King Arthur: An Underrated Cult Classic With One of The Most Stacked Ensemble Casts Ever Assembled

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One of my favourite historical action flicks continues to surprise me every time I revisit it. Whenever I go back, I notice that one of the main characters has went on to do some really cool projects. Director Antoine Fuqua’s cast for the 2004 film King Arthur is astounding.

Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, Stellan Skarsgård, Til Schweiger and Stephen Dillane. Boom. This cast has Hannibal Lecter, Stannis Baratheon, The Punisher, Mr. Fantastic and one of the marines that killed Osama Bin Laden – this movie is as badass as it gets.

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The 2004 Jerry Bruckheimer produced period piece was likely one of those quickfire decisions to capitalize on the success of the previous year’s Oscar magnet Gladiator. By the time King Arthur came out, I don’t think anyone gave a crap. The cast was solid but nobody was super famous at that point. Could you imagine wrangling this same cast for a historical action flick today though? Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Southpaw, Olympus Has Fallen) changed up the mythology of the “King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table” legend by making it feel more gritty and realistic. Merlin for example is not a wizard, but instead a crazy rebel leader who paints his face blue and leads a band of forest assassins. You get the idea. Fuqua went for realism and I think he succeeded here.

I saw the film in theaters so imagine my reaction when I eventually picked up the unrated director’s cut on DVD. That home release is the definitive edition of this movie and it is loaded with blood, gore, altered scenes and much more value that streamlines the experience for a superior cut. The opening battle scene is amazing and the ending fight is shocking as major characters and fabled names will die before the credits roll. If you grew up reading the tales of Arthur and his Knights – be prepared for some of those historical figures to bite the dust in epic fashion.

Clive Owen as Arthur

(Sin City, Children of Men, Shoot Em Up, The Knick)

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Clive Owen and Keira Knightley were the two biggest names on the poster when King Arthur hit theaters, but out of those two, I enjoyed Owen’s filmography far more in the wake of this film’s release. Owen did a solid job portraying the title character as a man who constantly battles with his Catholic belief system while his men, who are all Pagan warriors, are put through the ringer non-stop.

One of the best scenes in the film is when Arthur and his Knights stumble upon a Catholic torture chamber that is used to imprison Pagan sinners. Even though Arthur himself is a member of the church and a devout believer, he sees a priest committing these horrific atrocities in the name of the lord. Owen being the blossoming badass he is today, has his men brick up the torture chamber entrance — with the priest inside. Take that you crazy dick.

Keira Knightley as Guinevere

(Pride & Prejudice, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Atonement, Anna Karenina, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit)

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Keira Knightley had a serious issue with the marketing of this film because someone thought it would be a good idea to digitally enhance her breast size significantly for the movie’s official poster. Yeah that’s kind of a douchebag move there PR team….  Her take on Guinevere is certainly one of a kind when stacked up to the original tales because she plays one of Merlin’s warriors who is rescued by Arthur from the religious torture shack of horrors.

She doesn’t say much and plays the role as somewhat of a savage but she does a great job nonetheless because I don’t have to hear her annoying signature accent too much (cough cough, Domino). I’ve never been a huge fan of the actress’ work but she’s since been nominated for several awards and she kicks a lot of ass in King Arthur. There was a strange love triangle that didn’t seem to go anywhere between Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot but it did add some depth to the film on that type of dramatic level.

Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot

(Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer, W., Sanctum)

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The man you probably know as Mr. Fantastic played the famous knight Lancelot. You may not recognize him at first (or much of the cast for that matter) due to the increase in facial hair, but that’s the dude who starred in those awful Marvel movies. Ioan Gruffudd is in many ways the leading man in this film. Hell — he even narrates it.

If you’re like me and you actually thought he did a decent job as Mr. Fantastic in spite of those movies overall, I think you’ll like him as Lancelot. He uses two swords and within the first 20 minutes of the movie he does a scissor attack on an enemy and slices the guy’s head right off. It’s disgusting and it’s super awesome. Appreciate his work here — even though the poster has Owen’s name on it – Gruffudd is the leading man for much of the runtime.

Mads Mikkelsen as Tristan

(Pusher II, Casino Royale, Clash of The Titans, The Hunt, Hannibal)

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Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite performers. The Danish actor was relatively unknown prior to his role as the strange knight Tristan in King Arthur but has since turned into a massive star. The guy now stars in the title role of the great television series Hannibal. I like to think he does a better job of portraying Hannibal Lecter than even Anthony Hopkins. Yeah — I went there. He’s done some brilliant things since King Arthur but it was likely his role as the nut-bashing villain in Casino Royale that really got the talented actor discovered.

Tristan’s gimmick in this film is his pet falcon, which rides on the dude’s shoulder and scouts the area before he heads into battle. I’m not sure Tristan really knows what the hell the bird is telling him, but it doesn’t get much cooler than Mads Mikkelsen rocking warrior braids with a beard, killing dudes with a big ass sword and having a deadly bird of prey for a pet.

Hugh Dancy as Galahad

(Ella Enchanted, Elizabeth, The Big C, Hannibal)

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Remember Hannibal? Hugh Dancy, who plays Galahad here, is Mads Mikkelsen’s co-star on that very series playing the famous novel character Will Graham. Before he was going toe to toe with a cannibalistic serial killer, Dancy was a knight of the round table. It’s strange that both of these dudes are now on one of the most critically acclaimed TV series in recent years. I actually just noticed not too long ago that Dancy was even in King Arthur. Seeing his inclusion was the final spark that ignited the idea for this very editorial.

What’s great about this movie is that every single knight of the round table is unique in their own way and you truly get attached to them before we begin to watch a few of them die on the battlefield. Fun fact, Dancy is also married to Claire Danes (aka that crazy chick on Homeland with all the Emmys).

Joel Edgerton as Gawain

(Animal Kingdom Warrior, The Thing, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Exodus)

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Joel Edgerton has been on a roll these past couple years. If he wasn’t being involved in every single fan-cast for a major super hero flick, he was getting some great airtime in some big deal flicks. Before he was kicking MMA ass in Warrior, or hunting Osama Bin Laden in the global thriller Zero Dark Thirty — he had a small role in the Star Wars prequels too. Scratch that, actually. Forget I mentioned it…

He was Gawain in King Arthur and he was rocking luscious long and blonde battle locks. The Aussie is still on a role and can be seen in some huge productions, including his EXTREME American-accented performance in the outlandish Great Gatsby or the biblical epic Exodus.

Ray Winstone as Bors the Younger

(The Departed, Beowulf, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, Hugo, Noah)

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One of King Arthur’s seasoned acting vets, Ray Winstone, is probably the biggest scene stealer in the film. Playing Bors, Winstone screams in battle while he guts his foes using these wrist blade weapons that look like brass knuckles with a curved blade that follows the forearms for slicing action. Essentially the old bugger’s kills look wicked on-screen. Bors has some of the best quiet scenes out of the bunch of knights when we see his family and ‘several’ children early on. Even though he does a great job at being the comedic relief, his range is powerful and emotionally moving. Check out the pre-battle singing scene earlier in the movie. It’s a haunting and beautiful moment.

Winstone experienced a huge surge in work after this movie, including an amazing supporting performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and even starred in that bizarre animated movie Beowulf. Winstone continues to put out some of his best work yet — only improving with age.

Ray Stevenson as Dagonet

(Rome, Punisher: War Zone, Kill The Irishman, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Thor: The Dark World)

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Ray Stevenson was the quiet but brutish knight Dagonet before his incredible star turn on HBO’s Rome. The actor is known for his more action-oriented work lately but he’s such a well rounded performer it’s frightening. (watch Kill The Irishman for his best film work to date). In King Arthur we see Stevenson undergo one of the more interesting and emotional subplots when we realize this battle hardened warrior has a soft spot for children.

During the rescue of the religious prisoners early in the film, Dagonet frees a young child who was being held hostage and goes to extreme lengths later on to protect him. It’s the simple things like this which make the movie so much more interesting and layered. His lines are limited in King Arthur but he pulls off a memorable performance in a star studded cast. Plus he’s been the best Punisher so far…

Stephen Dillane as Merlin

(John Adams, Game of Thrones, Zero Dark Thirty)

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British actor Stephen Dillane will be remembered for his performance on HBO’s Game of Thrones many, many years after he’s toast. His role as Stannis Baratheon is iconic and therefore much of his other work will likely be pushed to the back of the pile. He plays the cultish rebel leader Merlin in King Arthur and does a terrific job bringing to life a historical figure in a way that hasn’t been done before.

For most of this movie’s runtime we’re not sure if Merlin is a good guy, a lunatic, a villain – Dillane spends the entire film wearing nutty blue warpaint and rocking the hobo beard. I didn’t even realize that Dillane was in this movie until a few months ago during one of my revisits. The brilliant thing about King Arthur is I’m always getting something new out of it with repeat viewings.

Stellan Skarsgård as Cerdic

(Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Mamma Mia!, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Avengers, Nymphomaniac, Thor: The Dark World)

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Stellan Skarsgard is a magnificent actor and whenever he plays a villain — he plays one bad mother every time. The Vikings are a frightening force to be reckoned with in King Arthur and you get a really solid idea of what they’re capable of when Skarsgard’s Cerdic doles out some after-battle justice during a rape attempt on one of his prisoners of war.

Skarsgard has a gigantic beard, long hair and carries a HUGE axe as his weapon of choice. I don’t know if the dude is really that tall in real life or if they used camera tricks, but Cerdic is a towering foe. Skarsgard plays him with this raspy, quiet and eerily calm voice as a strange contrast to his lumbering presence, but I find that this character trait works. He’s a weird dude and some may think his performance here was a little off-the wall, but I disagree.

Til Schweiger as Cynric

(Inglourious Basterds, This Means War, The Three Musketeers, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman)

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German actor Til Schweiger plays the son our film’s main villain Cerdic. Before he was the terrifying and electric Hugo Stiglitz in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Schweiger was a bald, cool goateed and battle ready Viking warrior in King Arthur. The character’s moments with his father, played by Skarsgard, are some of the more intriguing quiet scenes in the film. I’m never sure if they want to kill each other or give one another a Viking high-five for being so evil.

Without spoiling ‘too’ much, I will say that Schweiger’s villainous Cynric will be responsible for murdering a famous character during the film. It’s a shocking death and really adds to director Antoine Fuqua’s dangerous re-telling of a famous story that is dealt a much needed dose of reality.

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Editor-In-Chief of Fox Force Five News. I had a zombie cameo on the opening page of The Walking Dead issue #91, where I was killed with a machete... It was awesome.
  • Nick Bell

    This is my favorite film of all time. So many great lines and character moments.Ive always had a fascination with the time period where rome withdrew from britain,and this is one of the few movies that portrays it. My only complaint is that Merlins only in it for like 10 minutes