King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2016) – Review

If you were to look up the word “Hubris” in the dictionary one should not be surprised to find the definition altered to now describe it as, “A quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence i.e. Warner Brothers and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”

When I heard that this film was to be the first installment of a six picture franchise I thought it had be some kind of April Fool’s Day prank because nobody could be that stupid, but it seems that Warner Brothers were eager to get their hands on some of that fat franchise money that Marvel Studios had been making hand over fist with their cinematic universe. Then to make matters worse they spent a whopping $175 million dollars (that’s not counting the millions spent on marketing) to make this film about the legendary king when the last three King Arthur movies didn’t earn that much box office combined. Were the studio heads in a cocaine fueled stupor when they made this decision? Guy Ritchie’s last film The Man From U.N.C.L.E. cost $75 million to produce but only managed to bring in $45 million domestically, and yet this is the guy they wanted to start off their proposed billion dollar franchise? I wonder how man execs lost their parking spots over this colossal bomb.

Some spoilers await thee below.

And bomb it did, managing to only make $39 million dollars domestically, even with the foreign markets the studio still ended up losing about $150 million dollars, but what exactly went wrong?

First off was anybody really crying out for a six film epic that dealt with the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? In 2004 Antoine Fuqua’s reimagining of the King Arthur tale only managed to bring in about $52 million domestic and before that we had First Knight with Sean Connery as Arthur which took in a meager $37 million, with both of those movies getting mixed to poor reviews you be hard pressed to believe audiences were clamoring for more. You actually have to journey back to the year 1981 and John Boorman’s Excalibur to find a really good version of this classic tale and even it wasn’t universally praised at the time of its release.  So with Excalibur being the bench mark of what a good King Arthur movie, and that one only taking in $34 million dollars at the box office, you have to be pretty ballsy to spend $150 million on your version.

So Warner Brothers decided to spend an obscene amount of money on a subject matter that had a rather bad track record at the box office, they hired as their lead actor a man who has yet to prove himself as a bankable movie star, then they gave the reins to a director who hasn’t had a certifiable hit in quite some time, and exactly where did all this money go?

A shit load of money was clearly spent ripping off Lord of the Rings.

I myself am a big fan of the Arthurian mythology and John Boorman’s Excalibur, based heavily on Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, is a fairly faithful adaptation of the legend (It is about the best take on King Arthur we’ve ever got in my opinion) yet I’ve have no real problem with a filmmakerre-interpreting these ancient stories for new generations, but what I do ask for is that the versions they give us should at least make a little sense and also not suck.

Also maybe avoid ripping off artist Frank Frazetta as well.

In the mid-1980s DC comics released a 12 issue limited series called Camelot 3000 which dealt with the reincarnated Knights of the Round Table as they re-emerge in an overpopulated future world of 3000 A.D. to fight off an alien invasion masterminded by Morgan Le Fay.  That was an excellent graphic novel with an interesting take on the old legends, but Guy Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have even less bearing on the legend than that science fiction re-imagining.

Note to Hollywood: Make this into a movie.

There really isn’t much of the actual King Arthur legend to be found in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; we get a dude named Arthur but in this version as a child he was apparently put in a small boat to save him from being killed by his evil uncle, and his little craft took him down the river to where he was found by employees of a Londinium brothel.  Think the story of Moses only with more prostitutes.  Now there is a magic sword stuck in a stone in this version but we are told that Arthur’s evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who staged a palace coupe killing King Uther (Eric Bana) and his wife (Katie McGrath) after gaining dark powers from the local sea witch, needs to kill the rightful heir to the throne before he can use the power of the sword. This heir is of course his missing nephew Arthur.  Thus Vortigern has his minion round up every man of age to see if they can pull the sword from the stone so that he can then kill the bastard and achieve ultimate power. If none of this seems even vaguely familiar to you it’s because not a bit of it has anything to do with the legend of King Arthur.

Him drawing Excalibur from the stone is about the only thing they kind of get right.

This film even opens with Uther Pendragon ruling from Camelot when bloody Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table were founded by Arthur not his dad, who in the legend was a bit of a womanizing dick and not the noble lord portrayed here by Eric Bana. I will give the movie credit for putting magic back into the Arthurian legend as I’ve grown tired of “realistic” interpretations of the myth, and even the character of Vortigern though not from the Arthurian legend (He was a 5th century warlord who may or may not have actually existed) he made for a pretty compelling villain and Jude Law certainly seemed to be having fun playing the part.

Jude Law leaves no scenery un-chewed as Vortigern.

What I can’t stand is that Guy Ritchie gives us a reluctant hero who teams up with a bunch of rebels in the woods to harass the evil king. For one thing Arthur has never been considered a reluctant hero, a flawed king but never reluctant about fighting for the common good, and he certainly didn’t hang out in the woods with a band of misfits to give the usurper a hard time.  That’s fucking Robin Hood for crying out loud.  It’s one thing to ditch the entire story of King Arthur but then to crib from the story of Moses, Robin Hood and the visual style of Lord of the Rings it all kind of implies that you don’t actually have anything new or original to say.

I’m not sure which of these guys is supposed to be Little John.

What about Lancelot and Guinevere?  You know, the two others who with Arthur make up the tragic love triangle that destroys Camelot. They are completely missing here and one must assume that they would have eventually shown up in one of the five proposed sequels, but there absence in a story about King Arthur is really unforgivable. Go ahead and leave out Arthur’s evil bastard son Mordred and the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, ditch the whole search for the Holy Grail and I wouldn’t bat an eye, but if you cut out one of the most famous love stories in literature you’ve really fucked up. Also missing is the wizard Merlin, even though he is named checked as the Mage who forged Excalibur (which he didn’t) we never get to see him in this movie.  Instead we get a young woman who is simply called The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and are told she is an acolyte of Merlin’s. Her job in this film is to be the constant deus ex machina that will save Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) from being killed on multiple occasions, she also has the ability to move her mind into and control animals which I assume she learned from watching Game of Thrones.

She will fight over the title of “Person of Least Charisma” with Charlie Hunnam.

Who exactly are the Mages? In the opening prologue we learn that “For Centuries Man & Mage Lived Side By Side In Peace. Until The Rise Of The Mage Sorcerer Mordred. Turning His Dark Ambitions Against Man.” Is it just me or is the term “Mage Sorcerer” a tad redundant? Also the use of the name Mordred here has nothing to do with the evil little shit from the legend who was sired by Arthur when the king accidentally fucked his half-sister (Doesn’t the original story sound so much more interesting?) but instead Mordred is a generic evil sorcerer who dies pathetically in the opening act when he is unceremoniously killed by King Uther.

Mordred doesn’t even get a single word of dialog.

The film’s basic plot is that Vortigern was jealous of his brother so he convinced Mordred to rebel against humanity, when that fails Vortigern sacrifices his wife to a sea witch to get temporarily turned into Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer so that he can kill Uther.  He then needs to build this “Dark Tower” so that once its completed he will become untouchable some how. Young Arthur escapes and remains a loose thread in Vortigern’s evil plans because he is the rightful heir to the power of Excalibur. While Vortigern builds his tower Arthur is raised in a brothel where he is taught martial arts by an Asian dude named George (Tom Wu) and over time he forms a group of low level criminals to make a bit of cash.

We may not get Merlin in this movie but we do get a martial arts master.

I’m not sure what kind of movie Guy Ritchie was trying to make here but his blend of hyper editing and trademark zippy flashback techniques may have worked fine in films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and even to some extent his first Sherlock Holmes movie, but here they are too jarring and out of place.  The movie is also set to an annoyingly overdone score by composer Daniel Pemberton that seems to want to beat the viewer into submission.  The final crippling blow to the film was in the casting of charisma vacuum Charlie Hunnam as Arthur. He may have been great as the protagonist on television’s Sons of Anarchy but the few times I’ve seen him on the big screen have been less than impressive.  In Pacific Rim almost every scene he had was stolen by the relatively unknown Rinko Kikuchi, and in Crimson Peak his bland boyfriend part is completely forgettable.

This is our Once and Future King? *sigh*

With King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Guy Ritchie tried something new, and I will give him credit for at least putting magic back into the story when others have abandoned it for the sake of realism, but at no point did I find myself invested in any of the characters or what they were trying to achieve. For example at one point Vortigern needs the “Demon Knight” power again and to get it he must sacrifice someone he loves to the Sea Witch, but with his wife already sacrificed the first time he needed the power he is now forced to kill his daughter. It’s clear that this is supposed to be a powerful scene but as we’ve had almost no screen time with the woman, nor learned anything about her, the film hasn’t earned this moment and so we really don’t care when she gets stabbed by dear ole dad. That is the real key flaw to this film, we are never given a reason to care about any of these characters and when your film is about good versus evil you kind of need the audience to be rooting for the good guys.

Final Thoughts:

• If Vortigern needs Arthur dead to claim Excalibur why not order his soldiers to immediately kill anyone who draws the sword from the stone?
• Vortigern’s soldiers look to be cosplaying medieval Jason Voorhees.
• Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish from Game of Thrones joins Arthur.
• Arthur has to fight Rodents of Unusual Size.
• We have Viking slavers in this film, because?
• The Round Table gag at the end of the movie is ridiculously lame.

It’s a fucking table you bunch of gits!

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.

  • fivecats

    5.0 is generous.

    • Hankworth McGillicutty

      Besides veering away from so called “source material,” what exactly is wrong with this movie? Why must Ritchie adhere to the specifics of some age old tale?

      • The Nuclear Witch

        Uh, because it’s the story. Why tackle the material in the first place if you feel it’s so inadequate that you must re-write it 🙂

  • elainehatchell

    I loved this movie. I would watch anything with Charlie Hunnam in it. I think he is very “bankable” as you put it. As a matter of fact I think I will watch it again now.