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Non-Review Review: King Arthur – Legend of the Sword

The most striking aspect of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is how little interest it has in being a “King Arthur” film.

King Arthur is the latest blockbuster from Guy Ritchie, and contains much of the director’s signature style. Indeed, King Arthur works best when it indulges these stylistic quirks, as cockney characters construct winding non-linear narratives that double back upon (and trip over) one another in a decidedly playful manner. The best and most enjoyable segments in King Arthur feel almost throwaway, as if they might easily have been lifted from (or perhaps even dropped into) a completely different feature film without causing any significant problems.

Set in stone.

King Arthur runs into trouble when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes business of constructing a blockbuster franchise-starter. To be fair, the formula has been relatively well established to this point, with audiences very familiar with the expected plot beats. Even still, King Arthur has little enthusiasm for hitting or expanding these beats. Many of the bigger moments in King Arthur feel like an exercise in box-ticking, elements that exist largely because they are expected in a film like this and with a minimum amount of set-up or panache.

The result is a deeply uneven film that feels very much at odds with itself and no real engagement with the movie’s central driving narrative. King Arthur works best as a series of engaging diversions, but underwhelms as a functional narrative in its own right.

Going out in a blade of glory.

Guy Ritchie has a knack for montage and rhythm. King Arthur works best in the moments that play to this strength. The most memorable beats in King Arthur are relatively low on action and dialogue, instead coming together through careful editing set to an effective soundtrack. These montages eschew linear storytelling or exposition in favour of a more visual style broken up by wry banter, an approach that plays to the strengths of the director. The energy of these sequences effectively contrasts with the more rote elements of the movie.

King Arthur opens with a convoluted prequel sequence that burdens the narrative with cumbersome exposition. This exposition is then repeated and explained ad nauseam over the following two hours. This is something of a feature of blockbuster franchise starters, perhaps most notable in the over-stuffed opening scene of Man of Steel that offers both an attempted coup and the inevitable destruction of Krypton while introducing Russell Crowe as an action hero twist on Jor-El. King Arthur tries something similar with Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s dad.

His word is Law.

However, the movie only really comes to life in the scenes following this clumsy introduction, as the audience is brought up to speed on the events between that prequel and the start of the movie’s primary plot. Through a catchy montage sequence, the audience witnesses Arthur’s life inside a dingy brothel and his journey towards adulthood, juxtaposed with the ascent of the usurper Vortigern. Speed and repetition are the key here, creating a sense of movement and momentum lacking from the over-burdened introductory sequence.

There is something very cheeky in all of this, in the idea of the Once and Future King growing up in a seedy brothel in “Londinium”, known to his mates as “Art” and prone to a little bit of cockney banter. It suggests a subversive and wry take on this most fundamental of British folklore, revelling in the image of royalty sneaking out of the upstairs window of a brothel in the dead of night. However, King Arthur never fully indulges that mischievous side. It always returns to the safer and more expected path.

Artful dodger.

This pattern recurs throughout King Arthur. Short snappy scenes drift off on high-energy tangents, only for gravity to eventually reassert itself and draw the script back to the expected blockbuster plot beats. King Arthur is crammed full of story beats and set pieces, but it never seems particularly engaged with any of them. This is perhaps most notable in the film’s shallow nods to the metaphorical magical racism perhaps most obvious in the Harry Potter franchise, with idea of a “purge” against “the mages.” But the film is more interested in goofy narrative dead ends.

There is an endearing ten-minute back-and-forth about Arthur’s run-in with a bunch of Vikings that includes several clarifications and reversals, ultimately leading to a fairly predictable outcome. From a plotting perspective, it is hard to justify the energy invested in it. This charming scene is followed shortly by a big rescue mission that is very important to the plot, but which involving characters who have barely been established orchestrating a plot that has not been foreshadowed serving an agenda never really articulated.

“We would have swords with thee.”

Repeatedly over the course of the film, plot elements and story beats that should be important in a film like this are casually sidelined. King Arthur seems to assume that either the audience will fill in the gaps on their own, or they simply won’t care about these lacunas. This is most obvious in the movie’s climax, in what should be a simple final battle between good and evil is effectively turned into a three-round boxing match in which the contenders dance around one another for no obvious reason and allow each other to get a power upgrade between battles.

More than that, King Arthur seems curiously cavalier about its source material. The movie seems to treat “King Arthur” as a framework around which it might arrange a set of archetypal story beats. When Uther Pendragon is betrayed and usurped, Arthur is sent downstream in a boat and wrapped in blankets, recalling the story of Moses. The usurper Vortigern repeatedly consults a trio of monstrous sea hags for guidance in his vile ambitions, a plot element evoking Macbeth.

Pointing out logical gaps.

Even the creative choices seem lifted from expected blockbuster storytelling. The emphasis on betrayal and politics in King Arthur seems to be a nod to Game of Thrones, with Ritchie even borrowing a couple of actors from the show. The conspicuous lack of Merlin in the film suggests an absence intentionally left for the sequel, akin to the use of Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes or Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

There is a very cynical quality to how King Arthur sets out to hit all these plot beats. They are often dropped in with little context and with little investment. In the second act, Arthur seems ready to renounce his title and role after a brutal setback, recalling the plot of superhero sequels like Superman II, Spider-Man II or The Wolverine. However, Arthur’s attempt to surrender his role and responsibility lasts a couple of minutes at most. More time is spent on a wry and surreal non-linear training montage in “the darklands”, which has little plot relevance.

It’s all a bit arch.

To be fair, there is some fun to be had in the rejection of familiar blockbuster storytelling structure. It is possible to construct a satisfying film without paying attention to that established formula. The big problem with King Arthur is that the movie essentially tries to have it both ways. It hews close enough to the established structure that its plot maintains the casual appearance of a familiar arc, but refuses to engage with and develop those plot beats so that it all feels very rote.

King Arthur is a film that works best when it allows the luxury of tangents and dead ends, but which suffers through its wedding to a plot structure in which it has little interest and which is ill-served by those tangents and dead ends.

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6 Responses

  1. The Washington Post’s review of King Arthur is actually titled “It took awhile, but I found a movie worse than Batman v. Superman”

  2. Thanks for the review.

    I much prefer my Arthurian stories more… John Boormany but I am going to see this anyway – I went to school with one of the actresses and old friendship ties trump all.

    • Oh, which actress, if it’s not too personal a question?

      • Oh not at all, I went to school with Katie McGrath. I haven’t seen her in years – in fact before she started her acting career – but she was very cool and clever and funny. Of course it does make watching ‘Jurassic World’ a weird experience, seeing someone you were on the debating team with get eaten by a sea monster.

      • Ha!

        I don’t know Katie McGrath, but I remember thinking that death sequence was incredibly mean spirited.

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