King Arthur (film)


Theatrical release poster
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Written by David Franzoni
Starring Clive Owen
Keira Knightley
Ioan Gruffudd
Mads Mikkelsen
Joel Edgerton
Ray Winstone
Stephen Dillane
Stellan Skarsgård
Til Schweiger
Hugh Dancy
Ken Stott
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography Slawomir Idziak
Editing by Conrad Buff
Jamie Pearson
Studio World 2000 Entertainment
Green Hills Productions
Distributed by Touchstone Pictures
Release date(s) July 7, 2004 (2004-07-07)
Running time Theatrical Cut:
126 min.
Director’s Cut:
141 min.
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English / Scottish Gaelic
Budget $90,000,000 US (est.)
Gross revenue $203,567,857 ($51,882,244 US/$151,685,613 International)

King Arthur is a 2004 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 producers of the film claim to present a historically accurate version of the Arthurian legends, supposedly inspired by new archaeological findings. The accuracy of these claims is subject to debate, but the film is unusual (though not unique) in representing Arthur as a Roman officer rather than a medieval knight. It was shot in England, Ireland, and Wales.



Arthur, also known as Artorius Castus (Clive Owen), is portrayed as a Roman cavalry officer, 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 native Britons who are rebels against Roman Rule, led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephen Dillane). He is not the first Arthur — for generations, his ancestors have manned the Wall, leading Sarmatian auxiliaries.

As the film starts, Arthur and his remaining knights Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Bors (Ray Winstone), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) are expecting discharge from the service of the Empire after faithfully serving for 15 years (Lancelot’s voiceover is heard at the beginning and end of the film, and his entry into service as a youth in 452 AD is depicted at the beginning). They fight off an attack by the Woads on the Roman escort bringing their discharges.

However, on the night they ought to receive their freedom, they are dispatched on a final and possibly suicidal mission by Bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti) in the freezing winter to rescue the important Roman family of Marius Honorius (Ken Stott) from impending capture by the invading Saxons, led by their chief Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) and his son Cynric (Til Schweiger). Marius’ son, Alecto, is the Pope‘s favorite godson and may be “destined to be Pope one day”, according to the Bishop. The knights are charged with this rescue because Rome is withdrawing from Britain, now considered an indefensible outpost.

At the remote estate, Arthur explains his mission to Marius, who becomes defensive and refuses to leave his grand home. Marius is revealed to have oppressed his serfs on the pretense of speaking for God. While being shown an elder who has been whipped and left tied up out in the elements for asking Marius for more food for the serfs, Arthur advises that Marius does not speak for God. He frees the elder and tells them all that they were “free from their first breath”. Arthur soon discovers Marius has also immured pagans: a Woad, 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.

Along the journey, Guinevere tells Arthur of the “fairy tales” she’d heard of him, and Arthur is revealed to be half Celt (on his mother’s side). Arthur resets the fingers in Guinevere’s hand. 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 flashback that Arthur’s mother had died in a Woad attack when he was a boy. Merlin says that he did not wish for Arthur’s mother to die; she was of their blood, as is Arthur. Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur, is also shown to be his father’s, which marked his father’s burial mound. Arthur pulled it from his father’s burial mound in an effort to rescue his mother from a burning building. Merlin suggests an alliance between the Woads and the Sarmatian knights.

Along the route one dawn, Marius forces a standoff with his own soldiers, taking the boy Lucan hostage. Even his wife is angered at this. Unlike Marius, she is a kindly person who actually helps heal Guinevere’s wounds. Guinevere uses a bow to shoot Marius dead; his guards stand down and aid the knights in getting all the people to the wall.

Struck by Rome leaving its subjects to the mercy of the Saxons, Arthur is further disillusioned when he learns that Bishop Pelagius, whose teachings about the equality of all men inspired the brotherhood of his Round Table, has been executed as a heretic by order of Bishop Germanus himself.

Tristan returns from scouting the area and tells Arthur that a whole Saxon army is on the move. The group soon encounter the Saxons at an ice-covered lake. The knights stay behind to hold up the Saxons and allow the refugees to escape. 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 — however, many Saxons are killed.

In due course, Arthur and his remaining men forsake Roman citizenship and form an alliance with the Woads to fight the Saxons. In the climactic battle, the “Battle of Badon Hill” set just south of the now abandoned Hadrian’s Wall, the Woads catapult flaming missiles at the Saxon army, and when the hosts meet, Guinevere engages in combat with Cynric. Cerdic fights and kills Tristan before facing off with Arthur. Meanwhile, Cynric disarms Guinevere before Lancelot intervenes and duels Cynric alone. While another Saxon captures Lancelot’s attention for a moment, Cynric shoots Lancelot with a Saxon crossbow. Lancelot then throws his sword into Cynric, killing him. Lancelot dies with Guinevere at his side. Arthur kills Cerdic, and the Saxons are defeated.

Though Arthur is victorious, the events of the film have led to the loss of his faith in Rome as a bastion of justice. After realizing that the Rome of his ideals exists only in his dreams, Arthur also despairs over the deaths of his men. The film ends with Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage. Merlin then proclaims him to be their king. King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and his remaining knights promise to lead the Britons, united with the defeat of the Saxons and retreat of the Romans, against future invaders. The last scene shows Lancelot, Dagonet and Tristan reincarnated as horses and roaming the lands freely, while Lancelot speaks of the fact that their names will live forever in legend.

Main cast


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 where 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.[citation needed] 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.

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 mostly original, save for the elements of Saxons as Arthur’s adversaries and the Battle of Badon Hill. Many 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 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. 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.[2] Although there is historical and mythological precedent for “sword-swinging warrior queens”, such as the British Boudica of the Iceni 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.[2] 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 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.

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”.[3]

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 regarding historical figures, peoples, events, religion and weaponry is taken with the plot. As did the earliest versions of the Arthur story, 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. 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.[4] 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.[5] In the 2nd century, 5,500 Iazyges were transported there as auxiliaries during the Marcomannic Wars.[6] However the hypothesis is not accepted in the scholarship as it lacks a solid base.[7]

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”.[4][8] This word is a reference to one plant the Picts may have used to make blue paint;[4] however, the use of woad by the Picts is contested by scholars,[6] and the historical Picts were never known by this name.[9] In an interview Antoine Fuqua stated that they used “Wodes” (sic) instead of “Picts” because they thought the latter sounded “a little weird”.[10] Nevertheless, John Matthews said in an online article that the name substitution was “meant to echo similar belittling titles given to enemies”.[4]

The 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the arrival of the Saxon leaders Cerdic and Cynric in Britain (at Hampshire) in 495.[11] According to the Chronicle Cynric succeeded Cerdic as king of Wessex in 534 (Cerdic was the founder of the kingdom).[12] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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[13]) have even suggested that Cerdic himself, who bore a Celtic name, was at least part Briton.

Military technology

Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) with a 5th century sword held together by a 20th century hex head screw

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,[4] 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 legionnaires 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 barbed wire, presumably placed there by the Woads. The extrusion technology necessary to produce such wire did not exist in the Middle Ages. Barbed wire was developed on the American frontier in the 1860s and was patented by Joseph Glidden in 1873.

Religious inaccuracies

The real Pelagius opposed Saint Augustine on the theological issue of the relationship between grace and free will. This is indicated by Arthur’s asking him a question about free will, and the storyline of Arthur’s break with the Catholic Church. 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. The Pelagian heresy denied original sin with its doctrine of the bondage of the will.[14] Nor was Pelagius executed for heresy in Rome as the film indicates. Pelagius is believed to have died decades before 467 AD, likely of old age and was not burned at the stake by the ecclesiastical authorities.[14]

Archbishop Germanus’ second (and last) mission to Britain was twenty years before (447 AD) and he died the following year.[15] 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.”[16]

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.


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.[6][17] 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[6][18] 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.[19][20]


The film holds a 31% ‘Rotten’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of January 18, 2009, with 57 positive of 181 reviews.[21]

Robin Rowland criticized critics who disliked the film for its Dark Age setting.[22] 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.

Consultant 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.”[17] Fellow Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe‘s opinion was negative.[17]

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.

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, 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.


After the premier of the film, Keira Knightley’s breasts were enlarged in the US poster (See the picture at the top of the page).[23] After the poster was released, she said that she is sick of seeing her face over a pair of computer enhanced breasts that are not hers in every poster for every film that she stars in; and that “this decision comes from a 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.”‘[24]

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. ^ a b Rowland, Robin (2004). “Warrior queens and blind critics.” CBC News
  3. ^ Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 367–371.
  4. ^ a b c d e Riederer, Chris. King Arthur – Key historical facts.. Retrieved September 9, 2007.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ a b c d Schultz, Cathy (2004). “KING ARTHUR: Romans and Saxons and Picts, oh my!,” History in the Movies
  7. ^ Richard Wadge, “A British or Sarmatian Tradition,” Folklore, Vol. 98, No. 2 (1987), pp. 204-215.
  8. ^ Cathy Schultz, “KING ARTHUR: Romans and Saxons and Picts, oh my!,” History in the Movies
  9. ^ ní Dhoireann, Kym (2004) The Problem of the Woad. Retrieved 1-27-07.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 458 – A.D. 500
  12. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 501 – A.D. 560
  13. ^ Cf. Alfred Duggan, Conscience of the King; Stephen Lawhead, Pendragon Cycle series; David Drake, The Dragon Lord
  14. ^ a b “Pelagius and Pelagianism”, Catholic Encyclopedia
  15. ^ “St. Germain”, Catholic Encyclopedia
  16. ^ Thurston, Herbert, S.J. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, c1956, p251-252
  17. ^ a b c Youngs, Ian (2004). “King Arthur film history defended.” BBC News Online.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ “Early Medieval Tintagel: An Interview with Archaeologists Rachel Harry and Kevin Brady”, The Heroic Age, 1999
  20. ^ Green, Thomas. (1998 [2008]) Notes to “The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur.”
  21. ^ “King Arthur Movie Reviews – Rotten Tomatoes”. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  22. ^ Rowland, Robin (2004). “Warrior queens and blind critics.” CBC News
  23. ^ “Enlarging Keira Knightley’s Breasts”. Retrieved 2010-08-05. 
  24. ^ “Keira Knightley Had Her Boobs Enlarged – The under-sized actress complains about breast ‘discrimination'”. Retrieved 2010-08-05. 

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