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What I've Been Watching, Arthurian edition: King Arthur (2004 film)

Much like with the pairing of BBC's Merlin with T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, this movie has a lot in common with Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series - they're both presented as historically accurate retellings of the King Arthur legend. But while Whyte's books are at least entertaining, this week's movie isn't anywhere near entertaining.

This week, I'll look at the 2004 film King Arthur

Where to begin? Well, as mentioned above, this movie was promoted at "The True Story Behind the Legend". While some of the bits presented here are based on real people or early versions of the Arthur stories, there's a lot that's either made up, or just plain wrong. So, to make this fun, I'll be keeping score: every time the creators get a fact right or have something historically plausible, they'll get a point; every time they get something wrong, they'll lose a point. Let's see how they do.

Let's start with the initial set-up. Here, Arthur is a Roman commander stationed at Hadrian's Wall in AD 467. (-1 point right off the bat - the Romans pretty much abandoned Britain in AD 410). The knights, however, are Sarmatians enlisted to serve as cavalry (+1 point - the Sarmatians did serve in the Roman military). While the knights are pagans, Arthur is a Christian and a disciple of the recently declared heretic Bishop Pelagius (+1 point - Pelagius was a real bishop, and believed to have been born in Britain). Pelagius' ideas about free will and equality have led to Arthur forming the round table, as it makes represents equality among his men (0 points - Pelagius' teachings have nothing to do with equality or the kind of freedom Arthur espouses, but the idea of the round table was to avoid offending Arthur's barons by implying superiority/inferiority). The Bishop Germanus comes to Arthur and the knights to send them on one final mission before they'll be given their freedom - go north and rescue the Pope's godson from the invading Saxons (-2 points - Germanus died around AD 448, only visiting Britain in AD 429, and the Saxons had already started settling in southern Britain). The big problem with this is that the territory beyond Hadrian's Wall is controlled by the "Woads", natives of Britain under the leadership of Merlin.

There's the set-up. Point total: -1. Not a good start.

Now we'll go with the characters. I'll only talk about a few of them, for reasons I'll explain later.

The big one is obviously Arthur. He's presented as the son of a Roman commander and a Celtic woman (-1 point - Uther is traditionally the son of Emperor Constantine III, who was supposed to also have been King of the Britons. Mythical British history is weird). Like the fictional presentation of Pelagius, he's very forward-thinking, espousing things like freedom and equality. I'd take off a point for that, but as mentioned above, part of the round table was to imply some amount of equality. And I've already pointed out how the basis for him having these ideas is wrong, so taking off more points for the same error would just be mean. And unlike a lot of heroes, he actually demonstrates his beliefs, rather than only talking about them. I like this, if only because it shows why Arthur is such a good leader, rather than just telling the audience he is.

Next up is Guinevere. Oh, Guinevere. In this version, she's the warrior-woman of the Woads (-2 points - 1 because she's traditionally the daughter of Leodegrance, one of Arthur's earliest supporters, and another because in one of the oldest sources, she's the Roman, while Arthur is the native Briton). Now to be fair, there is some historical basis for warrior women leading native tribes of Briton, such as Boudica (+1 point, if only for imagination). Too bad Guinevere isn't one of them. I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason they made this decision was to get Kiera Knightly into a leather bra. And yes, I know they gave her digital breast surgery for the American movie poster. No, I don't understand why.

Then there's Lancelot. He's Arthur's right-hand man, and the top Sarmatian. That's about all that differentiates him from the other knights. He's a good fighter, dual-wielding short swords (0 points - there is a knight associated with carrying two swords, but it isn't Lancelot). There's maybe some hint of attraction between him and Guinevere, but it never comes to anything (-1 point, for pretty obvious reasons). On a semi-related note, Lancelot shouldn't even be in this movie, if it's "The True Story" of King Arthur (-1 point - Lancelot was first mentioned by French poet Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century).

The final character I'll devote any real time to is Merlin. In this film, he's the leader of the Woads, and initially Arthur's enemy (-1 point - in almost every other rendition, Merlin is indirectly responsible for Arthur's birth, and plays a major role in his early years as advisor and protector). Apart from maybe being a shaman, there's nothing all that magical about Merlin here (-1 point - do I even have to explain why?). And, much like Lancelot, Merlin wasn't introduced to the Arthurian mythos until much later (0 points - the original version of Merlin was a composite of two semi-real people: legendary Welsh prophet and madman Myrddin Wyllt and legendary King of the Britons Ambrosius Aurelianus).

And now a few quick notes on various other characters, because they aren't developed/important enough to deserve full paragraphs of their own. The rest of the knights barely have any characterization at all. Bors has a lot of children (-1 point - he was celibate in the old stories); Tristan has a hawk and wields a scimitar; Dagonet sacrifices himself to save the others; Gawain and Galahad are, apart from hair color, indistinguishable from each other.

The Saxons are lead by the historical warlord Cerdic and his son Cynric (-1 point - 1 because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Cerdic as landing in Hampshire, and another because it also records it as happening in AD 495, but +1 for using real Saxon leaders). To the filmmakers' credit, at least they picked a great actor to play Cerdic: Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (you'd probably know him best as Will Turner's father from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies or Dr. Erik Selvig from Thor and The Avengers). Skarsgård does a good job of making Cerdic menacing, but not cartoonishly evil. It'd be easy to take lines like "Finally, a man worth killing" and make it sound stupid. Skarsgård doesn't cackle the line - he almost growls it. His Cerdic is a warrior in search of a challenge, not a monster out for blood. Though I'd still like to know how he ended up so far north - they're coming from northern Germany, not Scandinavia.

So, that's the characters. Final score: -7, bringing the combined score to -8. That's over 8 instances of historical inaccuracies, and I didn't even go that far into the details. "The True Story Behind the Legend." Right.