Keira Knightley, King Arthur
Credit: King Arthur: John Hession

For this version of the famous legend, we go back, way back — before Richard Gere romanced Julia Ormond, before Richard Harris sang about Camelot, and before that cartoon character pulled a sword from a stone. Here, courtesy of Jerry Bruckheimer, we return to northern England in the fifth century, where things like magic, mysticism, and musicals don’t exist. ”It’s gritty,” says director Antoine Fuqua (”Training Day”). ”We definitely went towards the ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Gladiator’ tone — a more realistic tone.”

And how. While Arthurian dramas tend to be set in a fantasy-filled Middle Ages, this one — indeed written by ”Gladiator”’s David Franzoni — seeks a more historical angle, introducing the Knights of the Round Table (including ”Beyond Borders”’ Clive Owen as Arthur and ”Horatio Hornblower”’s Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot) as they near their release from 15 years of service to Rome. To their chagrin, they’re sent on a rescue mission right when the Saxons (led by ”Tomb Raider 2”’s Tilman Schweiger and ”Exorcist: The Beginning”’s Stellan Skarsgard) are invading. Along the way, they meet a sorcery-free rebel leader Merlin (”The Hours”’ Stephen Dillane) and a pugnacious Guinevere (”Pirates of the Caribbean”’s Keira Knightley), whom they recruit as a lady in arms. (Though some Arthurian elements remain: As Owen notes, ”There is shining armor.”)

”Antoine shot it in a way that nothing was still at any given time,” says Gruffudd. And that sensibility called for strenuous preparation by the cast of European all-stars. ”We had two weeks of boot camp,” adds Gruffudd. ”We learned how to ride horses, we choreographed the fights, we had personal trainers, we did archery. It was quite intense.”

So was life on the four-month rural Ireland shoot. The Irish army lent a hand when weather snafus tripped up the $90 million production’s transportation routes, and thousands of extras participated in elaborate battle scenes. ”Every day the pressure really settled in on you,” says Fuqua. Honestly, though, ”the biggest problem I had was…the damn horses.” He laughs. ”Man, I can deal with gangsters. But horses — if they don’t like you they just trample you!”

THE GOOD NEWS If it’s anything like ”Pirates” (2003’s Disney-Bruckheimer action combo), many millions will be made.

THE BAD NEWS That’s asking a ton.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 126 minutes
  • Guy Ritchie