King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Review
After securing peace against overly ambitious mages, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is betrayed and murdered by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law). Infant Arthur escapes in a boat and washes ashore in Londinum, where he’s taken in by prostitutes and grows up to be a poor scoundrel with a heart of gold who looks exactly like Charlie Hunnam. When Uther’s magical sword, Excalibur, is revealed, everyone tries to pull the sword from the stone to prove he is the true king. Shocking himself as much as everyone else, Arthur pulls the sword. Before he can be executed by Vortigern, he’s rescued by a Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and the resistance fighters still loyal to Uther’s vision of a united and peaceful kingdom. Arthur attempts a vision quest to unlock the full potential of Excalibur and himself, and he begrudgingly helps the resistance as they sabotage Vortigern and attempt to assassinate him on a visit to Londinium. When hostages are threatened if Arthur does not surrender, he and the Mage devise a way to get him into Camelot to free the captives, defeat the usurper’s oppressive army and destroy the arcane tower that increases Vortigern’s power.
Pretender to the Throne
The above summary makes the movie seem more coherent and fluid than it really is. One element in the film’s favor is how it doesn’t attempt to be a “historically accurate” retelling of Arthur. There is magic and monsters and if nothing else a sense of fantastical fun that holds up parts of the movie even if it does seem weightless. Djimon Hounsou as Sir Bedivere is an inspired choice, though not much comes from it.
Unfortunately, along with eschewing “historical” Arthur, Guy Ritchie didn’t really use “legendary” Arthur either. Aside from some places and character names, the movie bears only a passing resemblance to anything from Arthurian legend. As a primal figure of English myth, one would think part of the rationale behind using King Arthur would be to comment on his stature and that of the traditional of Arthurian tales, whether it be in the form of the flawed idealism of Camelot—Excalibur—or satire—Monty Python's the Holy Grail. Ritchie’s only goal, however, seems to be making cool looking fast edits and montages. Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski makes better use of Arthurian legend in his Witcher series, especially The Lady of the Lake. Many of the traditional markers are absent; The Holy Grail, Guinevere, Mystical Isle of Avalon, and Lancelot are all MIA. Merlin, the audience is told, is in hiding, and that’s the end of that. The potential for use of the elements or even their subversion is squandered.
The character of Arthur is also an opportunity missed. There is an intriguing proposition in having Arthur starts as an impoverished petty criminal, but aside from informing a few of his choices, not much is done to develop this, nor do we see much of the kind of leader and king into which this background would shape him. Arthur is a combination of Moses, pimp, iconoclast, rebel, and neighborhood crime boss akin to Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part 2. The Mage sends him on a vision quest to the dark lands to allegedly break him down and build him into a better person, but there’s no evidence he’s lordlier at the end of it than when he started. This problem is emblematic of so many of the movie’s problems: it tries to do far too much, ending in doing nothing much at all.
Forged in Magic and Quick-Cuts
King Arthur is tonally disjointed, which makes it a match for its frantic visual style, rapid dialogue, and hyperventilating score. It moves so fast, it seems as though it’s trying to cover three films worth of material by condensing them into montages. The whole story of Uther Pendragon and criminally underused Eric Bana takes about 10 minutes, allowing for the slow motion sequences. Arthur’s boyhood and formative years in a Londinium brothel are dispensed with in a rapid-fire montage. Dark lands vision quest: montage. The longest sequence is likely the failed assassination in Londinium and subsequent escape through the side streets.
There’s plenty of magic in the movie, but it isn’t always impressive, which is a shame since technology and film techniques now allow for high fantasy elements to be no less filmable than anything else. Vortigern suffers from this especially, as all his magical powers amount to are waving some orbs of fire around and turning into something from a Frank Frazetta painting. The latter isn’t even his power, but borrowed at a steep price from unfathomable octopus-witches, presumably before they relocate to Innsmouth.
The movie is in part a mess picks and abandons plenty of visually or thematically engaging ideas: octopus-witches who live in a watery cave under Camelot, the price of asking for magical help from said octopus-witches, Mages as a distinct people, ancient London as a polyglot and multiethnic urban landscape, the contrasting fire and frost imagery for sorcery and Excalibur. Unfortunately, none of this ever amount to coherent themes or even subtext. The audience is left with a problem of having a movie that is a cacophony of ideas and images competing with one another rather than being in service to a particular story.
The musical score is probably the most unique element of the movie. It is both minimalistic and epic, blending folk song, unusual instrumentation, and heavy breathing. In many sequences, the score gives the movie weight and scope that it couldn’t achieve on its own. It is difficult to say if the score actually fits with the movie, but it is capable of holding the attention of the audience, even when they might not be able to understand what they’re seeing on the screen.
Long Live the King
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a mess, but an interesting one. Viewers looking for a good movie will likely not find one, and viewers interested in Arthurian legend likely won't be satisfied either. Viewers looking for something they haven’t seen before, however, will discover something here.
© 2017 Seth Tomko