8 out of 10
Like the Romans before them, after fighting a bloody war and loosing a seemingly unassailable empire, Disney have been forced to seek pastures anew. With Dreamworks and Pixar hopelessly outgunning Walt's old company at the box office, they have been forced to shut their animation production facilities and have turned to a new and more interesting niche - that of making historical films that are as close to the recorded facts and original events as is possible, lik "Alamo". In a sense this is a demonstration of all that is wrong with the film industry in Hollywood - they have so much cash and such great profits that it takes a series of disasters to slam a studio before it actually considers providing exactly what the viewing public have been crying out for over the last 50 odd years or so.
Whilst the story of England's ancient hero is violently at odds with the traditional legend and popular image, Disney's "King Arthur" is closely backed by recent archaelogical evidence. Not only has their team of historical experts: Harry Humpries, John Matthews and Linda Malcor, burnt the midnight oil to ensure accuracy, but Disney has even splashed out a million bucks or two recreating nearly a kilometre of Hadrian's Wall, the Roman's equivalent of the Great Wall of China to defend England against the tribes of Scotland in a field in the middle of County Kildare in Southern Ireland.
"King Arthur" mirrors many of the apocalyptic movies of today in many ways, such as "Dawn of the Dead" as it covers the last time that civilization collapsed, 1500 years ago. Set in the dying days of the Roman control of England, it demonstrates their tenuous control of their threadbare Empire, hanging on to power, not through military might any more, but on sleezy subdiffuge, deciet and a survival style that would sit well with the modern day Mafia, pitching the differnet enemy ethnic groups against each other.
Quite amusingly at times, the different ethnic groups are "colour coded" by their accents: the Romans all have heavy Italian accents, the Ancient Britons who have continuously hounded the Romans in a Viet Cong style all sound like English aristocrats and the invading Saxons whose threat is so serious as to unite the other splintered factions against them, like Hells Angels.
With almost no real opperational manpower left, the Romans are down to using "Auxilliaries", tribesmen from one part of their Empire to patrol and man the last of their defences in other parts far away...and hence, a small band of Samatian tribesment from the far east of what is now the Ukraine, find themselves in rain-sodden England for more than a decade, keeping the peace like Marshals out of the "Old West" of America, in the hope of earning their freedom. Led by Lucius Artorius Castus (Arthur), on the eve of winning their freedom, the crippled Empire throws them one last appauling mission, to save a Roman family, utterly beleaguered in Scotland and facing a vast invading Saxon army. Despite intense anger from his men, they all agree to follow the leader they so admire in a venture that will change the course of history and become a legend to inspire the next six dozen generations.
With Jerry Bruckheimer as producer, it is not hard to guess that the action never ceases, not only with accurate recreation of the ancient Battle of Badon Hill, but in the various roles, not least in that of Guinevere, who, as a lethal warrior, is a far from the traditional image as is possible and Boors, a colourful, beer-swilling right hand man of Artorius and who cuts a magnificent dash acros the screen. Most magnificent however is the battle on the frozen river which is a superb and original idea..
Sadly, old habits die hard and Disney's notorious stupid penny-pinching has them, as usual, employing a cast of almost toal unknowns as they are too mean to hire well known and more expensive actors. Even so, Clive Owen as Arthur, Keira Knightley as Guinevere, Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot and particularly Ray Winstone as Boors bring colour and majesty to the whole show. Curiously, there have been numerous complains in America as to the virtue of Arthur who is always trying to do the "just and right thing"; as an Englishman, I find this may say more about the integrity of the average North American than it does about Arthur.
For those who love history, it's a feast, for those who like action it's a thrilling ride and if you like neither, well, as "Banker Jon" Masse, a friend of mine put it,."Keira Knightley in a skimpy costume can't be bad"!
Makes you proud to be English!
Film Critic: - Robert L Thompsett