King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie, © Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2017.
Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Charlie Hunnam as Arthur (left) and Jude Law as Vortigern
The critics and the trades have not been kind: The Wall Street Journal opined that the film was “Morte on Arrival” (12 May 2017: A12), and Variety even criticized the outfits which the members of the cast wore to the Hollywood premiere (16 May 2017: 37). Ritchie’s film, like all examples of cinema Arthuriana (be they indebted to the legend of the once and future king tangentially so or more) is inevitably caught between a rock and a hard place. They must confront what Norris J. Lacy has called an audience’s expectations which are tied to the “tyranny of tradition” (Arthurian Interpretations 4.1 ), despite the apparent latitude provided by Helen Cooper’s dictum in the three-part Films for Humanities series Tracing the Arthurian Legend that each age invents the Arthur it needs. To attempt to retell all of Malory—cinema’s favorite putative source for all things Arthurian—on the screen is impossible, yet cinematic references to, and nods in the direction of, versions of the tale(s) that Malory told are ubiquitous, as just the Indiana Jones, Shrek, Despicable Me, Kingsman, Mad Max, and Transformers franchises prove—and, indeed, Ritchie intended his film to launch his own Arthurian franchise.
In addition to this tangential ubiquity of the Arthuriad on the screen (and on television—HBO’s The Affair, for instance), we have generally had one full-fledged, big budget attempt a decade to retell the legend on film—each age invents the Arthur it needs. John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) originally had its many admirers both inside and outside the academy, but it has not held up well. Indeed, when I showed it to a combined upper-level undergraduate-graduate class last semester, many of my students laughed throughout the film. Jerry Zucker’s First Knight (1995) has never recovered from its initial designation as the Arthurian film people love to hate. Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004) dredged up the theory of Arthur’s Sarmatian origins and presented a maddeningly conflicted portrait of Guinevere who is transformed from an initial full-throttled gender-liberated Boudicca-like figure to a more than annoyingly conventional bride dressed in white gown and veil. And, now, in 2017, we have Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
To his credit, Ritchie does not attempt to retell all of Malory, or of some other more or less complete version of the Arthuriad. His sources are very different—than Malory and from themselves. His principal debts would appear to be both medieval and modern: Geoffrey of Monmouth and the television version of Game of Thrones—a work that may yet prove the most enduring source for post-medievalism, but that argument needs to be explored more fully elsewhere. Ritchie is also indebted, in no particular order, to the story of the infant Moses floating among the reeds on the Nile, the account of Hannibal and his elephants, the legend of Robin Hood, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the martial training typically undertaken by Kung Fu masters and gladiators, the Harry Potter series in print and on screen, Macbeth’s “weird sisters,” Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, the Viking raids on England, some of his own previous films, and even the Trumpian tendency to miscalculate the size of crowds, though here Vortigern underestimates (rather than overestimates) the size of the adoring masses who show up to see him (try to) execute Arthur. They are not, as Vortigern avers, in the hundreds, but in the millions. There are also in the film all kinds of winks and nods and in jokes, along with a brief appearance by David Beckham as a bad-ass black-armor clad knight named “Trigger”—presumably without any intended reference to the horse once ridden by the King of the Cowboys.
From the Arthuriad, Ritchie has been selective in what he has borrowed. His film includes Mordred as a rebel Mage who is killed off early in the film, Uther and Igraine without even a mention of the “unusual” coupling that produced Arthur, Vortigern and his tower, a sword originally firmly embedded in a stone and later returned by the Lady of the Lake after it has been cast upon the waters by an Arthur reluctant to embrace his destiny, an almost completed round table, and an assortment of knights, some whose names are familiar enough (Percival and Bedivere) and some whose names are not (George and “Goose Fat” Bill)—all enhanced with non-stop CGI effects and an at-times deafening soundtrack.
As the film opens, Uther is intent upon putting an end to a war between his people and the Mage, little knowing that his younger brother, Vortigern, has been plotting with Mordred, the Mage’s leader, to seize the throne from his brother. Uther defeats Mordred, whose armies arrive atop and within huge elephants, and peace would seem to be at hand but for Vortigern’s schemes. In seizing the throne, he is aided by three cephalopodan “weird sisters” worthy of the Scottish play, who demand he sacrifice his wife—and eventually his daughter—to achieve the victories he wants, in a devil’s bargain that outdoes that made by Agamemnon. Vortigern—Jude Law on steroids who spends most of the film delightfully chewing up the scenery and seemingly having a better time being in the film than most critics had in watching it—is the nastiest of villains. Law is a Ritchie veteran, having played Watson in the director’s deconstruction—some would argue destruction—of the story Sherlock Homes, and the huge snarling dogs that guard his throne are worthy of the Baskervilles. Vortigern kills Uther and Igraine, and the boy Arthur escapes Vortigern, floating in a small boat Moses-like down the Thames to Londinium, a metropolis whose on-screen population seems as culturally diverse as that of its present day namesake. Once in Londinium, Arthur is rescued not by Pharaoh’s daughter but by some kind- hearted prostitutes, who rear him, until he can in turn provide them protection from their at times less than genteel clientele, who include the odd Viking, it turns out, under the protection of Vortigern.
More than somewhat of a light-weight to play Arthur, Charlie Hunnam is nonetheless a Ritchie type—indeed he seems straight out of the director’s 1998 breakout film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels in scenes replete with the director’s stock stop action camera work and he-said-he-said patter. Like the characters in Two Smoking Barrels, Arthur and his crew here are good-natured con men and petty criminals enforcing their own code of justice among the poor and oppressed against a totally corrupt civil authority—think Robin Hood light. Vortigern, cursed by the promise that whosoever draws the sword from the stone will be rightful king, demands every able bodied man in his kingdom attempt to do so—he is also, for good measure, buying off the Vikings by promising them 5000 boys a year in tribute. Medieval versions of the Arthuriad have Arthur himself taking a page from Herod as he murders thousands of boys in an attempt to prevent Mordred, his successor, from growing up. Here the boys are simply being sent off as human tribute, as Vortigern’s England has become a vassal state to the Vikings.
Arthur draws the sword from the stone, but is unable to harness its power. Imprisoned by Vortigern who wants a show trial to debunk the myth that has sprung up around Arthur, the reluctant hero is rescued by Mage and a motley crew of renegade knights, whose number include Aidan Gillen’s “Goose Fat Bill.” Gillen is Little Finger (a pimp no less) in Game of Thrones, one of Ritchie’s sources, and Gillen and Hunnam have an earlier connection though the British version of the television series Queer as Folk, in which Hunnam played the gay teenager who is seduced by (and subsequently becomes a lover to) the older Gillen’s character. And other of these renegade knights have just as unusual an assortment of monikers as do the crew in Two Smoking Barrels.
When Arthur is finally rescued from Vortigern, he is not at all eager to embrace the destiny that is his. Only when he learns that Vortigern has destroyed the brothel that was his home and killed many of his friends does he overcome his initial reluctance. To prepare for what destiny holds for him, he has the expected passage through nature that tests many a hero, and which introduces him to a number of nightmare-like creatures that will be all too familiar to fans of Harry Potter, most notably a very, very large serpent. Having regained Excalibur with help from the Lady of the Lake, Arthur prepares to defeat Vortigern, whose power is tied to the height of the Godfriedian tower that he is building. In a final battle, Arthur manages to kill the overly steroidal and now CGI enhanced Vortigern, and establish peace in his realm, “renegotiating” the treaty with the Vikings, and, with an obvious nod to an anticipated sequel, beginning work on the round table.
Given the film’s dismal performance when it opened, and its cost—it reportedly cost more than $300 million to make and took in less than $15 million its first weekend—a Ritchie Arthurian franchise seems a slim possibility, which is in some ways unfortunate. King Arthur is not a great film—whether there are any great Arthurian films is a matter of some debate. (There are certainly great medieval films—Alexander Nevsky, The Nibelungenlied, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Seventh Seal, and The Virgin Spring for starters.) Ritchie’s film does avoid the trap of other examples of cinema Arthuriana (and the tyranny of tradition) in not trying to tell the whole story of Arthur. And, if each age does indeed invent the Arthur it needs, ours is an age without great heroes—and, perhaps worse, one without any recognition that we even need great heroes. Hunnam’s low-keyed Arthur might, therefore, be just the Arthur for our times. And with its sources in Geoffrey and in Game of Thrones, Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a more than interesting, double-barreled mix of both medievalism and post-medievalism as film.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie from a screenplay by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, and Lionel Wigram from a story by David Dobkin and Joby Harold. Cast: Charlie Hunnam (Arthur), Jude Law (Vortigern), Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (Mage), Djimon Hounsou (Bedivere), Aiden Gillen (“Goose-Fat” Bill), Eric Bana (King Uther Pendragon), Poppy Delevingne (Igraine), Freddie Fox (Rubio), Craig McGinlay (Percival), Kinglsey Ben-Adir (Wet Stick), Neil Maskell (Back Lack), Bleu Landai (Blue), Tom Wu (George), Michael McElhatton (Jack’s Eye), Annabelle Wallis (Maggie), Peter Fernando (the Earl of Mercia), Mikael Persbrandt (Greybeard), David Beckham (Trigger), Rob Knighton (Mordred). USA/Australia © Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc., 2017. 126 minutes.
Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University