere by his side, Arthur will have to find the strength within himself to change the course of history.

This film provides examples of:

  • Advertising By Association:
  • All Germans Are Nazis: They seemed to be going for this rather blatantly with the Saxon invaders of Britain, who are proto-Germans at best. King Cerdic stops one of his soldiers from raping a local woman because he argues the mixed offspring would pollute the purity of the Saxon warrior's blood, before killing both the soldier and the woman to set an example. Historically the Saxons and Celtic-Roman Britons actually interbred quite a bit, and Cerdic himself may have been the product of such a union.
  • Artistic License History: The movie's claim to be the true story behind the King Arthur legends is best taken with a grain of salt.
    • It's based on the theory that the "real King Arthur" was a Roman officer named Artorius Castus who may have led cavalry in Britain. The real Artorius in question lived during the 2nd century AD while this is set in 467 AD, and it's not even certain whether he even set foot in Britain. The movie acknowledges the gap by making the current Arthur a descendant of the original Artorius, but it's yet another assumption that his name was passed down in Britain. The real Artorius is buried in Croatia.
    • The movie combines this theory (sometimes called the "Sarmatian hypothesis" after the troops that Artorius supposedly led, who were from Sarmatia - a region including modern Ukraine, the Balkans and southern Russia) with the "traditional origin" of the Arthurian legend where he leads the British against the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Historically, the British did oppose the Anglo-Saxons under a leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who becomes Arthur's uncle Aurelius in the legends.
    • The Celtic Briton tribes still resisting Roman rule are meant to be the historical Picts, but they are called "Woads". The filmmakers said this was partly due to Rule of Cool and partly to denote a Fantastic Slur. Picts were well known, accurately or not, for tattooing themselves with woad, a plant dye (but the film doesn't explain it that way).
    • The exact date of 467 AD causes more problems. The Romans actually left Britain in 410. The real Cerdic and Cynric arrived in Britain around 495. The bishop Germanius was also a real person and he went to Britain twice, the last time being 447. The climactic battle is called the Battle of Badon Hill. In the real battle, the British defeated the Saxons (and legend says the British were led by Arthur), but it's dated to between 490 to 516.
    • Cerdic and Cynric did not die in the real battle of Badon, and may not even have participated since there was more than one group of Anglo-Saxons expanding in Britain.
    • While Pelagius was indeed a British cleric who was branded a heretic he was not executed, only exiled. His teaching was not about political freedom (inspiring the movie's Arthur that all men are free and equal, hence the Round Table) but about religious doctrine which we don't need to get into here. Also he died decades before 467 AD.
    • Anachronism Stew abounds also. Apart from the far-too-early trebuchets, there are also swords held together with screw heads.
    • Stirrups were not invented for another couple of centuries.
    • There's a castle that would have had King Edward I of England (died 1307) saying to his architect, "There! That's the sort of thing I had in mind!" The motte and bailey fortification, a considerably more primitive version of that sort of castle, would not be invented for another 500 years.
    • The Saxons also use crossbows as their signature weapon. While crossbows already existed during the Roman Empire, they didn't become widespread until centuries later.
    • The Saxons landing north of Hadrian's Wall instead of south of it. In real life the Saxons were not dumb enough to land their invasion in a way so they had to cross a large wall in order to get where they wanted instead of just sailing around it.
    • Another common anachronism in Arthurian adaptations is the usage of plate armor, despite this film's attempts to ground the legend in history. This was supposed to be a nod to the viewers' expectations for a King Arthur film, quite apparently a failed one.
    • While Arthur gets his name rendered into Artorius, the rest of the characters keep the traditional spellings of their names. This is because...
    • The knights used in the movie are almost all inventions of the Arthurian romances from France and elsewhere with no roots in Welsh mythology and thus relations to possible British history, except Tristan and Gawain who are those guys In-Name-Only. (Period-appropriate versions of those names would be Drustan and Gwalchmai.) So you have characters who are supposedly Eastern European with French names.
    • Cerdic stops a Saxon warrior from raping a woman because he claims it would dilute their "pure German blood". As genetic studies show, the British and the Anglo-Saxons had no problem interbreeding, and this seems to be added in for the sake of Does This Remind You of Anything?. Historians note Cerdic's own name is Celtic, not Germanic, which may suggest he himself had mixed heritage. note 
  • Ascended Extra: Dagonet. He was normally portrayed in the Arthurian mythos as a buffoon and a coward. He's quite obscure in the mythos itself with its Loads and Loads of Characters. Few nowadays outside of scholars would have heard of his name if not for the movie.
  • Band of Brothers: Of course. The knights stick with Arthur at the end despite being freed of their duties.
  • Bash Brothers: Bors and Dagonet fight as a pair and Bors is furious when Dagonet dies. Since they look alike, they might be actual brothers.
  • Beard of Barbarism: Cerdic and the Saxons have thick beards.
  • Blood Knight: Cerdic wants to find a worthy opponent as he rampages through Britain.
    • An early bit of dialogue reveals Tristan to be one as well:
      Galahad: ... No, I don't kill for pleasure. Unlike some.
      Tristan: Well, you should try it some time, might get a taste for it.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Bors is a loudmouth and a ferocious warrior.
  • Broken Pedestal: Rome to Arthur when he learns Pelagius has been branded a heretic and executed.
  • Combat Aestheticist: Tristan. In the opening battle, his kill count via swordplay isn't as high as the rest of the knights, but his execution doesn't leave him a bloody mess, out of breathe, and his slashes and stabs are clean and smooth. Tristan's sword and bow are uniquely far-eastern (Tibetan?) as well.
  • Corrupt Church: Bishop Germanius is a smug nasty piece of work and he sends Arthur and the knights to rescue the Pope's godson, who may be Pope himself someday.
  • Demythtification: The premise of the film is to show the true history behind the legends without the magic, but they take a lot of license with the history anyway.
  • Dual Wielding: Lancelot uses two swords.
    • Bors also sometimes uses a pair of brass-knuckle/dagger combination... things.
  • Enemy Mine: The Woads have fought Arthur and his men (and their predecessors) for years, but they ally with him to stop the Saxons.
  • Excalibur in the Stone: The film combines Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone as is often done. Excalibur is an ancestral weapon that Arthur pulled as a boy from his father's grave mound.
  • External Retcon: By ways of Literary Agent Hypothesis.
  • Famed In-Story: Arthur and the knights are well-known in Britain, stories of them reaching Guinevere and Cerdic before they meet.
  • Fingore: In one scene Arthur has to fix Guinevere's dislocated fingers.
  • Friend to All Children: Dagonet bonds with the boy they rescued.
  • The Fundamentalist: Marius and his priests/inquisitors imprison Woads for being pagan.
  • Gentle Giant: Dagonet is a big quiet guy who bonds with a kid.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Arthur and his knights may be the protagonists, but they're soldiers from a barbarian culture and are definitely not pansies.
  • The Ghost: Pelagius, a churchman who influenced Arthur and is discussed by him and the Bishop, but who never appears in person. Rectified in the director's cut.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Dagonet and Lancelot die protecting others.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Arthur is closest to Lancelot.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Bishop Germanius, who is actually considered a saint, and the Saxon chiefs Cerdic and Cynric. Cerdic was the leader of the West Saxons and is considered the founder of the English kingdom of Wessex.
  • I Have No Son: Played with. Cerdic disowns his son for his failure, but still keeps him back when sending in the remains of his troops into an obvious trap.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Subverted. When the Woads ambush Arthur and his knights they shoot arrows at them and no one gets hit. Merlin had ordered not to harm them.
  • In-Name-Only: Granted that the film is not a straight adaptation of the legends, the choice of knights still feels like this. For instance, Galahad is supposed to be Lancelot's son. Only Lancelot is anywhere close to his legendary counterpart because of his closeness to Arthur.
  • The Last Thing You Ever See: When Arthur meets Cerdic before the battle.
    Arthur: I came to see your face so that I alone may find you on the battlefield. And it will be good of you to mark my face, Saxon, for the next time you see it, it will be the last thing you see on this earth.
  • Love Triangle: Very much downplayed, Lancelot and Guinevere share some looks but the movie focuses on her and Arthur. In fact, Lancelot seems to be quite distrustful of Guinevere and was quite resentful towards her for convincing Arthur to stay and help the Britons.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The knights are supposedly Sarmatian; the Sarmatians were an Iranian people living in the Balkans and eastern Europe. They all seemed to pretty much go for nondescript English accents, with the exception of Mads Mikkelsen (Danish), who plays Tristan, and never sounds anything BUT Danish.
  • Posthumous Narration: The end of the film reveals this is the case with Lancelot.
  • Pre-Climax Climax: Arthur and Guinevere before the battle of Badon Hill. Subverted in the director's cut, where the scene takes place a little earlier in the film, and the pair are interrupted by Jols coming to tell Arthur that the Saxons have arrived.
  • Recut: There's a director's cut with deleted and rearranged scenes and more gore. In the prologue with young Lancelot, young Arthur is also shown talking with his mentor, the cleric Pelagius (played by Owen Teale).
  • Reincarnation: At the end of the film, there's a few shots of running horses as Lancelot's voiceover says the Sarmatians believe their warriors get reincarnated as horses.
  • Reverse Grip: How Arthur mortally wounds Cerdic with Excalibur, thrusting the blade backwards past his own body.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Dagonet. It's the first on-screen indicator that not all the knights will survive till the end.
  • Spiritual Successor: Fits the bill at being one to Gladiator. The stories to both films are historical battle epics during the era of the Roman Empire, were originally conceived by David Franzoni, both have Hans Zimmer scores, and both center around a successful and respected military officer who while having never been to Rome holds an idealized image of it in his head.
  • Suspiciously Small Army: Arthur holds an entire fort with a mighty force of six men. Fortunately they get backup later on.
  • Taking You with Me: Cynric fatally wounds Lancelot with a crossbow, but Lancelot kills him first.
  • This Means Warpaint: The Woads wear blue face and body paint (woad) in battle, a practice they take their name from.
  • You Have Failed Me: Subverted. Cynric fails his mission to capture the patrician Roman family that Arthur is transporting back to the south. His father King Cerdic notes that they have lost the enemy's respect and Cynric offers his life in return. Cerdic instead demotes his son and gives him a Mark of Shame by giving him a small scar on his cheek.