Antoine Fuqua is best known for his 2001 film "Training Day," featuring Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning performance. "King Arthur" (2004) followed the Bruce Willis film, "Tears of the Sun" (2003). "King Arthur" is in scale and budget Fuqua's largest film. The King Arthur legend of early England and the knights of the Round Table has been a frequently used basis for films. Cornell Wilde's "The Sword of Lancelot" (1963) tells the story as Action Adventure. John Boorman's "Excalibur" (1981) tells the story as fable, and Joshua Logan's "Camelot" (1967) tells the story as a musi- 2fL. cal. Fuqua's presentation is pure action adventure.
Fuqua, working with a David Franzoni script, casts Arthur as part Roman, part Briton. His knights are Eastern cavalry Sarmatians from the plains adjacent to the Black Sea who are indebted to fight for Rome for 15 years. All have been sent to the Empire's most distant outpost, Britain. An added complication is that Rome is about to quit Britain. As we join the story, the knights are a day from discharging their duty to Rome, but there is one last assignment for Arthur and his knights: rescue an important Roman family north of Hadrian's Wall. They need to cross the forest of the Woats, pagan Britons who have never accepted Roman rule. Also complicating the story is the fact that the cruel Saxons have invaded Britain from the north. They pose a real threat as they destroy all and everyone in their path.
It is 450 A.D., and Rome is controlled by the Pope and the Church. The Woats and Arthur's knights are pagan. At the Roman villa, they find that the priests are torturing and killing the Woats. Arthur intervenes and saves the two Woats who are still alive, a young boy and a woman, Guinevere. This represents Arthur's first distancing from the authority of Rome, and for Arthur Guinevere will become the voice of Britain for the Britons. On the journey back to Hadrian's Wall, Merlin, the leader of the Woats, invites Arthur to lead all Britons against the common enemy, the Saxons. Lancelot, Arthur's friend and principal knight, urges self-interest-ride away, leave this place—but Arthur cannot just ride away as other Romans can. He leads the Britons to defeat the Saxons. A number of his knights, including Lancelot, die in the battle. Arthur becomes King, takes Guinevere as his Queen, and claims Britain as the last bastion of freedom, at which point the film ends.
The text as presented sidesteps the Pagan/Christian thread of the story which became so compelling an element in the narrative in Boorman's "Excalibur." Instead, the main thread is the plot: The Romans are leaving. The Saxons are coming. The Woats will fight for their land. What will Arthur do? What will his knights, who are not Britons, do? Although Arthur speaks about equality and freedom, he is presented for the most part as a gifted warrior, and his knights, although physically different from one another, are also attractive and gifted warriors. Some are more physically 30 imposing than others but essentially they are the good guys, no mistake about it.
Guinevere, although she will be the love interest, is more conscience than lover, and she too is a gifted warrior. If I had to characterize this group of protagonists I would call them noble in their idealism and in their comradeship, but these characterizations are stereotypical rather than compelling, suitable to a plot-driven action adventure film. Fuqua used the same approach to characterize the military extraction team in "Tears of the Sun."
Just as the good are very good, the bad characters are very bad, suitable for the antagonists in an action adventure film. Stellan Skarsgard plays the leader of the Saxons, and he takes the meaning of cruelty to another level. I must admit that it's great fun to watch a good actor work with a stereotype.
The director's priority in "King Arthur" is the plot. The battle scenes begin early with the introduction of Arthur and his knights while fighting Woats who have attacked a Roman convoy. Later, the two set pieces involve combat with the Saxons, with the first being a battle on an iced-over lake. That battle pits eight bowmen against a thousand Saxons. A few days later the odds are no better. Thousands of Saxons face Arthur, the knights, and the Woats at Badon Hill inside Hadrian's Wall. Each battle proves that tactics and bravery and ferocious determination win the day.
Between battles is the time for characterization, but character is presented in shorthand. One knight has a falcon; the most daunting knight, physically, has a relationship with the Woat boy freed at the Roman villa. The second most physically daunting knight has eleven bastard children. Another is masterful with the bow, and yet another is an absolute cynic. The point here is that, for Fuqua, character is not as important as plot.
Although there are numerous plot twists in King Arthur, the story lacks a great deal of surprise. Fuqua's film is arresting visually, which we will turn to shortly, but the machinations of plot do not shock or thrill us, which brings us to the director's point of view, or lack of a point of view.
Few characters in history have conjured up more enthusiasm than King Arthur. Was he an idealist? Was he a man ahead of his time? Was Arthur a fool? Antoine Fuqua and Clive Owen have tried to present Arthur as idealistic and noble, yet what he seems to be above all else is a super leader. Fuqua's Arthur is militaristic, a hero. 31 Fuqua's Arthur is the idealized hero rather than the idealist as hero. In this sense, he is a romanticized cartoon character, made all the more so for the cruelty of his antagonist. Fuqua's point of view as the director is to see the Arthur legend as an opportunity for visual excitement, an area that displays his own particular skill as a director. So, we should examine where Fuqua chose to place his camera. Those positions best serve to bring to life his singular view of the text: It is a struggle of good guys versus bad guys, and the heroes will overcome the villains, just as beauty always overcomes ugliness, at least in the plot-driven adventure genre.
With regard to the landscape, Hadrian's Wall defined the northernmost boundary of lands held by Rome. That land at various times in the film is heavily forested or has ice-covered mountains and lakes. The land is evocative as opposed to being geographically correct. That land is visually presented as heavily shadowed and menacing. The land is not so much a real place as an active environment that takes sides. Realism is far away; atmosphere is everything. Fuqua preferred the use of very low or very high angles and extreme long shots to present the land.
In terms of how he presents people, they too appear in extreme long shot, a dot on the horizon, or in extreme close-up. Fuqua used the land and the people (Arthur, Merlin, the knights, the Romans, and the Saxons) to evoke a particular atmosphere and feeling. It is as if each person is an icon, a superhero, or a supervillain. The intense close-ups establish the person. The extreme long-shots establish the opposition, which is so great that surviving makes each character a superhero. The rapid pace at which characters and their adversaries are juxtaposed only heightens the sense that a hero is being created as we watch. Fuqua almost fetishizes the struggle between these opposites.
Because so much of the plot is battle, the moving camera, whether a steadicam or camera mounted on a helicopter or crane, is important. Movement gives a majestic aesthetic to battle and scale to the opposing sides. Editing on action and specific violence to individuals adds to the fetishizing of violence, a key factor to being victorious. Consequently, the dynamic of battle becomes central to Fuqua as action director. Although his battle scenes are not as emotionally loaded as Kubrick's nor as aesthetic as Ridley Scott's 32 battle sequences in "Gladiator," Fuqua nevertheless manages to make the battles compelling. The settings become critical—the battle on the ice is beautiful to watch as are all the fires and smoke during the battle on Badon Hill. The scenes are devoid of logic, but the look of the battles is every bit as evocative as the dance sequences in Adrian Lyne's "Flashdance." I am suggesting that, for Fuqua, the look of the battle was as important as who is fighting or who is winning. The battles are dynamic and exciting, but do not probe too deeply for their logic because that is not what Fuqua is interested in.
"King Arthur," like the work of Adrian Lyne or Tony Scott, is easy on the eyes and has an MTV pace, but it lacks subtext and a layered character arc. Instead, the film is enjoyable as a linear entertainment populated by beautiful people. Its director, Antoine Fuqua, exemplifies the competent director.
Was this article helpful?