The first thing I want to say is that I think Eric Bana (who had a minor role playing Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon) would have made a fantastic Arthur. He has the look, the temperament, and the gravitas for the role. Somebody make this happen.
Okay, on to the actual review. I have to admit, I wanted so much to love this film. But sadly, I did not. Now, that’s not to say I hated it — not by any means. It was entertaining, the action scenes were very cool, and the special effects were top notch. I didn’t mind the liberties that were taken with the mythology, especially since we’ve seen so many different versions of the Arthurian legend over the years. However, I did have a few major problems with some of director Guy Ritchie‘s decisions, which didn’t necessarily ruin the movie for me, but ruined it as a King Arthur movie, if that makes any sense.
First, a little background. The movie opens in the midst of a war between Camelot, led by Uther Pendragon, and a group of evil mages led by Mordred. Of course, as many of you may know, Mordred is usually Arthur’s illegitimate son in most versions of the story. Like I said before, I don’t mind Ritchie messing around with the timeline or the mythology, but it’s unfortunate that an Arthurian villain as important and complex as Mordred was given such short shrift. I mean, he has no dialogue, and you see him for about ten seconds before he’s killed by Uther. How very unsatisfying.
I also wish Ritchie had spent more time in Uther’s Camelot, primarily because I wanted to see additional character development and motivations from Vortigern, played with quiet menace by Jude Law. I really like Law as an actor, and he could have created a truly legendary villain, but he just wasn’t given enough to work with. Instead, all we really get to see is a slimy traitor whose lust for power surpasses all else, even his love for his wife and daughter. Anyway, once Uther is killed and young Arthur escapes (only to be taken in by a group of women in a brothel), the audience is introduced to my biggest problem with the movie. You see, growing up in the streets with criminals and prostitutes results in Arthur having a very rough upbringing. He learns to fight, makes money in less-than-honest ways, and ends up forming sort of a medieval street gang. By the time he reaches adulthood, Arthur is sort of a sarcastic, benevolent crime boss — he protects the women who raised him, he collects payoffs and kickbacks from merchants (and some surly Vikings), and he even has some of Vortigern’s soldiers in his pocket. Basically, this characterization gives Ritchie the opportunity to do what he does best — tell crime stories about seedy characters with cockney accents from the London underground.
For those who don’t know, Ritchie famously directed Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, both of which are excellent movies, and both of which are British crime-heist-comedies, as described above. Unfortunately, this seems to be all Ritchie knows how to do, and his trademark style doesn’t really work for Arthurian legend. While there have been numerous different literary and cinematic versions of Arthur over the past 1,000 years, the Once and Future King should never be, I dunno… a medieval, wisecracking Michael Corleone? You see, above all else, Arthur is an idealist, and his destined rise to the throne should be marked by the quest for a perfect kingdom characterized by chivalry, justice, and equality. He should be someone that inspires other men — someone they want to follow — but when Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur meets the other rebels, they don’t really like him and just want to use him because he alone has the supernatural ability to wield Excalibur.
I will say, that’s one thing I did like about the movie — the return of magic to the Arthurian legend. In recent years, it seems like most adaptations (The Warlord Chronicles, First Knight, King Arthur) tend to remove the magical elements of the story in favor of more historical realism. But I think the popularity of Game of Thrones has given actors and filmmakers more freedom to delve into traditional fantasy. And so, the fight scenes in which Arthur squares off against monsters, scores of soldiers, and a hulking black knight, along with the scenes where he learns to use Excalibur as he gradually begins to accept his destiny, are my favorite moments of the film.
So what are my final thoughts? Well, when I first began writing this review, I wanted to criticize it for its lack of in-depth character development. But now that I think about it, my criticism is more about the wrong kind of character development. You see, Ritchie got the tone wrong. He tried to make a “Guy Ritchie” movie set in medieval London, which is perfectly fine in and of itself, but it’s simply not a King Arthur movie. Perhaps I’m just a purist, a traditionalist, or some kind of literary snob, but I tend to agree with the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, which reads, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword piles mounds of modern action flash on an age-old tale — and wipes out much of what made it a classic story in the first place.” It’s entertaining, but Ritchie’s attempt to create a modern, definitive version of this legendary character sadly falls short. So for now, if you want a real King Arthur movie, just go watch John Boorman’s Excalibur again. You’ll thank me.