Let’s face it–the gold standard when it comes to cinematic tellings of the classic tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is John Boorman’s breathless 1981 effort Excalibur. From its debt to the mythology and history that came before to the richness of the look and approach, we truly felt like we were back in the days of wizards, swords, and Holy Grails. Both before and after, other interpretations have suffered from being either too traditional (1953’s Knights of the Round Table) or too revisionist (Antoine Fuqua’s insane King Arthur). Only Boorman knew how to properly mix fact with fiction, making his take sing when others causes nothing but snores.
Now we have King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, an abortive attempt by Warner Bros. to create a series of films based on the material that squanders the talents of everyone involved. The biggest mistake here was putting director Guy Ritchie in charge. His highly stylized approach works well when dealing with contemporary gangster fare (Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) reimagining a famous British detective (his Sherlock Holmes films are a hoot). But here, the majesty of the Arthurian mythos is too much for the former Mr. Madonna to handle. He aims high, but everything about his efforts argue for something too modern and contemporary for such familiar folklore.
The other problem here is the approach. This isn’t the Arthur we were taught about in school or who we’ve seen scampering through numerous period pieces. This particular take has our future ruler (eventually played with minimal panache by Charlie Hunnam) growing up in a brothel. He’s not regal, he’s a rogue. Eventually, we get to the whole “destiny” moment where we find Excalibur buried in a rock, but even that is fallacy. What’s really important is Jude Law’s vengeful uncle Vortigern, the murder of Arthur’s father (Eric Bana) and the desire to find the rightful heir so he can be eliminated.
This means that the first half of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is spent setting up Vortigern’s take over, and the second half has our hero and his posse trying to bring him down–and it is here where Ritchie’s style defies him. His familiar strategies, the ratcheted up editing and unusual angles, don’t accent the narrative. Instead, they distract from it, reminding us over and over again that this is a contemporary version of an old stalwart. Granted, we don’t really need another straight telling of this tale, but something this screwed up does no one any good.
And what about a future franchise? How does something like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword stack up with other origin stories out there, especially where the plan is for five more films? The answer is that nothing here shows promise for expanding this universe. Ritchie’s scope is so small, so lacking in anything epic, that you feel as if you are watching a watered down version of something far more grand. After all, HBO’s Game of Thrones has shown everyone how to do this stuff right. To borrow a sentiment, Arthur isn’t worthy of carrying Jon Snow’s shield.
Not everything here is awful. Though he lacks the presence required to play a once and future king, Hunnam has a magnetic onscreen presence. He may not be the part, but he surely looks it. Law, on the other hand, is in drawn-out male diva mode. He mistakes histrionics for hissable menace. Ritchie also offers a few action scenes which sparkle with potential. But they don’t mesh with the rest of the movie. Instead, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword trade myth for a messy missed opportunity.