Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Aiden Gillen, Eric Bana
When a film comes around with the budget of ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ – a budget said to be north of $150 million – there is sure to be some backlash if it fails catastrophically. Unless you have been living under a rock, it’s hard to escape the media torrent stating that ‘King Arthur’ is a flop. It grossed around $15 million on its opening weekend, way behind ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s’ haul of $65 million in its second weekend. ‘King Arthur’ flopped massively; its Rotten Tomatoes score is a paltry 28% at the time of writing. And yet, I left the film this afternoon thinking how much better ‘King Arthur’ is than I was lead to believe. What went wrong?
‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ follows a recently orphaned Arthur (Hunnam) as he discovers he is the heir-apparent to the English throne, currently held by his Uncle Vortigern (Law). Arthur, along with some friends, endeavour to overthrow Vortigern and claim the kingdom he is owed. In amongst all that, there’s the classic sword in the stone, magic, boss battles, giant animals, heists, and assassination attempts. Whatever you can throw into a fantasy epic, Guy Ritchie does it.
‘King Arthur’ has a shed-load of positives about it. What I appreciated first and foremost was how the film didn’t hold your hand through the film’s plot, no matter how convoluted it may seem. It lets the story develop and flow of its own accord, using Arthur as our surrogate, reluctantly thrown into the born-leader role, having to deal with a lot of new information thrown at him at once. What could have become exposition scene after exposition scene, plot developments and historical explanations felt organic when it was done successfully. Further, at a brisk 2-hour runtime, the film manages to fill every scene with key information without overloading the audience; you get the idea that Guy Ritchie didn’t want to waste a frame of this film.
Speaking of Ritchie, ‘King Arthur’ may seem like an odd choice for a director who cut his teeth with British gangster films, but it somehow works. After the film’s bravura opening (which I will get to later), Ritchie settles into his hyperactive, kinetic brand of filmmaking with montages of Arthur’s childhood, small side-jobs Arthur completed to earn some money on the side, and of Arthur’s great quest to the Darklands to harness the power of the sword, Excalibur. If Ritchie has a trademark scene in all of his films, it’s a scene in which several characters are taking about a plan, and the film cuts between the explanation of the plan and the execution of it, whether in the past or in the future. ‘King Arthur’ is no different and it has several scenes in this style, my favourite of which is the first as it asks the audience to follow along and set the tone for the rest of the film. Guy Ritchie’s films work fast and we must keep up. If we get lost, it’s our fault.
The film’s opening scene, as briefly mentioned earlier, is a wonderfully staged set-piece. It serves as a prologue and follows the then King Uther (Bana) and his army battle against the Great Mage Mordred’s slave army, carried into battle onto the back of elephants that would crush the Oliphants in ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’. These things are enormous. They set the scale of the film just big enough to be impressive and welcome us into the mad, mad world of Ritchie’s King Arthur. It’s a terrific sequence with spectacular special effects and scored superbly (as is the rest of the film) by Daniel Pemberton.
It’s a shame though, that the film never quite managed to reach the heights of its opening. Beginning the film in such a way raised the bar so high that it was almost setting itself up for failure. Try as it might, the remainder of the film doesn’t get there, though it does seem we get glimpses of what might have been. I spoke earlier of montages in Ritchie’s films; King Arthur has them in abundance, to the point where every major action sequence is in the form of a montage. Arthur’s trip to the Darklands is the worst offender as it felt like a 20-minute sequence on its own as Arthur fights creatures of all shapes and sizes to earn his power. And yet it’s spliced into a montage played for laughs. These moments speak of a film that Ritchie wanted to make, a 3-hour, Lord of the Rings style epic that got cut down to be more easily palatable for the summer audience.
Further to this, Ritchie crams so much into its possibly-studio-enforced 2-hour runtime that you could really split it into 3 separate films. The prologue has so much story to it (what led to Mordred’s attack on Camelot?) that it could have been a film on its own; Arthur’s journey through the Darklands could have been the key sequence of a shorter film simply following Arthur’s journey to harnessing his powers; and then comes the coup of Vortigern, a storyline that could easily take up 3 episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’, let alone a segment of a 2-hour film.
The biggest disappointment in ‘King Arthur’s’ veritable failure is what it so clearly wanted to set up for a future franchise. Among all of the enjoyable madness on show, Merlin, a wizard so closely associated with Arthur, is only mentioned by name. There are no dragons to be seen, no giants, no great tales of legendary foes Arthur conquered; those were all after he became King. The promise of the future from this first feature was so bright given the wealth of stories from which to pull. If nothing else, ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ is a solid foundation for a franchise. Something we very likely won’t see.
In summary, ‘King Arthur’ is chaotic, a bit silly, and a bit rushed, but I cannot deny that I remained fully entertained right the way through. It’s a shame this is likely the one and only ‘King Arthur’ film we get through the lens of Guy Ritchie. It could have been something great.