The word "arse". That's what separates King Arthur from the current vogue for clanging swords and arcing arrows. In spite of the Jerry Bruckheimer connection, there's no sign of any Prince Of Thieves-style Yankification. This is a very British epic, with good, hearty, Anglo-Saxon words to match.
But there's definitely something missing - a sense of danger and a feeling of wonder. In telling the story of Arthur the man instead of Arthur the legend, Training Dayhelmer Antoine Fuqua has denied himself the pleasures that would have given the film a much-needed extra dimension. Maybe it could have used a bit of the Hollywood touch after all. After taking expert historical advice, Fuqua and Oscar-nommed Gladiator scribe David Franzoni traced the myth back to its roots: an outstanding soldier who, as the Roman Empire retreated, stepped in to fill the power vacuum. Given the quest for historical veracity, it's no wonder King Arthur often resembles a `For Schools' dramatisation: a clean, clipped history lesson with all the potential essay topics carefully flagged (Catholic piety, Christian zealotry, the Empire's waning influence). It's all a little soulless and, yes, a little bloodless, too.
The film is bookended by two major, down'n'dirty, close-combat battle sequences, but apart from the odd, briefly flashed ketchuppy stain, there isn't a drop of plasma to be seen. The stabs, slashes and even decapitations are tastefully depicted through strategic cutaways and faintly cartoonish sound effects. It's a throwback to old-school, Errol Flynn-type swordplay, where choreography and flourish took precedence over squelchy reality. Okay, so there's no need for spilling intestines or Peckinpah/Tarantino blood geysers. But, for a film so grounded in history, a little reality wouldn't have gone amiss.
Clive Owen cuts a reasonably dashing Arthur, but he's clearly been cast to convey the character's internal struggles rather than to kick arse, Russell Crowe-style. He starts off rather slow and fey but, in line with the reluctant-king story, grows into the role as the action progresses. The trouble is, he's upstaged from the off by Ray Winstone's bawdy Bors and out-acted throughout by Ioan Gruffud, quietly charismatic as a Blackadder-alike Lancelot.
Indeed, Arthur only really gets going when the knights uncover a nasty secret at the home of the Roman prince they're meant to be rescuing. Enter Guinevere (Keira Knightley), bringing some sprightly sexuality to Owen's beardy crew and, as a Woad warrior, some welcome Girl Power, too. Led by Stephen Dillane's grumpy Merlin, the Woads are viewed as forest-dwelling savages by the Romans and speak in a Celtic tongue not a million miles from Elvish.
Yes, King Arthur cheerfully take its cues from The Lord Of The Rings, the current epic benchmark. The three factions are strikingly familiar: good guys on a worthy mission; a feral, Orc-like enemy led by a merciless Stellan Skarsgård; and an ambiguous, peripheral folk who prefer a bow and arrow to all that vulgar sword-swinging. There's also a strong whiff of Helm's Deep in the heroic stand against the Saxons.
In an age of seamless-but-sterile CGI, it's refreshing to cast your eye over crowd scenes that are clearly populated with good, old-fashioned extras and to compensate for the strategic bloodlessness, the battles are sharply edited with lurching close-ups and precisely timed POV shots that give a strong sense of ugly, muddy brawling.
There's also one peerless set-piece, where the knights - - and Knightley - - stop on an iced-over lake and invite the stomping Saxons to join them. As the enemy approach gingerly on the skiddy crust, they're picked off by a blizzard of arrows while Arthur has the ice shattered with an axe. Will he send the Saxons or his band of brothers to an watery grave?
As part of the modern epic family, King Arthur doesn't have the ambitious breadth of Lord Of The Rings or the unflinching ferocity of Gladiator. But it's easily as enjoyable as Troy and better cast, too. It also has enough of a British flavour to keep high-mindedness at bay. For every portentous proclamation (""Burn me and cast my ashes to a strong east wind!""), there's a quip from Winstone or a smoulder from Knightley.
It's also notably free of the usual Bruckheimer excesses, though maybe he's just biding his time for King Arthur 2: The Legend Continues. If it's made, we confidently expect a more magical Merlin who - - if it's artistically valid - - can create giant explosions at will...
An epic-lite that'srather worthy and a little too squeamish. Thankfully the usual CGI smothering is ditched in favour of humour and humanity.