The producers of the film claim to present a historically accurate version of the Arthurian legends, supposedly inspired by new archaeological findings. The accuracy of these claims is subject to debate, but the film is unusual in representing Arthur as a Roman officer rather than a medieval knight. It was shot in England, Ireland, and Wales.
Arthur, also known as Artorius Castus (Clive Owen), is portrayed as a Roman cavalry officer, the son of a Roman father and a Celtic mother, who commands a unit of Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry in Britain at the close of the Roman occupation in 467 A.D. He and his men guard Hadrian's Wall against the 'Woads', a group of native Britons who are rebels against Roman Rule, led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephen Dillane). He is not the first Arthur — for generations, his ancestors have manned the Wall, leading Sarmatian auxiliaries.
As the film starts, Arthur and his remaining knights Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Bors (Ray Winstone), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) are expecting discharge from the service of the Empire after faithfully serving for 15 years (Lancelot's voiceover is heard at the beginning and end of the film, and his entry into service as a youth in 452 AD is depicted at the beginning). They fight off an attack by the Woads on the Roman escort bringing their discharges.
However, on the night they ought to receive their freedom, they are dispatched on a final and possibly suicidal mission by Bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti) in the freezing winter to rescue the important Roman family of Marius Honorius (Ken Stott) from impending capture by the invading Saxons, led by their chief Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) and his son Cynric (Til Schweiger). Marius' son, Alecto, is the Pope's favorite godson and may be "destined to be Pope one day", according to the Bishop. The knights are charged with this rescue because Rome is withdrawing from Britain, now considered an indefensible outpost.
At the remote estate, Arthur explains his mission to Marius, who becomes very defensive and refuses to leave his grand home. Marius is revealed to have oppressed his serfs on the pretense of speaking for God. While being shown an elder who has been whipped and left tied up out in the elements for asking Marius for more food for the serfs, Arthur advises that Marius does not speak for God. He frees the elder and tells them all that they were "free from their first breath". Arthur soon discovers Marius has also immured pagans: a Woad, Guinevere (Keira Knightley), and a small boy, Lucan. Arthur frees them and decides to take everyone, along with Marius' family, back to Hadrian's Wall.
Along the journey, Guinevere tells Arthur of the "fairy tales" she'd heard of him, and Arthur is revealed to be half Celt (on his mother's side). Arthur resets the fingers in Guinevere's hand. One night, Guinevere takes Arthur to meet with Merlin, the leader of the Woads and her father. At first, Arthur thinks Guinevere has betrayed him, but Merlin has come in peace. It is revealed in flashback that Arthur's mother had died in a Woad attack when he was a boy. Merlin says that he did not wish for Arthur's mother to die; she was of their blood, as is Arthur. Arthur's famous sword, Excalibur, is also shown to be his father's, which marked his father's burial mound. Arthur pulled it from his father's burial mound in an effort to rescue his mother from a burning building. Merlin suggests an alliance between the Woads and the Sarmatian knights against the invading Saxons.
Along the route one dawn, Marius forces a standoff with his own soldiers, taking the boy Lucan hostage. Even his wife is angered at this. Unlike Marius, she is a kindly person who actually helps heal Guinevere's wounds. Guinevere uses a bow to shoot Marius dead; his guards stand down and aid the knights in getting all the people to the wall.
Struck by Rome leaving its subjects to the mercy of the Saxons, Arthur is further disillusioned when he learns that Bishop Pelagius, whose teachings about the equality of all men inspired the brotherhood of his Round Table, has been executed as a heretic by order of Bishop Germanus himself.
Tristan returns from scouting the area and tells Arthur that a whole Saxon army is on the move. The group soon encounter the Saxons at an ice-covered lake. The knights stay behind to hold up the Saxons and allow the refugees to escape. Greatly outnumbered, Arthur, Guinevere and the knights attempt to repel them with arrows; the battle is won when Dagonet runs to the middle of the ice and breaks it with an axe, at the cost of his life — however, many Saxons are killed.
In due course, Arthur and his remaining men forsake Roman citizenship and form an alliance with the Woads to fight the Saxons. In the climactic battle, the "Battle of Badon Hill" set just south of the now abandoned Hadrian's Wall, the Woads catapult flaming missiles at the Saxon army, and when the hosts meet, Guinevere engages in combat with Cynric. Cerdic fights and kills Tristan before facing off with Arthur. Meanwhile, Cynric disarms Guinevere before Lancelot intervenes and duels Cynric alone. While another Saxon captures Lancelot's attention for a moment, Cynric shoots Lancelot with a Saxon crossbow. Lancelot then throws his sword into Cynric, killing him. Lancelot dies with Guinevere at his side. Arthur kills Cerdic, and the Saxons are defeated.
Though Arthur is victorious, the events of the film have led to the loss of his faith in Rome as a bastion of justice. After realizing that the Rome of his ideals exists only in his dreams, Arthur also despairs over the deaths of his men. The film ends with Arthur and Guinevere's marriage. Merlin then proclaims him to be their king. King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and his remaining knights promise to lead the Britons, united with the defeat of the Saxons and retreat of the Romans, against future invaders. The last scene shows Lancelot, Dagonet and Tristan reincarnated as horses and roaming the lands freely, while Lancelot speaks of the fact that their names will live forever in legend.
- Clive Owen as Arthur/Artorius Castus
- Keira Knightley as Guinevere
- Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot
- Mads Mikkelsen as Tristan
- Joel Edgerton as Gawain
- Hugh Dancy as Galahad
- Ray Winstone as Bors the Younger
- Ray Stevenson as Dagonet
- Stephen Dillane as Merlin
- Stellan Skarsgård as Cerdic
- Til Schweiger as Cynric
- Sean Gilder as Jols
- Pat Kinevane as Horton
- Ivano Marescotti as Bishop Germanus
- Ken Stott as Marius Honorius
- Lorenzo De Angelis as Alecto Mania
- Shane Murray-Corcoran as Young Arthur
- Elliot Henderson-Boyle as Young Lancelot
- Maria Gladkowska as Igraine, Arthur's Mother
- John G. Brennan as Lucan
- Stefania Orsola Garello as Fulcinia
- Ned Dennehy as Mental Monk
- Dawn Bradfield as Vanora
- Clive Russell as Lancelot's Father
- Stephanie Putson as Lancelot's Mother
- Kerry O'Neill as Villager
- Directed by Antoine Fuqua
- Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
- Written by David Franzoni
- Music by Hans Zimmer
- Cinematography Slawomir Idziak
- Editing by Conrad Buff, Jamie Pearson
- Studio World 2000 Entertainment
- Green Hills Productions
- Distributed by Touchstone Pictures
- Release date: July 7, 2004
- Running time 126 min
- Country United States
- Budget $120 million
- Box office $203,567,857
The movie was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Antoine Fuqua; David Franzoni, the writer for Gladiator, wrote the screenplay. The historical consultant for the film was John Matthews, an author known for his books on esoteric Celtic spirituality, some of which he co-wrote with his wife Caitlin Matthews. The research consultant was Linda A. Malcor, co-author of From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reinterpretation of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail where possible non-Celtic sources for the Arthurian legends are explored.
The film's main set, a replica of a section of Hadrian's Wall, was the largest film set ever built in Ireland, and was located in a field in County Kildare. The replica was one kilometer long, which took a crew of 300 construction workers four and a half months to build. The fort in the film was based on the Roman fort named Vindolanda, which was built around 80 AD just south of Hadrian's Wall in what is now called Chesterholm, in Northern England.