Review: Thank God King Arthur will survive ‘King Arthur’

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword poster
The latest take on the King Arthur legends opened in US theatres May 8.

The legends of King Arthur and the Round Table are possibly the most abused of the West’s mythic texts, more than the Greek myths, and certainly more than venerated texts, such as the Bible. It’s amazing they’ve survived almost 1,500 years of telling and retelling by most of Western Europe’s cultures, aristocratic Victorian poets and painters, and in the last century or so, Hollywood producers.

I’m certain they’ll survive King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but the tradition never had it so hard.

Fans of the Arthurian legends—Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the world of Camelot—have waited a long time for a fresh version of the story. The last big attempt of note, King Arthur, was released in 2004. This year’s effort, directed by Guy Ritchie, whose last hit was the action-adventure retelling of the Sherlock Holmes novels, brought together stars Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, Jude Law as Vortigern, and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as “The Mage,” a follower of Merlin, the famed sorcerer and Druid priest.

Except for the names and a few popular themes, you’d hardly recognize the narrative from your reading of The Once and Future King or children’s books on King Arthur. Vortigern, Arthur’s uncle, usurps the throne of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. The boy escapes an assassination attempt and is raised in a brothel. He grows into the leader of a gang that protects the brothel and extorts money from whomever crosses him. When Excalibur appears at the bottom of a bay embedded in a stone, Vertigorn fears a threat to his power, and (taking a lesson from King Herod of the New Testament) orders all men of the right age to attempt pulling it out so he can kill him.

Is this some sort of backhanded comment on modern politics? Or just lazy storytelling?

Arthur, who remembers bits of his dramatic escape only in dreams, pulls out the sword. At first, he rejects the meaning of the event (Joseph Campbell scholars, take note), but eventually comes to accept his path. Of course, Arthur meets Vortigern in single combat, and (SPOILER!) he assumes the English throne because it was—wait for it—his destiny.

Well, then. So the head of a criminal enterprise whose members happen to match up with Percival, Bedivere, Tristan, and others of the Round Table gang, end up ruling England? Is this some sort of backhanded comment on modern politics? Or just lazy storytelling?

Did I mention that in the Arthurian canon, Excalibur is NOT the sword in the stone? Excalibur is actually Arthur’s war blade, given to him after he became king by the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress who makes an unexplained cameo appearance in the movie.

I have a personal interest in this motion picture. I’m working on my own retelling of the Arthurian world, but mashed up with some of my ideas about a post-climate change dystopia. That may sound a little crazy, but it’s nothing like the dark, loud, confusing fantasy of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. At least I’m trying to write characters readers might care about, unlike nearly every character in Ritchie’s disaster.

It’s not all bad. Spanish actress Bergès-Frisbey steals virtually every scene with her otherworldly, heavily accented performance. She’d make a better Merlin than any male actor I can think of. I hope to see more of her in future fantasy movies.

For now, however, I’ll have to dread the next installment of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. The ending dropped plenty of hints at a sequel, maybe a whole series. It’s got nowhere to go but up.

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