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A New Age hero leaps off the screen here -- complete with a tattooed queen. He arrives courtesy of outstanding British and European casting. Americans should enjoy a run for their money in interpreting this famous legend, which hardly belongs to the U.S.A. This film challenges Camelot (1967). It competes in the same genre as Robin and Marian (1976) -- another bold venture in humanizing mythology.

Get ready for controversy! If you insist that the Round Table suffers principally from adultery, this movie will set you on your ear.

Instead, King Arthur addresses the powder keg issues of the Middle Ages. Do we accept imperialism as legitimate government? Should members of the clergy command private armies? Must soldiers obey self-destructive orders? What role does woman assume when man fights for national independence? If all these questions sound familiar, maybe Arthur's rise to popularity signals the Second Coming of 452 A.D.

In this year, as the film informs us, the Romans withdrew before the Saxon onslaught. With one foot in the past and the other straining toward the future, Clive Owen as Arthur (Gosford Park, The Bourne Identity) struggles with a last soldierly assignment. Obliged to rescue two men from behind enemy lines, his wrath grows with each nip-and-tuck episode. A virtual Achilles, he searches carts and caverns until his perfect match emerges.

As Guinevere, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean) clings to her new lord, not Lancelot, played by Ioan Gruffudd (Black Hawk Down, Titanic). With this change in the plot, marriage no longer stands at the center of the Arthurian saga. Instead, politics engulf all the characters in outrage. As the Saxons draw ever nearer, the retreating Romans appear increasingly cowardly -- a new portrayal, too. Justice and courage triumph here as universal themes.

This plotline celebrates the fact that the United Kingdom suffered nation-building, one terrible step at a time. A devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea conflict swarms overland, led by Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Amistad) and Til Schweiger (Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Investigating Sex). These two head the canon of Oedipal figures competing for the right to die.

Foremost in the credits, Ice and Fire deserve equal billing. A lengthy battle sequence on a frozen river--as the freedom fighters calculate the breaking density -- ranks with scenes from The Hunt for Red October (1990). Underwater camera shots let the audience experience the risk-taking -- literally -- from two shivering sides. Demonstrating medieval ingenuity, flaming arrows overwhelm our eyes with fireball pyrotechnics.

Throughout this colorful quest for glorious liberty, the purest pleasure for the audience remains the hill-and-dale green of Arthur's historical Celtic landscape. Filming this story in Ireland must be reckoned one of the savviest choices of this epic production. If you can't spare the time or the fare either, simply purchase your own copy. Then, you can fly like Merlin to the one place on earth where verdure achieves such luxuriant fantasies. It's no wonder, really, that King Arthur lurks forever in this foliage!

Meg Curtis



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