From the animated Sword in the Stone (1963) to John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), from Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004) to Starz’s Camelot (2011), and not even including the various comics, books, video games, short stories, and other texts, Arthurian tales have enjoyed incredible longevity via adaptations and re-imaginings. It’s a genre that seems immune to accusations of unoriginality in Hollywood, which is cyclically plagued with remakes, sequels, and prequels. The mythology is so epic and timeless, yet so well known and open to playful reworkings, that each new iteration adds something to the legend, truly making it a dynamic mythology.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the newest take on the Arthurian legend, an origin story directed by Guy Ritchie, renown for his criminal films Snatch (2000) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), along with his two Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. Ritchie’s last outing was the reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015). The film looked like a perfect period-era spy-fi film with a dash of Ritchie’s cinematic flair, and yet it turned out to be a fairly by-the-numbers spy-fi that failed to do something new with the material, unlike OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) which succeeded in this department.
Perhaps learning from playing it too safe with The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie tackles King Arthur mythology by doing what he does best: making it an edgy, British crime film. For all intents and purposes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword could almost be taken as a far distant prequel to Snatch. The characters talk, act, plan, and execute their heists in similar fashions. The proto-knights of the round table band together well, exchanging pithy banter before taking off for rounds of assassinations, arsonry, and freeing slaves. King Uther’s bloodline can surely be traced to Jason Statham’s Turkish in Snatch. The quick-witted dialogue should feel anachronistic, but it doesn’t – it works. Ritchie’s disjointed narratives are also on full display, as scenes that take place in different temporal instances are conveyed to the audience at the same time, such as when Arthur recounts his dealings with the Vikings or when he ventures into Blacklands. Sometimes, this is executed well (as in the Viking scene, complete with scenes that rewind on themselves), but at other times it causes a sacrifice to substance. Arthur’s journey into the Blacklands is extremely truncated because of this, which is unfortunate because it hints at all of the wonderful creatures and trials he must face in his hero’s quest.
Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur is likable, but perhaps playing the reluctant hero a little too clichéd at times (refusing to confront his past, refusing to lead the rebels, trying to discard Excalibur, etc.). He’s at his best when he is either firing his rapid wit or in fisticuffs or berserker-mode whilst wielding Excalibur. Jude Law plays Vortigern, Arthur’s uncle who rules Britannia and lusts for power. Law does fairly alright, but his black leather attire recalls Ray Liotta in Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), though Law has more on-screen charisma. The end result though is that Law’s Vortigern is fairly one dimensional, echoing similar characters in other films.
There is an odd balance of CGI and naturalism in Legend of the Sword. Jarring CGI is used right from the beginning, when war elephants taller than skyscrapers attack Camelot, recalling the sweeping battles from the Lord of the Rings films. The city of Londinium is also realized digitally, creating a sprawling metropolis. The ending sequence looks as if an arena from a Soul Calibur game was lifted and placed right into the narrative. And yet, the scenes that stick out the most are when Arthur is in the countryside of Britannia, where it is rocky, with small streams and simple stonework and the vegetation sparse and bare, perhaps just at the tail end of autumn. These bleak scenes recall the mud-caked lands in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Britannia of this period isn’t supposed to look sexy as in Lord of the Rings, and these more natural scenes keep the film anchored and somewhat more believable to the audience.
The biggest flaw of Legend of the Sword is that it knows narratively where it needs to go (Arthur needs to face his past and thus confront his uncle.) but doesn’t know how to get there. A large portion of the film is bogged down by an assassination attempt gone awry. The sequence keeps extending itself, as characters have to keep going back to retrieve other characters, over and over. At another point in the film, Arthur comes to the conclusion that they need to take Vortigen’s castle, only to be blackmailed in the next scene to go to the castle. Characters appear and are then discarded as plot deems them needed. Annabelle Wallis’ Maggie, for example, should have a more important part as a spy and informant, yet her screen time is easily in the single digits. There are many great characters and narrative threads that should’ve been embraced over others. Thankfully, Ritchie thought wisely not to shoehorn in any arbitrary love scenes for Arthur.
Neo-peplum films as of late have seemingly been suffering from both critical and commercial derision, and Legend of the Sword appears to have fallen into that camp, as well. The combination of Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones, Arthurian legend, and British gangster film may be off-putting to some, but this mixture is the film’s most unique attribute, and it’s executed pretty well. Legend of the Sword may be perhaps a bit shallow when compared to other takes on the legend, but it’s stylish with fast-paced sword fights, with a few comedic dialogue-driven scenes thrown in for good measure. It also taps into the same fears that dystopian films have recently been diving into: rising up against injustice and leaders who do not have their people’s best interest at heart, giving the film some topical relevancy. With an entire summer on the horizon of other neo-peplum fare (Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Transforms: The Last Knight), Legend of the Sword does what it can to set the stage. While it may not have been embraced by audiences, Ritchie’s take on the legend is unique, refreshing, and entertaining.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Ad Victoriam! Essays on Neo-Peplum Cinema and Television. He can be found at nickdiak.com.