Set as the Roman Empire departs Britannia, Arthur (Owen) is a local commander, his knights a band of enlisted Sarmatian mercenaries, Guinevere (Knightley) a Woad princess, and Camelot is replaced by Hadrian's Wall. Meanwhile, the Saxons spoil the party by invading.
In a wordy pre-film caption, it is made clear we are about to witness King Arthur minus the frills. This is an epic based on the recorded fact that there was a bona fide Arthur, as in Lucius Artorius Castus, who may have been the germ from which local legends blossomed into fanciful myth. Shed your preconceptions for the sharp tang of truth: there's no love triangle, no pre-ordained destiny, no Holy Grail and no magic. A questionable policy when it comes to the eager froth of summer moviemaking - it's like taking the Merry Men out of Robin Hood.
So, the names may be familiar but the setting and storyline are as bleak as a soggy Glastonbury. Arthur and his boys, hungry for retirement, get bogged down in one final mission - its relevance hastily abandoned - and happen upon an imprisoned Guinevere (Knightley's comely tribal princess). With the pillaging Saxons bearing down on her tribe, she uses her wiles to entice Arthur into doing the decent thing by clobbering some incoming crusties.
Rather than lacking a story, the film seems to be struggling to keep 27 of them in the air at once. Half-Roman, half-proto Brit, Arthur is a mess of motives: is it honour, religion, patriotism, doubt, love, revenge or a dedication to free will that drives his struggle? Clive Owen, impressive to look at but limply unheroic, struggles with reams of exposition and a very silly helmet. We're supposed to believe his magnetic leadership has fuelled a localised PR frenzy.
Knightley, too, seems exhausted by the lead-weighted dialogue and thin romance. However, she perks up when dolled in war-paint and, with very little on, romps into battle to such vivid effect you wonder why she bothered to enlist the dour Arthur in the first place.
His seven-strong band is efficiently established, helpfully demarcated, despite infestations of facial fuzz, by weapon of choice, age, personality, fighting style and level of grumpiness. Ray Winstone bellows to much-needed comedic effect as the barrel-chested Bors, Dane Mads Mikkelsen spins non-regulation Kill Bill poses as Tristan, while the stand-out is Ioan Gruffudd's headstrong Lancelot. He has the only genuine charisma on show, and in one variation of the plot could be regarded as the protagonist, but the turmoil of the man is another empty promise.
What becomes swiftly obvious is that Fuqua is more tickled by paying homage to Seven Samurai than refitting Excalibur's plush medieval romance to a mud-caked Dark Age. Which is no bad thing in itself - if you're gonna pilfer, pilfer big - and if he'd concentrated solely on such a mission the movie could have harnessed some genuine dramatic thrust. No such luck. It's been scattered to the four winds of marketing, lavishing unwieldy screen time on Knightley's good looks at the expense of the leathery knights, and dashing hopes of flying giblets realism for an all-encompassing demographic.
Somewhere in the murk there's a decent movie just out of reach. Fuqua favours a rich, earthy look of airborne sods, pea-soupers and dizzying blizzards, peaking with a terrifically inventive clash on a frozen lake. Atmosphere spills from all directions, but to what purpose when the action is slashed to ribbons and the characters hobnailed by the script's indecision?
Nothing aligns, nothing builds, and before you know it we're hip-deep in the big showdown - a free-wheeling frenzy of choreographed combat that neglects to find much space for the cast. And, by band-of-brothers movie lore, not nearly enough of the good knights buy it.
Although paved with good intentions, it's a grim, at times interminable, journey hobbled by miscasting and a lack of conviction; the killjoy in King Arthur's court.