In the Dark Ages Arthur (Clive Owen) is the Roman commander of a band of Sarmatian warriors who after losing a key battle to the Romans were forced to join the Empire's Special Forces unit and sent to Britain to defend Roman holdings from the encroaching Saxons and the uprising Britons. Some 15 years later the Romans are pulling out but Arthur and his knights are sent on one final mission for the Empire before returning to Rome--rescue a Roman nobleman and his family from the other side of Hadrian's Wall before they get massacred by the Saxons. As with any final mission things don't necessarily go as planned. With the Saxons on their heels Arthur decides to not just rescue the family but hundreds of slaves at the same time--including Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and her mysterious shaman Merlin (Stephen Dillane) who convince Arthur to join the Britons in their fight against the Saxons instead of going home. Arthur balks until he realizes the Roman Empire has crumbled and he has nothing left to go home to. He leads his knights into the Battle of Badon Hill a clash that proved pivotal to the country's future and started Arthur on his path to become king of Britain.
Knights weren't exactly cuddly lovable guys; in fact the Sarmatian warriors were fearless killing machines--a concept the cast of King Arthur clearly grasps. Owen as Arthur is a brave charismatic leader who never lets his knights down. Owen also adds a smidgen of sensuality to the character a quality that draws others to him including his six knights and Guinevere wonderfully portrayed by Knightley. But with the exception of a brief love scene between the two co-stars the film steers clear of romance and Guinevere's attraction to Arthur seems more about the myth than the man. The young Knightley however stands her ground with the testosterone-laden cast and proves she can act fight and look absolutely spectacular in nothing but harnesses and armbands. Judging by the studio promotion you would think Guinevere is the film's main character but she is only introduced some 40 minutes into the film. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud) is slightly less impenetrable than Arthur and Gruffudd crafts this quality in him by showing a little bit of fear every now and then. The actor gives Lancelot a vulnerability that helps to make the character a bit more human.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and co-writer David Franzoni (Gladiator) call this film the "real" story behind the King Arthur mythology and trim away every ounce of the fantasy you associate with the legend in favor of gritty realism. The story as Franzoni tells it is based on an actual half-British Roman commander named Artorius who fought the Saxons in the 5th century. But setting up the people events and the entire history behind King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table takes time--about 40 precious minutes and that doesn't even include the opening scrawl. Not only is it boring it's confusing. King Arthur however picks up steam when it gets to The Final Mission. At this point Knightley's character Guinevere is finally introduced and Fuqua gets to indulge the audience with an epic battle complete with captivating military strategies and intense fight sequences. Fuqua's sets are also impressive especially the replica of Hadrian's Wall complete with massive gates. But the film's noble set designs cannot make up for the lack of character development that plagues this Arthurian tale. As with Gladiator Franzoni is so preoccupied making the characters in King Arthur ferocious that he forgets we need to care about them too.
From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.