I am pleased to report to die hard King Arthur fans that Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is deeply faithful to its source material. It includes both the “Knights Who Say Ni” and a terrifying killer rabbit. With nasty, big pointy teeth.
Okay, so that’s a bit of a fib. Ritchie’s Arthur is not at all true to the King Arthur legends of yore and Mallory. The film opens with a battle with giant elephants. There are no (0) giant elephants in the Morte d'Arthur. The film also features an evil tentacle thing–with women’s bodies swimming around in the evil tentacles–which feeds on the blood sacrifice of loved ones. Tennyson, a proper Victorian, did not write about evil messy sexy tentacle things, and would take affront if you said he did. In Ritchie’s film, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is slain by his brother, Vortigem (Jude Law), and the young Arthur is sent downstream like Moses to be raised in a brothel. Sadly, no brothels appear in the T.H. White version. Alas.
In short, Legend of the Sword is a fantasy story with some vaguely Arthur-y elements, like a character named “King Arthur” (Charlie Hunnam). It is a film on which the name “King Arthur” was slapped because you (yes, you, over there) have heard the name “King Arthur” and are more likely to put your butt in a seat for a movie named “King Arthur” than for one named “King Throckmorton” or “King Homunculus” or “King Biff.” King Arthur: Legend of the Sword doesn’t care about the King Arthur myth at all; it is just a convenient title on which to dump war elephants and the occasional giant snake. (Did I mention the giant snake? There’s a giant snake. Don’t bring your ophidiophobic friends.)
The indifference to the source material, though, is in itself a kind of fidelity. The 1975 film The Holy Grail remains probably the most critically acclaimed and famous Arthur film, and what it’s famous for is refusing to take the legend at all seriously. The single most iconic image of Arthur of the last 40+ years is Graham Chapman trotting across the mores pretending to ride a horse to the sound of coconuts clacking together. Over the last century, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ rejiggering of the Arthur legends with hobbits and gollums and lions and wardrobes have become better known than the originals. Even feminists took a swing with Mists Of Avalon. Merlin is still a household name, but I suspect for most people he’s more than half Gandalf at this point.
We all know what quests look like, so why don’t we just show him fighting the giant bats and wolves and such and cut out all the boring connective tissue?
Vagueness in your brand is supposed to be a bad thing. And it’s quite possible that Ritchie’s Arthur will tank, like his delightful but ignored reboot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015). But whatever its box office, the fact that the Arthur story is not sacrosanct is an aesthetic opportunity. People, for the most part, don’t have a childhood nostalgic investment in the Arthurian legends, so they won’t get angry when Ritchie flagrantly ignores the entire Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle. And Arthur is in the public domain, so no corporate overlord is going to get skittish if the main bad guy is some dude named Vortigem rather than Mordred. Indifference is freedom.
Or that’s how Ritchie seems to see it anyway. Legend of the Sword is kinetic, frenetic, and revels in its gleefully slapdash slickness. Arthur’s childhood as a scrambling street urchin, complete with petty thefts, streetfight scuffles, martial arts training and general rogueishness, is told in an accelerated music-video like montage—origin story as adrenalin rush. A quest to the Darklands (whatever they are) is treated with a similar offhand cheer. We all know what quests look like, so why don’t we just show him fighting the giant bats and wolves and such and cut out all the boring connective tissue?
In typical Ritchie style, there are also a number of sequences in which characters narrate past events in staccato tough guy wiseacre patter, intercut with visuals that conform (more or less) to the voice-overs. The emphasis on storytelling fits nicely with the oral Arthur legends. Similarly, Hunnam’s elaborately charismatic gift of gab underlines the film’s cheerful assurance that the storyteller is more important than the story. The conclusion of the film spirals rather gloriously into complete nonsense, with a psychedelic snake bite for our hero which, through some obscure means, calls into being that giant snake I mentioned. Said snake, through the miracle of CGI, looks to be roughly the size of an aircraft carrier or twelve. If you’re going to have a big snake, Ritchie believes, have a big snake.
The lack of reverence for the source material is also a boon to the casting. Merlin appears in a brief cameo and then is ignored. Replacing him is Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as a nameless mage, sans beard (as Arthur points out), but with an impressively spine-tingling accent and a look of pissed-off irritation that cleverly never gets resolved into a standard romantic plot. Djimon Housnou gets to play Sir Bedivere and the martial arts master George is portrayed by actual martial artist Tom Wu, rather than by, say, Finn Jones. Ritchie wasn’t quite ready to cast Tom Wu as Arthur, but still, it’s clear he doesn’t think he needs to cast white guys and only white guys in order to be true to the source material. Because who wants to be true to the source material? Where’s the fun in that?
Action blockbusters are supposed to be all about fun–in theory. In fact, though, now that every action film is part of a reboot or franchise, entertainment often takes a back seat to stodgy fidelity and bland reverence. “How can we get Dr. Strange his cloak?” and “Can we shoehorn Aquaman into this picture?” become the operative questions rather than, “Wouldn’t it be great to throw some Vikings in here?”
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has nothing particularly earth-shattering to say; it’s not a profound or innovative film. But it’s full of joy and energy and ridiculous nonsense. If there’s a sequel, maybe we will get that killer rabbit. Why not? If you’re willing to use your familiar property as a springboard rather than a cage, there’s no telling where you’ll end up, coconuts and all.