“I am here now because of you” | King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

This is a story that takes more than eight years to tell. It begins with a Hollywood studio electing to mount an all-new screen adaptation of a popular folkloric saga, and it ends with a loss of about $150 million. There is something of an epic saga about the development of the film in question, one that involves rival projects competing at the same studio, complications, delays and – ultimately – the horrifying discovery that the public simply did not care for seeing a new movie about King Arthur.

This is the story of Guy Ritchie’s 2017 fantasy film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and the most important part of the entire saga is that – once you step away from the dismissive audiences, the negative reviews, and the commercial losses – it is very probably the most unfairly misjudged studio picture of its year. Was it a mess? Absolutely it was, but it was surprisingly great fun at the same time. Star Charlie Hunnam once called it ‘a straight, grand drama that has, as Guy puts it, “a liberal sprinkling of fuck dust over the top.”’ – and that seems as solid a description as any.[1]

It is worth touching briefly on brand, and on Hollywood’s seeming addiction to remaking older films. All filmmaking is comparatively expensive, particularly so for a large-scale ‘blockbuster’ film in which budgets can expand well beyond US$100 million, with an additional sum in the tens of millions added on to pay for advertising, marketing, and general promotion. Films on such a massive scale demand enormous revenues to be affordable. As a result, they require every commercial advantage possible to make a profit. One of the key tools is brand.

Brand leads a consumer to make a series of associations with something being sold. For example, a film-going audience might associate a brand like Star Wars with space battles, visual effects, action scenes, and a sort of fantasy storytelling. It helps to sell a motion picture, and to find an audience much more easily than an original text to which no such elements have been associated. Brand tells an audience what to expect from a film.

This is, of course, why sequels and franchises are so popular with movie studios. Marvel Studios have one of the strongest current brands on the market, with millions of movie-goers rushing to see their films simply because they are Marvel films. It is also why remakes are so popular: a studio can associate a new film with a popular old one, and effectively ‘poach’ the brand values – and pre-existing audience – for their new release.

Let us jump back to 1981. It was in that year that director John Boorman helmed Excalibur, a King Arthur adaptation produced by Orion Pictures and distributed around the world by Warner Bros. Excalibur was a reasonable commercial success at the time, but it was its afterlife on television and home video that gave it its mystique. It developed a cult audience over time, a process helped in no small part by many members of its cast – comparative unknowns at the time like Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, and Liam Neeson – developing popular Hollywood careers in the subsequent decades.

In 2009 Warner Bros, which gained the full rights to Excalibur following the collapse of Orion Pictures, started development on a remake of the film. They quickly scored the interest of Bryan Singer – then an in-demand director with films including The Usual Suspects, X-Men, and Valkyrie. At the same time, the production company Hollywood Gang (300) developed their own King Arthur project. Unaware of the in-development Excalibur remake, they brought their proposed film to Warner Bros and successfully signed a development deal for it. Comic book writer Warren Ellis was hired to write the film’s treatment, with Gianni Nunnari, Oliver Kramer and Craig Flores producing. Despite originating as its own Arthur film, the Hollywood Gang project became linked to the Excalibur IP as well. After all, keep the title and keep the brand. On his personal blog, Ellis wrote: ‘On my desk, the treatment is called Untitled Arthurian Project. On their desk, the project is called Excalibur.[2]

By the start of 2010, and with two competing King Arthur projects on the boil, Warner Bros approached English director Guy Ritchie over his interest in directing the successful project. Whether hedging their bets or cooling on the prospect of Bryan Singer handling the film, executives had been impressed at Ritchie’s performance directing the Robert Downey Jr-starring Sherlock Holmes (2009) and wished to continue working with him. ‘I was affected by John Boorman’s film Excalibur,’ said Ritchie. ‘I remember seeing it when I was very young and noticing that everyone shouts at one another. And they have really over-the-top shiny armour. It’s on the verge of being very camp. But it impacted me because, somehow, these guys looked cool in spite of it all. By the time the film was done, I felt, I’m not quite sure what happened there, but I loved it.’[3]

Of course, while Warner Bros owned Excalibur they did not have a monopoly on the King Arthur myth: in early 2010 New Regency Pictures purchased the speculative (‘spec’) screenplay Pendragon from newcomers Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy. That script purported to be an origin story of King Arthur and his famous knights. Sylvain White (The Losers) was courted to direct, however like most Hollywood productions put into development it never ultimately emerged – likely because its producers did not want to compete with Warner Bros’ already-mooted big-budget remake.

While development continued on both the Singer and Ellis Excalibur remakes, Warner Bros took the opportunity to purchase the rights to a third King Arthur adaptation. Writer/director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) successfully signed a deal to produce an Arthurian film for what was rumoured to be a low seven-figure contract (later confirmed to be around $2 million). Jeff Kleeman and Lionel Wigram were contracted to co-produce the film alongside Dobkin. The screenplay was titled Arthur & Lancelot.

‘I pulled the legend apart,’ Dobkin once explained. ‘I only kept a few things. I kept certain characters, I recreated the entire launch of the legend and why it starts the way that it starts, I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s always had a flaw. I pulled the flaws out, I reinvented the characters as grounded characters.’[4]

Why buy another Arthurian screenplay when the studio was already juggling two others? It was possibly that of the three takes, Dobkin’s seemed the most commercially viable – in which case another few million dollars on the budget was not so huge a cost. Conversely, it could have been what industry analyst Scott Myers called a ‘defensive buy’. Myers wrote: ‘Supposedly Universal and Fox were part of the bidding war. If Warners is looking at King Arthur as a franchise property, do they really want a rival studio with a competing project, especially if they feel Dobkin’s script is at least equal to if not superior to their current ones in development? Because if another studio purchased Dobkin’s script and it’s in good shape, they already have a director attached (Dobkin), so they could be charging toward production soon leaving Warner Bros forced to rush the development of either/both of their current projects, probably spending at least $2M on A-list writers to wrangle something into a serviceable script.’[5]

When it became clear that Dobkin’s Arthur picture was being fast-tracked by the studio, Guy Ritchie – along with his producing partner Lionel Wigram and screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting) departed from their still-developing version. Ritchie and Wigram did not move far, remaining with Warner Bros for both the Sherlock Holmes sequel Game of Shadows (2011), and the TV adaptation The Man from UNCLE (2015).

By October 2011, the Bryan Singer remake of Excalibur was also shelved indefinitely. ‘Unfortunately it is no longer going to happen,’ admitted Singer. ‘I was really enthused to do it. I’m a fan of John Boorman’s movie and it was my intention to get it going after Jack the Giant Killer was completed. The project was with Warner Bros and what happened is that another King Arthur project was brought to them during that time. Basically, it was just more ready to go into production than ours was.’[6] Singer’s Jack feature, ultimately released by Warner Bros in 2013 as Jack the Giant Slayer, was met with mixed responses from critics and a lukewarm audience. It failed to recover its budget in cinemas.

Arthur & Lancelot proceeded with rapidity towards production. At one stage the film was set to star Game of Thrones star Kit Harington and 32-year-old Swedish actor Joel Kinniman in the leading roles. This caused friction at Warner Bros’ executive level, with some in the studio fearing that the film would flounder without a known and bankable lead actor. By March 2012 an approach had been made to Colin Farrell over starring as Arthur; an offer the actor refused. Gary Oldman was also offered the role of Merlin, and similarly turned it down.

With a budget estimate in the range of $130 million, and with its producers unwilling or unable to bring it down by about $20 million, Warner Bros dropped Arthur & Lancelot from the production schedule.

The following year Warner Bros warmed to a fourth potential take on King Arthur. Writer Joby Harold, noting the success that Marvel Studios had founded with an interconnected ‘shared universe’ of films, presented a proposal for a pre-developed six-film franchise. Five films would focus on individual characters from Arthurian myth – Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and so on – and a sixth would culminate in the forming of the famed court of Camelot. The first proposed film was titled The Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.

Warner Bros was supportive of Harold’s idea, but remained interested in David Dobkin’s Arthur & Lancelot screenplay. It appears that the studio merged the two: Harold’s franchise structure combined with a rewrite of Dobkin’s draft.

By January 2014, Guy Ritchie had returned. He was shooting The Man from UNCLE at the time, and with a third Sherlock Holmes delayed due to script issues was seeking a follow-up project. He soon agreed to direct the film, despite not being a fan of fantasy cinema in general. ‘For me, I’m trying to think of a film in the genre that I really like… And I’m quite quiet on that. There isn’t too many. There are elements within different films that I really like, but as a whole film, there’s not one I can think of.’[7]

When Ritchie received the current draft from Warner Bros, he was unimpressed. ‘I didn’t think it was funny. It needed to be funny and wittier and, essentially, I just gauge any of these things by, “Would I enjoy it?” But I could see that the studio was hell-bent on making it.’[8]

Ritchie and Wigram rewrote the screenplay to inject more humour, and to better reflect their own style of filmmaking established back with their original projects Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). Dobkin received a story credit. Ritchie: ‘I think where the pitfall has often been is trying to make King Arthur bland and nice, and nice and bland. The two qualities make rather compatible bed companions. Unfortunately, they’re not interesting to watch.’[9]

The announcement of Guy Ritchie as the director of King Arthur sparked some derision in the press at the time, with The Guardian questioning his suitability for the position – and even suggesting Peter Jackson, Kenneth Branagh, and Guillermo Del Toro as more suitable candidates. Journalist Ben Child wrote that ‘the epic story of Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, Gawain and the round table surely needs a more delicate sensibility if the film series is to be a success.’[10]

In August actor Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) was cast in the lead role of Arthur. Hunnam said: ‘I like straight drama or very masculine roles about, you know, ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things. That seems to be the story I get drawn to a lot.’[11]

Hunnam was not Ritchie’s original choice; indeed, the director initially refused to consider the actor when his agent first contacted the production. ‘I heard the guy was doing King Arthur and I promptly threw my name in the hat,’ said Hunnam, ‘and Guy threw it back out.’[12]. Hunnam ultimately had to fly to London from Los Angeles and use his professional contacts to force a one-on-one meeting between them.

The film’s antagonist was the magic-weaving dictator King Vortigern, and to play the role Ritchie asked Sherlock Holmes star Jude Law. It was an enticing opportunity for Law to play the villain for once, particularly one so obsessed with retaining the throne he has stolen.

‘I liked the idea that he is a guy that is so driven by his obsession with power,’ he said. ‘Clearly he’ll do anything for it… He’s like a big fruit gone rotten in the middle and the fruit still smells pungent but inside it’s decay and maggots.’[13]

To emphasise Vortigern’s power, Law had all of his speeches written out of the script or transferred to the King’s lieutenants. It left him a much calmer and self-assured figure, and a more ominous threat to Arthur.

A resistance against Vortigern is led by Sir Bedevere, who comes to encourage Arthur to accept his destiny and birthright. While Idris Elba (Thor, The Dark Tower) was approached to play the role, it was ultimately performed by Djimon Hounsou (Amistad).

During the shoot, Hounsou’s enthusiasm for fight scenes became the stuff of legend. ‘Everyone that worked with Djimon got hurt,’ recalled Charlie Hunnam, ‘He’s a real beast with the sword fighting. I came in one day and the entire stunt team was just demolished. People were limping, dudes’ arms were in slings. I never had to fight him, thankfully.’[14]

Bedevere is aided in his mission by archer Bill Wilson, nicknamed “Goose Fat” Bill. The role was played by Irish actor Aidan Gillen – best known for playing Petyr Baelish, aka “Littlefinger” in the HBO drama Game of Thrones. Originally simply named Bill, the character gained his nickname at the start of shooting. ‘It just appeared in the script one day,’ said Gillen. ‘It changed from Bill to Goose Fat Bill, but I understood immediately why Goose Fat Bill, or my interpretation of why Goose Fat Bill. it’s not to do with my physique but more to do with my slippable… slippy qualities. Like Teflon, you know? Hard to catch. This guy’s like an elusive, wanted man.’[15] The role reunited Gillen with Charlie Hunnam – both men had previously starred in the acclaimed British drama Queer as Folk from 1999 to 2000.

With King Arthur intended to be the first of six films, expected Arthurian characters such as Guinevere and Lancelot were not included. Merlin was referenced multiple times, but did not personally appear. In his place was a mysterious woman with magical powers. She is never named, but is identified by others as “the Mage”. As early as August 2014 actress Elizabeth Olsen was rumoured to be Guy Ritchie’s top choice for the role, but a month later French actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey was announced as the film’s female lead. The French-Spanish performer had previously appeared in the Rob Marshall sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as a mermaid named Serena.

Production on King Arthur commenced in the summer of 2015; a year before its intended July 2016 release. Interior sets were constructed on soundstages while a massive open-air recreation of ancient London – referred to in the screenplay as “Londinium” – was assembled across the back lot. Location shoots were scheduled to take place around Wales and Scotland.

Guy Ritchie first put the entire cast through a recorded rehearsal of the entire screenplay. ‘We did something strange and wonderful,’ said Hunnam. ‘I didn’t think it was gonna work at all, but it did. Guy had this wacky idea that he wanted to take an afternoon before we started working and shoot the whole film in four hours on two or three cameras and in a room all in black. We shot the whole film, and that’s where we met. That’s where most of the cast met. It was a baptism of fire. It was such a high-energy, sort of anxiety-inducing experience.’[16]

Following this innovative one-day exercise, production on the film began in earnest.

King Arthur begins with an effects-filled prologue, as the valiant King Uther Pendragon defends his kingdom of Camelot against the villainous warlock Mordred. Once Mordred is slain, Uther’s deceitful brother Vortigern betrays him – and a mysterious demonic warrior slays him during a coup d’etat. Uther’s queen Igraine also dies, leaving an orphaned Arthur – still a toddler – to be saved in a basket that floats down the river to nearby Londinium.

Uther was played by Australian actor Eric Bana, best known for his leading performances in Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) and Andrew Dominik’s Chopper (2000). Mordred was played by Rob Knighton. Igraine, Arthur’s mother, was played by Poppy Delevingne, older sister of model-turned-actor Carla Delevingne. ‘I get harpooned in the first 10 minutes,’ she joked. ‘I haven’t counted my lines, it’s probably six or seven, tops.’[17]

The visual effects of the prologue took more than 18 months to complete, because the specifics of the sequence kept shifting back and forth. Visual effects supervisor Christian Kaestner said: ‘It was challenging to us because it was changing all the time, but it basically stuck to what we needed to do.’[18]

The visual aesthetic of the sword Excalibur was one element that remained in flux for much of production – how magical should it appear? Depictions of the enchanted sword in action were re-animated multiple times because of the indecision. This opening battle also included giant 300-foot-tall elephants as siege weapons, and the level to which they were clearly visible on screen changed back and forth.

The prologue quite suspiciously reeks of studio interference. The vast bulk of Ritchie’s film innately feels like the work of a man who directed Sherlock Holmes and Snatch. It has a south London gait to it, with Arthur and his companions broadly re-interpreted as near-stereotypical ‘geezers’ as seen in the majority of Ritchie’s work. By contrast, much of the prologue feels more like an excerpt from Peter Jackson’s celebrated The Lord of the Rings trilogy – particularly in its use of fantastical giant elephants during a mass battle. The mysterious warrior that murders Uther and Igraine appears to have stepped out of a painting by fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Moments of slow motion photography, the heavy gravity that comes with the mass fighting, and Daniel Pemberton’s orchestral score all gesture to numerous other films and filmmakers – all except for Guy Ritchie. Overall it feels as if Warner Bros hired Ritchie to make a Camelot picture, received a Guy Ritchie picture instead, and forced a more overtly mythic prologue into the film during reshoots. It is a technically impressive opening for the film, but tonally it struggles to match.

The young Arthur is rescued from the river by the women of a Londinium brothel, and grows up to become their bodyguard and doorman. He also becomes a small-scale criminal gangster on the streets, working with his best friends Back Lack and Tristan.

Back Lack was a creation of the film’s screenwriters, while Tristan was adapted from the knight of medieval folklore who had become adapted into both Arthurian stories and the legend of Tristan and Isolde (itself a likely inspiration for tales of Lancelot and Guinevere).

Tristan was played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, who had previously co-starred in the British crime series Vera. Back Lack was played by Neil Maskell, star of the horror film Kill List and the cult science fiction series Utopia.

The introduction of Arthur and his criminal lieutenants was originally a much lengthier sequence running to more than 40 minutes. When the final edit of King Arthur proved too long for the satisfaction of Warner Bros executives, it was savagely cut down – and inserted into flashbacks during a conversation between Arthur and guard captain Jack’s Eye (Michael McElhatton). Charlie Hunnam explained that ‘there was an effort to condense significantly the first 30 or 40 minutes of the film down to a 10-minute sequence. Because his original cut came in at three and a half hours and we had to trim that down, so that was a scene that he designed to facilitate us going in and out and doing a short-hand of 20 scenes that played out in a linear fashion that he wanted to condense down into one montage.’[19]

The shortened sequence seems to accentuate its “Ritchie-ness”; it is one of the scenes most keeping with his filmmaking and editing style in the entire film.

Meanwhile the waters surrounding Camelot supernaturally recede, leaving Uther’s magical sword Excalibur exposed to land for the first time since his death. Vortigern, knowing it means that Uther’s heir is near, orders for all men of a certain age to be captured and forced to try and pull sword from stone. Arthur is captured and successfully pulls the sword – succumbing to a series of dizzying visions when he does.

The sequence was shot in a pre-existing outdoor set, originally constructed at Pinewood Studios for Warner Bros’ The Legend of Tarzan a year earlier. Footballer David Beckham makes a short cameo as the officer in charge who orders Arthur to attempt pulling the sword.

With Arthur unexpectedly identified as Uther’s heir – Arthur himself was unaware of the fact – Vortigern orders his execution in front of a crowd to demonstrate a crackdown on dissidents against the crown. Before the execution takes place, Vortigern enters Arthur’s cell to reunite with his nephew one final time.

Ritchie said: ‘What I think makes the scene interesting is that the bad guy actually tells you what he’s after and he doesn’t have any shame about telling you what he’s after. I quite like that because we’re after the same thing that the bad guy is, which is a sense of recognition. He admits that really what makes him feel good inside is being recognized and being powerful.’[20]

Jude Law gives a quite remarkable performance as King Vortigern. He ostensibly presents himself as a calm, authoritative and somewhat smug dictator, with a strong control over his kingdom and his self-presentation. As Arthur’s rebellion grows, and that sense of control begins to slip, the film reveals the horrifying extent of the sacrifices he has made to become and remain king. To win the kingdom he murdered his own wife Elsa (Katie McGrath, who in an odd coincidence had previously played Morgana in the BBC series Merlin) and gave her body to a trio of mermaid-like demons known as the Sirens.

The Sirens are a deliberate jumble of mythological and pop culture references, incorporating the Cthulhoid imagery of author H.P. Lovecraft with the maiden-mother-crone archetype. They are a wonderfully creepy addition to the film, pushing to the border of out-and-out horror, and providing Vortigern with a tragic character arc: he’s more complicated – and more awful – than the standard narrative villain.

The Sirens were played by Lorraine Bruce, Eline Powell, and Hermione Corfield. Lorraine Bruce was a veteran of British television and theatre; likely best known for her ongoing role in the crime series Dalziel & Pascoe (2002-06). Corfield had previously appeared in small roles in the likes of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017), and would subsequently play the A-Wing resistant pilot Allie in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (also 2017). Belgian actress Eline Powell had previously played Bianca in Game of Thrones (2016), and would amusingly go on to co-star in the television series Sirens (2018-20).

Arthur’s execution is disrupted by an attack from rebel fighters, enabling Arthur to escape his impending death and be introduced to Bedevere and Goose Fat Bill. He eventually leads an assassination mission when Vortigern visits the city. The attempt goes badly awry: Vortigern escapes and Arthur and his men are chased by “Blackleg” soldiers through the back streets of Londinium.

The street chase is a marvellous sequence, combining extreme close-ups with aerial tracking shots. It emphasises the panic and emotion of the scene, but also – in contrast to most chase scenes of this type – establishes a strong sense of geography and place. It benefits enormously from the large outdoor city set constructed for the film. ‘You just feel like you’re there,’ said Aidan Gillen ‘If you’re doing a chase scene, there’s always another alley that you can just run up, and it does happen like that. Why don’t we use that alleyway? Why doesn’t somebody jump off that roof? Why doesn’t somebody start firing arrows off that turret? It really is a proper, working city almost.’[21]

The complex outdoor sets were developed by production designer Gemma Jackson, who came to King Arthur following three seasons of the television series Game of Thrones.

The chase reaches a dead end in the dojo of martial arts instructor George, played by Tom Wu. Wu has been a go-to actor for henchmen, thugs, and martial artists since the 1990s, having turned up in such films as Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003), Shanghai Knights (2003), and Batman Begins (2005). He had also previously worked with Guy Ritchie on the poorly received crime film Revolver (2005).

The presence of an ethnically Asian man teaching kung fu in pre-medieval England clearly jumps out at the viewer – no such character has been included in an Arthurian film before. Given the other vast liberties taken – tentacled sirens and giant elephants to name two – George does not seem too unusual an addition. If anything he feels underused in the final picture – one wonders if he, like much of the first act, was ruthlessly cut back by a studio looking to shorten Ritchie’s film.

Cornered and desperate, Arthur uses Excalibur for the first time – enabling him to fight at super-human speed inside a ripple of energy, and fight all of the approaching Blacklegs in a flurry of blows. Hunnam: ‘So that was a very tricky sequence to shoot – fighting, being in the right position, and having the right placement to fight eight or nine people in a row when there was nobody there.’[22]

During the chase, Back Lack is badly injured and is separated from the team. He is found by soldiers and murdered by Vortigern. A despondent Arthur tries to throw away Excalibur, only for the Lady of the Lake to throw it back – forcing visions upon him of a Britain under Vortigern’s future rule. Resolved to overthrow the king, Arthur returns to the rebel hideout only to find most of them murdered by Blacklegs and the Mage captured and sentenced to death. A lone Blackleg delivers an offer from Vortigern: give up and the Mage will be spared. Thus a lonely Arthur rides to Camelot to surrender. A climax ensues, of course, but in the interest of preserving some mystery we shall leave the film’s narrative from here.

When Guy Ritchie completed his first proper edit of the film, he presented it to the executives responsible for the film at Warner Bros. They demanded reshoots, major changes, and a complete top-to-bottom re-edit. The film’s release date was put back as a result. ‘My cut came at three-and-a-half hours,’ said Ritchie, ‘and I was desperate that it would be an entertaining three hours. Two hours into it and I knew I was in trouble.’[23]

In an industry that falls under more scrutiny from the press than ever, a significant delay in releasing a film can be terminal. It gets reported – rightfully or not – as a sign of a film in trouble. Once a film is reported to be ‘in trouble’, it becomes increasingly difficult for it to shake a pre-formed impression that it will not be any good. King Arthur was originally announced for an American debut on 22 July 2016. When Warner Bros sent the film back in for reshoots, that date was delayed to 17 February 2017. It was moved again to 24 March, and a third time to 12 May. If one release date change is enough to send ripples of suspicion through the press, how big are waves caused by three?

For his own part, Ritchie expressed ignorance: ‘The date kept shifting, I think, simply because of competition,’ he told one interviewer in January 2017.[24] After the first delay Warner Bros added a subtitle to the film, transforming King Arthur into the much more franchise-friendly King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

 

For the film’s musical score, the studio hired Daniel Pemberton, who had previously composed the music for Ritchie’s The Man from UNCLE (2015). He had also provided scores for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (2013) and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015). ‘It’s a crazy bit of cinema and I loved it,’ said Pemberton. ‘Guy wanted something that didn’t sound anything like a film score. And that is a very big challenge when you’re trying to score a film! Guy isn’t big on melody. He’s big on sound. A lot of it was very unusual. I tried to make something that’s not from the period, and something that you have never heard before. But I also tried to capture the texture of Arthur’s world, which is an important part of that score.’[25]

Pemberton’s inventive and booming score is one of King Arthur’s strongest elements. It is rich in themes and dark, moody tones, and combines folk with an effective ‘rock star’ edge. At the following year’s Academy Awards, it failed to get nominated – it felt like a deep oversight at the time.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opened in American cinemas on 12 May 2017, 10 months late and riding a wave of negative reviews and press coverage. In its opening weekend the film grossed $15.3 million, putting it into third place behind the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 – which, at $65.2m in its second weekend had arguably sucked up all of the oxygen in the box office – and the comedy new released Snatched. In its second week the release of Alien Covenant and Tomorrow, Tomorrow saw it pushed down to fifth place. In the third week it fell to eighth place with the launch of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Baywatch, and a week after that to 10th – in a week dominated by Wonder Woman. Released in the middle of the most competitive period of the American cinema year, and saddled with the stench of failure, King Arthur simply never stood a chance.

By the end of its theatrical run, King Arthur only grossed $39.2 million in the USA. It fared better internationally – epic movies featuring sword-fighting generally do – but its global take concluded at $148.7 million. With the costs of promotion and advertising, and a bloated $175 million budget, the film was the most costly flop of its year. An estimate by Deadline suggested Warner Bros finished up $153 million in the red.[26] The results were similar to other recent fantasy failures including Bryan Singer’s previously mentioned Jack the Giant Slayer (2013, $197m gross on a $175m budget), Joe Wright’s Pan (2015, $128m gross on a $150m budget), and David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan (2016, $356m gross on a $180m budget).

‘Going back into this would be great fun,’ said Ritchie. ‘I like the world. I like Charlie. I liked everyone I worked with. It’s just a world that I’d like to stay within for a while. It’s not like there aren’t enough stories to be told within the mythology of Arthur and all of the characters within it with Merlin, with the sword, with Guinevere, with Lancelot. There are lots of untapped narratives still to be dealt with.’[27]

Of course, given its catastrophic failure in cinemas, a follow-up to King Arthur was not to be. Ritchie jumped over without hesitation to direct a live-action Aladdin for Walt Disney Pictures instead.

So why, ultimately, did King Arthur: Legend of the Sword fail to attract viewers?

Perhaps the most obvious argument is that the film was not particularly good. I personally liked the film enormously, despite the clear sense that its story has been weakened by studio-mandated edits. I freely admit, however, to being in a minority with critics generally on the film. Writing in The Atlantic, David Sims noted ‘you can almost hear Ritchie shouting from behind the screen, “This ain’t your daddy’s King Arthur!”.’[28] In The Times, Kate Muir described it as ‘epic in many ways, none of them good.’[29] Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called it ‘an epic bore that believes if you make a movie long and loud and repetitive enough, audiences will conclude it’s saying something profound.’[30] And so on and so forth.

The other argument would be that the film all-but-abandons the women in the audience. There is only one significant female character in the entire film – the Mage – and she is not even gifted with an actual name by the time the credits roll. Other female characters include ill-fated members of the Pendragon family and some sex workers. It is hardly enough to allow women to feel they matter to the filmmakers.

One could argue the film was not violent enough, turning away whatever audience exists that particularly enjoys hard-core, bloody sword-fighting and murder. It is even possible that the film was simply wedged painfully between Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and Alien Covenant, and simply never had the space to find its audience.

In the end I personally believe it boils down to the 300-foot elephant in the room: audiences generally do not care about King Arthur. Hollywood could have learned this back in 2004 when Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, only made US$200 million from a US$120 million product budget. They could have learned it ever further back in 1995 when Jerry Zucker’s First Knight only grossed US$128 million despite starring Richard Gere and Sean Connery. Ultimately the only Arthurian film in living memory to have turned a significant profit was John Boorman’s Excalibur, grossing US$35 million in the USA against an US$11 million budget. Even then it only managed to hit 18th place in that year’s American box office – the most successful film of the year, Raiders of the Lost Ark, grossed more than six times as much.

Warner Bros ultimately failed to make a successful King Arthur feature because they misunderstood the brand: Arthur signifies chivalry, and knights in shining armour, as well as royalty and aristocracy. Such characters are not easy with which to identify, which is why audiences of film and television have typically been more attracted to the often-times working-class anti-authoritarian themes of Robin Hood.

It is all a bit of a shame, since by repositioning Arthur’s childhood and relocating his fight from castles and fields to city streets, Guy Ritchie likely gave the audience exactly what they wanted. It is a pity that, thanks to that chivalric brand, not enough people turned up to find that out.

[1] Haleigh Foutch, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: 31 things to know about Guy Ritchie’s fantasy epic”, Collider, 21 February 2017.

[2] Warren Ellis, “Excalibur/untitled Arthurian project”, Warren Ellis, 27 July 2009.

[3] Mekado Murphy, “Guy Ritchie narrates a scene from King Arthur”, New York Times, 11 May 2017.

[4] Steve Weintraub, “Exclusive: Director David Dobkin talks about his King Arthur movie and the Vacation reboot/sequel”, Collider, 18 July 2011.

[5] Scott Myers, “Spec script sale: Arthur & Lancelot”, Go into the Story, 18 June 2011.

[6] “Bryan Singer’s Excalibur is shelved”, SFX, 17 October 2011.

[7] Kevin P. Sullivan, “Can Guy Ritchie make King Arthur cool again?’, Entertainment Weekly, 20 January 2017.

[8] Kyle Buchanan, “Guy Ritchie doesn’t care what you think about King Arthur”, Vulture, 12 May 2017.

[9] Kevin P. Sullivan, “Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur: EW’s new cover”, Entertainment Weekly, 23 July 2015.

[10] Ben Child, “Is Guy Ritchie the right director for the King Arthur epic?”, The Guardian, 31 January 2014.

[11] Jeanette Settembre, “Charlie Hunnam reveals intense preparation for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which co-star ‘demolished’ stunt team”, Los Angeles Times, 7 May 2017.

[12] Catherine Thorbecke, “Charlie Hunnam ‘wasn’t the first choice’ for King Arthur, director Guy Ritchie says”, ABC News, 5 May 2017.

[13] James Mottram, “Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Guy Ritchie discuss their roles in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”, South China Morning Post, 6 May 2017.

[14] Jeanette Settembre, “Charlie Hunnam reveals intense preparation for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which co-star ‘demolished’ stunt team”, Los Angeles Times, 7 May 2017.

[15] Haleigh Foutch, “Aidan Gillen on King Arthur, Game of Thrones, and taking a break from villainy”, Collider, 11 March 2017.

[16] Haleigh Foutch, “Charlie Hunnam & Djimon Hounsou on King Arthur’s epic action and Guy Ritchie’s directorial idiosyncracies”, Collider, 21 February 2017.

[17] Jennifer Ruby and Nick Curtis, “Poppy Delevingne on King Arthur: I’ve got to stop dying so soon in film roles”, Evening Standard, 10 May 2017.

[18] Bill Desowitz, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: Here’s how VFX powered the best part of the movie”, Indiewire, 19 May 2017.

[19] Gregory Wakeman, “Why Guy Ritchie Had To Make A Major Change To The Opening Of King Arthur”, Cinema Blend, June 2017.

[20] Mekado Murphy, “Guy Ritchie narrates a scene from King Arthur”, New York Times, 11 May 2017.

[21] Haleigh Foutch, “Aidan Gillen on King Arthur, Game of Thrones, and taking a break from villainy”, Collider, 11 March 2017.

[22] Haleigh Foutch, “Charlie Hunnam & Djimon Hounsou on King Arthur’s epic action and Guy Ritchie’s directorial idiosyncracies”, Collider, 21 February 2017.

[23] “Guy Ritchie and the challenge of making King Arthur”, The Ringer, 15 May 2017.

[24] Kevin P. Sullivan, “Can Guy Ritchie make King Arthur cool again?’, Entertainment Weekly, 20 January 2017.

[25] Daniel Schweiger, “Interview with Daniel Pemberton”, Film Music Magazine, 20 December 2017.

[26] Alexander D’Alessandro, “What were the biggest bombs at the 2017 B.O.?”, Deadline, 29 March 2018.

[27] Kevin P. Sullivan, “Can Guy Ritchie make King Arthur cool again?’, Entertainment Weekly, 20 January 2017.

[28] David Sims, “How Hollywood keeps telling the legend of King Arthur”, The Atlantic, 11 May 2017.

[29] Kate Muir, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”, The Times, 19 May 2017.

[30] Peter Travers, “KIng Arthur: Legend of the Sword review: welcome to a king-sized pile of crap”, Rolling Stone, 10 May 2017.

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