King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Posted: June 11, 2017 by patricksponaugle in Movie Review, Opinion
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Recently, I took my daughter to see a movie about superhero royalty. No, I didn’t take her to see Wonder Woman (we’ll see it soon, I assume) – instead I took her to see Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

If you’ve not seen King Arthur: LotS, this post will be spoilery, so I’ll just strongly recommend the movie to you and send you on your way. It’s not a typical King Arthur movie though. It’s a very specific genre-mashing of Arthurian legend and Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels style.

I am a fan of Arthurian stuff (I don’t feel the need to justify that statement or supply credentials, but I can if required, hit me up in the comments) and Legend of the Sword, despite some of its weirdness and anachronisms, achieves a level of faithfulness as an adaptation. And has the advantage of being entertaining and engaging to watch. I’d definitely see a sequel. (In fact, I’ve cooked one up in my head in case one never gets made.)

I’m now going to discuss this movie, my reactions, my interpretations, how it relates to King Arthur lore, whatever.

One thing about King Arthur stories: re-adaptation, reinterpretation, and expansions to the story is a long tradition. Arthurian tales, as a story cycle, have grown and mutated over the years, merging in other story cycles like the Welsh tales of Merlin, and French tales of Lancelot du Lac. I’m not offended that this new movie takes such a fresh and different look at the king of Camelot.

Okay, spoilers below.

Arthur, the Prince That Was Promised (Just Like Jon Snow!)

Okay, the quick synopsis: King Uther Pendragon’s brother Vortigern tries to overthrow his brother in a magical coup d’etat. Failing that, he sacrifices his wife for the power to directly contend with Uther’s sword Excalibur. Uther dies, the sword becomes embedded underwater in stone (sort of – there’s more to it than just that), Uther’s wife dies, but Uther’s young son Arthur escapes like Moses in his basket, or Kal-El in his rocketship.

Vortigern takes the crown and to satisfy his need for power (literal magical power) orders construction of a mystical tower next to Camelot.

Meanwhile, young Arthur is raised by some working women in Londinium (I’m going to call it London for brevity’s sake, but I’ll return to Londonium and its name at a later point) grows up running a small-time criminal enterprise in his corner of the town.

Things come to a head when Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, identifying him as Uther’s heir and fast-tracking him to a public execution. Uther’s loyalist supporters rescue Arthur (with magical aid from a young druid who is definitely not Merlin) – and with some prodding and false steps, a rebellion kicks off.

Arthur demonstrates Excalibur’s overwhelming power against Vortigern’s minions, and Arthur defeats his demonically-powered uncle to reclaim his birthright.

There are things worthy to discuss.

Uther vs Mordred. What the Hell?

The movie starts with three gigantic elephants approaching Camelot, carrying barbaric invaders and being directed by a wizard named Mordred.

I thought to myself “What the hell am I in for?”

Elephants: You’re in for some HELL, humans!

But I felt much better after Uther dealt with the besiegers in a spectacular badass fashion, getting onboard Mordred’s flagship pachyderm and beheading the evil mage.

But Mordred? That name is loaded with Arthurian import, and it’s not the name of some evil Merlin type character. I’ll bring that back in a moment. I think that was some clever seed planting.

Vortigern Loves His Tower

Jude Law is typically excellent in whatever he does, and his performance as Uther’s brother Vortigern was not an exception.

Vortigern is indeed a character from Arthurian lore, but typically he’s placed as an even earlier element: an antagonist in Merlin’s youth.

The typical Merlin origin story features Vortigern as a Briton lord, coming to power in the vacuum left behind by the Romans withdrawal from Britain. His success in achieving supremacy against competing British warlords is due in part to an alliance with invading Saxons. (The historical Saxons Hengist and Horsa I think are usually mentioned.) Being friendly with the non-British and warlike Sxons casts Vortigern into a somewhat villainous role.

Merlin usually comes into play because Vortigern is trying to get a huge tower constructed as a symbol of his power. (Not magical power, more like “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” type of symbolism.) The tower keeps crumbling though.

To appease the gods of masonry and architecture, Vortigern is planning on a blood sacrifice. This young kid Merlin is selected, but rather than being sacrificed the wizard-in-training points out the problem. In real estate, location is of primary importance, and Vortigern is trying to build a tower over a cave with two fighting dragons, a red one and a white one. That’s causing the construction details.

Okay, I’m not here to retell all these myths, I’ll skip to the end and say that the dueling dragons are symbolic of Uther Pendragon putting down Vortigern and kicking out the Saxon allies, indicating that Uther is the true king of the Britons. (Or at least his son will be…)

I don’t think I’ve seen Vortigern in any Arthurian movie, not even Excalibur featured this background character. So bringing him into the fold as Uther’s brother is a choice that I approve of.

Vortigern’s Tower: Looming Large.

The fact that Vortigern is REALLY into getting a tower built shows the proper respect for the source material, to bring along that core element even though it’s been adapted into this fantastical aspect.

Magical Britain

The movie starts off, as I alluded, almost too high-fantasy for me. I wasn’t so much put off by enormous magical elephants, since they may as well be dragons or some other kaiju. I mean, why not huge elephants as magical otherworldly beasts?

But this clearly was meant to demonstrate an exceptional amount of magic. This was the stakes that were being set: Vortigern should not be allowed to complete his tower, or he’d be able to create army-destroying monsters and then exercise extreme authority.

With Mordred’s death (and Excalibur’s installation in stone), things became a bit more reasonable and mundane. Well, other than the ever-present doom of a future magical apocalypse. But I can accept a certain amount of magic in the background.

This Mordred had been part of some movie-established magical tradition in Britain, referred to rather generically as “the Mages” – who had previously not gotten involved with politics. Merlin had done his part in the movie’s backstory, by stealing Mordred’s staff, forging Excalibur for Uther from that staff, and destroying Mordred’s tower of power.

Merlin otherwise is not present in the movie and probably for good reason. Modern audiences already compare Gandalf the Grey to Albus Dumbledore, with Saruman (not Sauron, that’s someone else) as a similar character (just evil.) Maybe we didn’t need to bring in another gaunt old bearded wizard.

(Besides, it’s hard to imagine a better version of Merlin than Nicol Willamson’s performance from John Boorman’s Excalibur.)

Instead, magical aid to Arthur and his supporters comes entirely from a witchy character known as the Mage. Because she goes unnamed, I’ll just refer to her as Astrid, since she’s played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

Astrid sounds like a legit enchantress name to me.

Astrid mostly exercises the ability to control animals (which is extremely effective in securing Arthur’s rescue from a beheading) but her understanding of the “dark lands” which I’m going to consider a sort of short hand for the faerie realm, was critical in setting up Arthur to take on his uncle.

These dark lands are populated with oversize magical creatures, which in a way explains the huge elephants that Mordred employed. And the huge snake that makes a surprise appearance near the end of the movie.

That monster snake came from the dark lands, essentially summoned by Arthur by virtue of the snake venom Astrid had put into him right before he came face to face with Vortigern who now had Excalibur. (You remember, when Arthur was riding to the castle and could see the spirits of the woods, alive. Arthur was bringing a doorway to Faerie with him, thanks to Astrid.)

I think it might have been more palatable to have not called the mages “mages”, but instead went with the more British Isle specific “druids.” (But that’s just me. I’m sure my readers from the UK and environs can chime in on this.)

So, talking about Astrid brings me back to the movie’s Mordred, the villainous antagonist to Uther who was dispatched so quickly in the beginning. I think we can find some kind of relevance for him in regards to her character.

Astrid’s character is called “the Mage.” It’s weird for the movie not to give her some kind of name. Like Broomhilda, or Witch Hazel, or whatever. So lets give her a name. An Arthurian name.

Like Morgana or Morgan le Fay.

Arthurian allergies are pretty rough. And no eye-drops.

There wasn’t any time to spend on a romantic connection between Arthur and the enchantress whom I’m calling Morgan le Fay, but there seemed to be some connection between the two of them. (I mean, why not? Charlie Hunnam is handsome, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey is lovely.)

But we know Arthur’s love is his queen-to-be Guinevere (not appearing in this movie.)

If I could spin a sequel idea, imagine Morgan gets bummed out when King Arthur needs a royal marriage for political reasons and legitimately falls for the lovely Gwen. Broken-hearted, Morgan does some seductive voodoo, gets pregnant by the unsuspecting Arthur, and names her son Mordred, after her old mentor. The enemy of Uther Pendragon.

Merlin: Son of a bitch. Now I have to get involved again. Didn’t I do enough off-screen in the last movie?

Look, the parallels between Mordred the elder and Mordred the younger being antagonists of Uther and Arthur would be too perfect to pass up. So I’m delighted we had this rogue warlock named Mordred at the beginning of the movie, if only to provide me this head-canon. (Because I doubt there will be a sequel.)

Random Plusses and Minuses

By committing to this “raised on the streets” backstory, we do miss out on the traditional upbringing of Arthur as Wart, squired to his foster brother Sir Kay. Having him raised in Londinium is a turn off in some ways to people unaware of London’s previous name as a large Roman settlement. Ritchie didn’t make this up, and it would have been weirder to call London by its modern name.

The Lady of the Lake is beautifully done, but it seemed so random an element without more supporting material in the movie. If you’re cherry-picking from Arthurian lore, it’s best to build some kind of framework of support what you have within the movie.

A farcical aquatic ceremony is no basis for supreme executive power.

Whereas Vortigern’s equivalent magical and aquatic supernatural allies were done perfectly. I don’t need much explanation for three tentacled sirens exchanging demonic power for blood sacrifices. (And if we’re having an angelic Lady of the Lake, having watery witches does seem appropriate. Maybe their existence is support enough for the Lady?)

There was a subplot involving Vortigern dealing with a group of Vikings, whom Arthur had had some rough dealings with as well.

The appearance of Vikings was initially on somewhat shaky ground for me. Arthurian times are kind of mythical so we shouldn’t expect too much authenticity, but it works best when cast in the era shortly after the Roman departure, but before the prevalence of Angles and Saxons coming to England to stay. (Arthur’s defeat of the Saxons at Badon Hill is an element I feel important. It’s even mentioned in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the gold-standard of Arthurian movies.)

Vikings are something like 400 years in the future from the time I want Arthur to be in. But Vikings, in a fuzzy context, are excellent stand-in for the Saxons that traditional Vortigern was dealing with. (Legit Saxons and Vikings may disagree with me on this. I’ll take my chances.)

Also, the Vikings are outstanding in the movie. They looked fantastic. (I wish I could find a photo of them from the movie online. I CAN’T.)

When Arthur is telling his story about getting money from Vikings to Sergeant Jack’s Eye (played by the incredible Michael McElhatton) – at the mention of Vikings, I expected them to be portrayed in stereotypical barbaric and savage aspect. I was pleasantly surprised.

They looked tough, but also like prosperous merchants. Which entirely makes sense since they were stepping into the same role that Russian mobsters might play in a more contemporary crime story.

The reliance on underworld crime genre tropes does undermine the more chivalric associations that are typically found in Arthurian stories, but I appreciated the understated comparisons between the feudal system and mobster society. Arthur as king deals with the Vikings in a manner consistent with the handling of his affairs on the street.

The movie isn’t above criticism, even from me. There are few women in the story, and most of them end up dead.

Uther: Hey, I die too! Doesn’t anyone care about the men who die?
Queen: Darling, at least you get named in the movie.
Uther: Uh, isn’t your name “My Queen”?

Fatalities include Arthur’s mom, one of the prostitutes under his protection (at least), Vortigern’s wife, and Vortigern’s daughter. Vortigern’s daughter’s death was particularly egregious, since she feels so shoe-horned in without any substance to her character.

It’s not like Arthurian legends are full of female characters, but we’ve already established that this movie isn’t beholden to those stories too much. I guess we’re lucky we got Astrid (as Morgan le Fay in my head-canon) at all, instead of old bearded Merlin.

There were many anachronisms in the movie, particularly because of the blending in with modern conventions, but I don’t think those things can ever truly bother me. If I get too nit-picky,  I won’t be able to enjoy Excalibur with the prevalence of armor that wouldn’t have existed for 800 years.

King Arthur: Our armor is pretty amazing for a mythical post-Roman, pre-Saxon time.
Lancelot: At least we’re not fighting gigantic elephants. Mon dieu!

I could probably say more, but I think this hits most of the points about why I liked the movie, as well as acknowledging some negatives.

Look, if you’ve read this far, you’ve:

  • not seen the movie (sorry for spoiling it) – but maybe you’ll give it a chance before it leaves the theaters
  • you’ve seen the movie and liked it, and this has just been an exercise in possibly confirming why you liked it
  • you’ve seen the movie, and think it’s trash. I respect your opinion, but it’s just not in sync with mine.

There’s a tendency to revisit old stories and try to re-engineer them. Sometimes to add in new elements, sometimes to “update” the story to be more timely or contemporary. I respect that desire, but only if the end product is entertaining.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner was not a good adaptation of a well known British hero.

But King Arthur: Legend of the Sword succeeded, and planted the seeds for something more closely resembling the stories we know. It’s probably best that Lancelot and Guinevere were not present in this initial offering. It gave the movie a chance to focus on Arthur without diluting his story too much with additional characters.

Excalibur: Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The movie was about ME.
(This was easily the most impressive portrayal of Excalibur in any cinematic property.)

Okay, Arthurian purists. Should you wish to give battle over my opinions on this latest King Arthur movie, I’m ready. I’m awaiting you at Camlann fields. You can even be the first to unsheathe a sword.

(We’ll see which one of us is wielding Excalbur.)

Images are from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. (Except that one from the John Boormon movie Excalibur, which I love.)

I make no claims to the photos but some claims to the text. So there.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2017 Some Rights Reserved

  1. Vortigern does appear – played by Rutger Hauer – in the 1998 miniseries Merlin, which stars Sam Neill as the title character. That series used the story you described with the tower that kept collapsing. It’s also the only King Arthur adaptation that I really enjoyed.

    There was a BBC series called Merlin that was supposed to be about Merlin’s youth, but that didn’t feature Vortigern at all; there, Uther is already king when Merlin comes to Camelot. Seems like a wasted opportunity now I think about it – but then, that show was full of wasted opportunities in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now I remember watching part of the Sam Neill Merlin miniseries, but I didn’t get a chance to finish. Thanks for the reminder about Hauer as Vortigern.

      The villainous witch in that series was Queen Mab, I think.

      Did you ever see the Malcolm McDowell version of King Arthur? Candice Bergen was The Morgana character. Not good at all.


      • Yes, it was Queen Mab, and no, I haven’t seen the Malcolm McDowell version.

        Curiously, Katie McGrath – who apparently plays Vortigern’s wife in this movie (I haven’t seen it) – played Morgana in the BBC Merlin series.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. After our twitter discussions, I do look forward to seeing this at some point (maybe 2nd run theatre or home video) as I’m a big fan of Arthurian stories (hell, I even watched the terrible STARZ show Camelot, which at the very least, had Eva Green). EXCALIBUR is still the gold standard. I’ve seen it so many times – just recently in fact – and it really holds up. So many iconic things from that: the armor, the music, the use of gels/filters, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, the appearance of many future UK stars like Byrne, Neeson, and Stewart, set design, etc.

    You mentioned ROBIN HOOD PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was not good, but did feature the incredibly bonkers and almost movie-saving performance by Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Still makes me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Haylee says:

    Noooooo! Don’t destroy my teenage love of Robin Hood!! (I was in love with both Costner and Mastrantonio for so long!)
    Not seen the film and doubt we’ll bother with it at the cinema but after seeing the trailer I loved the look of it but Sam thought it looked horrendous… I do quite like when older stories are given a grittier update but generally ant get along with them if too many changes but we’ll see. If there’s action and magic I’m sure I’ll find something to like 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will not hold your love of the Costner Robin Hood against you. But the Errol Flynn version is soooooooooo goooooooood.

      Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to see King Arthur at some point. I’ll grab it on DVD when it shows up in the $5 bin.

      Thanks for chiming in, your feedback is always a highlight.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dean Crutchfield says:

    Several chronological errors of the bat! Being that it has been stated that Guy Ritchie has taken liberties as such, it tends to leave a viewer dismayed with a certain lack of authenticity regarding an accurate storyline telling of a great myth.
    I had to stop watching and locate a response page to share my viewing so far. I will now return to the film with anticipation of a greatly awaited movie. Thank You for reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for watching the movie. I am sorry the chronological errors put you off – but it’s the rare King Arthur story that stands up to scrutiny. No one would use coconuts as horses, the full plate armor of the movie Excalibur is an anachronism, and TH White had a young Arthur meet up with Robin Hood in the influential novel The Once and Future King. So I don’t consider the anachronisms as errors, which implies they were mistakes, but storytelling choices that serves the kind of story being told.


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