I’m “biast” (con): nothing
what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
There are no heroes anymore. There are self-centered bastards who accidentally stumble into heroics. There are sociopaths who abuse women and are lauded for it. There are criminals who receive official sanction for their antisocial behavior. And we’re meant to cheer for them all. But true heroes in the more traditional meaning of the word? Difficult to find onscreen at the moment.
And now Guy Ritchie has engaged in an egregious de-heroing of cinema with his King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The Arthur of myth is a figure representing bravery, service, and sacrifice; stalwart resistance to tyranny; gentlemanliness, even. He is romantic in the grandest sense, and an archetype of the most virtuous ideals of what it means to be British. (An American equivalent might hover somewhere between George Washington and Paul Bunyan.) We can certainly argue over what, precisely, Arthur represents, and whether all of those ideals are worth valorizing (medieval notions of chivalry, usually considered essential to the myth of Arthur, are deeply problematic in some aspects), but Arthur does stand for something, and that something is, on the whole and dependent on the era in which his story is told, honorable and upstanding and — perhaps most importantly — decent.
But Legend’s Ritchiefied Arthur? He is a thief and a thug and a gangster. He stands for nothing except revenge. He believes in nothing except tribalism. He feels nothing but rage. He has no philosophy of anything. In a bashed-together fantasy mishmash that calls a lot upon Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars — stories with clear demarcations between Good and Evil — this Arthur does not represent Good. He is, at best, Maybe Not Actually Evil. At worst, he is Indifferent, which is the most appalling trait the “hero” of a story like this one can embody.
I don’t mean to suggest that a story about Arthur — or any hero — as a perfect paragon of unwavering righteousness is preferable. That doesn’t work either: tales of Heroes are most interesting and most relatable when they explore that gray area between the attempt to live up to ideals and the inevitable falling short of them. And there is absolutely plenty of room for such in tales of Arthur. But not here. Ritchie — who directs, of course, and wrote the script with David Dobkin (The Judge, Jack the Giant Slayer), Joby Harold, and Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) — has created an Arthur devoid of heart and soul and empty of hope. In the body of star Charlie Hunnam — who is even less charismatic here than in The Lost City of Z, which at least holds up as a film around him — he barely feels human: he might as well be the videogame avatar he seems to be standing in for in the CGI-fueled battle sequences. In an attempt, perhaps, to find a new spin on Arthur, Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) has hit vacuum.
There is nothing noble, not by any stretch of the imagination encompassing even the loosest definition of the word, in this Arthur, who appears to be running some sort of protection racket in the allegedly mean streets of late-Roman Londinium. (Except there are no Romans. If this is meant to be early medieval Britain, though, the city wouldn’t still be called Londinium.) Whatever values he has do not stretch beyond protecting his posse, which includes his fellow gang members (they all seem to have apprenticed as pickpockets) and the women of the whorehouse where he lives; he was raised there, and presumes himself to be the son of one of them.
In fact, he escaped as a toddler from Camelot when his father, King Uther (Eric Bana: The Finest Hours, Deliver Us from Evil), was killed by his uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law: Spy, Black Sea), who then stole the throne. Baby Arthur floated in a little boat down the Thames, just like Moses… and now, Vortigern is searching for all young men the correct age — in a move out of Herod’s handbook — who might be able to remove Uther’s magical sword Excalibur from the stone in which it is embedded, a task that can be accomplished only by the true heir to the throne. Arthur is drafted into the sword-pulling test and then the battle of dudes begins.
“Whom are we meant to be rooting for?” and “Why should we care about anybody?” are questions Legend has no interest in answering. We’re probably supposed to cheer for Arthur, but nothing we bring with us into the cinema about him is reflected onscreen, and there’s nothing onscreen to make us like him: he’s an unpleasant jerk. Vortigern is evil because he dresses in black and uses dark magic. Arthur has no idea until the very end of the film that Vortigern betrayed and murdered Uther: all Arthur knows is that Vortigern dissed his gangster and prostitute friends and took away his life in Londinium, and that’s all he’s fighting back against. Later, we are told that peasant rebellions against Vortigern have sprung up and that people are fighting in Arthur’s name, and we have no idea what that could be about. We don’t know what grievances the people may have against Vortigern. (There is one very bad thing he is doing that hurts his subjects, but there’s no context for any public anger, there is arguably a justifiable reason for Vortigern’s action, and there is definitely a much better target for the public’s ire.) Much worse, we have absolutely no clue what the people are saying about Arthur, what they expect he will be able to do for them, or why they are placing any hopes in him. Understanding that could have helped us appreciate this Arthur. But no such luck.
It is all truly bizarre. In the absence of any genuine conflict of philosophies of governing a nation, or even just basic good-versus-evil, what is left is almost literally a dick-measuring contest between Arthur and Vortigern, one that culminates in the destruction of the very phallic tower Vortigern has been building and Arthur holding aloft the very phallic Excalibur in triumph. Arthur killed Vortigern’s evil boner: hooray! Arthur now has the king boner: yay! It’s like Ritchie doesn’t even try to forestall our snorts of derision… or else he thinks there’s authentic power in dick-measuring contests.
There are lots of other problems with Legend. This is a world in which magic is real and everywhere and there are lots of wizards around, and yet magic seems to have almost no impact on everyday life. Women are all but nonexistent, present, when at all, not as characters but as plot points: octopus witches (really!), hookers with hearts of gold, and bystanders for men to sacrifice to their ambition. Ritchie may have believed it was a feminist move to replace Merlin (who does not appear here, though he is mentioned) with a powerful female magician (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), but she doesn’t even warrant a name — she’s only ever just “the mage” — and anyway she ends up getting kidnapped by Vortigern in order to motivate Arthur, and needs to be rescued. So much for her power!
Yes, this film is derivative, rote, and full of sound and fury signifying nothing. But that might not matter quite so much if Ritchie had found even a tiny reason to retell Arthur’s story. He hasn’t. Some legends of Arthur feature a messianic belief that the High King will rise again in an hour of great need for Britain — and maybe Ritchie is alluding to that with the calls to Bible stories — and it could be argued that Britain faces such a moment now. Alas that this Arthur certainly isn’t one we need… but he may be one we deserve: a man who puts himself first, is driven by personal grievances, lacks any sense of duty to country and to decency, and serves no one but himself and his friends.