A behind-the-scenes look at ''King Arthur'' -- Jerry Bruckheimer's quest to capture the real story behind the legend proves that in the pursuit of a summer hit, there is no Holy Grail

Clive Owen, King Arthur
Credit: King Arthur: Jonathan Hession

According to the legend of Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood superproducer rarely visits the sets of his movies. He’s active before filming — during development — and afterward, during editing. But in between, he lets his hired hands work in peace. When he does visit, he’s something of a star-struck fan — snapping pictures, chatting up actors, gazing wide-eyed at the spectacle his imagination and money have wrought. So last summer, when director Antoine Fuqua heard his boss was en route to Ireland to visit the set of ”King Arthur,” he assumed it was going to be a typical Jerry Bruckheimer visit. It wasn’t. The producer had come to share some important news with his helmer. ”King Arthur” was no longer going to be the Walt Disney Co.’s Christmas 2004 tentpole. It would now be the studio’s summer 2004 tentpole.

Giving a director five fewer months to complete a movie is a swell way to turn his life into a living hell. For Fuqua, the consequences seemed even more dire. His entire vision for ”King Arthur” — a $90 million-plus deconstruction of the myth of Camelot, dense with history and starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, and a bunch of other respectable European actors with little box office pull — was to create a dark, moody, R-rated picture laden with brutality, perfect for an adult, wintery audience. A summer release, with a more box-office-friendly PG-13? To Fuqua (”Training Day”), that was a completely different film. ”I didn’t sleep for days, man,” he says. ”To focus after getting information like that…” He trails off.

As he recalls this fateful moment over breakfast at a Beverly Hills hotel in late June, Fuqua’s 22-month-old daughter, Asia, sits in his lap and shoves her hand in his face, as if to say, ”Stop talking, Daddy.” See, when Fuqua tried to leave the house this morning, two days after finally coming home from the U.K. for good, his daughter refused to let him go. So here she is, drawing with crayons, as her father explains how a single decision transformed his movie. He has spent months trying to understand what has happened to ”King Arthur.” Here, at the end, is his conclusion: ”They got nervous. They just got nervous.”

The lady of the lake. the search for the holy Grail. Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot. The Isle of Avalon. These are the more fanciful elements of Arthurian lore, etched in our cultural consciousness over centuries by writers, poets, filmmakers, and, uh, Robert Goulet. David Franzoni thought it was all a bunch of British bollocks. ”Guys in shiny tin cans, cranking around the countryside and carrying on quests — didn’t do anything for me,” says the writer and Oscar-winning producer of ”Gladiator.” ”I was trained as a scientist. I was a geology major. None of it made any sense.” In the early ’80s, Franzoni became interested in research tracing the historical roots of King Arthur — a provocative, even controversial field of study — but didn’t delve deeply into the subject until almost 20 years later. The screenwriter latched onto one theory in particular: that the mythic British monarch was actually…Roman. A duke descended from a soldier named Lucius Artorius Castus, stationed at Hadrian’s Wall late in the Roman Empire’s occupation of England. Like his ancestor, this fifth-century Arthur was the commander of an elite mounted unit with origins in Roman-annexed Sarmatia. And like the Knights of the Round Table, these Sarmatians had an egalitarian ethos. They also worshiped swords driven into stones. Hmmm…

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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