RECAP: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017): Guy Ritchie
Have you heard of the Camelot legends? You haven’t? Not for a few days? Have I got a movie for you!
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Arthur, young and not yet a king, draws Excalibur and faces his uncle, Vortigern, a usurper.
The Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) of this tale starts his life a la Moses, as a boy stashed in a boat and sailed down a river. His life until that moment was short, in which a chief mage tried to destroy his father’s kingdom and he watched a demon murder his mother and his father commit suicide.
Tough way to start life, and a tougher childhood follows. A patented Guy Ritchie montage traces the upbringing of young Arthur, from that day he washed up on the shore of the Thames in Londinium, through fights with young lads, to a bit of thievery, to his nights protecting the prostitutes who raised him.
So pass the early moments of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the first two decades of Arthur’s life. Good to get that stuff out of the way quickly, and I enjoyed Ritchie’s handling. We’ve seen the Arthur story countless times; best to get to the good bits.
The adult Arthur is crafty and a good fighter, having trained with a kung fu master throughout his early years. He stashes coins earned/stolen throughout his childhood and runs the back alleys of the town.
An early scene shows that Arthur, bastard by birth (as far as he knows), fears no one. He meets some Vikings and intimidates them, rather than the other way around. He enlists some young lads to back him up. Arthur won’t stand down from a stronger opponent and he inspires people to follow him. Sound like good leadership traits.
He’ll need those skills to war against his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who snatched the kingdom from his brother and Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). The film’s present shows a time when a certain sword of great fame and legend showed itself. This sword, stuck in a rock that once sat on the bottom of a lake, can’t be removed accept by the true king.
There’s only one true king, but that doesn’t stop a lot of guys from trying to extract it from the stone. In fact, Vortigern wants someone to do it, so he’ll know who he’s facing. Vortigern rounds up all the men of age in England and forces them to try pulling it out. When they try and fail, he brands them. One afternoon Arthur is caught by the king’s men, called black legs, who discover he’s no brand, and ship him to Camelot to fulfill his destiny.
Arthur, Camelot’s true king, removes the sword. Cast me surprised; I expected he would do that much later, after he had “earned it.” Arthur removes the sword and finds its power overwhelming. The sword invokes memories of the night he watched his mother and father die and escaped in a boat. Arthur grips the sword, staggers a bit, and faints.
The rest of the movie follows Arthur as he struggles to wield Excalibur, as we know the sword to be named, and in doing so to master his past, fears, and destiny.
Arthur’s a bit saucy about the adventure. He’s a great fighter but doesn’t want the responsibility of leadership. After Vortigern’s men ravage Londinium, Arthur throws Excalibur into a lake. This after he fought with the sword’s power for the first time, and after he felt it controlling him, and not the other way around.
Fear doesn’t quell Arthur’s rage. He seeks one goal in his post-sword life: to kill the uncle who forced him into bastardized exile. Many men who served his father, Uther, seek to aid him, but Arthur seems less eager. He’d rather deal in subterfuge and in shadows. He and his merry men (wrong English legend?) try to assassinate Vortigern with a sniper shot. They also attack important supplies with guerrilla tactics. About an hour screen time passes between Arthur’s drawing of Excalibur and his first fight with it.
Of course, this movie is called KING Arthur, so he’ll assume the mantle soon enough. Arthur resists very strongly the urgings of his compatriots to accept his power. For a man as cocky as Hunnam’s Arthur, that surprised me. Hunnam played the role with braggadocio enough to be king, but with little of the desire. That probably makes for the best kind of leader.
Hunnam was a fine choice for the role. He espouses the youthful energy Ritchie seemed to want and the confidence inspired. Perhaps it is Hunnam’s voice, but I couldn’t keep Jon Snow out my ear when the star spoke.
A youthful Jude Law shows his face in the early sequences that open King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. He backs up his brother Uther, the king, in their final battle against Mordred, a mage waging war on human lands.
Turns out Vortigern was just as bad a dude, who sought power and the throne that rightfully belonged to Arthur. How bad? Well, he murdered his wife and threw her body in a magic pond to appease tentacled hags who promised him power.
And power he achieved. Vortigern did not waste the decades between Uther’s death and Arthur’s rise. The usurper built a phallic tower outside the castle in Camelot that’s somehow attached to his magical skill. If the tower is complete his magic skills will be also. He can make flame balls with his hands!
Vortigern explains to Arthur why he’s enjoyed kingship and why he’ll hang on to it. “When people fear you,” he says, “it is the most intoxicating feeling.” No doubt. And Vortigern will do anything to retain that power. He tries to execute Arthur the day he draws out the sword. That plan fails, thanks to someone else’s magics, but he won’t rest until Arthur his dead. There’s some yelling at subordinates about this.
The man who loves hearing people chant “Hail Vortigern” runs scared from Arthur. He orders a Londinium rebellion crushed. He sends a body double to the town that day, expecting an assassination. He knows one of his relatives is a traitor.
He’s right to be scared. Turns out that he was the demon who killed Arthur’s mother. Sporting a double scythe, Vortigern fought Uther nearly to death, but the king gave up his life to Excalibur rather than have his brother kill him.
Vortigern cut a deal with Mordred. After destroying Camelot, the two would co-rule. Uther broke the deal by killing Mordred with Excalibur, leaving the kingdom all Vortigern’s for a few years.
Heavy lies the head on this king. One scene with some viking emissaries shows the king slouching on his throne. I liked the casual confidence of that posture. He also wears a shirt showing off some solid chest hair. Jude Law, always the cad. Whether he’s playing the pope or a king, you’ll be a little turned on.
Arthur draws out his uncle’s brutality. Easily Vortigern’s best scene occurs in a Londinium room after Arthur has barely escaped the town. Vortigern intrudes on a wounded associate of Arthur’s first, saying to him, “Pardon the intrusion,” as if he’s not there to murder him. After a failed interrogation, Vortigern slices off the man’s ear, and then asks the disembodied ear to tell him where Arthur is. All the chuckles.
If you came to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword looking for big set piece battles you went away sad. The film’s primary action sequence is an escape through Londinium’s streets.
Vortigern is on his way to the town for some important reason. Arthur is there for his own reason–to kill Vortigern. That plan fails and the protagonist has to escape the town while Vortigern’s men search for them.
The trouble starts when Vortigern’s soldiers, masked “black legs,” fire explosive arrows into the air. These alarm arrows prepare the other black legs for a fight. Arthur and his cronies try to walk out of town. Vortigern’s men search the assembled crowds and busy streets for a single, bow-carrying assassin. Arthur, Goose Fat (Aidan Gillen), and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) calmly and quickly walk their escape route. They run over some boats and duck into alleys avoid the black legs.
This works until it doesn’t. They were destined to meet some troops, and when they do the punches fly. A good guy gets stabbed and orders his buddies to go on without him. They do.
More running and more street fighting follows. The breathy, celtic-string-tinged score injects tension. The characters do that thing where the camera is basically attached to their faces and the rest of the scene shakes around their rigid faces. Crafty overhead shots let the viewer keep a bird’s-mage-eye on things.
Pretty soon Arthur and his merry men (ah, sorry, did it again) find themselves in the fighting chambers of kung fu George, the man who trained a younger (like, two weeks ago) Arthur to fight. They also have drawn an entire regiment to them.
The reluctant Arthur wants to flee down a dark hole beneath the enclosed arena. The others refuse. Be it superstition, fear, or desire for the familiar, they would rather fight it out with the black legs. Arthur decides to face his destiny.
The black legs stream in. The mage orders some crows to annoy the enemy archers perched nearby, while good archers use jump shots to kill the soldiers. But there’s too many.
Arthur’s brethren do what they do best–fight. Wrestling holds are the order of the day, but against men with swords? Fat chance of victory. Arthur busts out his secret weapon.
Excalibur is England’s mightiest sword, and we see why. When Arthur puts that second hand on the sword, what was a movie set becomes a video game platform. Dust explodes, swords crack, and bodies crumple under Arthur’s brief, devastating attack.
It’s a short scene, and when it’s over the ground can’t be seen but for the bodies covering it. Dozens of witnesses are shown having witnessed the attack. Perhaps many of these men and women will be on the streets later tonight to riot against the black legs.
A larger display of Excalibur’s, er, caliber occurs in the finale. These sequences feel lifted from countless sword-and-spear video game epics, where the playable character stands at the center of the screen and fights all opponents in a circle, the arena of battle itself a circular environment of chaos with a murky background.
I negatively criticized Man of Steel for the same effects problems. I won’t here. Man of Steel‘s video game set pieces occurred in real Kansas and sort of real-world-adjacent Metropolis. Arthur’s Camelot is a mystical land that might be in England, but isn’t much. The movie can afford the ethereal settings.
Also, there’s mega-elephants.
A whole heap of people help a reluctant Arthur assume Camelot’s throne. With names like Goose Fat and Wet Stick, you can bet they are a hardy, fun bunch. Goose Fat slaps Arthur for fun. Wet Stick, well, he’s named Wet Stick.
Chief among his allies is a vassal of Merlin’s, an unnamed mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The dour mage controls several animals and strives for Arthur to accept his power with Excalibur.
The mage appears as if her Arthur appointment is the worst job in the world. It seems like it. Arthur spends much time hitting on the disinterested mage. He makes light of the dark lands, a place of terror and large snakes. (Yeah, that’s redundant I guess.)
When not fending off Arthur’s charm the mage controls animals. She favors an eagle half the size of a man. The eagle harasses Vortigern’s executioner moments before he’s to part Arthur’s head from body.
Hey, is that Djimon Hounsou playing another ancient sidekick? It is. He’s former Uther crony Bedivere. Game of Thrones fans will appreciate face-slapping Aidan Gillen as Goose Fat. The latter nearly wrecks Arthur’s plans when he kills Vortigern’s chief henchman because of a personal gripe between the two. He can also arrow a target from 175 yards away.
Arthur’s best sidekick is, of course, the titular Sword. Excalibur, we learn midway through the movie, was forged by Merlin (who is absent from this movie, presumably to appear in subsequent sequels that might never be) from a piece of Mordred’s staff. Through some magic he ties the sword’s power to the Pendragon line, which includes Arthur.
Anyone can hold and fight with the sword. With one hand, Arthur uses the sword as a regular weapon. When he puts both hands on the hilt, hoo boy, look out all you bad muthas! The two-handed technique activates Arthur’s God Mode, wiping clean an area of all enemies. Excalibur breaks any weapons it encounters. It encircles Arthur in a dust cloud of death.
Vortigern employs several mean-mugging henchmen to antagonize Arthur and the rest of England. These are your standard scarred-faced, squinty tough guys. They do their jobs ably but are not enough to save their master.
Hard to say that many stunts were performed. The Londinium fight showed the wrestling skills of the stunt actors. Plenty of guys thrown and kicked around, especially by George (Tom Wu).
If you’re looking for great sword fights, look elsewhere. You won’t find them.
“If there was ever a chance, it’s now,” says Bedivere. He speaks after Arthur finds his mage friends and other pals slaughtered at the feet of the black legs, and he’s invited to meet Vortigern at his castle for a final showdown. Oh, and the king has captured the mage and a young lad Arthur’s fond of.
Arthur trades the mage for Excalibur, reasoning that he’s not dangerous without the sword. Vortigern should have known better.
The mage conjures a snake to join Arthur as he enters Camelot’s castle. Arthur and Vortigern have their meet and greet, which ends when the tiny snake tries to bite Vortigern. The king, fondling Excalibur, slices the snake in two, covering his face with blood. The sword wedges into a stone column. We know how Excalibur has a love affair with stone. Vortigern can’t remove the sword, of course; he saves that for Arthur.
Well, that little snake was an appetizer. A 10-foot-thick snake, that’s thick, bursts into the chamber and attacks all the guards. Arthur is nervous but knows he’ll be fine. Vortigern escapes into his daughter’s chamber. Recall those magical hags. They demanded the blood of a loved one to aid his ascendancy to magical power. They drank some long ago. They demand again. Vortigern weeps as he hugs his grown daughter. He draws a a knife and stabs her as he did her mother decades ago.
Vortigern takes his daughter’s murder harder than his wife’s. He releases her into the milky depths of that magic pool.
Meanwhile, above ground, Arthur’s men have released dozens of captured slaves and armed them. They stream across a bridge to attack the castle and kill the black legs still guarding the place.
Arthur, inside the castle, is doing his own thing. He activates Excalibur’s God Mode and slays an entire squadron. The camera is fast to catch his movements. Time slows for Arthur, who catches arrows and stabs them into enemies. Excalibur slices through enemy swords like sticks. A spear point cuts into his arm, which only makes him madder. He swats at open flames to catch men on fire.
The fight lasts longer than the Londinium sequence, but only a sword’s-length longer. We have to reach the final battle. Arthur enters Vortigern’s tower, where he finds an altar, three tall columns, and a triangle etched into the floor.
Touching Excalibur to the altar activates it’s God Mode. No, sorry, it already does that. Let’s call it Titan Mode. Good thing because Vortigern is in his demon mode and twirling his baller double scythe weapon.
Vortigern slaps his nephew all over the stone floor. Waves crash at the plinth’s sides. Magical waves, I believe, only seen by the participants. Vortigern throws a flame ball at Arthur. He beats him pretty good. Suddenly, Excalibur sends a final memory pulsing through Arthur. He reviews the moment when his pops gave up his fight against Vortigern. Uther throws Excalibur into the air, takes a knee, and lets the sword drop into his back. Uther immediately turns to stone around the sword and falls into the lake.
This memory triggers Arthur’s King Mode, when he finally seizes his destiny. Recall back when these two first met as adults. Vortigern asked Arthur what drove him to be the man he is. Arthur has an answer. “It was you.” The smirking future king halves the scythes. Vortigern’s relentless need for power forced Arthur into exile and a life among thieves. Arthur disarms Vortigern of his final blade. “You created me,” he says. He stabs the demon in the gut. “And for that I bless you.”
Vortigern’s body breaks the altar in two. Arthur clutches Excalibur with one hand. The sword seems to recognize its holder has fulfilled his destiny. He can activate God Mode with one hand now. The tower crumbles, the dead are mourned, Arthur becomes king, knights his buddies, and builds the round table. Camelot is ready for its hero.
A bunch of lads carousing around England, pranking the squares in charge, fighting, trying to get laid. Yeah, there’s some joking.
But not much. Smirking is the order of the day. Shockingly, the mostly male cast isn’t in on the copious phallic jokes. May I direct you to Vortigern’s tower he’s erecting? And there’s a character named Wet Stick. And I’m pretty sure someone literally says that many people have waited a long time to pull on that sword (try to remove Excalibur from the stone).
The screenwriters knew what they were doing, but why not let the characters in on the jokes?
Camelot is a rock-hewn mountain castle with causeways and valleys. From here rule the kings of mystical England. It’s a solid-though-dour location appropriate for the raw nature of it’s titular character.
Londinium, by contrast, brims with life. Missing are the drecks of daily life there. Streets are clean and people content. Even the whores live in decent digs. Seemed like an OK place to live, proving the movie’s fantastic nature.
What a strange world the filmmakers crafted. Arthur chides a compatriot for his poor English skills, though English didn’t come about for another 12 centuries, give or take a few.
Also, there’s Vikings lurking. Vikings didn’t flood England until the 800s, centuries after the end of “Londinium” as a town name. But hey, this is fantasy. It’s OK. Just breathe, Andy, breathe.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has plenty to say about the nature of power, who should wield it, and who should back them up. Women feature heavily in Arthur’s upbringing and king training. Prostitutes raised him. The mage who grudgingly trains his use of Excalibur is a woman. The Lady of the Lake rejects Arthur’s rejection of the sword.
Further, Vortigern sheds women’s blood to attain and hold his magical hold on the throne. He gives their blood to lady octopi chilling beneath the castle, who grant the usurper the magic he demands.
Everything said above about female roles holds true, but doesn’t excuse the woman-dies-to-advance-male-narrative that plagues the movie. Vortigern murders not one but two female members of his immediate family to achieve his power. These are glaring attacks that aren’t covered by the strengthening of female roles in other places (unusual and welcome for an antiquity movie).
You’ll note the multi-ethnic cast in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Two black men are future knights of the round table. The chief mage is a woman. An Asian man teaches kung fu to the people of Roman Londimium. The Empire was famed as a diverse one, but this movie kicks it up several notches. Was the depiction historical accurate? Probably not. But who cares, there’s mages and flame balls and lady octopuses and shit.
- I dug the colors. Ritchie has oranges and yellows canvasing the screen. Vortigern sports a dope black outfit at Arthur’s supposed execution.
- Several montages are interwoven throughout the movie. This increases the pace and energy, something the Arthur legend probably needs because it’s been filmed so many times.
Summary (31/68): 46%
Any studio releasing an action movie in May is crazy. Getting stuck in the Marvel wash is what will happen, and that’s what befell King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Released a week after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Arthur‘s worldwide gross was only about $2 million more than Guardians earned in it first week.
Don’t let its “flop” status turn you off. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a fun adaptation of the Arthur legend, pumped and paced up in the Guy Ritchie style.