I wasn't privy to the studio's media kit for "King Arthur" so I've had to rely for my understanding of the story on a much less informative work: the film itself. And considering the hullabaloo over whether in fact Arthur actually lived, ruled, fought, lifted Excalibur from the stone, or even owned a round table it's no wonder there's some confusion. However, after consultation with my son the historian I was at least able to confirm - this is important - that by the late fifth century, when the movie is set, the Roman Empire was no more, and the pope was pretty much running things down there.
Why is this important? Well, it's what starts the film off, and sets Arthur and his knights on their quest for the Grail. No, wait - not the grail, but a Roman family trapped north of Hadrian's wall (you don't know where Hadrian's wall is? Look it up - why ask me to help with something you should have learned in sixth grade?). Anyway, it appears that Arthur isn't in fact English, or whatever they were back then, but Roman himself; and his knights - I counted only six of them, and by the way there's nothing in the film resembling Camelot - all came from central Asia. They've put in their fifteen years of service to Rome, but they're not allowed to go home yet. Whether this helps or not, I don't know, because the movie seems to have been patched together from something at least twice as long as the two-plus hours it presently takes. No doubt what was cut out is the kind of information that would only appeal to picky types like me. I believe the intention here (it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production) was to make a prequel to the legend we know, but why then do Lancelot and Galahad die in the film? I thought they were supposed to live to sit around the table with Arthur, but there you are.
So we have Arthur and the Gang of Seven against, and this is another confusing part, the evil Saxons, led by Stellan Skaarsgard and his son Cynric. There are thousands of Saxons and only seven of us, but we are soon joined by Keira Knightley, whose name is, of course, Guinevere. Guinevere is also a remarkable archer: in her battle-brassiere and blue war paint she is unstoppable. And yes, she and Arthur consummate their love the evening before battle.
And the battle: It is a mini-version, very mini indeed, of the great battle on the ice in Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky," where the ice cracks beneath ten thousand soldiers and they tumble into the freezing waters. There should have been a caption on screen acknowledging the steal, but since Eisenstein's been dead since 1948 he probably doesn't care anyway.
There are battle scenes galore in "King Arthur," but none of what you might call connective tissue - the kind of scenes that lead us to care about the characters on screen. Clive Owen as Arthur is stunningly handsome and delivers his speeches with power and clarity, but without context they evaporate as soon as they're spoken. There are a few other good performances, including Knightley's, and a nice turn by Ray Winstone as the witty, earthy knight Bors, who early on stopped naming his children and gave them numbers instead.
The film was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who got his start with the Chow Yun-Fat action picture "The Replacement Killers," did a good job with "Training Day," and then threw it all away with the abominable "Tears of the Sun." There are some nice shots here, but as with most Bruckheimer productions, the film is terribly over-edited. No scene is allowed to play out; there are twenty-five shots where two would do. I would guess that if and when the director's cut DVD is released, we will see a more relaxed, more intelligible movie, even if it is four hours long. But even then I'm not sure it would be worth it.