Orphaned at a young age and raised in a Londinium brothel, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up to become a low-level criminal kingpin. When the waters around the castle Camelot magically recede, revealing a sword embedded in the rock, the ruthless King Vortigern (Jude Law) orders all men of a certain age to try and pull sword from stone. When Arthur successfully pulls the sword out he is revealed as the son and heir to the murdered King Uther (Eric Bana) and the figurehead for a rebellion against Vortigern’s tyranny.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword limps into Australian cinemas today, already fatally bruised by a disastrous opening weekend in the USA. While it will easily be more commercially successful internationally – the Americans tend not to like these kinds of sword-fighting epics – it is highly doubtful it will ever break even. Warner Bros’ hopes for another big-budget tentpole franchise will be dashed for another year.
To be honest the writing has been on the wall for some time. The film’s release date got shifted back three times before it finally settled on May 2017 – more than two years after it started shooting. The marketing seemed confused and inconsistent, as if Warner Bros could not decide what sort of movie it actually was. Having now seen the film, I have realised that likely no one involved in King Arthur really decided what it was.
Here is how I think production on the film went down: Warner Bros wanted to make a new movie based on the legend of King Arthur, and had already developed multiple takes and plans to that end. They ultimately picked Guy Ritchie, a fairly hit-and-miss director who had managed to develop a fresh and audience-friendly take on Sherlock Holmes. If he could transform a 19th century fictional detective into a 21st century action franchise, why not an English legend as well?
There is plenty of material in King Arthur that screams of Ritchie’s style: mouthy English lads acting tough, saying funny things, and all shot in a highly dynamic and rapid-edited fashion. When Arthur and his companions are constrained to an urban environment it works remarkably well. Whenever the film steps away to the wilderness or to Camelot, the problems seem to step in. I suspect those at some higher executive level of Warner Bros saw Ritchie’s Snatch-esque take on the material and freaked out a little. Inevitable reshoots – not a bad thing in and of themselves – seem to have pushed the film in two other directions. One is a bleak, dark-toned fantasy picture in the vein of legendary artist Frank Frazetta. The other is essentially The Lord of the Rings with the serial number shaved off. Either take would have produced at least a functional picture. A pure Guy Ritchie take would have been divisive, but very probably a hell of a lot of fun. A film that stumbles between all three is just a classic recipe for disaster.
There are some great actors here, but the film’s patchwork nature only lets them work in fits and starts. Charlie Hunnam is an engaging enough lead, particularly when working in the prominently Guy Ritchie bits. Aiden Gillen and Djimon Hounsou are both good but under-used. As the villainous Vortigern, Jude Law probably gives the strongest and most consistent performance of the lot. It is all curiously male though, with Guinevere entirely absent from this telling of the legend and only Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey holding the fort as the unnamed Merlin stand-in known only as “the Mage”. Given the expense in making the film ($175 million is one estimate, but that doesn’t include promotion and advertising costs), one would think Warner Bros would be interested in attracting women to see the film as well as action-seeking young men.
There is some great material here. A lengthy assassination attempt and street chase is very well staged. The costuming is striking and effective, as is some of the production design. Daniel Pemberton’s score is well suited to the material and relatively impactful. There is a nice seam of humour that runs in and out of the film. For every positive, however, it feels as if there is another negative, and some of the positive parts feel out of place when lined up next to the other positives. In its totality King Arthur is simply a red-hot mess. Enthused fans of fantasy cinema will likely find enough here to get through the film – I certainly did – but make no mistake this film is a disaster in almost every respect.