Historical Criticism of the Bruckheimer/Fuqua King Arthur Movie

By Matt Schwoebel (an amateur historical Arthur scholar/enthusiast)

Contact Me
See my complete profile

Friday, July 16, 2004

Historical Criticism of the Bruckheimer/Fuqua King Arthur Movie

The producers of King Arthur the film have portrayed it in the press as an accurate historical version of the Arthurian legend.  It is not.  In fact, it does not even come close to the majority scholarly opinion on the historical Arthur or of Dark Age Britain in general.  My critique of the film’s historical inaccuracy is listed as ten points below.  I have generally avoided commentary of a purely film-based review nature, except when plot points or characterizations are too historically inaccurate (or unbelievably prejudice) to avoid.           
Definition Note = History is based on literature, archaeology, and what can be reasonably inferred from these sources.  Legend is often based on some real event or person, but it can be difficult to tease out the truth from the fiction.  Myth is part of a culture’s folklore and old Pagan religious motifs.  In addition to the limited historical information on Arthur, there are numerous legendary works with many having mythical aspects added over the centuries.

Go To Historical Inaccuracies of King Arthur :: 1. Arthur's Knights

1. Arthur’s Knights

The greatest legend in the Western world is based on Arthur leading six, count them, six knights against the barbarian Anglo-Saxon horde thousands strong!  Arthur would have led a cavalry force at least the size of one Roman Ala, which is comprised of 300 men.  Every knight but Arthur himself is a Sarmatian (see point 2) in this film, not a Briton.  The movie knights include Bors, Dagonet, Galahad, Gawaine, Lancelot, and Tristan. 

Gawaine (Gwain) and Tristan (Tristam or Drustan) are good Celtic names, not Sarmatian Iranian, and are probable historical companions of Arthur.  Tristan has a stone in Cornwall listing him as a son of King Mark (Cunomorus).  This is the same Tristan of the famous romantic tragedy of Tristam and Isolde, which has been added to the Arthurian legends.  

Bors in legend is from Brittany or Armorica, the Briton part of western France.  According to legend, he led Armorican Bretons loyal to Arthur along with his brother Ban.  Dagonet may be from the medieval legends, I have not heard of him in historical works. 

Galahad and Lancelot may be based on real knights or are legendary additions.  I personally like the idea of Lancel ap Lot (my theory, as far as I know) as Lancelot’s real name (ap or map is the Welsh word for ‘son of’, like Mac in Gaelic).  Lot was a king of the Votandi (Gododdin) thought to have fought against Arthur in the north of Britain (Lothian in Scotland may be named after Lot).  Galahad may have originally been Welsh Gwalchmai (hawk of May?). 

Most egregious of all, they left out two of the most important companions of Arthur – Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere) and Caius (Sir Kay, Kei, or Cay).  Like Gawaine, they are the most likely knights of legend to be true companions of Arthur.  Caius (a Roman name) and Bedwyr (Celtic) were his trusted lieutenants.  Actually the best term for Arthur’s companions is not knight, but the Latin equivalent – equite (it does not have the heavily armored, medieval jousting connotation).  Arthur’s equites were similar to the Peers of Charlemagne and the late Roman cavalry that were their antecedents.

Go To 2. Sarmatians

2. Sarmatians

In the movie, all of the knights except Arthur are Sarmatians forced into service as mercenaries by Rome.  The idea that the companions of Arthur were Sarmatians is a small, marginal minority opinion among scholars and I doubt more than a handful would claim that all of his equites were Sarmatian (if any).  The Sarmatians were Iranian steppe nomads from the Pontic Steppes located in modern Ukraine and Russia to the north and east of the Black Sea (their ancestral homeland is accurately portrayed in the movie).  They would have had to travel across the entire Roman Empire, which was under considerable political and military turmoil, to reach Britain (see points 5 & 6 about time period).  I have a difficult time imagining a great Welsh, Cornish, and Breton tradition growing around a group of foreign mercenaries. 

By the time of Arthur, the Sarmatians in their homeland had become subservient to the Goths and the Huns.  One group, the Alans, invaded Spain with the Visigoths.  Many followed the Huns into Europe and settled in modern Hungary especially.  A few sided with the Romans and acted as mercenary cavalry.  Others remained home and were eventually absorbed by the Turkic peoples that followed the Huns onto the Pontic Steppes.  As far as I know, the Sarmatians were never conquered by Rome (as shown in the movie).  The only territory the Romans had in the region occupied by the Sarmatians was a dependency in the Crimea.  By the time of the movie this dependency would have been under the Eastern Roman Empire (medieval Byzantium) or overwhelmed by barbarians.  Certainly the Western Roman Empire did not have the power to force Sarmatian families living on the steppes a thousand miles away to turn their sons over as mercenaries when this same empire could not even keep its own borders secure. 

Why would anyone believe Sarmatians were in Britain?  They were.  A Roman named Artorius Castus led a contingent of Sarmatian cavalry in Britannia during the later 2nd century to early 3rd century A.D. (note the early date, this was shown in the movie).  Some reasonably believe this Roman soldier was the progenitor of Arthur’s Roman family name, Artorius (as an aside, the name Arthur may also be derived from the Celtic word for bear).  Others go so far as to claim an Artorius (more of a title than a name) was a leader of Sarmatians in Britain for the next three centuries and that Arthur is a fictitious collection of all their exploits.  The movie places Arthur in a fort near Hadrian’s Wall.  The Sarmatians in Britannia were actually based near Bremetenna located in the area of modern Liverpool and Manchester.  A few of Arthur’s equites may well have been descended from these original Sarmatians, but they would have been a small percentage and not the entire group of companions.  Interestingly, Tristan is the most accurate portrayal of a Sarmatian in the movie (hunting hawk, his cap, bow, and curved sword), yet has that wholly Celtic name of his. 

Some people believe the Arthurian myth is Iranian, due to some motifs seemingly of Iranian origin.  What they fail to grasp is that the Arthurian legend has added many general Indo-European mythological elements to it over the years.  The Celts and the Iranians are both Indo-European peoples and would share many common myths.  As a minor aside, there is some Roman or Greek work mentioning the Picts of northern Britain (Woads in the movie, see point 8) being descendants of Scythian tribes, which were the Iranian predecessors to the Sarmatians on the Pontic Steppes.  This is not historically accepted.

Go To 3. Arthur in the North

3. Arthur in the North

Arthur did fight battles in the north of Britain, but it was not his home.  The weight of historical, legendary, and archeological evidence places Arthur in southwestern Britain or the old Briton kingdom of Dumnonia.  He was probably raised in Cornwall, possibly at Tintagel or Kelliwic.  The best candidate for the real Camelot was an immense hillfort called South Cadbury located between modern Somerset and Dorset.  It was refortified in a semi-Roman manner at the right time (later fifth century).  The hillfort itself is massive and could easily house a large force of cavalry (slightly more than six, more like hundreds).  It has large amounts of imported Mediterranean pottery, signifying a powerful Romano-Briton leader dwelt at this hillfort during the right time period.  South Cadbury is near the confluence of a few major Roman roads & pre-Roman trails leading to the Anglo-Saxon east and this makes it an ideal base for punishing the invaders.

A list of twelve battles for Arthur places him just about everywhere in Britain.  Arthur’s legend ranges from southern Scotland to Wales to Cornwall to Brittany in France.  In the sixth century the sons of leading nobles were named Arthur (a name previously rarely attested) everywhere from Scotland to Brittany and even including Ireland!  As the Romano-Briton Dux Bellorum (battle leader), Arthur and his equite companions traveled anywhere to fight enemies, whether they were the Anglo-Saxon English in the east, the Irish in the west, the Picts in the north, or even rival Briton factions.  All four Briton groups – those of Strathclyde/Cumbria, Wales/Cymru, Cornwall/Dumnonia, and Brittany/Armorica – have legends about Arthur. 
The battle of Mons Badon is believed by most scholars to be located in the hills near modern Bath.  The movie places it near Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England.  Badon was the Anglo-Saxon attempt to invade along the western Thames River valley with the hope of reaching the sea and splitting Briton territory in two under their Bretwalda Aelle of the South Saxons (Bretwalda means Britain Wielder).  Arthur smashed them at Mons Badon.  It would be another 75 years before the Anglo-Saxons succeeded in driving a wedge between the southern Cornish-Dumnonian Britons and the central Cymru Britons of Wales.  These latter day Britons had no Arthur to unite them.

The legends place Arthur as a son of Uther Pendragon, a southern Briton leader (possibly a son of Vortigern & the same man as Vortimer).  Arthur seems to be linked to Ambrosius Emrys as well (a Roman Briton from southern Britain).  If Arthur came from the north, he would be regarded as a descendant of Coel Hen (Old King Cole of legend) like so many other northern Briton noble notables of this time period.  Welsh genealogies are not the most accurate for this time period (neither are the English), but they usually do claim descent from the correct region.

Note the movie shows Camelot as a small castellum (Roman mini-fort) along Hadrian’s Wall.  There was one such castellum with a similar name and that is why a minority group of scholars places Arthur along Hadrian’s Wall.  Actually, most of this minority would place him in Carlisle just south of the wall, which was a large romanized city for that time in Britain.  Although South Cadbury might be the true Camelot, I believe Arthur’s capital traveled with him.  For instance, he may well have been based out of Carlisle for a few seasons battling Picts and defiant Lot of Gododdin (the battle of Celidon Wood in the uplands of southern Scotland is one of the twelve battles).  Likewise he may have been based in other former Roman towns or fortresses such as Caerwent, Caerleon, Chester, Winchester, York, and Camulodium at times.

Go To 4. Anglo-Saxons

4. Anglo-Saxons

The leadership of the Anglo-Saxons counts as one of the most inaccurate parts of this inaccurate movie.  Cerdic and Cynric ruled the West Saxons that settled what became known as Wessex in southern England.  In case British geography is not a strong point for the reader, Wessex is about as FAR SOUTH as one can go in England before needing swim trunks (roughly modern Hampshire & the Island of Wight in its early days as a kingdom).  Yet in this movie Cerdic and Cynric are placed in the borderlands between southern Scotland and far northern England.  The greatest of Wessex kings, Alfred the Great, would be turning over in his grave (a possible Cerdic descendant).
The north of Britain was actually the last area to see the Anglo-Saxons gain considerable influence.  They were locked into coastal Deira and Bernicia during the Arthurian period by the rival northern Briton kingdoms of the Gwyr y Gogledd or Men of the North (Ebrauc or York, Rheged, Strathclyde, Gododdin, Elmet, Bryneich, & possibly Gorre).  Ida of Bernicia expanded his territory into lowland Scotland & northeastern England during the 540’s to 570’s A.D. (a century after the movie) when the northern English were united under the earliest version of the kingdom of Northumbria (sort of united, Bernicia and Deira tended to split apart into separate kingdoms for quite some time).
On a side note, Cerdic is a CELTIC name.  He may well have been a Briton leader who intermarried with the West Saxons, invited them to Britain as allies, and led them against fellow Britons (the Gewisse theory).  Ironically, in the movie Cerdic has a line about not mixing with the Britons and diluting their good Saxon blood.  
Go To 5. Arthurian Period

5. Arthurian Period

When did Arthur exist?  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which only reports English victories or draws, has a wide gap from the 490’s to the 540’s excepting a few minor victories in coastal Wessex.  This was the two generations of prosperity and relative peace that Arthur earned.  The movie places him in the 440’s and 450’s A.D. (if memory serves one of the early scenes with Lancelot was in 432 A.D. and the main action was at least 15 years later).  It only represents the time period immediately before and after the Battle of Badon early in Arthur’s career.  Actually, there were relatively few Anglo-Saxons in Britain during the 440’s-450’s A.D. and they were in the southeast of England (the Jutes under Hengist & Horsa in Kent), not in the north of Britain (see points 3, 4, & 6). 

Arthur’s titanic confrontation with the Anglo-Saxons at the battle of Mons Badon (Badon Hill) is usually dated around the year 496 A.D.  The monk Gildas rants about the leaders of his time degenerating into civil war and strife between fellow Britons.  Based on the historical figures he writes about including Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, Gildas’s letter is usually dated in the 540’s A.D.  Gildas writes that he was born in the year of Badon and was in his forties at the time of his letter.  If anything, some scholars place Arthur twenty years later with Badon being dated at 516 A.D. 

There were other semi-historical leaders of the post-Roman Britons before Arthur – primarily Owain (a shadowy figure), Vortigern, Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father?), Vortimer, and Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys).  A date for Arthur in the 440’s or 450’s does not account for enough time between the separation of Britannia from Rome (see point 6) and Arthur’s reign.  

Go To 6. Late Roman History

6. Late Roman History

The movie’s entire understanding of the Roman withdrawal from Britain is askew.  The legions in Britannia elected an Emperor, Constantine III, and went with him to the continent around 406-411 A.D.  The soldiers apparently picked Constantine III because of his fortuitous name (Constantine the Great was raised to the purple, made Emperor, in Britain).  He didn’t last long, but significantly the last of the Roman legions had now left Britannia.  Afterwards the Britons were left to govern for themselves (there is a letter stating such by Emperor Honorius).  Britannia was effectively no longer a Roman province.  The local Briton leaders, more Roman in the south & east and more Celtic in the west, would have asserted their right to rule.  Many people certainly believed Rome would return, but it never did.  Rome would not have sent needed Sarmatian cavalry to remote Britain when it was dealing with the more pressing problem of the Huns ravaging lands everywhere they went on the continent.  The movie is dated in the 440’s-450’s A.D. when Britannia was effectively no longer part of the Roman Empire (see point 5).  It depicts the Romans withdrawing from Britannia at too late a date.  Rome did not completely ignore Britannia between 410 A.D. and its downfall, but it had no real control of Britain during this time period.
Go To 7. Religion & Christianity

7. Religion & Christianity

The movie was quite anti-Christian and anti-Catholic.  Not surprising, this is Hollywood after all, but having every clerical person or devout Christian being either a raving lunatic or power hungry Papal pawn?  The Pope was presented as having real political influence, which was true in the medieval period NOT in the Dark Ages.  The bishops of Gaul (France) would have had some interaction with Britain.  Actually, most Christians in Britain were Celtic Catholics, not Roman Catholics, and the Pope would have had limited influence in the Islands.  It took a few centuries to bring these Celtic Catholics over to Roman adherence.  Wotan (Odin/Woden) worshipping Anglo-Saxons had overwhelmed the eastern seaboard of Britain, which made travel to Britannia more dangerous.  The Pope was rather busy dealing with heretical Arian Catholics, including the Arian Ostrogoths ruling or threatening Rome, and that pesky man named Attila with his heathen host (at least in the too early period represented by this movie).  I suppose since almost every Christian was technically Catholic at that point (only the Armenians & Coptic Egyptians had split from the Church by 450 A.D.), they felt good demonizing Christianity, and hence the Catholic Church, per usual Hollywood fashion against organized religion.

Go To 8. Woads, Merlin, & Guinevere

8. Woads, Merlin, & Guinevere

In the movie, barbarians to the north of Roman Britannia are termed Woads.  They seem to be based on a historical northern British people called the Picts.  The Picts did paint themselves (tattoos) like the movie’s Woads.  They lived mainly north of the defunct Antonine Wall across the cockpit of modern Scotland.  Picts raided northern Britannia and were a constant source of consternation for the Romans and their Briton successors.  Picts were the Celts untamed by Rome.  Overall the depiction of the Woads was not too bad.  It was overly simplified, since most of the people between Hadrian’s and Antonine’s Walls were Britons, not Picts (Britons are the partially romanized Celts of Britannia mainly living south of Hadrian’s Wall). 

By the way, these uncivilized, non-technical Woads in the movie are actually capable of building and operating complicated Roman siege artillery such as catapults.  Guinevere has a nice line against technology, keeping in observance of Hollywood’s political agenda.  Then later on these same non-technical, at peace with nature Woads go and use Roman technology in their battle against the Saxons, ahem.  Rome itself in its early days borrowed technology from the not-so-primitive Celts including chainmail armor. 
Merlin is shown as the leader of the Woads.  He is portrayed more as a political chieftain than a druid (although he does marry Pagan Guinevere with Christian Arthur).  Merlin, or Myrddin in Welsh, was probably the chief druid or bard of the Islands about the time of Arthur’s reign (the medieval French troubadours changed Myrddin to Merlin, due to Myrddin sounding like the French word for crap).  There may have been several men named Myrddin.  Guinevere is Merlin’s daughter and is quite the fighter.  Other than the occasional bad line (see above), I thought the characterization of Guinevere and Merlin was reasonable.  Of course the real Gwenhyvar (Celtic spelling) was probably a Briton and not a Pict.  She may have been from the north of Britain, but in all likelihood she was not that barbaric in appearance.  FYI, one of the of the most common women’s names in the USA, Jennifer, is based on the Cornish spelling of Gwenhyvar or Guinevere.
As a side note, medieval Scotland was a conglomeration of the dominant Scotti (Irish in the west), Picts (archaic British in the east & highlands), Britons (Strathclyde British of the southwest), English (lowland Angles mainly in Lothian), and Norse (north, especially the islands).  

Go To 9. Pelagianism and Bishop Germanus

9. Pelagianism and Bishop Germanus

It was so nice to see them attempt a real Dark Ages element to the movie.  Bishop Germanus, a former Roman general or legate, was sent to Britannia around 429 A.D. for the first time to contest the Pelegian heresy.  Sadly, like so much in the movie it pre-dated Arthur by a few decades at least.  He went to St. Alban’s (Verulamium) in southeastern Britain not too far from London (nowhere near Hadrian’s Wall).  Germanus won a battle against invaders (Saxons or Picts?) and had some success in the theological debate with Pelagianism supporters.  He wasn’t completely successful, because the bishop returned in the 440’s or 450’s A.D.  Perhaps the movie meant to show this second visit?  The chief opponent to Pelagianism was the renowned theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo.  Pelagianism was denounced as heresy, the movie was correct on this point.  I am not a theologian and cannot accurately describe what Pelagianism was, so the movie might have been at least partially accurate. 

Of course Bishop Germanus was demonized as a scheming Papal pawn.  Aetius, the Roman military leader of Gaul (France), probably sent Germanus as a military advisor on that second visit in 447-449 A.D., not the Pope.  Some Britons had appealed to Aetius for assistance against the Anglo-Saxons (Hengist & his Jutes had just rebelled in Kent), but Aetius was too busy fending off Attila’s Huns.  Again, all of this predates Arthur by a few decades.  Pelagianism was effectively dead by the Arthurian period, although it may have had some limited influence on Celtic Catholicism.

Go To 10. Roman Family Rescue

10. Roman Family Rescue

Egad, this was more a horrible plot point than a purely historically inaccurate one.  First, I’m not sure where Romans would have been living north of Hadrian’s Wall during the 450’s A.D.  I don’t believe any Roman villas were ever situated that far north.  This family was so important to the all-powerful Pope that it, including his favorite godson, was banished to the furthest possible outpost of the Roman Empire (actually not, see point 6) and surrounded by hostile Woads/Picts?  Just to be fair, the only possible place I could think of north of Hadrian’s Wall with some degree of Roman activity would be Alclud, the capital of the Strathclyde Britons.  The villa shown in the movie was not the mighty fortress of Alclud, the Rock of the Britons (Dumbarton).  The Romans of this villa were archetypical evil slave masters and bad, bad Christians flouting their authority over good, good Pagan serfs.  Hollywood occasionally makes me sick to my stomach.

Go To Good Historical Aspects of Movie

Good Historical Aspects of the Movie

There is one particularly good historical point to this movie.  King Arthur the film is based on a Dark Ages Arthur and not the medieval character of legend.  It did not have plate-armored knights on massive horses charging the enemy with lances or going to tournaments to joust.  The movie avoids the more mystical elements of the Arthurian legends.  It does not include the Holy Grail, the Lady of the Lake, or Merlin as a magician.  The love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, probably a medieval invention, is avoided.  Many of the costumes, weapons, suits of armor, and buildings are accurately portrayed in the film.  Although Anglo-Saxons carrying crossbows during this time period may be a stretch.  I didn’t pay close enough attention to see if horse trappings included spurs (inaccurate) or not (correct).  They had the Round Table as an actual table.  Since historians are still debating the significance of the Round Table, I cannot fault the producers for using a real table.

Go To Conclusion


My historical rating for this movie using a 10-point scale is a 2 (10 being the best score).  I did like some of the action fight sequences and period costumes/weapons.  However, it seemed to me the movie’s writers read a handful of Arthurian books each written by a fringe scholar.  Then they threw in the typical required Hollywood political agenda and came up with a French word pronounced remarkably close to Myrddin.  I am such a fan and amateur scholar of the historic Arthur that it was physically painful for me to watch this movie.  Worst of all, they (the producer, director, and misguided cast including some Welshmen, shame on them) seem to believe they were portraying Arthur accurately.  If they had claimed this film was another version of the Arthurian legend placed in about the right time frame, I would have been much happier with the movie.  It scares me to think that the average viewer now believes a great body of literary work is based on such a historically inaccurate figure as the Arthur depicted in this movie.  How would anyone make a leader of six knights into a legend of such epic proportions?  I hope my ten points above help rectify the historical travesty that is the King Arthur film produced by Bruckheimer and directed by Fuqua.  As usual, we must find our history in books, not on the big screen.

Go To Sources


1 Ashe, Geoffrey, The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, 1994.
2 Ashley, Mike, British Kings & Queens, The Mammoth Book of, 1998.
3 Castleden, Rodney, King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legends, 2000.
4 Holmes, Michael, King Arthur: a Military History, 1996.
5 Morris, John, The Age of Arthur: a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, 1973.
6 Rhys, John, Celtic Britain, 1904.
7 Scullard, H. H., Roman Britain: Outpost of the Empire, 1979.
8 Turner, P.F.J., The Real King Arthur: a History of Post-Roman Britannia A.D.410 – A.D.593 (Vol. I & II), 1993.
9 White, Richard (editor), King Arthur in Legend and History, 1997.