In the slight chance there are still those who consider King Arthur a true historical figure, let’s get the record straight. He’s fantasy; stories derived from folklore from around 5 or 6 AD; a legend that grew in the telling with the passing of years. Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, even Camelot itself, are no more real than the Loch Ness monster.
The stories that we now know of King Arthur is largely due to author T.H. White’s romantic, whimsical fantasy The Once and Future King. The book took all of the rumors, the legends, and the traditions, joined the dots, and put everything in order. It’s what Walt Disney’s The Sword and the Stone is based upon, plus it inspired the musical Camelot. Director Guy Ritchie, who co-wrote the screenplay to his new medieval action/thriller King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, has gone back to the drawing board, re-developed the Arthur stories, thrown in some Lord of the Rings sensibilities, sprinkled a flavoring of Game of Thrones, added his own adrenaline-fueled style of cocksure cinematic, rock ‘n roll flash, mixed them together, and made a complete, unmitigated mess of the whole thing.
That mess is obvious from the get-go when a super-charged, chaotically presented, attack on King Uther Pendragon’s castle by Mordred’s dark, evil, supernatural forces occurs. It comes in the shape of massive, elephantine monsters with spikes in their tusks, and they appear out of the darkness and smoke, stomping over all the king’s men and violently sweeping them aside as if they were skittles. First, it’s hard to tell what’s going on; second, it really doesn’t make sense. We can see amid all the chaos and running around within the castle walls that England’s once and future king is at this point a child, yet those who know the Arthur legends will also know that Mordred was Arthur’s illegitimate son; he’s yet to be born. Already, you’re asking, now, wait a minute.
The king is played by Eric Bana, and it’s his death that begins the film’s own game of thrones. During a sword fight between family, his villainous brother, Vortigem (Jude Law) somehow appears to have developed instant, magical powers. The king dies with what looks like a suicide throw of his own sword. Vortigem takes the crown and becomes the new king. At the same time, the now orphaned boy Arthur is hidden under furry blankets in a boat and floats to safety along the Thames, away from the castle. He’s eventually found by a small group of women up river, though unlike Moses discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaidens, Arthur is discovered by Londinium prostitutes. Yes, the boy Arthur is raised to manhood in a brothel. For the record, Londinium, the settlement along the Thames that would later become the City of London, didn’t appear until 43 AD. If Arthur’s story is supposed to be somewhere around 5 or 6 AD, there’s another one of those time-leaping, now, wait-a-minute, moments.
The issue with all of those early narrative elements where a great deal occurs in a short space of time is not so much what happens, but how. Chunks of information are absent; the overall picture puzzle is missing several pieces. Later, in a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em flashbacks, those missing pieces appear, but they don’t come as clever reveals to satisfy a sense of suspense that has kept you guessing, they just fill in the blanks of something that should have been shown when they first occurred. Evidently, director Ritchie has lost the art of story-telling.
Besides Ritchie’s familiar signature-style of slow-mo’s, lightning speed edits, fast forwards, speeded up re-winds, flashbacks within flashbacks, and other assorted box of cinematic visual tricks, all working at complete odds against the time and subject, the cast appears to be made up of characters who would sound completely at home in present day London’s East End. They’re the cockney geezers straight out of 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 2000’s Snatch, and 2008’s RocknRolla. Substitute the suits for medieval costumes, the hit men for archers, and throw in names like Mischief John, Kung Fu George and the infamous Goosefat Bill, plus have all the gang refer to Arthur as Boss, and you’ve got ye olde Londinium version of Lock, Stock and A Few Smoking Arrows. When one of Arthur’s Jack-the-lads asks, “How d’you get money back from a viking?” Arthur (Charlie Hunman) replies with, “I feel a joke coming on.”
That rhythm of modern-day accents and misplaced humor runs throughout the whole film. “There’s not a bollock between ‘em,” declares Arthur when referring to the king’s men, plus that East End habit of pronouncing Th as an F and dropping aitches before words that require them is made unintentionally funnier by, of all people, footballer David Beckham in a brief role as one of the king’s soldiers. When told to grab Excalibur out of the stone, Arthur reaches down with a single palm. “Oi!” Beckham’s soldier shouts. “I said boaf ‘ands.”
There’s no harm in trying a new, more realistic, grittier approach if it works, but this King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is as obnoxious and as slimy as that repulsive, tentacled, slithery, unexplained something that emerges out of the river and talks to Jude Law in the voice of Lorraine Bruce as though channeling Hackney lad, Ray Winstone. King Arthur’s story remains far more effective as a magical fairy tale, the way English folklore has always told it.
Camelot had better music than the ear-punishing, present-day rock of Ritchie’s soundtrack, Disney’s animated Sword in the Stone told the boy’s story better, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail was funnier. There’s talk of this being the first of a six-part series. That’s either another one of those misplaced time-leaping, now, wait-a-minute, moments, or someone’s being really optimistic.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 127 Minutes Overall rating: 3 (out of 10)