Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnan, Jude Law, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Wishing for a sense of historical accuracy in Arthurian myth is a mug’s game.
Even before Hollywood got its hands on it, the tales of King Arthur are a patchwork of myths from England and Wales, cobbled together by medieval French and courtly love tradition, then dragged through Victorian and Edwardian classical romanticism and neo-paganism.
Even Boorman’s much vaunted Excalibur (1981), has armour a thousand of years out of date to its supposed 5th century AD setting. Surprisingly though, Camelot seems a fairly robust setting, that can be bent to many differing purposes and genres (musical, comedy, operatic drama, or action film). You just need to sell it.
Somehow Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword grinds up against that sense of anachronistic disbelief like few other films that have gone before it.
Part of this is the ill fit between director and intellectual property. Ritchie’s “lads on a blag” style is a curious approach to the Once and Future King. One that runs contrary to the image fixed in the audience’s mind of King Arthur. That friction between the working class street kid, and divine rule through royal birth, is quite a gap to bridge. It is an uphill battle to sell that approach, and one the director decides to take on by throwing a cavalcade of previous popular filmic fantasy into the mix. The results are, predictably, a rather noxious wizard’s brew.
The general story is somewhat familiarly Arthurian, save those bits where it veers insanely into other fantasy tales. After a devastating war against the mages, the good king Uther (Eric Bana) is deposed and murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Decades later, and now grown to adulthood, the only son of Uther is living on the streets of Londinium (thanks to a miraculous and rather Moses like escape) running a number of small time rackets from a brothel.
Although unaware of his royal heritage, Arthur (Charlie Hunnan) is caught up in the wheel of fate, as his father’s magical sword, Excalibur, is once again revealed to the world. The usurper Vortigern realises that to truly be king he must find and kill the one man in all of England who can draw the sword from the stone. Of course destiny, magic, and the rebellious nature of the English mob, draw these two men into fierce conflict.
There is so much wrong here it is hard to know where to begin. Obviously the anachronistic nature of the film is an issue, but oddly enough that is not what damns it (although it certainly doesn’t help). Nor is it the strangely fractured class consciousness of the plebeians being saved by a king of noble blood (although that does play against the tone of the film, again, doing it no favours).
When you come down to it, this is just a badly constructed attempt at tale telling. King Arthur is so reliant on flashbacks, montages, and characters breaking down the action on screen as to be a confusing mess most of the time. Somehow Ritchie has managed to turn his own sense of style back upon itself, to create a weakness out of a strength.
What is left is a film constantly at odds with itself as the hyper-stylised lads on a caper, with stolen elements from other high end fantasy films badly rendered here (Lord Of the Rings, Conan and even Princess Bride all raise their head). Which is increasingly strange when Ritchie seemingly goes out of his way to avoid many of the standard Arthurian tropes. Even Merlin doesn’t make a major appearance in the action, only in flashback, instead replaced by the anonymous Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Which has some upside, as this means there is at least one solitary female character that is not a victim or a prostitute.
A muddled film that is less holy grail and more “holy hell!”, occasionally you catch a glimpse of the romp Legend Of The Sword should have been, but those are as rare as questing beasts. Instead you are regularly reminded of the words of the Grail Knight from The Last Crusade (1989) – “He chose poorly”. Still there is a certain amount of fun to be had here, even if purely through schadenfreude.