Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. Last week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

It took mere seconds for the 2004 King Arthur to piss me right the hell off. The film, heavily marketed as "the true story of the historical King Arthur", with opening titles reaffirming that intention in somewhat less urgent terms. Then comes the opening voiceover. Which isn't the thing that pissed me off, though "Let me tell you the story... the story of King Arthur"-style opening narration is hackneyed and dumb as shit. No, it's the identity of the narrator: we learn, fairly quickly, that the story is being recounted to us by none other than the brave warrior Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), a character interpolated into the Arthur legendarium by an 11th Century French poet who was basically writing fan fiction.

Hurray for historical accuracy.

Anyway, "historical accuracy", "true story"... these are hardly worth carping about. It's enough that King Arthur really does want to be in some way true to the setting where the historical Arthur, if he or somebody like him did exist, would have lived. That being the 5th Century in Roman Britain, where a cavalry unit made up of indentured Samartians, including our boy Lancelot (this means, in essence, that the Welsh-as-fuck Gruffudd is playing an Iranian, and God bless 'em, the hair and makeup people really did think about going full brownface, you can just tell), operates under the command of one Artorius Castus (Clive Owen), descended from the great, historically-attested Lucius Artorius Castus. But everybody calls him Arthur.

It's 467 AD, and the Roman Empire has figured out that keeping control of a little rural backwash like the island of Britain simply isn't worth the resources, so they time has come to abandon the native Britons and "Woads" (a name never given to any people in history, but it's the word that the screenwriter pict) to the soon-to-be-invading Saxon hordes. Arthur and his Samartians, on the exact same day that they expected to be freed from their 15-year term of service, have been assigned to trek north of Hadrian's Wall and retrieve a Roman nobleman and his family, owing to the special interest of the Holy Father back in Rome; seems that the man's son is the Pope's favorite godson, and likely to be chosen himself as Pope someday.

I try not to be one of those internet assholes who gets hung up on factual errors in movies, but if you're going to hang everything on the historical accuracy of your movie about a symbolic, mythological king, it becomes really important to be, y'know, historically accurate. Hey, I really do appreciate that King Arthur was set in 467, just a scant 57 years after Rome left Britain, instead of the usual "sometime around the 9th Century, probably, but they're wearing 12th century armor and living in 14th Century castles". You can almost ignore that calendar mismatch, given that the date has basically been plugged in arbitrarily. Suggesting that the 5th Century papacy had the same power and political influence of the Renaissance popes from fully 1000 years later, that's rather a wee bit harder to ignore. Suggesting that a 5th Century Roman cavalry commander would be committed to Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom, which he would espouse in lines of dialogue that feel like outtakes from the Braveheart script, that is where we enter the realm of straight-up horseshit.

Setting aside all of that grousing, let's stick with the Braveheart thing, because King Arthur is in every possible lazy way a post-Braveheart ancient world action picture. Though I'm sure the film that director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter David Franzoni were specifically trying to copy was Gladiator. Either way, every last bit of the thing feels predigested and uninspired. 2004 was a great year for it; just two months earlier, we'd been blessed by a similar "historically plausible version of a famous legend, but it's really just a reskinned Gladiator" picture in Troy; ironically, the year's big ancient world epic that went go-for-broke crazy was also the only one that was derived from verifiable historical facts, Oliver Stone's Alexander.

Of the three films, which will forever live all tangled together in my mind, King Arthur is easily the least pleasurable, lacking Alexander's camp, or Troy's homoeroticism. It is a very Fuqua version of an ancient costume drama action film, sapped of any joy or humor in favor of one glowering beat after another, and a wide range of slate blue color filters zapping the life out of the Irish locations. I didn't even know it was possible to make Ireland look ugly on film, but King Arthur finds a way, and it even does this despite being shot by Sławomir Idziak, a cinematographer whose filmography includes some of the most goddamned beautiful movies you could ever dream to see. The action is busy and confusing, though how much of this is a matter of the cut I watched, I cannot say; we know for a certainty that Disney, via its Touchstone Pictures label, got cold feed on releasing the film in the heavily violent version Fuqua preferred, and used a combination of indiscriminate cutting and digitally erasing blood to sand it all down. The 16-minutes longer director's cut has since been made available, but it was the 126-minute theatrical release I watched for this review. It's entirely possible, even likely, that the action is improved in its longer, intended form. The generally squirrely editing in routine conversations, tripping over basic continuity between shots, and making everybody feel generally sped up and snappish, is almost certainly not improved.

It's such a chore to simply watch the movie that the rest doesn't matter, though as a basic story of a Roman unit navigating the chaos of Britain during the Saxon invasions, it's not terrible. It would be better to have not called it King Arthur - that's actually true regardless, since Arthur is never a king, and barely even the sub-kingly dux bellorum of his earliest literary appearances, at any point in the feature. But stories about life in Britain during the first millennium A.D. are hardly commonplace, though more so in the wake of King Arthur, with 2007's The Last Legion (itself an Arthur-adjacent story), 2009's Valhalla Rising, 2010's Centurion, and 2011's The Eagle all jumping to mind as films that clearly came along because of King Arthur's model, which the ones I've seen all happily copying its unpleasant aesthetic and approach to plotting. At the time, though, King Arthur had at least the appeal of novelty.

It also has the appeal of... not completely shitty characters? Owen's Arthur is very nearly even good, owing mostly to the actor's rugged meanness. It's at least a solid cast, if a weird one: besides Gruffudd, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, and Ray Stevenson all play characters at least ostensibly meant to be Samartians (in a fun revision to the ancient world epic film cliché, the non-Roman characters all have British accents, while the Romans all speak with Italian accents). Keira Knightley, still in the uncertain, "can we make this girl a movie star?" phase of her career (she was all of 18 years old during filming), is a weirdly effective choice of casting as the Woad archer Guinevere, though she and Owen have very little chemistry (she and Gruffudd aren't even asked to have chemistry). I won't make the claim that any of the characters are specifically well-written, and I'd say that Winstone's loutish Bors specifically isn't, but they're not terrible company on our trek through the metallic blue mists of ancient Britain, and at least none of the performances are actively distracting.

Though maybe being a bit distracted would be good. King Arthur is a dreadfully tedious movie, not so very long as all that, but largely absent of any real content: it's all walk here, shake a sword, get blood all over it. The stakes are muddy, involving invading Saxons, led by Stellan Skarsgård, giving a singularly miscalculated decision to make the Saxon King Cerdic a bored psychopath who'd transparently rather have stayed behind on the European mainland and spent this whole time getting drunk and sleeping. Splitting the conflict into three parts - Roman Britons vs. Woads vs. Saxons - is only a little bit historically illiterate (the Saxons were on the side of the Britons before they were enemies), but it's bad for the drama, and the whole thing devolves into an epic length fetch quest centered on a surly Italian.

It's just not worth a damn, ultimately. The production values are too high overall to say that it has no value as a historical adventure, but it has very, very little, and everything it has is a matter of place and mood, not of psychology and story. The track record for film adaptations of the Arthur mythos is pretty shaky, but I'd still be inclined to call King Arthur the worst of them all.