King Arthur, the legendary king of the Britons, has graced the big and small screen many times and Warner Brothers have plans to start up their own six film franchise based on the character. Considering the quality of the end product and the poor box-office return Warner Brothers may have to re-evaluate their plans.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is an orphan boy raised in a brothel in the city of Londinium, unaware he is the rightful king of the land. He is forced back to Camelot when the Uther Pendragon’s (Eric Bana) sword, Excalibur, is discovered and only his true born heir could raise it from the stone. Arthur reluctantly has to accept his role as the destined hero and overthrow his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law).
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a troubled production: it suffered rewrites, numerous casting changes and its release date was pushed back. Even the pitch by Guy Ritchie was bizarre: ‘Lord of the Rings meets Snatch’, two story ideas that didn’t mesh together.
According to IMDB Ritchie’s first cut of the film was three-and-an-half hours long and it was cut to a runtime of just over two hours: and it shows. Great portions of the story seem to be missing or greatly reduced – especially some of the high fantasy elements.
Moments like Arthur going into the dark lands was given the Guy Ritchie editing treatment – where time skips back and forth and during the final battle the heroes pull out a monster from out of nowhere to do a great bit of the fighting.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has been seen as a superhero origins story in-all-but-name and whilst there are some similarities “King Arthur” is more akin to swashbuckling films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the Pirates of the Caribbean series: an attempt at making a fun adventure peppered with moments of darkness. The key word here is attempt.
The film is really a hodgepodge of different fantasy and historic franchises and ideas. The opening battle is similar to the Battle of Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and the montage showing Arthur growing up in Londinium had a slight similarity to 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.
The big action scene in Londinium was like a cross between Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the parkour action of the Assassin’s Creed games.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword takes many liberties with the myths. Villains were re-purposed: Mordred was simply a villain for the prologue instead of being Arthur’s traitorous son born from incest and Vortigern was a warlord not related to Arthur.
To be fair there are many legends involving King Arthur and they have evolved over time. However, there are much better films about King Arthur: 1981’s Excalibur was the pinnacle of Arthurian films, embracing the darker elements.
Other famous characters like Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere were absent from the film – possibly being saved for a sequel, that will possibly never come.
The film attached an impressive cast like Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana (in a thankless role), Djimon Hounsou and two Game of Thrones actors: Aidan Gillen and Michael McElhatton.
Most of the cast were fine in their roles, but they were given weak material. Hunnam was playing a Ritchie mockney gangster that appeared in the director’s previous films and he had the physique for his reluctant hero role. Law was disappointing as the villain – made even worst because he was so good as Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword also gained attention because of a cameo from a famous footballer and he has been criticised for his performance – however, I will give him the benefit of the doubt because he isn’t a professional actor.
The real weak link in the cast was Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as The Mage – she gave a bland performance as the magic user who can control animals and she looked bored in her role.
Ritchie is famous for his disjointed style of editing and it has served him well in his big budget films Sherlock Holmes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. However, those films had some sort of investigative storyline and the editing serves it well when there’s a big reveal: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a straightforward hero’s journey fantasy film and Ritchie’s editing is just self-indolent.
Ritchie has also developed a reputation for being an action director but his skills were lacking for King Arthur. The opening battle was a solid enough sequence but after that the action turned into impersonations of 300 and Assassin’s Creed.
The final fight was an incomprehensible affair with the camera being way too close and swirls in multiple directions. This is even more disappointing considering Ritchie did excel when he filmed the forest chase in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Even the costume and production design is an eclectic mix – adding to the feeling that the film is confused. Whilst the film is set in a world similar to the high middle arts there are also elements of Roman iconography on the soldiers armour for Vortigern and in the background in Londinium there are Roman ruins with the colosseum making the city look more like Rome.
The Viking characters who appeared looked like they walked off the set of The Last Kingdom, whilst Arthur and his companions are dressed in leather jackets with sheepskin linings. No one expects historical accuracy but there needs to be a little consistency.
The music in the film is also a playlist of different musical styles. Daniel Pemberton used Celtic-sounding music (which was the best fit for the film), a jaunty Pirates of the Caribbean style score and the big dramatic and action packed moments Pemberton lifted from Hans Zimmer‘s Inception horns. This is a just symbolic of the mess that the film is.
King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword‘s production troubles were fully on show – having a director whose style of storytelling that did not fit the material. There is little fun to be had, not even from a so-bad-it’s-good level. There are much better films about King Arthur out there. Hopefully Guy Ritchie will return to the Sherlock Holmes series.