Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword does not feature a quest for the Holy Grail. Not once does someone in it sing about how fun it is to be happily-ever-aftering in Camelot. You won’t find a single Roman cavalry officer who wants to retire. It has no young Viking princes seeking a spot at the round table. And Merlin? He gets name-checked a few times, and there’s one shot of him in a flashback, but that’s it. Lancelot and Guinevere don’t even get a mention.
From the first scene, Ritchie wants the audience to know he is writing his own version of the Arthur legend. Audiences should know to expect that after all — Ritchie has made a big name for himself retelling stories about detectives and spies. But even if they’ve never seen a Guy Ritchie film, they would know from the trailer that the movie contains people with glowing eyes, snakes, street-fighting, dirt, grime, and Charlie Hunnam playing Arthur with a body so ripped it would make Fight Club-era Brad Pitt feel ashamed of his physique.
And even if they hadn’t seen the trailer, the first scenes of this film feature giant war elephants smashing Camelot. That opener turns out to be a good visual metaphor for what Ritchie does to the story of King Arthur here. He doesn’t retell it. He smashes it into pieces like a piece of pottery, then assembles the story he wants to tell from those shards, creating a fascinating mosaic.
In this film, Arthur is born the prince of Camelot, but he’s set adrift in a boat the night his parents die. Rescued by prostitutes in the big city of Londinium, he’s raised in a brothel. He learns to fight on the streets and becomes a fearsome warrior who spends his time defending his friends and sticking his fingers in dozens of illegal pies. He’s feral, a ferocious scrapper with a sardonic sense of humor and an irresistible swagger.
One day, the dead king’s magical sword Excalibur comes to light, blade buried deep in a chunk of stone. The current king, the dead king’s brother Vortigen (Jude Law), sets about testing all the young men to see if any of them are his long-lost nephew and the rightful heir to the throne. Because Vortigen likes being king and isn’t eager to give up his throne. Arthur doesn’t know he’s the born king, not until he lays hands on that sword.
Then it’s just a matter of time before Arthur accepts his destiny and fights to regain his kingdom.
I love the way Ritchie and his fellow screenwriters wove elements of the classic Arthur legend into their story. The sword in the stone is an important element, but the way it got into that rock is an awesome twist I won’t spoil here. Same for what the rock is made out of. That’s a spiffy bit of storytelling right there that delights me.
The Lady of the Lake makes a brief appearance, and she gives Arthur the sword, though in this story it’s the same sword that was in the stone. The round table shows up too, but at the end of the story. If you’re familiar with the knights who sat around that table in the old legends, you’ll recognize some of their names here; Bedivere and Percival are particularly mentioned. And the idea of Arthur growing up in obscurity and only ascending the throne when he’s an adult is a classic.
This Arthur doesn’t really want that throne though. He’s happy where he is, swaggering along Londinium’s mean streets and scrapping with other tough guys. It’s not until he learns that his enemies have utterly destroyed his old life and scattered his friends that he agrees to join the rebels who want to put him on the throne in place of his treacherous uncle. Once he’s committed to that fight, he brings to it all the ferocious drive and intelligence he used growing up on the streets. Oh, and that magical sword Excalibur too.
Ritchie is a filmmaker who’s not afraid to try new things, be they camera angles or storytelling devices or editing styles. When you’re retelling a story so old we all think we know it, that willingness to be new can breathe much-needed energy and vitality into your story. Is this a movie everyone will like? Not remotely. But it’s one I like, particularly for the way the story gets turned inside out and shaken around. Sometimes that’s exactly what a legend needs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s book “Cloaked” is now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com