The stories of King Arthur are practically myth at this point, considering how engrained they are in popular culture. His stories have been told on film alone enough times, it’s a bit surprising that he hasn’t been used in a major film since 2004’s King Arthur. Since then, of course, we’ve seen a rise in both franchises and mind-blowing special effects, so it makes sense that Arthur would be approached as a subject again. Leave it to Guy Ritchie, though, to come up with a take on the character that would also take aim at the biggest potential issue with a King Arthur story: King Arthur and his tendency to be a bit…dull.
After Vortigern (Jude Law) kills his brother, Uther (Eric Bana), to steal the throne, Uther’s son Arthur is forced to go into hiding and grow up in a brothel. While Vortigern amasses power as king, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) learns to survive – and thrive – on the streets. When Uther’s sword, Excalibur, is uncovered, Vortigern insists on finding Arthur, and when he does, plans to kill him so his reign will continue. When Arthur is revealed, he’s rescued by his friends, allies of his father, and The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Arthur has to learn how to wield Excalibur and defeat Vortigern before he’s able to complete a tower that will cement his power.
After starting with a prologue that’s in keeping with similar epic stories in tone, the film comes alive with an opening credits sequence that stylishly covers the span of time between the prologue and the main story, cutting back and forth between Arthur and Vortigern. Ritchie frequently intersperses the story with other clever ways to reveal information.
If there’s a problem, it’s that Ritchie is clearly comfortable with the dialogue-driven scenes, and clearly not comfortable with the more magical elements of the story. In a film that includes wizard-controlled elephants, massive snakes, and other fantastical elements, that’s not a small problem.
The film also went under some heavy reshoots, and I’m curious to know what parts come from which periods. The film hints at a tragic backstory for Vortigern, and Law gets a handful of juicy scenes. They’re negated, though, by the majority of the film, which doesn’t really delve into his motivations. The film is focused almost solely on Arthur, and while this Arthur is a bit more interesting and layered, the film could use more balance.
Speaking of Arthur, the film makes him immensely likable, but it also gives him an arc to build towards accepting his position. The trauma of losing his parents clearly weighs on him, and it affects his relationship with Excalibur. He’s forced to reconcile that trauma in order to successfully take on his uncle.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is set up to spawn plenty of sequels, which I fear may never come. I don’t see audiences getting excited about this. And that’s unfortunate, because with a bit of tightening, I could see this as a series that would be enjoyable. This particular film is far from perfect, but there’s an enjoyable quality to the film that’s worth noting.