Overview: Denied his birthright and raised on the streets, Arthur’s road to claiming the crown entails far more than pulling sword from stone. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 126 minutes.
You Haven’t Seen This One Before: In the film’s opening moments, giant elephantine creatures with elaborately constructed warships attached to their backs approach Camelot. Arrows are slung, swords clash, and as a wizard in an antlered crown looks down at the destruction he’s carved, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) breaks from the ramparts to put an end to this war between man and mage. The stories of King Arthur, his knights, his love, his wizard, and his father, Uther, have been some of our most oft retold stories. Arthurian legend is rich with detail, side-quests, and variations that allow for the story to be retold and reconstituted. In many ways, King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable are our proto-superheroes, a mythic blend of heroism and religious symbology before capes and cowls. The story of Arthur has been told across literature, film, and television, influencing the works of some our greatest fantasy storytellers: Tolkien, Lewis, Martin, and King. It is a collection of stories that have shaped our world history, influenced the viewpoint of our last great American political dynasty, and seemingly left no stone of history or heritage untouched. But Guy Ritchie uncovers that final stone, and from it draws a film that blends epic, occult surrealism with the comfortable amiability of a pub story told by a drunken bard.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword operates under its own unique cinematic language, one that creates the scripture for the most ambitious vision we’ve seen from Ritchie. Instead of leaning into Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, as John Boorman’s exceptional Excalibur (1981) did, Ritchie and writers Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram, and David Dobkin, pick and choose from all aspects of the legend, shifting, and remixing them into a punk rock expression of royalty and legacy that channels the masterclass artwork of Frank Frazetta. Some of the most well-known elements, like Merlin and Lancelot, have been trimmed away, while others like Guinevere, Mordred, and the knights have been entirely reimagined. Even the sword and the stone itself, the most iconic aspect of Arthurian legend, has been altered to become more personal in its usage as a plot device, and more symbolic in its origin. Yet for all the changes, Ritchie’s film captures the spirit of Arthurian legend by presenting stories within stories, stories told from different points of view, and stories told twice with the details shifted. He and his team of writers understand the inherent is concept behind legends, and this lore specifically, isn’t accuracy, but fragments of truth and lie pieced together and reforged to form the conceptual whole.
From Barstool to Battlefield: Following the death of his parents and the rise of his sinister Uncle Vorgtigern (Jude Law), Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) rises in the streets of Londonium as a thief trying to make a better way of life for his mates and the prostitutes who raised him. Even in the back alleys of the architecturally anachronistic Londonium, Arthur displays a regality that makes him a leader, and a general affability that situates him in Lad culture. Hunnam carries the role with a fierce intelligence and quick wit that makes him endearing. And as he and his mates, Wet Stick and Back Lack, make their way about town fulfilling a number of quick-paced and sharply-edited Ritchieisms, we get a sense of Arthur’s hard-earned skills and moral code. These scenes serve to later re-contextualize Arthur’s Kinghood. It isn’t viewed as an achievement based solely on sword and bloodline, but in his willingness to use his life’s lessons to become king his own way, on his own terms. Ritchie dispenses of so many of the chosen one clichés by making it clear that just because Arthur was born for something, doesn’t mean he has to fulfill it, or even fulfill it by the terms expected of him. We’ve seen the rags to riches story with Arthur before, but in Legend of the Sword, Arthur never loses that scrappy demeanor only to replace it with rigid dignity. He may get a better wardrobe, but he’s still just a guy from the streets.
When Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, he unlocks the buried secrets of his past, and finds himself in the company of a band of rebels, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Goose Fat Bill (Aiden Gillen), and The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who charge him with defeating his Uncle Vortigern. But before Arthur can raise an army, he’s forced to go on a spiritual quest through the Darklands. Here, Ritchie creates a fever dream of ancient runes, monstrous creatures, and flashbacks that all cross-cut against each other creating a tableau of Herculean labors where the outcome isn’t godhood but self-discovery. It’s only through this process that Arthur is able to use Excalibur and claim his birthright. Ritchie, along with longtime editor James Herbert, never linger on any instance of Arthur’s trials too long. The purpose is not the individual moments, but the collective ones. These small battles, are just that, and are never allowed to overshadow the central threat or create a false sense of successful badassery.
A Song of Fire and Water: Elemental magic is given a religious reverence in this film. From The Mage’s ability to control animals, to the giant flame tipped tower that Vortigern builds to increase his power, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword displays a fascination with natural energies and how they can be controlled to create change. It is water that forms the central element of the film. The sword Excalibur is imbued with water-like qualities, leaving behind trails of blue energy, emitting blasts of erosive power, and ultimately becoming a shaper of mountains and a carrier of messages. Water is the very thing that allowed Arthur’s escape by boat as a young boy and sent him to the shores of Londonium. It is also the element that allowed his Uncle Vortigern rise to power.
Jude Law plays Vortigern with a calculating pride. He’s a man driven by passion and an addiction to fear. He is powerful because he is afraid, and because he is powerful he basks in the fear of others. A mage, who stirred up war decades ago, Vortigern increases his power by sacrificing loved ones to the lake beneath the castle, a lake inhabited by a wildly impressive new take on the three witches. As Vortigern’s power grows, it becomes fire based and serves as a fitting counter to Arthur’s water-based essence. The war between Arthur and Vortigern is a battle of aesthetics that take on a pagan-esque power in its ability to reveal the foundation of these two characters.
The Once and Future King: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is filled with impressive sequences of perspective shifts, panoramic views, and aerial shots that create for an immersive experience, an experience given its own tempo by Daniel Pemberton’s breathy and dynamic score. Every action scene is used as an attempt to bring a new flavor to the fantasy genre, to trim the fat, and add a dash of something surprising. The weapons in this film aren’t simply props, but new ways to test the limits of filmmaking as Ritchie switches the action to the perspective of the weapons, further showcasing how these blades are an extension of the characters who wield them. The action, like some of the dialogue isn’t always easy to follow, but the dynamism of a film that makes your eyes and ears work for the payoff is a respectable feat.
There’s a sequence in the aftermath of Arthur’s first major battle, when he understands that the true meaning of power is loss, that he casts the sword back into the lake. He runs through the woods, overcome with sorrow, and falls to his knees. A hand reaches through the mud, grips him, pulls him down into the filth, through it and into shining blue waters, where the Lady of the Lake places the sword back in Arthur’s hand. This moment is the defining moment of the film and one of the most impressive sequences in cinema this year. Through all the filth, pain, sorrow, and questions of his ability to continue, Arthur comes through it reborn. This is his coronation and it’s far more powerful than any crown. There’s a relatability factor in this moment, a deeply human expression of loss and struggle, and ultimately our ability to overcome it, that serves as a reminder of why we are so lucky to have Ritchie’s brand of humanity within our world of blockbusters. There’s no attempt to create separation between film and audience here, and the anachronistic designs and language, the power placed in the elements that make us, and the narrative style all sing in harmony to bring us closer to the regality in our own humanity, the regality that exists even when we’re brought to our knees and covered in the world’s filth.
Overall: Ritchie presents his interpretation of Arthurian legend with big-dicked swagger and impressive conceptualization of why these stories have lasted. While the film can’t entirely shake its boys club mentality, despite Berges-Frisbey moments of triumph as the enigmatic Mage, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword does add some much needed diversity to the faces that make up the fantasy genre and to Arthur’s fabled knights. But what’s most impressive is how much personality the film has. Ritchie’s nature runs through the artistry and themes at work here, creating a visionary experience that while occasionally messy feels like a clear extension of the filmmaker’s soul. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword takes risks while having a clear vision and ultimately becomes one of the most unique theatrical experiences of the last few summer movie seasons.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures