King Arthur: Director's Cut Review

How odd that in our cynical, graceless age, the romantic myth of King Arthur should still exercise such a hold on our collective imagination; or perhaps it’s the very lack of deeper meaning in our media-saturated lives that causes us to grasp vainly for significance in old legends and ancient historical heroes – ‘King Arthur’, ‘Troy’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Braveheart’ et al. Certainly ‘King Arthur’ starts off with a more interesting premise than the one we’re familiar with. David Franzoni (writer of ‘Gladiator’) has based his screenplay on a historical theory that Arthur was actually Artorius, a Roman Centurion who led a group of Sarmatian warriors stationed along Hadrian’s Wall (the notice preceding the film stating that '...historians agree' on this concept is utterly fallacious, however; historians definitely don't agree on it, or much else).

From this intriguing concept, unfortunately, director Antoine Fuqua has fashioned an ungainly beast that takes itself far too seriously. I refer you to Kevin O’Reilly’s fine theatrical review for a thorough look at the film’s plot and characters. I have nothing whatsoever to add, except to say, and you must understand that spoilers follow, how much better it would have been to show the band of knights as young 'uns, a la 'Once Upon a Time in America', displaying their youthful characteristics and giving the audience an opportunity to get to know them before killing most of them off in predictable fashion throughout the movie and, so, inevitably spoilers endeth.

As it is, Ray Winstone's Bors brings the most heart to the proceedings, while Mads Mikkelsen – a brilliant actor (see ‘Open Hearts’) having his blockbuster debut here – as Tristan sweeps the coolness award from under Ionn Gruffud's nose. Keira Knightley does well in her role as a Girl Power Guinevere but struggles with a bad case of ‘accent mismatch’; her cut glass tones are so at odds with her alleged status as a 'woad' barbarian that one can barely keep a straight face every time she speaks – she sounds as if she’d be better placed pouring tea in Northanger Abbey. Mind you, accents are a curious commodity in this very Hollywood version of the Arthurian legend; Danish actor Mikkelsen sounds vaguely Baltic, Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd sounds like captain of a public school rugby team, Melbourne-born actor Joel Edgerton sounds like a feral Aussie and Hackney native Winstone sounds as if he’s from… Hackney. The always excellent Stellan Skarsgård as Cerdic doesn’t have much to do except turn up every 20 minutes and say "Kill them all," or "Burn everything," as the occasion demands. Add a terribly wooden performance from Owen – sounding like a pissed-off used car salesman – and the atrocious 'Bruckheimer ADD Editing', designed to keep the attention of a hyperactive, sugar-blooded 10 year old from Ohio, which severs whatever emotional attachment one may have developed with the characters and their predicament, and it’s little wonder that I found myself indifferent to the conclusion of ‘King Arthur’, finding it to be an ultimately unsympathetic and overbearing film that never really thrills or inspires.

Distributor Buena Vista Home Entertainment stated earlier this year that 'King Arthur' would be available in two different single-disk DVD releases: the certificate 12 theatrical cut and a longer, 15-rated 'Director's Cut', the latter also having a DTS option. The film did provide more graphic violence than the theatrical version, though. There is indeed, to be sure, plentiful bloodletting, swinging swords sending up many a rich arterial spray into the camera, arrows jetting vicously into eyes and hearts, severed limbs flying into the air like so many tossed chicken wings. There’s a total of 17 minutes of extra material, most of which, as far as I could make out, was spent providing more intense gore to the battle scenes. However, since this is a 'Director's Cut' one wonders why Fuqua's preferred ending isn't contained in the body of the film, instead of being provided as a special feature (see below for more on this)?

The picture, when one gets a clear look at it, is very good but to be honest it's often hard to tell. Shooting directly into Ireland’s glaring grey sky, Slawomir Idziak's photography often renders foreground objects almost impossible to discern clearly; faces become indeterminate, shady blobs, costumes featureless drab swatches. The cinematography appears to have been kept rough and ready, presumably to give an air of dark, gritty realism. The blacks are deep and pure at least.

The sound is extremely good, doing justice to Hans Zimmer's thunderous score. The booming of the drums and sweeping strings added much-needed tension to the climactic battle, even if the music itself doesn't equal Zimmer's work in, for instance, 'Black Hawk Down'.

Special Features
The Alternate Ending is viewable with or without Director Antoine Fuqua's Commentary and - please note here be spoilers - is more downbeat than the theatrical version, Merlin rasping on about how 'no fate is shared' and Arthur advising a young 'un that he'll be able to draw his sword when he's older. In the final shot he turns his gaze to the sky which – had this version been completed – would have had the smoke of Lancelot’s burning body floating serenely across it, altogether a more dignified and sober ending than the one we got. To give the man credit, this was Fuqua's preferred version. He explains in the commentary, where his disgust is palpable, that at the U.S test screening people said they wanted to see a happy ending with a wedding and a positive message. Blech. Also, here endeth the spoilers

'Blood on the land: Forging King Arthur' is a 17-minute fast forward over the film's genesis, design, filming and scoring, including blink-and-you’ll-miss-them soundbites from Fuqua, Bruckheimer and various members of the cast and crew. This comes across more as a plug for the inevitable two-disker than a bona fide special feature.

A 'Producer's Photo Gallery' completes the minimal Special Features.

No real special features, no film commentary track and no foreign language subtitles or soundtracks. Regardless of how one feels about the film, it's hard not to feel disappointed by this release, especially given the superb example set by Peter Jackson and friends for the theatrical releases of those far more satisfying epics. However, if you enjoyed the film, want to own its full-strength version in DTS and don't want to wait for the seemingly inevitable 2-disker, then this is the DVD for you.

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