King Arthur is one of about four or five characters from British literature and folklore that have been done so many times, that you can’t really do anything new or insightful with them. So already Guy Ritchie had an uphill battle with his King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, so he decided to do with it what he did with his version of another beloved and frequently used British character, Sherlock Holmes. Ritchie’s Arthur is rock and roll, a Once and Future King with swagger and attitude. Like a King Arthur flick made by high school film students with a $200 million budget.
To Ritchie’s credit, he spares no expense. This is Le Morte d’Arthur staged like Lord of the Rings, but clearly inspired by the political intrigued and medieval realism of Game of Thrones. The opening has giant elephant monsters and a dark tower crowned by fire, but soon we cut to an adult Arthur in exile, raised by prostitutes in a “Londinium” brothel, running the streets like a super-buff Littlefinger collecting tithes for imported goods, and cutting the ponytails off vikings that rough up the ladies of the brothel. Even before learning he’s the king, the Born King shows he knows how to rule the mean street of ancient London.
Charlie Hannum plays Arthur in a way that’s intentionally designed to say with every move and every inflection that this is not your father’s King Arthur. In a modern sense, this Arthur says you don’t make a king, you take the king as is. Out the door are concepts like chivalry and tradition, and in are the ideas of loyalty and revenge. A mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and a pair of knights (Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen) loyal to Arthur’s birth father Uther (Eric Bana) rescue Arthur from the black clad palace guard after Arthur pulls Excalibur from it’s stone. Arthur volunteers to just leave the country until he finds out that accepting his birthright means killing the man that killed his family, his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law).
In Ritchie’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, there’s no mention of the lofty ambitions of Camelot as a place to rule a united Britain in peace and justice, there’s just Vortigern’s relentless power grab by apparently turning ancient England into Mordor. There’s also no Merlin in the house to wax philosophical and guide Arthur with wit and wisdom, instead we get Bergès-Frisbey getting rather annoyed with Arthur’s impetuousness and impulsiveness, and just tersely pointing to where the king needs to go, and dong magic stuff when called for. I don’t know why Ritchie didn’t just include Merlin, or even just call Bergès-Frisbey‘s unnamed wizard “Merlin.” The world can handle a girl Merlin, right?
How about handling linear editing? I think the gold standard for Arthurian movies is still John Boorman’s Excalibur from 1981, and it covered Arthur’s life from before he was born to when he died, but watching Ritchie’s King Arthur is kind of like watching someone hyperventilate as they try and tell you the story of Arthur from beginning to end before they forget any of the details. We only ever stop for breath to watch Law ooze evil as he threatens stubborn subjects or confers with some weird squid creature that’s the source of his evil powers. Scenes that are supposed to be pensive, like Arthur’s journey to learn the key to wield Excalibur’s power, is like an acid trip of futz up time and oblique angles as Arthur encounters numerous beasties on what could best be described as Skull Island in the middle of England. What’s the deal? Who the hell knows?
As the movie goes on, things make less and less sense. Vortigern and Arthur’s motivations become muddled and things seem to start happening because it’s time for the climax; there’s literally a scene where a giant snake appears from no where and eats all the bad guys in Arthur’s path. The power of Excalibur is also never properly contextualized. It doesn’t just have magic, but merely waving it around in front of an advancing army kills them all in what looks like an atomic blast. So is Excalibur nuclear powered, or did Ritchie just figure that it was like Thor’s hammer, but, you know, a sword?
In spite of the “shake and bake” nature of this entire endeavour, I will admit that it’s kind of enjoyable. Tolerance for King Arthur though may depend on your tolerance of Bro culture, because this is a total and complete sausage fest. If you’re a woman in this movie you’re either a prostitute, a hostage, or you’re refrigerated, and before you say, “But the Mage,” I would point out that she’s a character that has a huge part in the movie, but is never given a name; her existence in the story is purely a matter of function. Meanwhile, Ritchie shows no fidelity to historical accuracy, Arthur’s court includes men who are black and Chinese, but girls aren’t allowed apparently.
The big question with this film is who is it for? Because I have no idea. I’m not sure you can make a $200 million movie and release to the general public under the assumption that *enough* people will like it in order to make your money back, but that is what’s seemed to happen. How many people out there have been dying to see King Arthur done Guy Ritchie style? Just because I say I enjoyed King Arthur doesn’t mean I ever want or need to see it again. The entire affair is as disposable as bubble gum, which is a problem because I have a feeling that the studio wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. Sure, a King Arthur Part II could introduce us to Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot and Morgan La Fay, but I can only imagine what he would do with those characters given their histories, and the director’s own tendencies.
So yeah, this is exactly what one might expect from Ritchie taking on King Arthur. It’s got a little bit of everything in terms of blockbuster influences, and I might add that it was refreshing that Ritchie would embrace the magical aspects of the story rather than be completely unimaginative and double-down on so-called realism like Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, or the Wolfgang Peterson version of Troy. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s kind of dumb, but that hardly means its horrible. If you’re looking to just be entertained, King Arthur will likely do the job, and if it’s too commercial to be your Arthur, relax, there’ll be a Born King around any minute.