I love King Arthur, but I love him enough to know there’s no one canonical Arthur. I learned that 30 years ago in Bob Milgrom’s medieval and Arthurian literature classes at the School of Visual Arts.
Arthur can be a Constantine-like conqueror, a noble hero, a wise sovereign, a passive potentate, and even a temperamental twit. So go ahead: Reinvent the myth. Tell me a King Arthur story set in modern times, or in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, or in Atlantis, or on Proxima Centauri b 10,000 years in the future.
Make Arthur half-elven. Make Merlin and Morgan le Fay mutant siblings with shared superpowers. Reveal Mordred as a time-traveling Nazi out to prevent the invasion of Normandy by undermining the Round Table and allowing the Germanic hordes to overrun Britain, retroactively eliminating both the U.K. and the U.S.A.
None of these revisionist flights of fancy poses so insurmountable an obstacle to me as a single soul-crushing structural choice in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — namely, recasting Arthur’s origin story as a standard-issue Hollywood revenge-fantasy plot.
Revenge. It’s the cheapest, laziest, lowest-common-denominator character motivation in the book. Nothing is easier or less meaningful than to get audiences rooting for the comeuppance of a hissable villain who wronged the hero or (even better) the hero’s loved ones.
Vengeance is part of human experience, and revenge is an integral part of stories both sublime and ridiculous. King Arthur’s legend, though, should stand for something more elevated.
However Arthur himself is depicted, the Arthurian hero (be it Gawain, Bedivere, Percival, Lancelot, Galahad or Arthur himself) is a man who stands for an ideal or a cause. Perhaps he fails to live up to it, or perhaps the ideal or cause is worth cross-examining and critiquing, but the ideal, the cause, should be there.
If you can’t manage this much, you aren’t reinventing the myth — you’re simply committing an act of cultural vandalism.
King Arthur is older than the chivalric ideal or courtly love, but Arthur always represented Christian civilization over heathen barbarism. Even Anton Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, as lame and even anti-Catholic as it was, managed to make Clive Owen’s Arthur a Christian, albeit a Pelagian.
Does Christianity even exist in the Game of Thrones-ish world of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword? Certainly the primary divide is not Roman Britons and barbarian or non-Christian hordes, but “men” and “mages.” (Does this mean mages aren’t human? Who knows?)
Mages are vaguely druid-like sorcerous figures whose powers include zoopathic power over animals, including sauropod-scale pachyderms dwarfing Peter Jackson’s oliphants.
While these apoca-oliphants aren’t the only overt echo of The Lord of the Rings, there’s no beauty here recalling the bucolic charm of the Shire, the elegance of Rivendell or the otherworldliness of Lothlorien. It’s all unremitting Hollywood Medieval Grunge, gray and gritty.
There’s demonic evil more occult than anything in Middle-earth — blood sacrifices to tentacled siren-things vaguely evoking Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water crossed with Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters — but precious little of angelic or even elven goodness, except a welcome but fleeting appearance by the Lady of the Lake (Jacqui Ainsley).
Significantly, no one in this story ever says anything like “There’s good in this world worth fighting for.” In this Darker-Than-Dark-Ages nightmare universe, there are evils worth fighting against, but Ritchie and his co-writers offer nothing to fight for. (The co-writers are Lionel Wigram, who collaborated with Ritchie on vandalizing Sherlock Holmes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Joby Harold, who has written a screenplay for a new Robin Hood, said to be — no kidding — “gritty.”)
There’s a hint of nobility in Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who ends the war between men and mages provoked by the renegade mage Mordred (Rob Knighton) and tells his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) that he wants no more killing or purges.
Before you can say The Lion King, Vortigern kills Uther in front of young Arthur and usurps his brother’s throne. Arthur escapes, but his Hakuna Matata years are a lot less carefree than Simba’s.
Raised in a brothel, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a much-abused, bullied youth who becomes a street fighter and a savvy operator. The RocknRolla King Arthur vibe is evident from our hero’s motley crew of mates, which includes a Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and a Percival (Craig McGinlay), but also characters with names like Goosefat (Aidan Gillan), Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and even Kung Fu George (Tom Wu).
Mages, sirens and ladies of the lake aside, ordinary human women are sheep to the slaughter, nothing more. At least four women, including Arthur’s mother, Igraine (Poppy Delevingne), are stabbed, sliced or run through (Igraine’s death we see over and over); others die off screen, all either at Vortigern’s hand or by his orders.
I’m not sure there’s a single flesh-and-blood female character who isn’t either killed or at least held with a knife to her throat to force our hero’s hand. That’s including a powerful heroine known only as “the Mage” (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), who may or may not be intended to be Guinevere. How powerful is the Mage? Late in the game she pulls an ace from her sleeve so powerful it’s hard to see why she needs Arthur’s help to kill Vortigern.
Would you believe that Arthur is a Reluctant Hero Who Doesn’t Want to Be King? (I call that one the Aragorn Complex.) Would you believe Vortigern turns the sword in the stone on its head in a manhunt for the “born king,” so that whoso pulleth out the sword of the stone shall right away be arrested and decapitated? I’m not even going to tell you where the sword in the stone comes from. You wouldn’t believe it.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about Legend of the Sword is the way the origin-story beats are clearly setting up what Warner Bros. would love to be a multifilm franchise. Is it too soon to reboot this one?
I don’t suppose it would help. Hollywood has never done justice to this mythos and can’t stop reminding us once a decade or so. At least with Robin Hood, no matter what Ridley Scott or Kevin Costner or anyone else might do, we’ll always have Errol Flynn. With King Arthur, the best we have is John Boorman’s Excalibur — not a bad film, but not a classic.
Ritchie’s storytelling tricks, notably his flashback/flash-forward way of cross-cutting action sequences with characters talking about the events in hindsight or foresight, remain engaging. I can’t say I was ever bored. I also can’t say there was ever a moment when I didn’t wish I was doing something else.
Caveat Spectator: Much rough action violence, including battle sequences, torture and human sacrifice; some crude language and an obscenity. Mature viewing.