Young man came from hunting faint, tired and weary
What does ail my Lord, my dearie?
Oh, brother dear, let my bed be made
For I feel the gripe of the woody nightshade
If you’re a dedicated fan of the King Arthur legends and its characters, the new movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword might affect you in two different ways. Either you’ll be interested in seeing a new take on the much-loved stories of King Arthur and the other characters of legend or you will be rather apprehensive, expecting a story that strongly deviates from the classic feel of the tale. This film touches both of these sets of expectations. The film’s director Guy Ritchie has developed a creation which strongly reflects his signature style which is rather different in many ways from other Arthurian movies. The end result is an entertaining film. Whether it will satisfy the viewer who loves King Arthur may come down to the individual fan and how open they are to a different look at this legend.
Many people were surprised when the announcement went out that Guy Ritchie was going to direct a version of the timeless legend of Britain’s ancient king. It did not seem at all in his line of work. After all, this is the same person who directed RocknRolla, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Once you’re familiar with his work though, and perhaps have seen his Sherlock Holmes movies, you start to notice the hallmarks of his style even in this tale of ancient times.
The story at first appears to be a medieval heist film. But then it becomes a more conventional action-adventure which makes it a bit uneven. However, it does feature many memorable scenes and exciting and tense moments. If fans of the legend are looking for some of the more well-known tales of King Arthur in this though, they will be disappointed. Guy Ritchie takes some Arthurian characters, creates many of his own and comes up with his own story of Arthur, a prequel of how he became king. It’s best to go into this movie with an open mind and with expectations of considerable artistic license.
Men need a man would die as soon
Out of the light of a mage’s moon
As the movie begins, a massive battle is brewing on the scale of Lord of the Rings, complete with epic magic and even battle elephants. King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) uses his talent as a military leader, the magical sword Excalibur and the power of his armies to defeat the rebel warlock Mordred. It seems that peace, at last, has come to Camelot. Instead, the end of the battle heralds a new evil that arises and threatens to destroy Uther’s line.
The king and his family are betrayed by his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law). In a familiar fairy tale motif, baby Arthur is miraculously swept away in a little boat which ends up on the shores of the city of Londinium. He is found by the women of a brothel washing their clothes in the river. They take him in, and the unlikely boyhood of young Arthur begins.
Here, as in other parts of this tale, Ritchie shows the growth of Arthur and his development in a quick montage. Arthur grows up before our eyes in about a minute. He masters how to fight and how to survive on the mean streets. He learns to take care of himself and others and becomes the security and caretaker of the women of the brothel. In the meantime, Vortigern grows in power and stops at nothing to keep that power to himself. One day the waters below his castle reveal the fabled sword in the stone. Vortigern sends out a call for all young men of a certain age to attempt to withdraw the sword. His plan is to sniff out any potential usurpers.
But it’s not by bone, but yet by blade
Can break the magic that the devil made
At the street level of society, Arthur’s not interested in much of anything besides his job of taking care of his adopted family and friends. Inevitably he is forced to take his turn at drawing the sword, and everything is revealed – his responsibility to the kingdom for one and the reason for his distressing nightmares, which replay the terrible events that left him an orphan. He also learns about his heritage and his deadliest enemy in the form of his uncle. Arthur must find the will and the means to defeat Vortigern and claim his birthright.
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The action in Legend of the Sword is summer movie level and works quite well at times. One of the most compelling sequences near the end builds a powerful tension with the use of music and special effects. However when Arthur begins using the full power of Excalibur the action particularly begins to feel a bit overblown. It reminded me of video game fights when the hero grabs the magical sword and drops hundreds of enemies with one swish. It’s great for making points in a game but less palpable for something that’s supposed to draw you into the action.
As tends to happen in a lot in these summer big budget films, the final scene feels a bit too much. There’s a lot of noise and special effects battering your senses. Ironically the movie loses some of the impact with this huge display. As a result, there’s not as much heart in the story as there should be.
Many of the visuals are captivating though. One of the best is an eerie and dazzling encounter between Arthur and the Lady of the Lake herself. The costumes are detailed and lush. Pay attention to how the colours of the court change from the warm and welcoming reds, browns and golds of Uther’s reign to chilly black and silver when Vortigern takes over.
And it’s not my fire, but was forged in flame
Can drown the sorrows of a huntsman’s pain
The characters in this tale are an interesting mix. Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur does a good job. The story calls on him to be the cocky streetwise, rascally sort of guy who populates many of Guy Ritchie’s films and he does his job well enough.
A stand out I thought was Jude Law. He plays his villainous role in an over the top way which might alienate some viewers, but I found him fascinating. His love of power and spectacle could be almost comical until you see the unspeakable lengths which he takes to gain his power. We’ve seen his type of slouching, spoiled, brooding, psychopath before. Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came to my mind. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Law’s performance though.
Don’t expect Guinevere or any of the legendary Knights of the Round Table to make an appearance in this movie. At least don’t look for them in any familiar form. Arthur’s friends are the people he’s known in the streets with names like Wet Stick and Back Lack (!) The cast is quite diverse. Unlike many film depictions, the story acknowledges the fact that there were people of colour in medieval Europe. One such is Djimon Hounsou who plays Bedivere a man dedicated to helping the would be king gain his crown – even if he doesn’t want it.
This young man he died fair soon
By the light of a hunter’s moon
The women in the story are almost literally disposable characters though. Many of them are there mostly for Arthur and his band to have people to protect from danger. The mage character is a notable exception. Interestingly the ubiquitous Merlin does not appear in this movie. Instead, he sends an emissary, a woman called simply the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). She comes equipped with awesome and deadly magic. She is determined to make sure Arthur takes on the responsibility of his destiny.
If you’re hoping for some type of romance, this movie, unfortunately, does not deliver. At first, Arthur teasingly flirts with the Mage. But he seems to do it mainly to annoy her and to register his defiance of her orders. Nothing more comes of it.
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The music is one fantastic aspect of this movie which made it stand out for me. The song “The Devil and the Hunstman” is particularly arresting. It’s an adaptation of an old folk song and is used with astonishing and powerful effect in one of the movie’s best scenes. The rest of the soundtrack is similarly intense. It builds tension to the breaking point just as it should. It has an old-fashioned sound but also has a modern feel to it. The combination does not feel jarring. It was definitely a highlight of this film.
Twas not by bone, nor yet by blade
Of the berries of the woody nightshade
– The Devil and the Huntsman – Sam Lee & Daniel Pemberton – The King Arthur Soundtrack
As I mentioned, if you go into this movie expecting a film along the lines of the classic Excalibur, you will find that it has been fashioned in a different style. It’s definitely an exciting story, though not perfect. As a fan of Arthurian legend, I thought this was an interesting take. Fans might find it worth seeing if you’re open to an adaptation that veers more toward the summer movie style of storytelling. It’s certainly not going to replace the Arthurian canon, but it’s worth a look.
As the movie ends, Arthur and his friends start fashioning a round table, and I wondered what adventures this merry band would have next. Unfortunately, the movie did not do well at the box office, so the chance of a sequel is very slim. I think I would have appreciated seeing where Guy Ritchie would have gone next with his tale.
King Arthur fans what did you think of Guy Ritchie’s retelling?
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Content Rating: This is rated PG-13 for some intense scenes of action and violence. There’s also some strong language and suggestive content.
Where to Watch: The movie will be available to stream on Amazon Video and Vudu later this month (July 2017).
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