Film: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Director: Guy Ritchie
Running Time: 126 Minutes
*This review contains spoilers*
If you were to number every man that has attempted to draw Excalibur from the stone throughout the lore that surrounds King Arthur, you would find that there have been an equivalent number of imaginings of Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table, in both film and literature; from the Historia Brittonum (828 A.D.), to the Annales Cambriae (12th Century), to Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017).
Considering the importance of Arthurian legend in establishing a coherent British national identity, there are many of us that are familiar, even if only in part, with the tales of the Pendragon bloodline. However, for those of us that aren’t, Ritchie’s introduction to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is one that fails to offer a foundation of substance to the viewer ill at ease with this segment of British mythology. The audience is exposed to an opening ten minutes which are full of the same intensity that it took the Lord of the Rings franchise three films to build up to: There are battles on bridges, parkour assassinations, and more extras than you could shake a stick at. It appears that the director is caught between the knowledge that; whilst there are many comfortable with these ancient stories, a film of this caliber requires an introduction. The product of this mixed and, clearly reluctant, position is that Elsa, and other minor characters, are assassinated before their properly introduced, protagonists are neglected and hidden amongst the melee of the revolt, and villains are introduced with vigor, only to be inexplicably absent from the rest of the film.
It seems that whilst Ritchie was editing his first cut, at a length of over three hours, it would have been to the benefit of the film had the introduction been cut from the final reel – Which might have saved some of the more unsettling questions: Why does Vortigern (Law), usurper of his brother, dictatorial King of England, and ultimate villain of the film, cry of have a nosebleed every time he appears on screen in the introduction? Why is Mordred (Knighton), famed nemesis of the Pendragons and magical scourge of Camelot, dispatched within the first five minutes by Uther (Bana) climbing atop his behemoth war elephant? Or why is this introduction completely incongruous to the rest of the film?
However, once the cinematic mess of the opening segment is complete, we begin to see some of Ritchie’s directorial flair. The film was pitched to him as a cross between Snatch (2000) and The Lord of the Rings (2001), whereas the reality of the film is that it appears as a cross between Aladdin (1992), and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) but set against the backdrop of A Knight’s Tale (2001). The viewer is shown in a frenetic montage that, as a result of Vortigern’s usurpation of the throne, Arthur (Hunnam) has been smuggled out of Camelot and raised as an orphan on the streets of Londinium, taking the workers of a bordello as his new family and earning money through pick-pocketing tourists and traders whilst learning to fight under the training of George, played by Chinese-British actor Tom Wu.
Following a ‘heist’, involving stealing from the Vikings and the cutting of Greybeard’s (Persbrandt)… grey beard, Arthur finds himself on the run from the Blacklegs – a military outfit enforcing the King’s rule and protecting those under Vortigern’s blessing. The early part of this film is dialogue based, but never stagnant or heavy on the stomach as Ritchie’s banterous charm introduces the cockney to the East End a few centuries earlier whilst offering a new take on Arthur’s story.
Even David Beckham gets a cameo role, portraying one of the Blacklegs, Trigger, in the quarry where Arthur is made to attempt to extract Excalibur before being branded to ease the anxieties of the king. Unaware of his heritage, Arthur pulls the sword out from the stone and loses consciousness from the overwhelming power contained within. The lighthearted tone and comic influence that complements the serious narrative of Ritchie’s films soon slips away as Vortigern initiates a smear campaign to discredit Arthur’s claim to the throne. The King kills his ‘family’ from the brothel and publicly demands that he appears before the people of Londinium as a weak and false King. Through fear of losing those he loves, Arthur surrenders to Vortigern’s plot and is tied to the block in preparation to be beheaded.
The Mage (Bergès-Frisbey) rushes to disrupt his execution in the form of an Eagle familiar, allowing Arthur to escape with Excalibur through the crowd in a scene that would not have appeared out of place in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. There could be some controversy as to why Merlin did not appear in the film, especially as there was a significant effort to include Mordred, despite of his minor role. It seems likely that ‘The Mage’ is designed to be the equivalent of Merlin, or perhaps a character to be introduced later in the series of six planned films in this franchise. Considering the steps towards inclusion that Ritchie has taken; portraying Sir George as a Chinese rebel, Sir Bedivere as as West African, and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table as low-born thieves and hustlers, it would not have been a step too far to depict Merlin as a woman.
The collective energy of the film is a difficult concept to put your finger on; there are slow fight scenes, fast-paced dialogue, intense fighting, and slow character developments. On one hand, this works to the benefit of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as it ensures the viewer is constantly engaged and tuned into the oscillations the film offers. However, this change of pace leaves its audience unsure as to the quality of the film they’re watching. It seems, at times, that Ritchie struggles with the identity of the film between the speed of the films in his discography versus managing a film that is poised to develop into a serial franchise. There are times that the development feels like a film that is designed to feed into sequels, simply by the fact that certain characters are neglected, but during the final battle with Vortigern in his final magical form, King Arthur really feels like a standalone film.
There can be no dispute that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a film worthy of a viewing. Guy Ritchie breathes fresh life into a story that, before now, had only been briefly revived by Merlin (2008). The film had certainly surpassed all expectation that I had for it prior to viewing and it has been titillating to witness Arthur’s origin story with humanity and emotion rather than kingly quietude and an overselling of Camelot and his dependence on Merlin.
Charlie Hunnam, as Arthur, offers a realistic and engaging representation of the righteous King – though one feels as though he would have been better cast as one of the Vikings due to his rugged Scandinavian visage. However, as a film that is designed to engineer a path through to five sequels, it appears difficult how that could be possible without succumbing to the clichés of Arthurian legend and losing the fresh take that Ritchie has established. After all, the gigantic snake that rushes the halls of the castle towards the end of the film, and the range of unexplained mythical creatures that reside in the Dark Land, comes dangerously close to inviting the presence of a dragon in later films.