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King Arthur (film)

King Arthur
File:Movie poster king arthur.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Written by David Franzoni
Starring Clive Owen
Keira Knightley
Ioan Gruffudd
Stephen Dillane
Stellan Skarsgård
Ray Winstone
Hugh Dancy
Til Schweiger
Mads Mikkelsen
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography Slawomir Idziak
Edited by Conrad Buff
Jamie Pearson
Touchstone Pictures
Jerry Bruckheimer Films
World 2000 Entertainment
Green Hills Productions
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
Release dates
July 7, 2004 (2004-07-07)
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English / Scottish Gaelic
Budget $120 million
Box office $203,567,857

King Arthur is a 2004 action adventure film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Franzoni. It stars Clive Owen as the title character, Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, and Keira Knightley as Guinevere.

The film is unusual in reinterpreting Arthur as a Roman officer rather than a medieval knight. Despite these departures from the source material, the Welsh Mabinogion, the producers of the film attempted to market it as a more historically accurate version of the Arthurian legends, supposedly inspired by new archaeological findings. The film was shot in England, Ireland, and Wales.


Arthur (Clive Owen) is portrayed as a Roman cavalry officer, also known as Artorius Castus, the son of a Roman father and a Celtic mother, who commands a unit of Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry in Britain at the close of the Roman occupation in 467 A.D. He and his men guard Hadrian's Wall against the Woads, a group of native Britons who are rebels against Roman rule, led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephen Dillane).

As the film begins, Arthur and his remaining knights Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Bors (Ray Winstone), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) expect to be discharged from their service to the Empire after faithfully fulfilling a fifteen-year commitment.

However, on the night when they are to receive their freedom, Bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti) sends them on a final and possibly suicidal mission to rescue an important Roman family. Marius Honorius (Ken Stott) faces impending capture by the invading Saxons, led by their chief Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) and his son Cynric (Til Schweiger). According to Germanus, Marius' son Alecto is the Pope's favorite godson and may be "destined to be Pope one day".

At the remote estate, Arthur discovers that Marius has immured pagans: a Woad named Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and a small boy, Lucan. Arthur frees them and decides to take everyone, along with Marius' family, back to Hadrian's Wall.

One night, Guinevere takes Arthur to meet with Merlin, the leader of the Woads and her father. At first, Arthur thinks Guinevere has betrayed him, but Merlin has come in peace. It is revealed in a flashback that Arthur's mother had died in a Woad attack when he was a boy. Arthur's famous sword, Excalibur, had belonged to his father and marked his burial mound. Arthur had pulled it from the mound in an effort to rescue his mother from a burning building. Merlin suggests an alliance between the Woads and the Sarmatian knights against the invading Saxons.

Tristan returns from scouting the area and tells Arthur that a Saxon army is close behind them. The knights stay behind to hold up the Saxons and allow the refugees to escape. They soon encounter the Saxons at an ice-covered lake bordered on each side by steep cliffs. Greatly outnumbered, Arthur, Guinevere and the knights attempt to repel them with arrows. The battle is won when Dagonet runs to the middle of the ice and breaks it with an axe at the cost of his life. Many Saxons are also killed, and the rest must return the way they came.

Arthur and his men form an alliance with the Woads to fight the Saxons. In the climactic "Battle of Badon Hill" set just south of Hadrian's Wall, the Woads catapult flaming missiles at the Saxon army. When the hosts meet, Guinevere engages in combat with Cynric. Cerdic fights and kills Tristan before facing off with Arthur. Meanwhile, Cynric disarms Guinevere and is engaged by Lancelot. Cynric shoots Lancelot with a Saxon crossbow. Lancelot then throws his sword into Cynric and kills him. Lancelot dies with Guinevere at his side. Arthur kills Cerdic and the Saxons are defeated.

While he realizes that his ideal Rome exists only in his dreams, Arthur despairs over the deaths of his men. The film ends with the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, after which Merlin proclaims him to be their king. United by their defeat of the Saxons and the retreat of the Romans, Arthur promises to lead the Britons against future invaders. Three horses that had belonged to Tristan, Dagonet and Lancelot run free across the landscape as the closing narrative describes how fallen knights live on in tales passed from generation to generation.



The movie was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Antoine Fuqua; David Franzoni, the writer for Gladiator, wrote the screenplay. The historical consultant for the film was John Matthews, an author known for his books on esoteric Celtic spirituality, some of which he co-wrote with his wife Caitlin Matthews. The research consultant was Linda A. Malcor, co-author of From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reinterpretation of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, in which possible non-Celtic sources for the Arthurian legends are explored.

The film's main set, a replica of a section of Hadrian's Wall, was the largest film set ever built in Ireland, and was located in a field in County Kildare.[1] The replica was one kilometre long, which took a crew of 300 construction workers four and a half months to build.[2] The fort in the film was based on the Roman fort named Vindolanda, which was built around 80 AD just south of Hadrian's Wall in what is now called Chesterholm, in Northern England.

Relationship with Arthurian legend

Cinematic versus traditional portrayal

Guinevere's warrior persona is closer to the ancient Queen Medb (romanticised above) of the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge than the Guinevere of Arthurian legend

The film's storyline is not taken from the traditional sources, but is a work of creative fiction. The only notable exception to this is the inclusion of the Saxons as Arthur's adversaries and the Battle of Badon Hill. Most traditional elements of Arthurian legend are dropped, such as the Holy Grail and Tristan's lover Iseult. The film barely includes the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere; whilst Guinevere and Arthur are romantically involved, only a few sequences depict a possible relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere. The film does not feature Kay and Bedivere. Along with Gawain, they already appear as Arthur's companions in very early Welsh sources, like Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion.

The knights' characterisations in Arthurian legend are also dropped. For example, the film's portrayal of a boorish and lusty Bors, the father of many children, differs greatly from his namesake whose purity and celibacy allowed him to witness the Holy Grail according to legend. The cinematic portrayal of Bors is therefore much closer to the traditional depiction of Sir Kay than his legendary namesake. Lancelot and Galahad are portrayed as having similar ages, whereas according to traditional versions they are father and son respectively (the film's approach is also found in modern Arthurian fiction — such as Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles, in which they are brothers).

The cinematic portrayal of Guinevere as a Celtic warrior who joins Arthur's knights in battle is a drastic alteration from the demure "damsel in distress" of courtly romance.[3] Although there is historical and mythological precedent for "sword-swinging warrior queens", such as the British Boudica of the Iceni, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd of Wales, or the various Celtic war goddesses, the film's portrayal of Guinevere is actually closer to the Queen Medb of the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge.[3] However, no source, early or late, describes Guinevere as either a warrior or a rustic Celt; in fact, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, which contains one of the oldest accounts of the character, Guinevere has Roman blood while Arthur is an indigenous Celt.

Despite the film's alleged historical angle, Merlin was not originally part of the legends. It is generally agreed that he is based on two figures—Myrddin Wyllt (Myrddin the Wild), and Aurelius Ambrosius, a highly fictionalized version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. The former had nothing to do with Arthur and flourished after the Arthurian period. The composite Merlin was created by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Differences between the film and the Arthurian legend

In the film, Arthur's father is a Roman general from the Imperial Roman army and his mother is a Celtic woman. In the historical notes of the legend, Arthur's father is Uther Pendragon, a famous Roman-British commander and one of Britain's earlier kings, and his mother is Igraine, a beautiful young woman who was once the wife of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and one of Uther's loyal subjects.

Arthur's knights are described differently in the film and the legend. In the film, Lancelot, Tristan, Bors, and the other Knights of the Round Table are Sarmatian knights fighting for the glory of the Roman Empire. In historical notes, the Knights of the Round Table are Britons, knights of Romano-Celtic Britain fighting for the freedom of Britain against the Saxons.

Other references to Arthurian legend

Dagonet, a self-sacrificing warrior in the film, has Arthur's court jester as his namesake. The character appears in Le Morte d'Arthur and Idylls of the King. Also in the film, Lancelot fights using two swords. This may be a reference to the ill-fated Sir Balin, the "Knight with Two Swords", but this epithet refers to his cursed sword rather than his fighting style.

Tristan has a pet hawk. In Welsh legends, a figure named Gwalchmai is commonly considered identical with Gawain (both are nephews of Arthur); a popular though unlikely proposed meaning of his name is "hawk of May".[4]

The role of traitor, typically ascribed to Mordred, is given a smaller part in the form of a young British scout, played by Alan Devine, who betrays his people to the Saxons. The character is unnamed, but called "British Scout" in the credits. Tristan kills the traitor with an arrow from the other side of Hadrian's Wall during the climactic battle.

Historical notes

Despite the film's supposedly historically grounded approach, much artistic licence is taken with the plot regarding historical figures, peoples, events, religion, wardrobe, and weaponry. The film places the story of Arthur not in its better-known medieval setting, but in the (still plausible) earlier times of antiquity, the early dawn of the Middle Ages – as did the earliest versions of the Arthur story. It would appear that the Arthur depicted in the film is based most closely upon Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-Briton who fought against the Saxons in the 5th century, and was probably the leader of the Romano-British at the Battle of Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon). Nevertheless, Arthur's full name in the film is Artorius Castus, referring to Lucius Artorius Castus, a historical Roman active in Britain in the 2nd or 3rd century.[5] It is specified Arthur was given the ancestral name of a legendary leader.

The film is loosely based on the "Sarmatian hypothesis", formulated by C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas in 1978, which holds that the Arthurian legend has a historical nucleus in the Sarmatian heavy cavalry troops stationed in Britain.[6] In the 2nd century, 5,500 Iazyges were transported there as auxiliaries during the Marcomannic Wars.[7] However, the hypothesis is not accepted by scholars as it lacks a solid base.[8]

Roman political issues

In the film, the Roman legions withdraw from Britain in AD 467; in reality, it was completed in the year 410, nearly 60 years before.[citation needed] Similarly, the opening text dictates that "King Arthur and his Knights rose from a real hero who lived [...] in a period often called the Dark Ages". The film, however, is set in 467. The Dark Ages actually occurred in Sub-Roman Britain after the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by Odoacer in 476, nine years after the date for the setting of the film. The current Roman Emperor in the film's time would have been Anthemius.

The Roman family which Arthur rescues lives north of Hadrian's Wall. This mission would be unlikely because the Wall represented the extent of Roman rule in Britain, except for brief periods of occupation during the 2nd century AD during which time they got as far north as Falkirk (Central Scotland) where pieces of the Antonine Wall are still visible; particularly in Callandar Park.[citation needed] Romanized client states such as that of the Votadini did exist north of the wall even into the Sub-Roman era.

Britons and Saxons

The Picts are called "Woads".[5][9] This word is a reference to one plant the Picts may have used to make blue paint;[5] however, the use of woad by the Picts is contested by scholars,[7] and the historical Picts were never known by this name.[10] In an interview Antoine Fuqua stated that they used "Wodes" (sic) instead of "Picts" because they thought the latter sounded "a little weird".[11] Nevertheless, John Matthews said in an online article that the name substitution was "meant to echo similar belittling titles given to enemies".[5]

The 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the arrival of the Saxon leaders Cerdic and Cynric in Britain (at Hampshire) in 495.[12] According to the Chronicle Cynric succeeded Cerdic as king of Wessex in 534 (Cerdic was the founder of the kingdom).[13] Thus the two could not have died at the battle of Mount Badon. The battle is thought to have been fought sometime between 490 to 516.[14]

The Saxons are shown attacking Hadrian's Wall from the north. By 467 the Saxons were already occupying parts of Britain far south of the wall.[15] Later in the film, Cerdic stops a warrior from raping a woman because it would lead to less-than-pure Saxon blood. This scene references the long-held belief that the Anglo-Saxons eradicated the Romano-Britons from the eastern part of the island. This contention, largely based on linguistic evidence, has been challenged by modern genetic analysis, which suggests extensive mixing between Anglo-Saxon and Briton populations. Some historians (and fiction writers[16]) have even suggested that Cerdic himself, who some argue bore a Germanized form of a Celtic name such as Ceretic or Caradoc, was at least part Briton.

Military technology

Historically, Sarmatians were armoured in the manner of cataphracts (full-length coats of scale armor); the film's Sarmatians are armoured with a mishmash of pseudo-Roman, Turkish, Mongol, and Hunnic designs. The Saxons historically used bows (to a limited extent) and spears instead of crossbows during the period. Though there is evidence for the use of some form of crossbows by Romans (calling them manuballistae) and, some claim, the Picts,[5] the weapon was still not widely used in England until much later. Similarly, the Woads use a trebuchet-like weapon to hurl flaming missiles at the Saxons, though the trebuchet was not re-introduced to Britain until the siege of Dover in 1216.[citation needed] The Romans, however, reportedly used an early form of the trebuchet in their sieges.[citation needed] Roman soldiers displayed in the movie are depicted as legionaries with 2nd century AD armour. By AD 400, legionaries were no longer in use and comitatenses were the new replacements. When Arthur and his cavalry first encounter the Woads, their movements in the forest are stymied by entanglements of lengths of thorn-studded cord, attached to arrows and shot by archers hiding high up in the trees. The film scene actually shows several such arrows being launched, and even a brief view of a coil of cord (placed on the ground) unreeling as the arrow flies. The cords would certainly be vegetable-based, such as nettle, a common source of fibres for such purposes; thorns from native trees such as hawthorn, itself held as sacred would be easily incorporated into a twisted cord.

Religious inaccuracies

The real Pelagius was a monk, not a bishop. He engaged Saint Augustine in a debate on the theological issue of the relationship between grace and free will. However, the film confuses the issue of political freedoms and social choices (which were not issues in political debate in the 5th/6th centuries AD) with the principle of free will in relationship to God. When Arthur informs the people that "You ...were free from your first breath!", Roger Ebert notes that he is both "anticipating by a millennium or so the notion that all men are born free, and overlooking the detail that his knights have been pressed into involuntary servitude."[17] The Pelagian heresy denied original sin with its doctrine of the bondage of the will and the need for healing by God's grace.[18] Nor was Pelagius executed for heresy in Rome as the film indicates. He is believed to have died decades before 467 AD, likely of old age.[18]

Archbishop Germanus' second (and last) mission to Britain was twenty years before (447 AD) and he died the following year.[19] Germanus is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church and, although portrayed in the film as a cruel and pompous aristocrat, historically he "extended his hospitality to all sorts of persons, washed the feet of the poor and served them with his own hands, while he himself fasted."[20]

The movie implies that the Pope (who in 467 was Pope Hilarius) was in control of the Western Roman Empire, although it was actually ruled by the Emperor and de facto controlled by the Magistri Militum and other regional governors. The Pope would not gain the political power to grant lands and other comparable privileges until centuries after the setting of the film. The film seems to be implying a literal interpretation of the Donation of Constantine, a document purportedly written in the fourth century, but in actuality an eighth-century forgery.


Elements of the film's promotion have likewise been criticized as historically unsound. Its tagline "The True Story Behind the Legend" has been criticized as false.[7][21] A trailer for the film claims that historians now agree that Arthur was a real person because of alleged "recent" archaeological findings, yet there is no consensus amongst historians on Arthur's historicity[7][22] and no recent archaeological find proves Arthur's existence; the so-called "Arthur stone", discovered in 1998 in securely dated 6th century contexts amongst the ruins at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, created a stir but has subsequently been of little use as evidence.[23][24]


The film holds a 32% 'Rotten' rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of February 7, 2015, with 58 positive of 184 reviews.[25] David Edelstein of Slate called the film "profoundly stupid and inept" and added, "it's an endless source of giggles once you realize that its historical revisionism has nothing to do with archeological discoveries and everything to do with the fact that no one at Disney would green-light an old-fashioned talky love triangle with a hero who dies and an adulterous heroine who ends up in a nunnery."[26] A. O. Scott of The New York Times further remarked that the film was "a blunt, glowering B picture, shot in murky fog and battlefield smoke, full of silly-sounding pomposity and swollen music (courtesy of the prolifically bombastic Hans Zimmer). The combat scenes, though boisterous and brutal, are no more coherent than the story, which requires almost as much exposition as the last Star Wars movie. Luckily there is an element of broad, brawny camp that prevents King Arthur from being a complete drag."[27]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, however, had a more positive response to the film and awarded it three-out-of-four stars, writing, "That the movie works is because of the considerable production qualities and the charisma of the actors, who bring more interest to the characters than they deserve. There is a kind of direct, unadorned conviction to the acting of Clive Owen and the others; raised on Shakespeare, trained for swordfights, with an idea of Arthurian legend in their heads since childhood, they don't seem out of time and place like the cast of Troy. They get on with it."[28]

Robin Rowland criticized critics who disliked the film for its Dark Age setting.[3] Rowland pointed out that several Arthurian novels are set in the Dark Ages, like Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset and Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and the Last Enchantment). However, these works have little in common with the film's story and Sarmatian angle. In response to criticism of the setting consultant on the film Linda A. Malcor said: "I think these film-makers did a better job than most could have done when it comes to giving us something besides knights in tin foil and damsels in chiffon. ...[they] deserve a lot of praise for the effort that they made."[21] Fellow Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe's opinion was negative.[21]

Director's cut

An unrated director's cut of the film has been released; it has extra footage of battle scenes as well as more scenes between Lancelot and Guinevere, whose traditional love triangle with Arthur is only hinted at here. The battle scenes are also bloodier and more graphic.

Several scenes are also omitted from the director's cut, including one where the knights sit around a camp fire asking about their intended Sarmatian life, in which Bors reveals that his children do not even have names, most simply have numbers. In addition, a sex scene between Guinevere and Arthur is shifted to be chronologically before he is informed of the incoming Saxons towards Hadrian's Wall. This seemingly minor change arguably helps the story flow more smoothly. In the original film he is seen in full battle armour, contemplating a broken image of Pelagius on his floor, and then is disturbed by a call to come outside. When he comes outside, he is hastily putting on a shirt, and his hair is disheveled. In the Director's Cut, after an intimate moment between Arthur and Guinevere explaining Arthur's morals, they carry on into their sexual encounter, and are thus disturbed so that Arthur can be briefed on the Saxons. During the sexual encounter, he is wearing the same outfit he wears during the briefing. The scene where he is examining Pelagius's image is removed.

The DVD release also features the film's original ending as a deleted scene, which deals with the aftermath of Badon. The more upbeat ending in the theatrical release, including the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, was shot after test audiences responded poorly to the original.


Despite these many drastic diversions from the source material (the Welsh Mabinogion), the producers of the film attempted to market it as a more historically accurate version of the Arthurian legends. Other liberties were taken with the actors' appearances: Keira Knightley's breasts were enlarged for the US theatrical movie poster. This practice angered Knightley, who says that it "comes from market research that clearly shows that other women refuse to look at famous actresses and stars with small breasts." Later in 2006, Knightley claimed she is "not allowed to be on a magazine cover in the US without at least a C cup because it 'turns people off'."[29]

Video game

See also


  1. ^ Ryan, Dermot (2008-07-01). "Hollywood heavyweights fly in for a reel taste of Shakespeare". Evening Herald. Retrieved 2010-09-21. 
  2. ^ 'Making of' featurette on DVD release of the film
  3. ^ a b c Rowland, Robin (2004). "Warrior queens and blind critics." CBC News
  4. ^ Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 367–371.
  5. ^ a b c d e Riederer, Chris. King Arthur - Key historical facts.. Retrieved September 9, 2007.
  6. ^ C.Scott Littleton - A.C. Thomas: "The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends." Journal of American Folklore 91, 1978, pp. 512-527
  7. ^ a b c d Schultz, Cathy (2004). "KING ARTHUR: Romans and Saxons and Picts, oh my!," History in the Movies
  8. ^ Richard Wadge, "A British or Sarmatian Tradition," Folklore, Vol. 98, No. 2 (1987), pp. 204-215.
  9. ^ Cathy Schultz, "KING ARTHUR: Romans and Saxons and Picts, oh my!," History in the Movies
  10. ^ Lambert, Kym (2004) The Problem of the Woad. Retrieved 1-27-07.
  11. ^ Gilchrist, Todd "Interview: Antoine Fuqua, Keira Knightley and Clive Owen revisit the round table with King Arthur". "It was a little weird in the dialogue when we did a reading, to hear people say 'picts.' It came off kind of odd, for some reason, when they spoke it. So we went with Wodes." Retrieved 12-18-2006.
  12. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 458 - A.D. 500
  13. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 501 - A.D. 560
  14. ^ O'Sullivan, Thomas D., The De Excidio of Gildas, 1978. These dates are not universally accepted, as some scholars argue for a date in the mid fifth century. Cf. Lapidge, Michael, "Gildas's Education and the Latin Culture of Sub-Roman Britain" in Gildas: New Approaches, 1984.
  15. ^ Gildas, De Excido Britanniae
  16. ^ Cf. Alfred Duggan, Conscience of the King; Stephen Lawhead, Pendragon Cycle series; David Drake, The Dragon Lord
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger. "King Arthur", July 7, 2004,
  18. ^ a b "Pelagius and Pelagianism", Catholic Encyclopedia
  19. ^ "St. Germain", Catholic Encyclopedia
  20. ^ Thurston, Herbert, S.J. Butler's Lives of the Saints, c1956, p251-252
  21. ^ a b c Youngs, Ian (2004). "King Arthur film history defended." BBC News Online.
  22. ^ N. J. Higham, King Arthur, Myth-Making and History (London: Routledge, 2002), pp.11-37 has a good summary of the debate on Arthur's existence.
  23. ^ "Early Medieval Tintagel: An Interview with Archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady", The Heroic Age, 1999
  24. ^ Green, Thomas. (1998 [2008]) Notes to "The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur."
  25. ^ "King Arthur Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2015-02-07. 
  26. ^ Edelstein, David (July 7, 2004). "Arthur: On the Rocks – The once and future king, in his dreariest picture yet.". Slate. Retrieved May 26, 2015. 
  27. ^ Scott, A. O. (July 7, 2004). "The Once and Future Fury: Knights Go for the Jugular". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2015. 
  28. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 7, 2004). "King Arthur review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved May 26, 2015. 
  29. ^ "Enlarging Keira Knightley’s Breasts". Retrieved 2012-05-29. 

External links