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.