KING ARTHUR AND THE LEGEND OF THE SWORD, UK/US, 2017. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Eric Banner, Djimon Housou, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Tom Wu, Neil Maskell. Directed by Guy Ritchie. 126 minutes. Rated M (Fantasy themes, violence and coarse language).
An example of the differing ways of film reviews. Within a few hours of its publication, two friends quoted the review of King Arthur and its mere one and a half stars. Obviously, not a film to go to see. However, the decision was based not on the contents of the review and its reasoning but, rather, on the prestige of the newspaper in which it appeared.
On reading the reasons for such dislike for the film, it seemed that these were the very reasons that this review would praise the film!
There has been a King Arthur the film for almost every decade for the last 100 years, the 30s and 40s with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the 50s and Knights of the Round Table, the 60s and Camelot and the Sword in the Stone, the 70s and Monty Python and the Holy Grail,, the 80s and what is considered a classic, Excalibur, First Knight in the 90s, King Arthur in 2005 and now telling for this decade.
This film has been criticised by some as being “laddish” with comment on previous British gangster films by the director, Guy Ritchie. If one were facetious, one might say that this King Arthur film is “Lock, Stock and one Smoking Sword”! Actually, the point is that the film ends with the coronation of Arthur King and his, literal, building of the Round Table. This is a story, rather, of the young Arthur, the fate of his father Uther, his exile in Londinium and his not knowing his ancestry, growing up in a brothel, on the wharves, the victim of his jealous uncle, Vortigern, who belatedly discovers that his nephew is still living and rounds up every young man of that age to try to draw Excalibur from the rock.
Already, the screenplay has hints of Macbeth (including three sea witches) with overtones of the kingly murders of Hamlet, with the young Arthur somewhat bewildered by his destiny and reluctant to follow it.
Author, Joseph Campbell, who explored the hero with 1000 faces, would probably be very interested in the screenplay, especially in the sequences where Arthur has to go into the dark woods, experience his own demons as well his monsters, in order to emerge as an authentic hero.
Audiences who are fond of Game of Thrones, the films of Tolkien’s novels and other realms of fantasy will enjoy many aspects of this King Arthur film.
As regards the “laddishness”, that is some of the point, the young man growing up in the slums, a collage of him learning how to box and fight, doing deals to build up his box of coins, alleging Viking sailors, pals with the young men on the wharves, an origin story of Arthur which then is transformed into his becoming king and ruling in Camelot.
The film has a big budget but is so spectacular in the first 10 minutes or so that it looks it as if it has already spent its budget. There are monsters in Camelot, massive destruction, scenes of battle, King Uther confronting Mordred, the exteriors and the interiors of the palaces and the kingdom. And, the special effects do not really let up and there are many, many battle sequences, leading to the ultimate confrontation between Arthur and his uncle.
Charlie Hunnam portrays Arthur, a short somewhat stocky lad, on the wharves of Londinium, struggling to find his regal identity and, ultimately succeeding. Jude Law enjoys himself as the villainous Vortigern. Astrid Berges Frisbey is the Mage who is delegated by Merlin to protect Arthur. Eric Bana is a heroic Uthor. The rest of the cast is generally made up of vintage British character actors.
Obviously, this interpretation of Arthur would not suit everyone, especially if there is a conception of Arthur as a king of great dignity and prowess. But, as in imagining of pre-Camelot Arthur, this interpretation has a great deal going for it.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.