Editor Chloe Woods reviews Guy Ritchie’s take on the Arthurian legend.
Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is… Well. It’s something. It’s definitely something. Bombastic and cacophonic, at times it feels like nothing so much more nor less than an acid trip inside a particularly frenzied mind: space and time are malleable here, many things are about to catch fire, and spectacle is king – notwithstanding an overabundance of actual kings.
Scratch that surface and you’ve got a pretty good film, functionally speaking. You’ll recognise the basic plot, though not from any Arthurian legend: the rightful king-in-hiding (Charlie Hunnam as – in case you can’t guess – Arthur Pendragon) must reclaim the throne from his crown-stealing uncle (Jude Law as Vortigern). All very Hamlet, though Arthur has less in common with the Danish prince than with the stereotyped fast-talking big man of the streets. A gang lord building his coffers and networks, it’s not clear if Arthur already planned to retake the crown before he gets tossed in at the deep end: identified by Vortigern, in possession of a magic sword and coerced into throwing his lot in with the rebels who’ve waited for his return. There are rodents of unusual size, predictable deaths, and enough anachronisms to make a medieval scholar sob into their copy of Y Gododdin. So what? It’s a King Arthur movie. Historical accuracy is not exactly the aim.
And it’s a King Arthur movie with a particular approach that people are likely to hail as “modern”. Even ignoring the continued presence of swords, castles, archers and – I don’t know – magic, this is to entirely miss the point. “Modern” suggests a break with the past, them-and-us, the living and the dead, and an infallibility of our own ways of seeing the world compared to the dull, naïve inhabitants of history. Ritchie’s King Arthur is not modern. It is merely contemporary. And, in being contemporary, it is part of a long tradition of modifying the legends to fit the current zeitgeist: Geoffrey and Malory did the same when they made Arthur’s companions knights and gave them the virtues of chivalry and courtly love fitted to their own day, rather than the hazy post-Roman period in which those myths originated. But King Arthur is, to its credit, successfully contemporary. The dialogue is fast-paced, sarcastic and wise-cracking, as we expect of many a modern blockbuster. It’s ethnically diverse, at least by the standards of pseudo-historical pseudo-medieval England: Djimon Hounsou leads the rebels as the staunch Sir Bedivere, while Tom Wu and Kingsley Ben-Adir also feature. (For what it’s worth, China’s a bit of a stretch – the Chinese had better places to visit than Dark Ages England – but this is reasonably accurate, much as people like to believe the British Isles were uniformly vanilla-hued until 1950.) Londinium, with a half-razed Colosseum in the background, and despite being constructed of wood and tarp, is nonetheless recognisable as our London and takes centre stage in the film, over and above half-forgotten Camelot; and it’s inhabited by ordinary folk with the cynical attitude towards kings and prophecies we nowadays apply to politicians. All of this helps to make King Arthur a fun, engaging watch.
But it is also truly “contemporary” in the sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Look, I didn’t go into this film planning to make a feminist critique – fresh off the heels of Miss Sloane, I was really hoping that, for once in my life, I could leave that angle out – but it has to be said: King Arthur has a woman problem. It’s not that there are no female characters; that could have been overlooked. There are many female characters and they act as a veritable roll call for the mistreatment of women in film. Three die at Vortigern’s hands alone after seconds of screen time. A fourth (played by Annabelle Wallis) – almost the only one who seems to act of her own accord – is described by him as “not a pawn” but “a far more useful piece”. We’re meant to hate Vortigern, but his casual comparison of a woman to a chess piece doesn’t feel like part of the reason why. Women indeed have no agency in this world. The most powerful person around is the “girl” – not woman – identified only as “the mage” (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) despite being the main female character, and she is acting on the orders of the unseen Merlin and still needs to be rescued twice; she can defend herself only when it doesn’t interfere with the plot. Other, inhuman female figures offer Vortigern his power, for a price. The majority of women in this film are either magic, mysterious, to be bargained with and not to be trusted; or they are more helpless than a small boy (the young Arthur or his friend’s son Blue both manage to be more competent than grown adult women); or, in the mage’s case, both. And it’s not that I necessarily think Ritchie (also credited for the screenplay alongside Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold) bears any ill will towards women, though they do have a disproportionately high body count. He’s just one of the many, many men who doesn’t recognise us as full human beings.
Instead of well-developed women, what do we have? The usual Excalibur-sword in the stone confusion, a Vortigern who is now somehow King Uther’s brother, and King Arthur raised in a brothel. Oh, I expected no more accuracy to the established canon of Arthurian legend, a sprawling beast in its own right with more retcons and crossovers than Marvel and DC comics put together, than I did to actual history. But one of the points at which King Arthur diverges from both is particularly telling. In all versions of the legend, Arthur is king of the Britons. Here he’s not. And that’s really, really important.
Time for a brief history-and-mythology lesson. The earliest reference to an “Arthur” is in the Welsh-language poem Y Gododdin, an epic retelling of a battle in the vicinity of modern Edinburgh. The standard medieval version was codified by Geoffrey of Monmouth, born in Wales though not necessarily Welsh, in the early 1100s. Arthur is strongly associated with Wales and Cornwall, strongholds of resistance against the Anglo-Saxons in the early medieval period. In Geoffrey’s version and others, Vortigern was a warlord and the only man spared during a massacre carried out by some of those Anglo-Saxons in the Night of the Long Knives. Arthur fought against the Anglo-Saxons. Or as you’d know them, the English.
In King Arthur, he refers to himself as English and his kingdom as England. The outsiders are Vikings. The king’s men wear Saxon warriors’ masks. The film is set largely in London – sorry, Londinium – which in reality was almost abandoned during the period. Suddenly, we have a verion of Arthurian legend centred on the creation of England; in which Arthur is suddenly a king of the very people he’s been fighting for fifteen hundred years. What the hell is going on here? It takes a very basic misunderstanding of the source material to do this by accident, though I don’t think it matters whether it was accident, sheer unconcern or intentional. But it does matter. It’s not that Arthur doesn’t belong to the English: he has for a thousand years. Geoffrey wrote from Oxford. Tales of the once and future king were told and retold across this land. Why so glorify your own enemy? I’m not sure. It’s not to make the ultimate victory greater; Athur is clearly the hero, the good king, in all his legends; the king who will return for the sake of all Britons. (It may be telling that I’ve never come across a version in which he actually does, as genuinely modernising as that would be.) I think in part it was a way for the English, as colonisers, to claim their place on the islands – of saying that Arthur was their king and they could be Britons too, as they settled in and the difference did somewhat blur. Of course, the legend of a united land under one king must have appealed to the English earls as they battled their way across the Welsh marches. But there remained this echo: Arthur was a king of the Britons, and he fought the first people who would become the English, and their adoption of him could not erase that. How long does it take colonists to forget they have not always been there? About fifteen hundred years.
What does this mean, why does this matter? Because we are not all English still. I am not English: I’m from Edinburgh, setting of Y Gododdin. Arthur is mine as much as yours, but not as king of England. Rewriting him in this way grounds an attempt at English nationalism and nation-building that hasn’t been seen, arguably, since the Middle Ages. Unlike those they share the islands with, the English have relatively little identity of their own, distinct from “British” – why would you need one, when you’ve got an empire? But those days are passing and with Scotland in particular on a likely trajectory towards independence, and perhaps there’s a sense that it might be a good idea to develop one. I don’t mean to imply that King Arthur is particularly important in this regard. For the most part, it’s a big, fun action movie replete with jokes, well-choreographed small-scale fight sequences (we could have done without the blurriness, which tips over into confusion at times), a score by Daniel Pemberton which can best be described as “eclectic” and decent workmanship acting from its leads. It does try to make a few deeper points in relation to Arthur’s individual arc, and these are applied so thickly they seem to have been poured on with a JCB. It’s hardly a deep treatise on the state of English national identity. But that’s the point: you can tell a lot about people by the things they don’t think are groundbreaking. And in this regard it may just act as a bellwether.
Anyway. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a bloody enjoyable film, though likely to be more missable than many of the summer’s other blockbusters. I’m not determined to urge you to see it, but if you do go, and if you tend to like commercial films, you’ll probably have a good time. Sometimes I wish I could agree with the people who believe that’s all we should ask for.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is in UK cinemas now. See the final trailer below: