Movie Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” – King Who?

Written by Jeremiah Greville May 23, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

The best King Arthur movie ever made is 1981’s Excalibur, and I’ll fight anyone who says differently because they’re bad people and probably deserve it. On television, there have been two different Merlin series in the past twenty years: Sam Neil’s 1998 ‘finger-wizard’, and the 2008 BBC young adult series. In theatres, the last Arthurian film to make a big splash was 2004’s King Arthur. And of course, there’s the 1963 Disney version most people grew up with: The Sword in the Stone. Each adaptation does different things with the material. Some succeed, and some don’t. But each is recognizable as an adaptation of the King Arthur story. Until now. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has a couple recognizable names—and a magic sword—but it’s the least faithful and least recognizable King Arthur movie ever made.

It’s not surprising that a King Arthur movie made by Guy Ritchie differs from the source material. If anything, Guy Ritchie’s involvement practically necessitates it. But apart from a hot guy pulling a sword from a ‘stone’ (yeah, that’s a whole OTHER thing), I’m not quite sure what I just watched. Guinevere is a mage, Mordred killed Uther, and a man named Vortigern is the main antagonist. While Vortigern has appeared in Arthurian stories before, it’s surprising he was chosen over Morgan Le Fay, Merlin, or Lancelot—all major characters who don’t show up here. And while most agree that the mage is Guinnevere, she’s never named so it’s unclear if she’s in this movie either. If you’re familiar with King Arthur at all, this movie will leave you scratching your head. If you’re not, then you’ll leave wondering why anyone cared at all in the first place.

“Your name keeps popping up.”

Here’s the basic plot: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword begins with the end of the war between King Uther and the evil mage, Mordred. After overcoming Mordred, Uther is killed by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), while Uther’s son escapes to be raised by prostitutes. That son grows up to be Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a gang leader with a heart of gold and abs of steel. When the legendary sword Excalibur emerges from a lake, Arthur is eventually forced to pull it and reveal himself as the true heir to the king. Hijinks ensue, a whole lot of shit happens, and the dialogue is fun at times. Arthur has to learn how to use the sword to defeat Vortigern and take his rightful place on the throne. And since the movie is called King Arthur, I’ll give you three guesses how it ends.

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The problem with the plot of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t that it deviates from the original, but that it doesn’t improve on it. Yes, in this version we get giant CGI monsters and a street-tough Arthur, but we lose all sense of epic romance and fantasy. It’s perfunctory, and by-the-numbers. Arthur is the chosen one, and he doesn’t want to be. The sword gives him powers, and he’s forced to learn how to use them. Guy Ritchie has taken the Arthurian mythos and turned it into a muddled, clichéd superhero origin story. It’s new, but it’s not fresh. It’s a different take, but something we’ve seen countless times before. Heck, there have been more superhero and fantasy origin films like this then there have been actual King Arthur movies. Deviating from the source material would’ve been fine, if only it took us somewhere new.

“I thought you’d be taller. And have a beard.”

One fascinating aspect of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is how often it plays to the female gaze. We get several shots of Hunnam shirtless or mugging for the camera, and even one scene of him bathing himself fully clothed. Don’t worry—his white shirt clings to his muscular body while Guinevere watches. It’s not always the main focus of every scene, but Charlie Hunnam’s version of King Arthur is all sex and swagger, and clearly the hottest guy in the land. The female gaze, though, is just an aspect of a larger issue. Even before he pulls the sword, Arthur is already the bravest, sexiest, toughest leader around. By the time Excalibur gives him magic combat powers, they seem superfluous. He’s already perfect. Guy Ritchie seems to confuse monarchy with meritocracy. You only get to be king if you’re already Batman.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

This is why it’s so infuriating that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword wastes so much time with the sword. A good third of the film is spent with Arthur figuring out how to use it, with several scenes going nowhere. There’s an entire 10 minute montage of Arthur going to the ‘Darklands’ to find the secret of Excalibur—and he doesn’t. There’s no point to the sequence, except to pad the runtime in an already-bloated film. Guy Ritchie’s script works best when it strips moments of pretense and posturing, yet everything about the sword is exactly that—pretense and posturing. There’s no emotional weight to Excalibur, it’s just the next tool the main character needs to beat the bad guy. It’s video game logic at it’s best: get the energy blast to progress to the next level.

“Welcome to the Darklands.”

But for all that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword gets wrong, being a Guy Ritchie film guarantees that it gets some things right. Ritchie is known for tight dialogue and unique narrative choices, and his signature flourishes are on display here. Several clever sequences are shot out of order, with characters discussing events at rapid paces. These scenes are inventive, and a hell of a lot of fun. And while the film has one too many montages, Ritchie stretches his muscles and makes most of them worthwhile. But while Hunnam has the physicality of Arthur, he isn’t capable of the snarky line delivery Ritchie requires of him. You could tell Ritchie wanted a Jason Statham type, while Hunnam gave him something closer to Jai Courtney.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not the Arthur movie we’ve been waiting for. Supposedly, it was meant to kick off a whole franchise, which could explain the many missing Arthurian elements. But as a single movie, it’s just hollow. It’s a CGI-ridden 3D extravaganza shot in shaky cam by a man with no interest in the mythology. If your sense of novelty is hearing someone drop a medieval F-bomb, you might like it. If, like me, you’re a fan of Arthurian mythology and adaptation, I’d recommend skipping it for something better. Might I recommend 1981’s Excalibur? It’s got Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Helen Mirran, Gabriel Bryne…

My Rating: 5/10

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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