“Yeah. We’re all going to die some day. If it’s death from a Saxon hand that frightens you, stay home.”
2004’s King Arthur offers no shortage of Shakespearean sad-boi soliloquies, but you’ll not hear any such syllable from Mads Mikkelsen. What room is there for melancholy in the life of someone who has mastered the art of effortless, incomparable and sinewy swagger as Mikkelsen’s Tristan?
Precision archery to plummet arrows into people’s eyes over Hadrian’s Wall. Rejection of full-Roman headgear for something resembling a hand-fashioned Mongolian deel. The ability to not only command and control a hawk but gain its consent for participation in a battle. A tiny braid that dangles down from his disheveled mane. Mikkelsen lacks the longest locks in King Arthur — serving as silver medalist to the stringy grime of Saxon tyrant Cerdic, who’s played by Stellan Skarsgård with energy best described as Rob Zombie meets Captain Caveman. But Mikkelsen’s coiffure sure feels like it billows the most by virtue of his photographically violent virility.
American audiences now recognize this as the perpetually humming vibe of this Main Dane. But in 2004, Mikkelsen had to settle for ninth fiddle, at least as credited in director Antoine Fuqua and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s ultimately fruitless attempt at reviving the Arthurian legend. Adding insult to injury, Mikkelsen doesn’t even get private closing-credits real estate — sharing space with a bunch of other actors’ names as if he’s not a singular highlight here. Perhaps devoting a solo credit to Til Schweiger’s second-tier Saxon lackey over Mikkelsen’s mighty knight doomed King Arthur to consignment as a costly failure. (This is actually a sturdy steel-feeler in “director’s cut” form — disavowed by Fuqua as a bastardized promotional product but a result to which the action journeyman could more proudly attach his name. What felt like a competent pay-cable pilot pruned for the USA Network in theaters achieves gnarly, unbridled chaos when unrated — pounding war drums with axes to faces and uppercuts with swords, establishing battlefield vendettas worth getting stoked about, and giving its characters and discourse more breathing room.)
Characters as cool as Tristan typically don’t last past the two-hour mark in torch-and-trebuchet outings like this let alone get a legendary standoff with the villain that’s arguably more memorable than the climactic clash with the hero. But such is Mikkelsen’s crackling, commanding turn here that everyone involved knew he had to last into the third act as long as possible. That old saw about the inability to keep a good man down doesn’t apply here, either. Tristan would be the first to admit he’s a bad, bad mammajamma as far as milquetoast mores go. But on the fields of battle? None better alongside whom to once more enter the breach.
In a pivot from pure legend, King Arthur posits that the eventual Knights of the Round Table began as Sarmatians conscripted into a Roman army — where every generation of sons was indebted to serve the empire as knights. They are operating in Britannia as Rome retreats from that realm of the world. So Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, Bors, Dagonet and Tristan are essentially hired-hand mercs led by half-British commander Artorius “Arthur” Castus (Clive Owen) — who breaks Roman dictates designed to strip away individual identity to bond with his cohorts.
Believing they have fulfilled their duties to Rome and are ready to return home, the knights receive one last order. It’s a deceptively simple evacuate-and-protect mission that puts them on a collision course with Cerdic’s violent Saxon horde and an unexpected alliance with the Woads — a proxy for the real-life Picts, who just want their country back from the Romans.
The most multifaceted among his pack of marauders, Tristan is also forthright about telling the others to fob off with highfalutin notions of what they do. “I don’t kill for pleasure,” Hugh Dancy’s Galahad says. “You should try it sometime,” Tristan retorts. “You might get a taste for it.” (Oh, Will and Hannibal, flirtatiously dancing around destiny as far back as 467 AD!) Tristan’s clear-eyed perspective also understands that their Roman release papers represent an empty, ephemeral promise. There’s more value in the box that holds the decrees. That’s why Tristan steals it. He understands all the bloviating leaders will eventually betray them and, apart from his band of brothers, finds nothing but faith in nothing.
What better advance man for this operation, then, riding ahead to ensure a clear road? It’s not because Tristan is expendable should he encounter overwhelming violence or that he’ll care the least of these men (some of whom have families) should he fall. Tristan is an indisputable, monolithic symbol of the ruckus about to rain down on those who fall under the knights’ swords — a malevolently mute hype man nearly as silent as the hearts he will stop. But Tristan also knows his life will end someday soon. He’s OK with this, as long as it happens defending other lives that matter to him. Whether he’s playing a heel or hero, dressed in something decrepit or dapper, this is Mikkelsen’s energy encapsulated — a code by which to greet the tomb.
When Tristan returns with a bleak scouting report on the advancing Saxons, the look on his face suggests a peace with the righteousness under which he will die that day. Understanding there is arguably more seen-some-shit camaraderie conveyed in one tongue click to a bird than in all of Arthur’s pontifications, King Arthur even sees fit to afford Tristan a tender farewell to his hawk ahead of the climactic battle.
Tristan is slicing Saxons like sandwich tomatoes until he makes his way to Cerdic. The movie is not called God Tristan, so he’s clearly a goner. However, sheer magnetic science insists, with inviolate law, that Mikkelsen and Skarsgård be drawn toward one another as the coolest people in this movie. It’s a meeting of irresistible force and immovable object that lives up to its billing, acknowledging Tristan’s humanity in a huff-and-puff realization that Cerdic has mortally nicked him and reveling in Tristan’s renegade energy when he gets in one good jail-yard jab of a shiv on Cerdic before going down for good. Tristan’s death is even a galvanizing moment for Arthur, whose bent-knee rope-a-dope on Cerdic seems like a pro tip Tristan gave Arthur way back when with a wink and a smile.
The postscript of King Arthur suggests knights like Tristan who fall in battle are reborn as horses, galloping in freedom across open fields. So indelible is Mikkelsen’s turn here that you can immediately discern which horse he is — the one galloping to his own glorious cadence, much as Mikkelsen himself has done and will continue to do for decades to come.