Knights of the round fable

'Arthur' opts for a revisionist take on the mythical king.

If you hoped current concerns over civil liberties and human rights had made Hollywood a tad more thoughtful about issues of liberty and patriotism, guess again. "Arthur," the new epic from action-movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, culminates with a scene I can only describe as a historical howler.

Having won their hard-fought campaign against the Saxons, the Roman Empire, and the Roman Catholic church, Arthur's followers celebrate their status as free individuals. Yet the peak of their celebration comes when they holler "Hail Arthur!" and drop to their knees at his feet! Is this really what freedom means - the liberty to prostrate yourself before a leader whose own freedoms include virtually unlimited power over you?

All kinds of ideologies have preached exactly that position over the centuries, but one might have hoped the filmmakers would have noticed its built-in contradictions.

Then again, they had other things on their minds - namely, how they could cram as much destruction and death as possible into their story and still emerge with a PG-13 rating. By some miracle only Merlin could explain, they managed the trick, probably by keeping the worst gore off-screen and playing down the sexual shenanigans of Guinevere and Lancelot.

None of which means this is a subtle film. All told, it's about as understated as a slashing stroke inflicted by one of Arthur's sword-slinging minions.

What makes this "King Arthur" different from various other motion-picture treatments is its time period - the fifth century, well before the Arthurian myth is traditionally set - and its rejection of the legend's more mystical aspects. There's little in the way of magic or wizardry, for instance; and there's nothing about adventures with the Holy Grail and the Green Knight.

There is a Round Table, and Excalibur flashes frequently across the screen, although here it's not a divine gift but just another splendid sword. Still, by basing the plot on Arthur's supposedly real prototype rather than the monarch of myth and fable, David Franzoni's screenplay can revel all it wants in historical speculation and artistic license. The only things missing are artistry and history.

Rated PG-13; contains strong and frequent violence.

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