Think you know all the stories ever told about King Arthur? Think again. Here the knights’ armor is not so shiny, and there’s no Camelot in sight. No damsels in distress, either. In fact, the story’s major damsel, Guinevere, is a major source of distress for the bad guys.
Writer David Franzoni, who also penned Gladiator, revisits the Roman legions in this version of the story, set in Britain during the time when the Pax Romana was retreating from the far reaches of the empire like a fast low tide. Arthur, otherwise known by his Roman name Artorius Castus, is the leader of a Roman cavalry unit. His “knights,” all impressed into service from their homeland on the steppes of Russia, have fulfilled their 15-year obligation to Rome and await their discharge papers, which will make them free men and full Roman citizens.
But Bishop Germanius has other ideas. He forces Arthur and his men into one last mission: to go north of Hadrian’s Wall, the high-tide mark of the Roman Empire, to rescue a Roman family whose son is a favorite of the Pope. Along the way they’ll have to fight past the native Celts, and that’s only if the invading Saxons don’t get them first. Either way, they face some unpleasant choices.
Even though this movie remakes the time and setting of the Arthur legend, it does not remake the characters (except for Guinevere, who’s a tomboy spoiling for a fight). Arthur is a brave and inspiring leader. His knights are valiant, selfless warriors. Upon rescuing the Roman family, Arthur cannot bring himself to leave the local serfs behind to be slaughtered by the Saxons, so he moves the entire lot south toward safety.
Even though the knights eventually receive their discharge papers, they turn back to fight one last battle with Arthur. Arthur frees a slave from chains (he’d been uppity, according to the master) and liberates people from a dungeon. He is a strong believer in the equality of all people—hence the Round Table. (No one can sit at the head of such a table, much to the consternation of the local bishop.) He prays that if anyone has to die in an upcoming fight, it be he so that his comrades will be spared. One of the knights sacrifices his life to allow the others to escape.
Arthur is a devout and outspoken believer in God, although his life doesn't always show the fruit of his stated commitment. (He has sex with Guinevere, and at the end of the film he gets married in a pagan ceremony officiated by Merlin, which makes you wonder what Arthur thinks of the apostle Paul’s counsel in 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?") He is also a follower of Pelagius. (See postscript for more on Pelagius.)
Arthur does pray often and thanks God on more than one occasion. “Everything I’ve done I’ve done for the Church,” Arthur says at one point, and another times asserts, “Deeds mean nothing if not done for a higher purpose. Without faith we are nothing.” He says of his men, “They retain the religion of their forefathers.” And just because he supports the Church doesn't mean he's content to let the Church slide into disarray. He challenges a crooked bishop and berates mistaken priests who believe the only way to convert pagans is to lock them in a dungeon. Upon seeing the dungeon, Lancelot angrily asks, “Is this the work of your God?” But when Lancelot boasts that he kneels to no god, Arthur says, “No man fears kneeling before a God he trusts.”
During one fight a monk hides under a wagon and prays in fear. After the battle, one of Arthur’s men mocks the monk and his prayers. A bishop accuses Arthur of defying the Pope. The head of a Roman family, while claiming to be a representative of God, is cruel to the local peasants. Merlin is called a “dark magician,” although there’s no evidence of such “magic” on the screen. A tribe of renowned horsemen believes that fallen knights return as great horses, and at the end of the film we see three magnificent horses galloping free—coincidentally, the number of Arthur’s knights who die.
The infamous love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is missing from this version of the story, and while Lancelot casts a few winsome glances at Guinevere, it’s clear that she’s interested in Arthur. She proves it by entering the king’s bedchamber one night, where the pair begin groping and kissing. Arthur runs his hand pretty far up her outer thigh before the camera cuts away, but enough is seen to convince viewers the pair goes further, and they're left with a vivid image of Guinevere's sexual pleasure.
A Saxon invader attempts to rape a woman. (He's stopped after he pushes her to the ground and jumps on top of her.) A woman is seen bathing. There is some coarse joking about a man’s privates. When facing a horde of Saxons, a knight jokes to Guinevere, “There’s a large number of lonely men over there.” Her retort: “Don’t worry, I won’t let them rape you.”
One knight, Bors, has fathered so many children that he gives them numbers instead of names. Still, he is not married to their mother. [Spoiler Warning] When Arthur and Guinevere marry at the end, Bors sulks to one of the kids, “Now I’ll have to marry your mother.”
Hey, it’s a movie about knights. That means lots of swordplay and flying arrows, although nothing gory is seen. One side hurls huge fireballs at the other, and some men are set afire. (Historical side note: The Saxons’ crossbows and the fireball-hurling trebuchets in reality would not be invented for several centuries.) A group of warriors breaks through a frozen lake, and we see them trapped beneath the ice, drowning.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The knights toast with goblets of wine. A scene in a tavern features drinking. One man says, “I’m going to drink until I can’t p--- straight.”
Part Braveheart (complete with blue-painted warriors), part The Seven Samurai with a dash of Gladiator thrown in, this movie features many positive lessons on loyalty, courage and self-sacrifice. A sexual situation, battlefield violence and a bit of coarse joking go some distance to spoil them, though, and some teens might get bored with the ponderous storytelling. King Arthur would work far better had it included fewer scenes of a brooding king plodding through the forest.
A postscript: It’s interesting that the filmmakers chose to set up the conflict between Arthur and the crooked bishop as one of theology—a Pelagian versus the established church instead of simply a Christian versus a corrupt leader. Probably 99 percent of viewers will have no idea who Pelagius was and why it’s necessary to the story. Still, it would make an additional interesting point to any post-film discussion.
Pelagius was a monk who lived in the 5th century. Influenced by Roman Stoic philosophy, with its emphasis on human virtue (compare this to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator), Pelagius denied Original Sin and said Adam’s fall was merely the setting of a bad example. For Pelagius, death was not a result of Adam’s sin but simply the natural order of things.
Accordingly, he denied that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for our sin and that we are saved by God’s grace. Pelagius taught that Jesus, by his life and death, merely countered Adam’s bad example and that if we work hard enough at copying Jesus’ model, we too can earn salvation. That’s why the Arthur in this movie spends so much time talking about and doing honorable things. The Church declared Pelagianism heresy in AD 418.