King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie, © Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2017.
Reviewed by Usha Vishnuvajjala (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) has done poorly at the box office and received lukewarm reviews from film critics; however, a number of medieval and especially Arthurian scholars have found it to be interesting, entertaining, and less objectionable than they might have expected. Its unexpected plot, drawn very loosely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regun Britanniae, and its often bizarre pastiche of character traits, settings, subplots, and conflicts that seem to reference everything from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films to Batman Begins to The Empire Strikes Back make for a somewhat overwhelming experience. Throw in a number of actors in minor parts who have appeared in other Arthurian and medievalist films and TV shows, a soundtrack laden with ominous deep-bass thrumming, an alarming number of nameless and featureless female characters whose only purpose seems to be as human sacrifices or plot devices, and a bland villain whose obsessive and murderous quest for power seems to come from largely unexplained supernatural forces, and we get a film that is difficult to categorize. Its brand of humor and its attempts to be forward-thinking with respect to gender also fall short.
Of course, the fact that the film is a confusing mishmash of sources and genres with politics that are difficult to parse is a way in which it resembles what seems to be the main literary source for its opening plot, Geoffrey’s Historia (although Vortigern is mentioned in plenty of earlier sources that claim to be historical). Geoffrey’s version of Vortigern becomes king by overthrowing King Constans, whom he serves as an earl and an advisor. Although Constans is Arthur’s uncle (brother of Uther) in the Historia, Vortigern is not. After losing the crown to his own son Vortimer and gaining it back after Vortimer is poisoned and killed by Vortigern’s wife, Geoffrey’s Vortigern follows the orders of magicians and has a massive fortress built in Wales, which turns out to be unstable because of two dragons that live underneath it.
The plot of Ritchie’s film is instigated by Vortigern, here Uther’s younger brother, becoming power-hungry after holding Uther’s crown during a battle and then killing his own wife in order to obtain power from the three sirens that live in the river under Camelot so that he can kill Uther and Uther’s wife and seize power for himself. The young Arthur, who Uther was trying to spirit away to safety, drifts down the river in a boat and is rescued, Moses-like, by women washing clothes in the river in Londinium (which looks like Rome, complete with Coliseum and what appear to be seven hills). He is raised in a brothel, and during a rapid flash-forward is shown to grow into a boxer or brawler and petty thief who also profits from the workings of the brothel by functioning as a sort of manager and enforcer (I stop just short of calling him a pimp, although the term might not be incorrect in this case), who is secretly amassing a fortune of gold coins which he keeps hidden in chests. Meanwhile, now-King Vortigern, fearing that Arthur still lives, requires every man of a certain age to come to Camelot to attempt to pull Excalibur from a stone, so that he can kill the one who successfully does, ensuring his own reign and potentially seeking to pass on the crown to his own daughter. Vortigern is also building a great tower, which is unstable and supported by supernatural forces; it is revealed at the film’s end to contain a giant serprent, which Vortigern cannot control. Throughout this first section of the movie, the silly dialogue and physical humor of the Londinium scenes is intercut with the brutal, murderous, too-serious-to-take-seriously scenes at Camelot, which is built into a mountainside and most closely resembles a Himalayan Buddhist monastery with Vortigern’s impossibly tall and modern (magic) tower added.
This early section of the film also attempts to paint a culturally and linguistically diverse London with gender politics that the film seems to view as progressive. The city is full of people who look different from each other and speak different languages; Arthur quips to one of his lackeys, who complains that a non-British associate doesn’t “speak English good,” that he speaks it better than the lackey (there is no attempt to differentiate between Britons and Anglo-Saxons in this film; the Briton are “English” and speak English). Tom Wu plays a character in Arthur’s circle who is referred to as “Chinese George” to distinguish him from the other George. This almost banal reference to ethnic difference is echoed later in the film when Arthur says to Bedivere, played by Djimon Hounsou as a sort of wise senior advisor, that he doesn’t want to hear what Bedivere has to say about Arthur’s past unless Bedivere is Arthur’s real father, which Arthur thinks is unlikely. I don’t wish to minimize the importance of casting actors of color in “canonical” Arthurian roles, or of referring to their race in these banal ways, which has the effect of both recognizing difference and rejecting the possibility that it is a problem. These are important developments. But they still appear alongside the depiction of women as little more than wives and prostitutes, almost all of whom are nameless and end up dead, and alongside a sarcastic and often violent masculinity, which is not really tempered by the fact that Arthur calls other men things like “sweetheart” and “honey tits,” however much the film’s writers might want it to be. It is also not tempered by the fact that Arthur’s overconfidence is at times revealed by the woman known as “The Mage,” who appears as a sort of Merlin figure to train Arthur for the mental and spiritual tasks he will face in order to reclaim the throne (these scenes resemble the training scenes from The Empire Strikes Back more than a little bit). There are few women in the film who have names or agency (“The Mage,” however important she is, is known only by her affiliation – she is one of the people known as “The Mage” and has no name or title beyond that).
Beyond all of that, though, lies the question of what this film gains by being Arthurian. It would be a perfectly (or at least equally) coherent film if it was about a young Roman, English, or British prince who was disinherited by his evil and power-hungry uncle. The Arthurian references are surprisingly minimal: beyond the names Arthur, Uther, Vortigern, Camelot, Excalibur, Bedivere, and Perceval, and the brief mentions of characters named Mordred and Merlin at the beginning of the film, the film has little to do with Arthurian texts, medieval or modern. What it does seem to do, though, is draw on the cultural and political capital of “King Arthur” in order to give the film’s plot stakes that it wouldn’t have on its own. As Arthur travels upriver to Camelot, pulls the sword out of the stone, escapes the public execution Vortigern arranges for him, and travels Britain with his small band of Robin Hood-style outlaws, learning to conquer his own memories and demons so that he can wield the magical sword that shows him things he does not want to remember, I repeatedly wondered why we were supposed to care whether this swaggering boxer and pickpocket who profits from the economic hardship of women lived or died. The answer to that question does not come from the film; the answer seems to be “because he is King Arthur.” Although most great—or even interesting—Arthurian texts, both medieval and modern, reinterpret a kernel of a story for their own times, incorporating an assortment of sources and adding new material as they seem fit, what they must also do is introduce or build their own stakes, whether they are political, moral, or aesthetic. Whether one finds their stakes compelling, modern Arthurian works by Mark Twain, T.H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Boorman, Tay Garnett, Antoine Fuqua, and others all build stakes for their own plots, ultimately adding to the trove of Arthurian texts rather than merely using that trove’s existence to justify creating a work in which little is at stake. In that sense, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword fails to be a compelling addition to the large canon of Arthurian films.
Usda Vishnuvajjala, American University