The hits and misses of Guy Ritchie’s ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ and why the Arthur figure is more relevant than ever to modern Britain.
As a fan of literature and mythology, I love the King Arthur legend. As a fan of films, I love Guy Ritchie. Hearing about the marriage of the two, however, left me dubious. It felt like taking bacon and chocolate chip cookies and stuffing them into a sandwich together (okay, it happened one time…). Or, leaving my rumbling stomach and terrible analogies aside, to me the two existed at opposite ends of a spectrum. Arthur’s sombre, almost Biblical tale seemed a million miles from the bantering RocknRolla-coaster world of Guy Ritchie. A match made in lunacy! The result, though? Well, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Despite the high-and-mighty subject matter, for the most part this is well and truly a Guy Ritchie film – cockney witticisms, shirtless fistfights, lovable thugs and all. Not that you’d know it from the first few minutes, mind you. We open on a solemn grey image of Camelot, a tale of a mage’s war against King Uther, the slow and thundering march of three-hundred-foot war elephants that are properly terrifying – with this uncharacteristically epic opening, Ritchie has declared his genre. If Excalibur was the traditional knights-in-shining-armour mythology movie, Merlin was the BBC’s Doctor Who-esque adventure-of-the-week take, and the short-lived Camelot series was Arthur doing Game of Thrones, then Legend of the Sword is the Arthurian legend à la Lord of the Rings – a high fantasy, CG-heavy, modern franchise flick. However, whereas the first Lord of the Rings film took things fairly slowly after its opening moments, Legend of the Sword is having none of that.
With the titles out of the way, the Guy Ritchie convention snaps back into place. In the next couple of minutes, we thunder through a drum-heavy montage, watching Arthur grow from a child to a young man, picking fights and pockets in the brothel where he was raised. For anyone unfamiliar with the original legend, it didn’t go like that. But this isn’t the original. This is Ritchie doing his thing and after that first montage the pace doesn’t let up for a second. That, however, is not always in the film’s favour.
The frequent montages and overall hurry from one plot beat to the next end up feeling more like a necessity than a narrative choice. Ritchie has admitted that the film underwent a vast amount of editing, cutting every scene to its barest essentials, allegedly to keep up the pace and to stop scenes from dragging. You can’t help but wonder, however, if the real aim was simply to cram the film into a more marketable two-hour runtime. Either way, it feels like Ritchie got a little too trigger-happy with his cuts. The effect is particularly noticeable in a sequence in which Arthur is sent to the mysterious Darklands (mysterious mostly because no explanation is ever offered as to what exactly this supernatural realm is). Here we get a montage that rocks us back and forth in time, showing Arthur’s journey to the Darklands, his venture through them, and his confrontation with the visions that have been plaguing him. Showing four or five moments unfolding simultaneously is quite the technical feat, and Ritchie pulls it off fantastically, but this was not the moment for it. The rapidity with which this scene is fired at us robs it of its potential to be truly haunting or carry any real weight as a moment of character development. But maybe this quick-fire sequence is supposed to cover up the fact that the foreboding Darklands really pose no greater challenge to Arthur than a couple of easy escapes from some generic CGI monsters.
In terms of plot, the film is pretty straightforward. Arthur discovers, by the traditional pulling-sword-from-stone ritual, that he is the rightful King of England, leading him to work with a plucky band of rebels to overthrow the tyrant Vortigern and take his place on the throne. It is the story world around this that feels far too big for one film. The mystery of the Darklands is just one example. We have a band of Vikings, dealing with Vortigern and then Arthur, who seem to have no real plot purpose; Merlin, perhaps as essential to the Arthurian legend as Arthur himself, appears in a throwaway bit of exposition for all of twenty seconds without uttering a word or showing his face; the Mage, perhaps the most intriguing character we meet (and almost certainly a reimagining of Morgan le Fay), while intentionally kept mysterious and unexplained, could have used a little more attention and been more developed as her own character, rather than simply as a plot device for Arthur’s progress. There’s a lot of mythological goodness going on here, but always on the outskirts of the story, and perhaps this film would have felt a little more fleshed out had Richie focused on that rather than his band of rebellious ragamuffins. But then it just wouldn’t be a Guy Ritchie movie.
As I have said, there is a lot of fun to be had here and that is mostly because this is a Guy Ritchie film through and through. At its heart, this is not a film about a legendary king. This is a film about a down-to-earth, raised-on-the-streets, smartass Londoner and his gang of cockney thieves and thugs. It’s about that ragtag gang’s struggle against a mob (or, in this case, army) much bigger and stronger than they are. It’s about street smarts and the common man triumphing against the powers-that-be. It is, in essence, a classic Guy Ritchie gangster film, dressed up in medieval colours. With that approach comes a modern energy and wit that is a joy to watch, the stuffy old parabolic dialogue of takes such as Excalibur replaced with quick-talking, character-rich banter, creating a world that feels as though it is populated by real people rather than figures of legend.
Similarly, our Arthur is not the overly-familiar cowering young boy with kingship thrust upon him; this is a cocky rogue who simply doesn’t give a damn about being king. It’s refreshing. Seeing an army of Vikings demand Arthur honour Vortigern’s agreement to sell them child slaves, only for the new king to mutter “I don’t think so, mate” is a perfect example of Guy Ritchie’s and Charlie Hunnam’s efforts to bring Arthur’s common roots and sensibilities to the forefront of his character. After countless noble and gentlemanly versions of the character, it feels like we have a once and future king who is truly one of us. And that is sort of the point of Arthur. He has always been a commoner who becomes the defender and leader of the people. That is the Arthur that Guy Ritchie captures and, I think, the Arthur we need right now.
For a man who claims not to know who Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn are, Ritchie manages to strike quite the topical chord. In a scene in which Arthur is about to be executed, Vortigern needing to remove him and discredit his claim to the throne, Vortigern says that when the people look to him they will see “strength and true leadership” while in Arthur they will see “weakness and lies”. He may as well have claimed to be a strong and stable leader opposing Arthur’s coalition of chaos!
It may seem like a small point, but I think it’s a parallel that endures throughout the film and indeed throughout the original legend. Arthur, much like the UK’s current opposition leader, is not cut from the same noble cloth as England’s tyrant leader or would-be kings. While Vortigern stands in his impeccable and resplendent armour, Arthur’s attire is scruffier and baggier. This is a man who is ridiculed, a nobody, seen as unworthy and incapable of leadership, who has the entire nation and establishment standing against him. He finds support only in a small band of loyalists and then, gradually, in vast crowds of people across the country as they start to support him, rallying behind him. More and more people begin to see him as their one true hope and leader and as an opponent to the unjust rule that has punished them for so long. Even if his chances are slim, he becomes a champion to the people of his country. Arthur is a man nobody gave a second thought, a man nobody would ever have expected to be capable of leadership – and he became the greatest, most legendary leader Britain had ever seen.
As we, the people of the United Kingdom, struggle under a leadership that seems to be working against us, perhaps this commoner-turned-king is a template for hope now more than ever. Hope that, no matter the odds or how terrible the tyrants are, a true leader can rise to fight for the needs of the many. Perhaps in Arthur we can see the potential for a commoner, who cares for all his fellow men, to lead us into a new golden age. Perhaps the reason we need the Arthur legend now is to remind us that, if we too rally behind a man of the people, then for one more shining moment, there could be a Camelot.