‘King Arthur: Legnd of The Sword’ (DVD / Blu-Ray) Review

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Our Rating

Magic Swords7
7

Cockney Geezers of the round table…

After his mother and father are killed, young Arthur is spirited away to be raised in a brothel in London, with no memory of old life or desire to return to it. Elsewhere, evil King Vortigern discovers a mysterious sword embedded in a stone…

King Arthur. Lancelot. Guinevere. Merlin. Excalibur. Camelot. You don’t have to be English to know that these words matter. Steeped in history, or maybe mythology, and dripping with a fair dose of magic, these names conjure all sorts of images, of brave and noble knights defending the common people from great evil, of a great king who would sacrifice everything for freedom, of a mighty wizard with the power to change the world on a whim, of a beautiful queen unable to control her own desires. And the stories told about them are either heroic tales that speak to the very best qualities of the people of ancient England, or a load of old cobblers designed to obscure the very worst of English culture. Take your pick… The reality of Arthurian legend had long been debated by academics (general consensus: he probably wasn’t real), but the entertainment value of these stories is in no doubt. There have been numerous adaptations of the legend, on both the small and big screen, over the years. We’ve had animation in the shape of ‘The Sword in the Stone‘ (1963) and ‘The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot‘ (1998). On TV, the BBC gave us ‘Merlin‘ which began in 2008 and ran for five successful seasons, and told the story from the point-of-view of a young Merlin in a Camelot where magic had been outawed, while US cable channel Starz created ‘Camelot‘, a much darker and weirder take on the story that only ran for one season, and came across as if it had been adapted by a particularly moody goth teenager, featuring copious amounts of nudity and violence (usually involving Eva Green, the queen of the oddballs). Up on the big screen, however, there have been many attempts to bring the legends to life, often with very different approaches to the subject matter. ‘Camelot‘ (1967) is the musical version, featuring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero warbling away, while John Boormans’s ‘Excalibur’ (1981) is probably the most fantastical adaptation, which isn’t surprising, as it’s based on Sir Thomas Mallory’sLe Morte d’Arthur‘, a collection of legends concerning Arthur and his associates that was first published in 1485. Although at times hard to follow, particularly when the knights begin searching for the Holy Grail, it’s notable for its cast, which features Nigel Terry as a noble-yet-doomed Arthur, Nicol Williamson as a properly batshit-crazy Merlin, as well as early appearances from the likes of Cherie Lunghi, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and Gabriel Byrne.

Elsewhere ‘First Knight‘ (1995) turned the whole thing into a limp romantic drama, as Sean Connery’s aging (not-to-mention Scottish) King Arthur attempts to woo Guinevere (Julia Ormond) while Richard Gere tries his best to look sexy and thoughtful under a ridiculous wig as Lancelot. These days best remembered for an early appearance from Rob Brydon(!), as well as rumours of on-set tensions between it’s stars, ‘First Knight‘ brought nothing new to the old story and wasn’t a big success. ‘King Arthur‘ (2004) took a much more realistic approach to it’s version of the tale. Here, Arthur (Clive Owen) is reimagined as a Roman General who elects to stay on after the legions abandon our unruly island, the ‘knights’ are Sarmatian warriors pressed into Roman service (for those not sure, Sarmatia was an ancient land that is now part of Russia) while Guinevere and Merlin are depicted as Pictish rebels fighting against the Roman occupation, but equally concerned about what will come after they’ve gone (basically, Vikings). Although not greatly received at the time, it deserves credit for it’s battle scenes, it’s stunning cinematography and an excellent cast, with just about every major role being filled by a talented and recognisable face. It’s also, almost certainly, the most accurate in terms of an actual, ‘real’ King Arthur. Now, if you’re thinking I’ve forgotten something, then have no fear. ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ (1975), comfortably one of the funniest films ever made, combines a strangely gritty realism (the ordinary people Arthur encounters, and is annoyed by, live in filth and squalor, while the nobles don’t have it much better) with humour that veers from the surreal (the ‘Knights Of The Round Table‘ song) to slapstick (the Black Knight) to the just-plain-daft (the Knights who say “ni!”). It also subverts the traditional characterisations, with Arthur (Graham Chapman) portrayed as noble and stoic, yet increasingly exasperated with the idiocy going on around him, while Lancelot (John Cleese) is so brave and heroic that he’s quite frankly a danger to everyone around him, including himself. Elsewhere, Sir Galahad the Chaste (Michael Palin), when confronted with a castle full of him nubile young women, is ready to give up his vow of chastity (before being ‘rescued’ by Lancelot), while Sir Bedivere (Terry Jones) is hailed as a master of knowledge, despite being somewhat lacking in the brain department. Full of famous set-pieces and scenes (the attack on the French castle being a standout) it’s an acknowledged all-time classic, with a non-ending that delights and annoys in equal measure. I feel I should also give a ‘shout-out’ to ‘Camelot 3000’, an excellent comic series first published in the early-to-mid 80’s by DC comics, which has Arthur and his associates reborn in the year 3000 A.D., and fighting to defend Planet Earth from an alien invasion. If you can track it down it’s well worth a look.

 

So, faced with all that, is the world really crying out for another journey into English mythology? Not-to-mention it’s in the hands of the man who gave us ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels‘, ‘Snatch‘ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘. Guy Ritchie has had a maddeningly erratic career, to say the least. His early work (‘Lock, Stock…’ and ‘Snatch’) can be viewed as an attempt to create his own genre, an uneasy mix of crime, comedy and late 90’s ‘Lad’ culture in which unpleasant people did unpleasant things to each other, but with fun nicknames which made it all okay. If truth-be-told, things fizzled out as quickly as they had begun for this new genre, as other directors attempted to put their own spin on it, despite lacking Ritchie’s visual flair. Duds like ‘Circus‘ and ‘Rancid Aluminium‘ hammered home the point, while Ritchie’s own career was somewhat derailed by his relationship with, and subsequent marriage to, Madonna. As well as becoming tabloid fodder, where everything he did or said suddenly became a topic of great importance, his attempt to reinvigorate his wife’s film career with ‘Swept Away‘ (2002), a shipwreck drama that’s regularly cited as one of the worst films ever made, was a resounding failure. Subsequent films were not successful, and his marriage breakdown and divorce led many to wonder if his star had already burned out, so-to-speak. Strangely enough, it was another bastion of English popular culture that got things back on track. ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ (2009) and its sequel ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows‘ (2011) were both big hits, helped enormously by the effortless charm and chemistry of the leads Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson). All of which leads us, via his highly stylised remake of ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘ (2015), to this point. And I’m going to repeat my question from earlier in this paragraph: is the world crying out for another King Arthur movie? let’s find out…

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword‘ begins as it means to go on, with a very large and elaborate battle sequence which, to Ritchie’s credit, does add something new to the legend, in the form of two truly gigantic elephants. Yes, you read that right. Elephants. Roughly the size of small mountains, and big enough to have small castles perched on their backs, they provide the vanguard of evil sorcerer Mordred’s army, as the wicked wizard attempts to take down Camelot. However, despite their failure in the opening salvo (the elephants prove surprisingly ineffective), it doesn’t take long for the forces of darkness to have another crack at things, and this time they get it right. Good King Uther (Eric Bana) and Queen Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) are both murdered by some sort of demonic warrior, while the child Arthur escapes the carnage to be hidden away amongst the lowlifes of ‘Londinium’, or London to you and me. And it’s here that you begin to get a sense of what Ritchie is trying to achieve with this film. As we’re treated to a montage of clips showing Arthur growing from frightened child into borderline gangster, accompanied by various whores, thugs and thieves, this stops being a historical fantasy and starts being just another ‘Guy Ritchie film’. Unpleasant men and women of dubious (and at times non-existent) morals, and sporting stupid names (take a bow Wet Stick and Back Lack), swagger about the city as if they own the place, conducting shady business, issuing threats and picking fights, all safe in the knowledge that a well-paced purse of coins will make everything okay. Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bit disappointing considering the sheer invention of the opening scenes. With that in mind, it may be the case that ‘Lock, Stock And Two Twanging Arrows’ would be a better name for it…

The setting here is an odd beast as well. Medieval London, and other cities, have been seen on screen many, many times before, so it’s another tick in the plus column that this particular version of our capital looks like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Apart from the armour-clad police/soldiers roaming the streets (the ‘Blacklegs’, daft names just keep on coming), it’s a lot cleaner than you’d imagine a medieval city would be, everywhere seems to be in walking distance and there are docks almost everywhere. Oh yes, and there’s a kung-fu school in the city. A kung-fu school. In medieval London. Right… Add to that the fact that everyone has perfect teeth and hair, and you start to form the impression that Ritchie isn’t aiming for gritty realism. Just like the early crime capers that made his name this has all the hallmarks of a serious movie, but filtered through the imagination of a 14 year old boy, which may explain the silly names, massive elephants and playground-level dialogue, as well as also explaining why women aren’t as prominently featured in these worlds (and that’s taking into account the fact that Arthur operates from a knocking shop). If it was a 16 year old boy, well you get the feeling that things would be very different…

At this point we should probably talk about characterisation. Regardless of the adaptation, and actor, there are certain traits that King Arthur should possess. Nobility, decency, bravery, kindness, and a deep love for his country and people. Here, as played by Charlie Hunnam (giving basically the same performance he always gives, just with a different accent), this Arthur has none of these things. Presumably we can blame his upbringing, but this Arthur is arrogant, cocky, self-obsessed, ill-mannered, and generally dismissive of those around him, other than the street kids who’ve grown up with him. It’s also worth noting that he’s also, basically, an organised crime boss. When he comes into possession of Excalibur, and all that that entails, if anything he gets worse, as all his existing character flaws are amplified by a regal superiority. Quite why anyone would follow this preening prat into battle is anyone’s guess, but the remaining knights who once served his father (amongst them, Djimon Hounsou and Aiden Gillen), presumably through basic loyalty, pledge to do just that. It’s here where the lack of certain characters is keenly felt. There is no Guinevere to tame Arthur’s heart, no Merlin to act as a mentor (presumably Jason Statham was busy, but the idea of a martials arts wizard seems perfect in this setting), and no Morgan Le Fay to focus his attention, just his fellow criminals and some guilt-ridden knights. At the same time, some of the additions do work. Astrid Berges-Frisbey enjoys herself as The Mage, who seems to be an amalgam of both Guinevere and Merlin, while there are many familiar faces among the supporting cast, including Geoff Bell, Peter Ferdinando, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis, Michael McElhatton and Katie McGrath. And while David Beckham’s cameo is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe, it’s also largely pointless, and is obviously just a case of Ritchie helping out a mate. Elsewhere, although he’s not in it for long, Eric Bana is nicely noble as King Uther, Arthur’s father, which is something of a departure for this particular part of the story, as Uther is usually portrayed as little more than a glorified rapist. Here, he shows bravery and nobility as he fights to defend his wife and son, while also being part of very unique approach to the whole ‘sword-in-the-stone’ legend. It’s both original and very clever. As always, every hero needs a villain to fight, and luckily Jude Law as King Vortigern doesn’t disappoint. Although you’d struggle to claim anyone is taking it all that seriously, Law has his tongue so far through his cheek he can practically lick his own ear, portraying evil usurper Vortigern as a combination of wicked king and bored millionaire playboy. All of which makes the acts of great evil he commits that bit more shocking. And it wouldn’t be that far from the mark to say that, considering the way Arthur is presented, you may find yourself rooting for Vortigern. Utter bastard he may be, but he’s a handsome, charismatic utter bastard. And that can go a long way, if today’s world is anything to go by…

Basically put, this is a very, very silly film. It takes major liberties with the Arthurian legends, producing something that bears very little relation to the many versions of the story that have come before, while asking the viewer to buy into the idea that medieval England was populated almost exclusively by good-looking young men and women with great hair and perfect abs. Magic swords are freely available, huge elephants lead armies into battle and David Beckham is a smart-arse. And yet… and yet… There’s also no denying it’s hugely entertaining. The battle-scenes are well-staged and are suitably epic in scale (just get a load of those bloody elephants…), the cinematography is gorgeous to look at, with beautiful forests and valleys nestling alongside menacing-looking castles and towers, the special effects are excellent, and everyone involved appears to be enjoying themselves immensely. And that enjoyment is infectious, in much the same way that Ritchie’s early work was. It may not that follow the legends that closely (the elements are there, they’ve just been moved around a bit), at times feeling more like a lost ‘Lord Of The Rings‘ sequel, but it deserves plenty of points for sheer originality. But, as I asked earlier, is the world crying out for another version of the Arthurian legend? In all fairness, probably not. But we’ve got one, and it’s well worth a look. Apparently Ritchie is planning a franchise, with this as the jumping-off point, and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what comes next (assuming they let him do it, of course). Will we get Merlin? Guinevere? Lancelot? More elephants? Considering what’s already gone, the mind truly boggles…

 



 

About author

TheMetalHead

Long-time fan of all things geek-related. Comics, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, Warhammer, video games, mythology, you name it, I probably like it. This also extends to pro-wrestling and heavy metal, hence the name. Particular loves would be the Star Wars sage, Game of Thrones (books and TV), Judge Dredd, Assassins Creed, and many more.

Born and raised in Essex by parents who have broadly supported these passions over the years, so much so that they now share many of them.