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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword movie review: well I didn’t vote for him

King Arthur Legend of the Sword red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Derivative, rote, devoid of heart and hope. Guy Ritchie has found no reason to retell Arthur’s story, or to render a mythic hero as a self-serving thug.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big fantasy fan
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.

There are no heroes anymore, just criminals and sociopaths we’re meant to cheer.

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.

You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.tweet

But Legend’s Ritchiefied Arthur? He is a thief and a thug and a gangster. He stands for nothing except revenge.tweet He believes in nothing except tribalism. He feels nothing but rage. He has no philosophy of anything. In a bashed-together fantasy mishmashtweet 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 fortweet 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.

Of course Vortigern is evil. I mean, just look at him!

Of course Vortigern is evil. I mean, just look at him!tweet

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.

There is nothing noble, not by any stretch of the imagination, in this Arthur.

“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.tweet 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.

Her? Oh, she’s just our girl wizard. Nah, she doesn’t have a name...

Her? Oh, she’s just our girl wizard. Nah, she doesn’t have a name…tweet

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,tweet 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,tweet lacks any sense of duty to country and to decency, and serves no one but himself and his friends.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

red light 1 star

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) | directed by Guy Ritchie
US/Can release: May 12 2017
UK/Ire release: May 17 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, moderate violence, threat)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • RogerBW

    I wanted exactly one thing from this film: Arthur saying “oi, Vortigern, you slaaaaag”.

    I didn’t get it.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I found myself disappointed in this movie for being not so bad as to be hysterically funny. Instead, I felt it was just kind of ok. Not really terrible, but pretty forgettable.

    So, was Charlie Hunnam really good on “Sons of Anarchy”? Cause between this and “Pacific Rim” – which I hated – I find him pretty useless. Even MRs. Dr. Rocketscience only likes him with his shirt off.

    Jude Law looked fabulous at least. And Djimon Hounsou did his level best to save his scenes.

  • I’ve never seen *Sons of Anarchy.* I can’t think of a single thing I have seen Hunnam in that makes him seem interesting.

  • David_Conner

    When I saw the trailer for this, which shows big words on the screen, “Raised on the streets. Born to be king” I couldn’t help thinking of Kevin Smith’s tale of how maniac producer Jon Peters selected him to write a Superman screenplay, saying something like “I know you’re perfect for this job, because you and me? We’re both from the streets.”

    Setting aside the dubious proposition that either the kid from the New Jersey suburbs or the former hairdresser were “from the streets,” Superman sure the hell isn’t! Neither is King Arthur, and it’s hard to see what’s gained by changing that..

  • They wanted a Superman “from the streets”! Thank god we were saved from that.

  • RogerBW

    I can sort of see how that might work, going back to Superman’s early roots as an immigrant champion of the underdog, but the trademark owners would never allow it.

  • Danielm80

    Grant Morrison actually tried it in the comics a while back, and it worked surprisingly well, but he made sure to contrast the “angry young man” version of the character with the older, more temperate version he grew into.

    These days, Zack Snyder and Greg Berlanti are actually making the DC heroes much too dark and despairing for my taste. I kind of wish the trademark owners would ask them to hold back a little.

  • David_Conner

    To be fair, it’s not entirely clear what Peters was talking about with regard to “the streets” beyond the fact that Superman would be fighting a giant mechanical spider on them.

    It’s a funny story, recounted by Kevin Smith here:
    (You can skip to about 5:00 in to get to the part about his meeting with Peters.)

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  • CB

    They were delirious from all the money The Dark Knight made, and by the time they realized that maybe you need some contrast between your Dark Anti Hero and your Light True Hero it was too late to reboot the whole Justice League franchise again. And also I guess Snyder’s tone-deaf style-over-substance films still have enough of an audience to make money. So the owners are happy enough.

  • ann lauler

    Too bad…for you that is…Charlie Hunnam is absolutely amazing in this movie and all that he has done….sorry for your loss

  • I’m sure I’m manage to struggle on somehow.

  • Chris

    I’ve always wanted a quality adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, where Arthur features as a flawed human with good intentions, set in a more historically sound 5th century Britain… Britons and Anglo-Saxons, not the late-Medieval castles, chivalry, etc. It would work best as an HBO series, I think. It’ll never happen, but a man can dream

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