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The King Arthur mythos seems to be an elusive creature for contemporary Hollywood to capture well. To date, I think the only decent representation of the story remains the 1963 Disney film The Sword and the Stone. I am a little baffled as to why this is. Perhaps Hollywood’s secular views on society make any depiction of a religion-steeped medieval world a bit tricky. Still, the Arthurian legends depict a Europe in transition, with frontier Christianity intermingling with native pagan ideas and customs. Surely there are enough fantasy elements to work with in the post-Lord of the Rings movie age.
There is nary a sight of Christianity in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the latest effort to bring the classic hero to the big screen. Perhaps that’s for the best. 2004’s King Arthur, the one starring Clive Owen that boasted its “historicity” in its marketing campaign, made Christianity a physically torturous Roman imperialist imposition on the native, nature-attuned pagan Britons. The new version could have very easily gone somewhere similar, perhaps with a sinister cleric telling miserable, poverty-drenched peasants to accept their lot as God’s will while later fattening himself up with corrupt nobility. I’ll take ignoring Christianity altogether over this kind of cliché. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
2017’s version, starring Charlie Hunnam in the titular role, fully embraces its post-Lord of the Rings, post-300 cinematic vernacular and opens with monstrous, elephant-like war beasts besieging a city with magical fireballs. This is quickly followed up by Uther Pendragon, played by Eric Bana, riding his horse off the side of a cliff, launching himself onto the beast’s back as his horse plummets to its death (you’ve seen this maneuver a dozen times in action movies—just swap the horse with a motorcycle). Yes, the Pendragons have certainly entered the new age of cinema.
This film’s premise rests on the backdrop of some sort of conflict between people and mages. Vortigern, played by Jude Law, is retooled into Arthur’s treacherous uncle who, in one of the film’s few interesting embellishments, engages in a Herod-esque search for the prophecy-ordained king-to-come by trotting out every lad in the kingdom by force and one by one giving them a chance to pull the sword from stone—with any success meaning a swift execution.
Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur plays to director Guy Ritchie’s penchant for mischievous, Londonian thugs. Here, the legendary king is imagined as raised by prostitutes on the streets after, as a child, being rescued from a Moses-like journey down a river. He wears an anachronistic pimp-like fur coat and has cockneyed, wise-cracking banter with law enforcement officers. As I type this, it sounds worse than maybe it is. But I’m a fan of all those Ritchie gangster comedies and I might be more disposed to buy the Ritchie smash-cuts and camera whip-pans asynchronously placed in a medieval setting.
It could, I think, almost work. Almost. Arthur and his Knights with grindhouse adrenaline, done up as medieval inglorious bastards? The actual Arthurian legends, one could argue, were that age’s own kind of the pulp fiction. The problem is how this movie’s story simply dissipates into blandness as the action pounds on like a video game you aren’t playing. It’s clear the film’s director isn’t particularly interested in shooting long, epic battles, staples of this genre, as he frequently relies on quick, snappy montages (more his oeuvre) to frantically blitz right through them.
As with Ritchie’s previous film The Man from UNCLE, the filmmaker came on board to a project with a somewhat beleaguered production. It was beleaguered in all the usual ways big movies face development challenges, but with the addition of the current, Disney/Marvel cinematic-universe-era quagmire. This film was going to be a new Warner Bros. franchise. The jumbled story-telling makes me think, as with all these big franchises of late, there are just too many cooks in the kitchen and they’re not leaving their scripts in the oven to bake long enough. With King Arthur: Legend of the Sword now squarely in financial flop territory, it doesn’t look like we’ll see an Arthur cinematic universe anytime soon. It may be time for these franchise movies to get what TV has: a writers room.