Dir:Antoine Fuqua. US-Ireland/UK. 2004. 115mins.

Billedas 'The untold true story that inspired the legend,' producer JerryBruckheimer's big-budget King Arthur ditches the mysticism and most ofthe romance usually associated with Arthurian tales and attempts to replacethem with gritty historical realism - or at least with something that's asclose to gritty realism as a PG-13 summer movie gets. The result, as directedby Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) with Brits Clive Owen and KeiraKnightley starring, is a new take on the Arthur story that's refreshingly freeof Hollywood guff but in the end neither bracingly real nor particularlyinspiring.

Inthe US, the PG-13 rating will help compensate for the lack of American starpower when hit-hungry Buena Vista opens the film this week. But King Arthur will still struggle to pulla really big audience away from similarly rated competition (including, ofcourse, Spider-Man 2 in its second week on release).

Thestory's European roots and the multi-national cast - besides the stars thereare several other recognisable Brits, two Scandinavians, a German and an Aussie- should push the film to a better performance in the internationalmarketplace, where roll-out runs from mid-July into August. Cast, story andrating should also make King Arthur astrong performer on TV and video.

Ifpress notes are to be believed, there really was a Roman soldier who foughtbarbarian invaders in Britain and is now considered a possible basis for theArthur legend. For the film, Gladiator screenwriter David Franzonibrings that figure forward two hundred years to the early 5th century, when theRomans were preparing to leave Britain.

Owen'sArthur is a half-Roman, half-British commander who has dutifully served theEmpire in Britain but is now looking forward to going back to Rome. However,when he is sent with his men on a final mission to rescue a Roman noble fromthe wilds beyond Hadrian's Wall, Arthur, who follows the teachings of an earlyChristian heretic, finds himself sympathising with the native Britons.Eventually he joins forces with them against the brutal Saxons who plan to takethe Romans' place as rulers of the island.

Arthur'sknights, led by an earthy Lancelot (Gruffudd, from TV's Hornblower), area group of Sarmatians, a European tribe once forced by the Romans into militaryservice. More inclined to boozing than chivalry, the knights are lovable roguesfiercely loyal to their commander but also eager to leave the army and go home.

Knightley'sGuinevere is one of the local Picts rescued by Arthur from Roman persecution.Decked out as a war painted warrior princess, this Guinevere is as much afighter as a lover.

Othertraditional elements of the story get short shrift. TheArthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle is only hinted at; Merlin (Dillane)appears briefly as a Pict guerrilla leader; Excalibur gets a quick name checkand the stone from which it was pulled is glimpsed in flashback.

Inplace of the traditional elements the film often resorts to portentously talkyscenes with lofty speeches about loyalty and freedom. And it never manages tofind a satisfying personal angle to the story (as Franzoni and Russell Crowedid so successfully in Gladiator).

Visually,there's little real sense of place. Irish locations stand in for the north ofEngland settings but many of them have a leafy uniformity that doesn't fit withthe brutal action. Even the big Hadrian's Wall set fails to inspire much awe.

Thefilm's action sequences are a mixed lot (some were perhaps made less visceralby the cuts required to earn a PG-13 label). The initial clash between Arthurand his knights and the Picts has a promising vitality and the later skirmishbetween the knights and the Saxons on a frozen lake is an exciting highlight.The final battle with the Saxons is less effective, however, with itsstop-start pacing and extended build up before Arthur finally goes head to headwith his hairy, growling opposite number (played by Swedish veteran Skarsgard).

Thecasting of Owen (well known from his UK TV work but still looking for a USfeature breakthrough) as Arthur lends the film a credibility it might not havehad with an American star in the role. But whether Owen is really suited to thepart is another matter. His impassive style works well with morally ambiguouscharacters but here it makes it difficult to believe that Arthur could rouse anation and become its most abiding hero. Knightley - who also co-starred forBruckheimer and Disney in Pirates Of The Caribbean and has been pushedto the fore in the film's US ad campaign - is reasonably believable in a prettystandard, ass-kicking-girlfriend kind of role.

Prod cos: Touchstone Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films
US dist:
Buena Vista
Int'l dist:
Exec prod:
Mike Stenson, ChadOman, Ned Dowd
Jerry Bruckheimer
David Franzoni
Slawomir Idziak
Prod des:
Dan Weil
Conrad Buff, Jamie Pearson
Costume des:
Penny Rose
Hans Zimmer
Main cast:
Clive Own, KeiraKnightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard, Stephen Dillane, Ray Winstone,Hugh Dancy, Til Schweiger