There have been numerous films set around the exploits of King Arthur and his Round Table. Most have focused on Arthur’s rise to power, his love triangle with Guenevere and Lancelot, or his later years. (For just one take, see my look at 1981’s Excalibur here.) But King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is something different. Never before have I seen so many of the standard tropes of this legend removed to create something different, yet also familiar. Guy Ritchie’s latest guy fest pays lip service to the classic story but throws everything into a blender to see what comes out of it.
As an example, the film takes one of Arthur’s main foes, Mordred, and has him defeated in the first 10 minutes—while Arthur is still a child. Now, the thing with myths is that they are passed down, changed, adjusted, adapted, adopted, and altogether mixed up by new narrators. Ritchie does exactly the same that, taking what he likes about the standard story and creating his own version. Names and places and interactions are all mixed up to suit Ritchie’s wants.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this would be a disaster, but with Ritchie in control of dialogue and pacing—and let’s be honest, he loves his solid bro banter—it can be an incredibly fun diversion. Arthur is allowed to grow up not as a squire, but as a boy who must scrabble and just survive day to day. Over the course of a well-done montage early on, we see Arthur’s formative years and how he has become the man he will be for the remainder of the film. That said, there’s a little bit of a feeling that Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a Ritchie substitute, doing the things that Ritchie wishes he could do. Hunnam shines in the banter and interactions with the rest of the cast, but it feels like he’d rather be doing that than some of the larger fight sequences.
The rest of the guys in Arthur’s non-round table are fun to watch, with Djimon Honsou providing a father figure as Bedivere and Aidan Gillen playing against his Game of Thrones Littlefinger type as Bill. (Yes, Bill—naming conventions are all over the place in this film, including your standard Vortigern, Uther, and Percival alongside Wet Stick and Back Lack in Arthur’s entertaining inner circle.) Unfortunately, the female characters are a little lackluster. The main possible love interest and Merlin stand-in is Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as the Mage—she doesn’t even get a name, just a title—who is intriguing but isn’t given much more to do than look pained while casting spells. The other women show up occasionally, might have a line or two, and fill no real need in the plot or the myth. However, on a somewhat unique note, although there’s a little romantic banter, romantic love is almost entirely left out of this film. The themes Ritchie seems to want to focus on are familial love and facing your fears. Legend of the Sword is an appropriate subtitle because the film is more intent on Excalibur and wielding its power than anything else.
The special effects are well done, and Arthur’s montage in the Darkworld (it’s a thing) is incredibly well shot and edited. In fact, in terms of pacing and advancing the plot, this film really delivers. The only downside is that while in talking scenes the camera and editing are leisurely, when a fight takes place the camera gets all shaky and can’t stay in one place for more than a couple of seconds, which makes it feel like the fights aren’t well choreographed. They are, but director of photography John Mathieson doesn’t shoot it that way, which is a shame.
Overall, it’s a fun tale, and interesting take on the Arthurian legend. I’m actually hopeful that the film does well, because it’s a world I’d love to see revisited. If there is a follow-up, I will be interested to see how the characters progress and how Ritchie fits other elements of the myth into his story.