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Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword

If nothing else, Guy Ritchie's take on the King Arthur mythos epitomizes the phrase: "everything but the kitchen sink." No matter how you otherwise feel about the film in its entirety, you can't say you were ever bored.
But what struck me was the realization that Guy Ritchie clearly wasn't all that interested in the Once and Future King – this would have worked so much better as a Robin Hood movie, and after reading this interview it's obvious that he harboured flat-out disdain for the quintessential character of Arthur.

Ritchie's take essentially makes him Robin Hood: a swaggering jack-the-lad, living rough on the streets, surrounded by a loyal band of brothers, enjoying the opportunity to stick it to the man – missing the fact that Arthur IS the man: the just, brave, chivalrous, kind-hearted ideal of man. To make him a street brawler and a savvy hustler is to miss the point entirely.
It's like having Peter Pan grow up. Or killing off Maid Marian. Or making Superman a gloomy brooder. Or giving Romeo and Juliet a happily ever after. All creative decisions of unspeakable stupidity. (And yes, I know all those things have been done before. As this review said, it's cultural vandalism).
Yet for all of that, I didn't hate the movie. It was fast-paced and entertaining. There was some interesting world-building. I'm always intrigued by new twists and perspectives on what passes for Arthurian "canon." There are a couple of neat sequences in which Ritchie does his quick-edit alternating between characters discussing their plans and implementing them.
And I gotta admit, the boys are objectified more than the girls.
As a survivor of Merlin, I wasn't too fussed about how they changed around familiar components of the mythos, though some of the choices are a little bizarre. For instance, Mordred isn't Arthur's incestuous, illegitimate son/nephew, but a random sorcerer who is killed off while Arthur is still a child. Vortigern and Uther are brothers, with the former calling on dark magic to usurp the latter. (As it happens, Uther embodies more of the Arthurian ideal than Arthur himself).
Camelot is not built under Arthur's supervision as his dream of a utopian society where people can live together in harmony, but an already-established stronghold that serves as the last line of defence against Mordred.
Is Arthur fostered to Ector and mentored by Merlin while still a child? Of course not! He's raised in a brothel after being cast adrift in a skiff and found by prostitutes in Londinium. And would you believe that Excalibur was forged by Merlin (in what amounts to the briefest of cameos) from Mordred's magical staff? And that Uther is actually transformed after his death into the magical stone that holds Excalibur?
Now, none of these changes necessary prevent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword from being a King Arthur movie. After all, names and objects are just the trappings. What's missing is the spirit of King Arthur – and to be fair, this is something that most (if not all) filmic adaptations of the story fail to capture.
I just can't get past the fact that as a character and an archetype, Arthur is not meant to be this way. He's not a cocky asshole with a thirst for vengeance and a reluctance to be king. Hell, that's the exact opposite of what he's meant to be. He's a good-hearted kid who grows into a decent young man and then a wise king. He makes mistakes along the way because he's only human (after all) but he's totally committed to the ideals Merlin teaches him as a child: justice, chivalry, equality – and he's got the charisma and leadership abilities (not just royal lineage) to see them become a reality.
This Arthur is one of Hollywood's three types of leading men: the arrogant loudmouth (the other two being the violent anti-hero and the anti-social genius). There's nothing inherently wrong with these character types (except maybe the sheer quantity of them) but Arthur isn't meant to be any of them. He represents something bigger than any one person: that we can achieve a just and fair society if we have something to be inspired by and strive to be the best versions of ourselves.
When every other character is more driven and noble and committed to the cause of righteousness than Arthur is, who is ultimately motivated by countless innocent people being murdered in front of him (often as they try to save his hide) then you haven't actually written a character who bears any resemblance whatsoever to King Arthur.  
Other little things chipped away at what Arthur represents – like how the legendary Arthur never really fought a singular villain; no Big Bad that had to be defeated if he wanted to become king. Rather, his task after being identified as the rightful king was to prove himself worthy by uniting a bunch of warring tribes; to bring order out of chaos. Here, Arthur just needs to fight his wicked uncle into submission. That's an important distinction, I think.
And as the linked review above points out, there's nothing really worth fighting for in this world. Plenty of evil to defeat, sure – but what is Arthur fighting to achieve? A better world? Not really, the guy never displays any grand ideals of a united, peaceful kingdom. We barely get to know his father's knights or what they stood for. It's unclear what the mages want or why they need Arthur to do it, and most of them are killed off-screen in yet another slaughter that's designed to enrage and motivate Arthur. And Arthur's band of brothers are just along for the ride, largely out of loyalty to him. Well, that's something I guess, but it still doesn't translate into a worthy cause.
So it's not the changes to the details, but the inherent meaning of the original stories that makes me wonder why they bothered to slap King Arthur's name on this film. What makes it even funnier is that it borrows so much stuff from so many other genre film/television shows.
Let's see, from Game of Thrones we have the gritty power-plays at court and in the streets, and the likes of Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger) and Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton). From Merlin we get conflict between ordinary people and magic-users (called mages) that have been pushed to the edges of society after what is explicitly called "the purge". That Katie McGrath turns up for about two seconds doesn't help either.
The colossal pachyderms from The Lord of the Rings turn up briefly, as do the giant rats from The Princess Bride (and giant bats, giant snakes and giant wolves). Little Arthur escapes from Camelot down a river and is found by kindly women à la Moses from the Old Testament (and hilariously, Pascal from the latest episode of Tangled: the Series) and Arthur eventually teams up with a band of Merry Men with names like Goosefat Bill, Mischief John, Kung Fu George and Wet Stick. That last one turns out to be Sir Tristan, in one of the weirdest reveals of the entire movie. (I mean, there's no Lancelot, Gawaine, Galahad, Bors or Kay, but don't worry – Tristan was here the whole time!)
Vortigern gains magical powers by striking a deal with Ursula from The Little Mermaid, there are some Vikings on loan from ... well, Vikings, and hey – is that David Beckham??
And of course, everything looks and sounds like something from one of Ritchie's gangster movies set in the north of England. (Again, I ask: why didn't he just do Robin Hood? Some of his camera tricks are tailor-made for that character, and the film already had a band of outlaws and a woodland hideout).
***
I don't watch Guy Ritchie films looking for strong female characters; that's as futile as walking into a shoe shop and demanding a haircut. That said, I don't think it's out of the question to expect a few decent female characters in a film that's based off Arthurian legend – that which spawned the likes of Guinevere, Morgana, Morgause, Nimueh, Vivienne, Ragnell, Lynette, Enid, Isolde...
Instead, what we get is pretty dire. The wives of Uther and Vortigern are murdered before the opening credits are over, and Vortigern's daughter is likewise stabbed before the end credits. One of the prostitutes that helped raised Arthur is duly fridged in order to kick-start his Roaring Rampage of Revenge, and despite her considerable magical powers, the Mage ends up getting damselled twice.
That leaves Annabelle Wallis's Maggie, whose role is pretty negligible. She's a spy in Vortigern's court, but only gets about three scenes and no characterization. I'm not entirely sure why she was necessary, and even the expected reveal that she was Guinevere all along didn't come to pass. On a similar note, you'd think that Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey's character (known only as "the Mage") would turn out to be Morgan le Fay, but that reveal also didn't take place – in fact, promotional material seems to suggest she was Guinevere.
In any case, the Mage is what passes for the film's female lead, but she's got more style than substance. Basically, she's stoic and mysterious. And weirdly enough, after all her talk about how her people need Arthur and that he's the one true king, she ends up summoning a giant snake that probably could have killed Vortigern all on its own.
Aside from this, there was one other a single female character that got a brief moment of note: one of the prostitutes (played by the young cop from the last season of Broadchurch), who comes up with the idea to target Vortigern's palace and provides the information necessary to do so. Pity we didn't see more of her.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Despite the clutter, the film's world-building had an internal logic to it that interested me, one that managed to convey the sense that the world was much bigger than the story had room for. Things like the Off-Screen War between human and the mages, the Darklands and the creatures living there, and the myriad of minor characters from different walks of life, all combined to give unexpected depth and realism to the world. Goosefat Bill had a vendetta against one of Vortigern's men that never gets explained, and Sir Bedivere seemed to have a connection with the Mage that likewise never gets explored - yet on some level it doesn't need to be. It just adds texture to the myriad of characters and the lives they lead. So despite the zaniness of the story and the hodge-podge of its inhabitants, it's a world that I wouldn’t have minded revisiting.
That said, Arthurian adaptations should be more about mysticism than magic. It's a fine line between the two, but all the CGI that's churned throughout this movie just doesn't mesh with the source material. Perhaps it's better to say that Arthurian legends aren't High Fantasy: they're fundamentally human stories with magic on its fringes, which is appropriate for a story set in a time when Christianity was supplanting paganism. Any magic should be subtle in nature: glamour, potions, visions, and so on – not giant cobras and elephants (though I'll excuse the occasional dragon).
Was the Lady of the Lake meant to be Arthur's mother? That could have been interesting given Igraine falls into a body of water as she dies, but according to IMDB they were played by different actress. So... probably not.
And of course, everything is dark and gritty because everything has to be dark and gritty these days, up to and including Anne of Green Gables. I can't be the only one who's sick of it. A little colour and levity isn't going to kill anyone.
It would seem this would-be franchise is over as soon as it begins – though I gotta admit I'm a little disappointed, in an indifferent sort of way. I mean, none of it had anything to do with the Arthurian mythos, but it was entertaining enough in a mindless sort of way.

1 comment:

  1. I really wish people who don't want to make King Arthur films would just stop making King Arthur films.

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