Not every movie is a political statement in 2017, but some of them sure are. So it’s altogether fitting that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a goofy, splendid medieval romp that also makes a distinctly English case for a moderate populism.
The legend of the 5th-century British king who defended his country against the Saxon invaders has been literally retold for centuries. This time it’s going to be a franchise, with this first installment directed by Guy Ritchie, whose best work (like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) glories in snubbing its nose at upper-crusty types who bend the rules only when it suits their own purposes.
The legend of Arthur, it turns out, is a pretty ideal fit for Ritchie’s talents, and for 2017, too. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword hits the sweet spot where fans of superhero blockbusters, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones overlap. It’s kind of generic, sure, and Camelot’s greatest fans may consider the film blasphemy. But as a piece of silly summer entertainment, it’s often good.
Occasionally, it’s even pretty great.
Does King Arthur: Legend of the Sword accurately hew to the Arthur legend? Who cares?
The Arthurian legend is so old that it’s long since passed into the realm of myth, with historians and scholars fighting endlessly over which pieces of the story are real and which are fabrication. What King Arthur: Legend of the Sword presupposes is this: Does any of that even matter?
The film’s answer: Not really! History is beside the point. Arguing about “accuracy” in a movie like this is a fool’s game, and knowing this, Legend of the Sword finds its own modern story in the midst of the legend.
The characters in Legend of the Sword are technically living in the 5th century C.E., and they sort of dress like it, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they talk, or from their haircuts. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, having a very good year between this film and Lost City of Z) is a wisecracking badass who is perfectly fine responding to a request from the Viking king with a breezy “Yeah, I don’t think so, mate.” As Arthur’s dastardly uncle Vortigern, Jude Law skulks around and darkly perches on his throne with the look of a guy who used to wear a lot of eyeliner. And a bevy of secondary characters (none of whom are particularly distinguishable from one another) seem like a gang of guys with Cockney accents lifted right out of one of Ritchie’s old crime films, dressed in vaguely medieval garb, and plopped down into this one.
Three of those side characters stand out. Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen) and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) have been working as resistance fighters since — during a war between men and mages, a.k.a. wizards — Vortigern betrayed his brother, the King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), and took over the crown. They know what Arthur needs to do to save the people, and they are going to get him to do it, regardless of what he wants. And one mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), mysterious and not having any of Arthur’s guff, will help them.
Arthur was a little boy when Vortigern took over, but Uther managed to get little Arthur onto a boat that floated from Camelot down to Londinium, where he was taken in by the women of a brothel. He grew up on the streets, living a hard-knock life that left him with some great fighting skills courtesy of Kung-Fu George (Tom Wu), an extremely ripped upper-body musculature, and a tender loyalty toward both the women who raised him and the lads he came up with.
There’s also the titular sword, forged back in the day by the good mage Merlin and bound by the Lady of the Lake to the Pendragon line. (There isn’t a whole lot of explanation for any of these things, but it doesn’t really matter.) That means that after Uther’s death, the sword — stuck in a stone for reasons that become clear later on — will only respond to the touch of the rightful heir to the throne, and that’s not Vortigern. (He is not happy about this.) The rightful heir is Arthur, and when the people who’ve been looking for him figure out who he is, all hell breaks loose.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a superhero movie set in pre-Christian England
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is clearly modeled on well-established superhero genre conventions. Arthur is a humble hero whose parents were murdered in front of him. Though born to greatness, he is raised in obscurity. He must battle an evil villain who is also closely related to him. He has magical powers. But more importantly, he has a band of sidekicks (some of whom also have magical powers) without whom he’d be lost in his quest.
But while the arc is predictable, it also feels surprisingly fresh, if you take it as a superhero story. It’s in medieval pre-Christian England for one thing, a nice twist on the expected Gotham/modern day America/outer space setting. There are fun sword fights and cool wizards, and while the whole thing feels like it’s perpetually about to run off the rails, it ticks along at a good pace and finishes without getting too confusing.
What keeps it all together is Hunnam, whose appeal has finally become evident to me after this film and (the much better) Lost City of Z. He slips easily into the role, with his mellifluous voice and Disney-prince handsomeness, and since his Arthur talks like a regular bloke, he never seems too self-conscious in the role.
That’s a great fit for Ritchie, who is hyper-conscious as a director. He never lets you forget that you’re watching a movie: the camera swerves around, suddenly punches in to get a closer look at something, cuts abruptly, and moves altogether like a music video, often accompanied by big, loud music. Add that hyperstylization to a self-conscious actor like Robert Downey, Jr. (who played Sherlock Holmes in Ritchie’s adaptations) and the result is just way too much. But here, Ritchie’s style and Hunnam’s manner work against each other, and the result is pleasingly kooky.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an origin story for England
All of the film’s juxtapositions — Hunnam with Ritchie, thoroughly modern men in 5th-century situations — work in service of Legend of the Sword’s story of a high-born king raised among the underclass. Arthur has superpowers granted by the sword, but the real superpowers, the movie suggests, come from the street smarts and scrappy lads from Londinium. Snotty, lofty Vortigern, who’s never left his castle and is willing to go to horrifying lengths to solidify the power on which he’s utterly drunk, would deserve to be taken down even if he wasn’t colluding with an evil mage. The virtues of the average bloke on the street — even the ones who resort to shady means to get by — far outpaces the corruption of the high-born.
Arthur unites the two, though, and thus the legend spreads fast. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an origin story for England — which a line of dialogue near the end makes clear — especially one that’s struggling to figure out what, and who, it really is. And that describes the debates of post-Brexit 2017: Is England cosmopolitan? Is it sovereign? Does it belong to royalty, the elites, or to the commoner? Is there space for the foreigner, too?
The answer this film gives is a “yes” (“Why have enemies when you can have friends?” Arthur asks near the end), but a very tenuous one. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t really consciously making a political point. It just embodies one that seems popular right now: That the country is better off in the hands of the working class than those bred to lead it. (The movie’s tagline is “From Nothing Comes a King,” for goodness’ sake.)
In this movie, the round table has space for the nobles and the commoners. The question, for England and for King Arthur, is what the origin story means for the next installment.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens in theaters on May 12.