King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the Arthurian mythos by way of the mean streets and sharp talking of London crime capers.
Set in a pre-Christian, pre-modern, magic-infused fantasy England it presents an intriguing and thrilling take on the tale of King Arthur and Excalibur, but one that is likely to divide its watchers. It is not the Arthur of Malory or Tennyson or T.H. White, but a blend of distinctly modern sensibilities with ones far more ancient. It is also a little bit mad, with some of the largest beasties ever seen in cinema, giant snakes and elephants that dwarf castles. It is an “origin” story; sequels were intended but sadly may never come to be, due to how badly it’s been doing at the box office.
The movie opens with a war between men and mages. The mages are led by Mordred (Rob Knighton), a renegade who has deposed his king and seeks to rule the land, aided by dark magic and savage tribes. The men are led by Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), a noble king armed with the magic sword Excalibur, forged by Merlin from the deposed mage-king’s staff, and bound to the Pendragon bloodline. Mordred looks sure to win until Uther penetrates to the heart of his inner sanctum, where with Excalibur’s protection, he wards off the dark magic and kills the evil shaman-king.
All celebrate, except for the king’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who was sent to study with Mordred as a boy, and who embarks on a genocidal purge of the mage race. When Uther stops him, he proceeds to engineer his own coup with the aid of the sickening squid-like Sirens. Uther just manages to get his young son Arthur (Bodhi Fox Keene) to the safety of a boat before he and his wife Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) are killed. Vortigern now rules the land as a tyrant, as he seeks to complete the dark projects begun by Mordred.
Meanwhile, the young Arthur is rescued by prostitutes who keep him safe and look after him, not knowing who he is. He grows up to be a street-smart, Robin Hood like, minor crime boss – the sort who sees his role in life as looking after those around him, especially the less fortunate.
Things are stable – unpleasant, but stable – until the lake drains and Excalibur is revealed, embedded in stone. Vortigern’s paranoia ratchets up a couple more notches, and he orders all men of the right age to be brought to Camelot to try their luck with the sword. Due to a “misunderstanding” with some Vikings and the authorities, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) attempts to flee Londinium but is caught and taken to the Sword. Once he pulls it from the stone he is imprisoned and his friends sought. Vortigern seeks to make an example of him with a public execution, but elements of the resistance, led by Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and the Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) rescue him just in time. And so, the Born King’s rebellion begins.
Guy Ritchie is rightly acclaimed for his fast-paced but intelligible approach to filmmaking. His movies are well regarded for the creative way that he uses a variety of different shots, at speed, to give the audience a panoramic view of the action; and their scripts are notable for their fast-paced blokey banter and cleverness. They have a very modern sensibility, but one that is also decidedly English, much like the quick-talking knaves in Shakespeare.
It is this Englishness that is at the heart of much of Ritchie’s work. It is an Englishness that is almost Chestertonian in character. It presents a united England, one where the lords and the lads work together for the common good, one where race is nowhere near as important as place, and where the great unifier is the public house. Such an idea of England is not built upon constitutions or written texts, but upon a shared history and tradition. Ritchie’s take is both gritty and noble, one that doesn’t brush away the grime but celebrates the nobility of the common man as he is commonly found, keeping an eye out for his neighbour and his neighbourhood.
This is Ritchie at his most patriotic, his noble attempt at tackling the foundational myth of his homeland. It is a valiant and fascinating effort, one that draws on the various sources of Arthur’s tale and then repurposes them in a vivid and distinct way. It is not for everyone, however, especially if you’re a devotee of the chivalric medieval Arthur. But it is a bit of madcap, stylish cinematic fun.