A film by Antoine Fuqua
While the myth and legend of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table have been around in one form or another for centuries, there is little solid historical evidence that there was an actual King named Arthur or what his exploits may or may not have been, or even what century he may or may not have lived in. The title cards at the start of the movie makes a new claim of accuracy with historical basis, but from watching documentaries on the History Channel before "King Arthur" was released theatrically, it seems that this movie offers one of many possible interpretations on the Arthur Legend. No retelling of the legend is going to be completely accurate, assuming there was an Arthur, so take this movie with a grain of salt and as entertainment.
Many of the other movies about Arthur deal with a magic sword being pulled out of a stone, and powerful magic being wielded by Merlin (John Boorman's "Exaclibur"), and there is even a musical "Camelot", not to mention the rather bad but strangely enjoyable "First Knight". Forget every other Arthurian movie that you have seen thus far because "King Arthur" is nothing like those movies. There is no magic, no knights bursting into song, and no Richard Gere. This is a darker, more realistic movie from the director of "Training Day".
"King Arthur" is set in the fifth century. Rome is the de facto ruler of Britain, though via proxy. Roman Knights hold sway in Britain, enforcing the law for Citizens and keeping the "barbarians" away. In this movie, the Knights that are in Britain were originally from Sarmatia, a tribe far to the East. These Sarmatians, having lost their battle against Rome have accepted as a term of their surrender that all of their male children will serve in the Roman Army. These men are serving under Lucius Artorius Castus, or Arthur (Clive Owen). Along with Arthur are the other "legendary" knights and Sarmatians Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), and Bors (Ray Winstone). Together, with other unnamed knights, the Sarmatians protect their corner of Britain and their tour of duty will be over with the arrival of the Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti). The Bishop has other ideas. He will only release the knights after they fulfill one more task. They must ride north, into territory occupied by the Woads (native Britons) where there is a Saxon Army on the brink of invasion, and rescue a young man whom the Pope in Rome is grooming as his successor. Only then with Arthur and his men be free to return to Sarmatia. They argue, the grumble, the get angry, and they submit.
On the way they encounter Merlin (Stephen Dillane), no longer a sorcerer, but a leader of a tribe of Woads. Upon rescuing the boy, Arthur also rescues a young woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Guinevere is not the refined princess who's beauty ruined Camelot, but a Woad prisoner who is starving and abused. She is freed by Arthur, befriended even though she is a barbarian, and through their discussions Arthur begins to question his place as a Roman. Arthur is part Briton, part Sarmatian, so his world is not the same as that of Bors or Lancelot. Guinevere also is a warrior, able to shoot her bow with great skill and once, late in the movie, she charges into battle with sword drawn (her scenes with the swords are the least convincing when she tries to match power and strength with men. Keira Knightley is a small woman).
The battle scenes are done more in the style of "Braveheart", though with a surprisingly lack of blood and visible brutality. Clive Owen's Arthur is a solid leader, though one lacking in charisma. He seems the leader who has earned the trust of his men over a long period of time by being a strong warrior, brave, intelligent, and always faithful, but not with this force of his personality. That is good for a leader, bad for a leading man. Owen was fantastic in "Closer", but his powerful personality is pushed to the side here. Everybody else in the movie is acceptable and believable in their roles, and Keira Knightley was just fine as a different sort of Guinevere right up until the part where she parried a sword swung by a much larger man. She was best when using the bow and when using her agility in battle. She lost me when she used strength to win in battle.
This Director's Cut Edition restored scenes that needed to be cut from the theatrical release and reportedly adds a bit more brutality to the battles. This was evident near the end, but not so much early on in the movie. Not having seen the theatrical release, I am not able to comment on the differences between the two versions of "King Arthur".
This isn't a bad movie. It is "Braveheart" light with some of the actors from "Braveheart". After "Training Day" I honestly expected something more from Antoine Fuqua, but it was nice that he did not provide a conventional Arthur movie. If reports of his struggle with the studio to make "his" movie are to believed, "King Arthur" had the potential to be something better than it turned out to be, even with a Director's Cut. While not a bad movie, "King Arthur" should not get a grade of much above a C+. It is decent enough, but nothing special.