So, you want to go see the new King Arthur: Legend of the Sword movie?
Cautions are in order. For instance, don’t expect anything even remotely historical. Or even literary. Or coherent. Or romantic. Or chivalrous. There, I said it. If you like super cool special effects and setups for video games, this is for you.
(Oh, and I would say that there are spoilers below, but I’m not sure if it’s possible to spoil this movie any more than it already has been.)
So … let’s just say that this movie is a mash-up. Consider it made using the following recipe:
- Take 2 cups of Macbeth, pull out the three witches, and replace them with Ursula and her minions from Little Mermaid.
- Stir in 1/2 tbsp. of sludge from the fire swamp in The Princess Bride.
- Go find plastic action figures of some Oliphaunts and an elven archer from The Lord Of The Rings and stir them in.
- Chop up and add in 12 oz. of street fighting from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.
- Mix in 2 slices of Skeletor from the He-Man universe (thanks to Tyler Tichelaar for this one!)
- Sauté that awful spectacle of a movie God’s of Egypt until burnt, and mix it in.
- Stir it all with a lightsaber powered by both the light and the dark sides of the Force.
- Pour this mixture into a 3D cauldron and bake at 450º for 126 minutes.
- After 63 minutes pull it out of the oven and dust it with some dehydrated sprinkles from King Henry IV.
- Turn off the oven and stop baking. It is done—and you can tell it is done by the awful smell.
Notice the only thing missing from the above recipe were real ingredients from the actual legend of King Arthur.
Now don’t get me wrong. As an author of an Arthurian trilogy called The Merlin Spiral, I’m not against re-imagining the legends and finding a new angle on them. I’m just against abandoning the source material altogether, especially the Welsh legends, which I consider closer to a late iron age (A.D. 500) understanding of King Arthur than Geoffrey of Monmouth (who wrote in the early 1100s), Chrétien de Troyes (late 1100s in France) and Sir Thomas Malory (1400s).
To me, it is not enough to name a bunch of characters after people in the Arthurian legends, add in some sword named Excalibur, and then call it a King Arthur movie. There just has to be more depth than that. Why? Because there is so much source material to draw from. How can you make a movie and not even put in faint nods to the original material? To me, using the name of King Arthur without any appreciation for the legends seems cold, callous, and uninformed.
Honestly, I can just picture Guy Ritchie standing in the Pulp Fantasy aisle of a bookstore and saying, “Oooh, we have to have some of this … and that … oh and yes we’ll include these!” when he should have been reading the Mabinogian.
Honestly, there wasn’t even a Celtic feel to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, despite it being filmed in the lush scenery of Wales. One knight even called the country “England” quite anachronistically.
Britain. Britannia. Prydain. BRITAIN!
Part of what bugged me was that so much of the movie was left unexplained and made no sense.
- Where did the gargantuan elephants come from and why is there a huge wooden pyramid on the back of one of them?
- Why did Uther flee with his wife and had no men to support him?
- Where did the huge snake come from?
- Why did Arthur and his men have to keep rushing through London to get away from Vortigern when they hadn’t ever been discovered in original location?
- Who was Maggie, why did she betray Vortigern, and why did he let her live?
- Why did the lake drain to reveal the sword, and then why didn’t Vortigern just take the rock out to sea and drop it in the deep so there was no risk of the true king recovering it?
- Why did the sword turn Uther to stone?
- Who is the Mage?
- Why was Vortigern (who studied under Mordred) surprised and shocked when the animals went mad before Arthur’s execution, and why would he not personally take the sword away to make sure Arthur didn’t get it? We’re only talking an eagle, dogs, and horses going mad … nothing that men with swords couldn’t handle.
- Why did the final battle takes place inside a tower yet it looked to us like it was on an island?
- The names of the characters. Honestly, the movie needed subtitles! I didn’t hear half of them properly until the very end of the movie when they were knighted. Didn’t they have someone teach the actors how to enunciate?
- Mordred is older than Vortigern and mentors him? Mordred is at the beginning of the movie and fights Arthur’s father? If you can figure a way to confuse the chronology in any greater way, please let me know.
And so when you leave so much unexplained and unaccounted for, it feels like maybe even the scriptwriters didn’t know, and didn’t care. They just wanted a lot of cool and shmancy stuff to happen. Kind of a “who cares, for consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” mentality—an attitude which I mostly detest.
And the critics sure cared! Here are what some of them have said:
“King Arthur was at one point conceived as kicking off a shared universe, and the film does set the stage for potential sequels and spinoffs. As much fun as a large, interconnected universe can be, what King Arthur and too many studios and filmmakers have failed to grasp is, if the individual installments fail to justify their continued existence, what’s the point?”
—Chris Hartwell @ The Hollywood Reporter
“Guy Ritchie owes the world a huge apology … One of the film’s biggest problems is that it isn’t built on scenes. Good scenes are the basis of good storytelling and this movie doesn’t have a single coherent scene in its entire length.”
—Pete Peterson @ www.RabbitRoom.com
“I felt soul-sick and brain-bruised, but also bewildered. Could the movie have been as vacant, joyless, incoherent, screw-loose and, not to put too fine a point on it, idiotic as I thought it was? I must have dozed, or failed to grasp crucial moments that held the whole thing together … It’s a mastodon of a movie, wrecking pleasure wherever it plods.”
— Joe Morgenstern @ Wall Street Journal
“The stylish and engrossing reinterpretation of the mythological king’s early years lacks character development, but makes up for it with swashbuckling, sword-fighting, beast-slaying fun.”
— Allen Salkin @ New York Daily News
And for me? Here’s my say.
What I found most sad was there complete lack of an historic and honest Christianity in the movie. Not that I expect Guy Ritchie to handle Christianity any better than he did in the first Sherlock Holmes movie, but to remove God completely from the story, and yet nod to the power of the Devil only leaves one source for power.
And that is what the movie became by the end … just another Star Wars wannabe with the Yin and Yang of the Force morphed into magic. Who is to say which magic is truly good and which is truly bad? Where does the Mage get her power from? What sacrifices has she made off screen? It’s all very vague, and the moral underpinnings of the movie are about as bland as you can get.
In fact, the ending revealed the true soil of the story when Arthur declared to Vortigern that “you made me who I am.” Also, Arthur’s only real struggle was the psychological one of remembering and embracing his own past. The ethic of the tale is a “know thyself and you can be king.” Is that all there is to it?
A few high marks
Trust me that I’m rarely this scathing in a review of any movie or novel. This is really rare for me. It was just a soulless video game and little more.
Anyway, here are a few good things:
- The action of the movie was well done. I liked the up close and personal camera angles so you felt like you were there.
- The special effects were top notch. Wow.
- Some of the acting was quite good, given the material the actors had to work with. For instance, one man and his son had a true story that I cared about.
- Considering Arthur grew up in brothel, the movie was quite clean.
- If they ever make a sequel, there is some promise as long as they switch script writers and directors. The problem is that the movie has bombed so badly in its opening weekend that it is highly doubtful the studio will make another.
In the end, the saddest thing is that a generation of kids might be exposed to this fairly worthless “retelling” and have no grounds at all to appreciate the real legend and in fact won’t even recognize it when they encounter it. For all its many, many faults, at least the now ancient Excalibur caught my imagination and eventually (along with Stephen Lawhead’s novels) bore the fruit that are my own novels: Merlin’s Blade, Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare, along with book 1 of the next trilogy, which is well underway: Arthur’s Blade.
But I do have an admittance: In the end I am very-very deeply-deeply grateful for this movie because it has been in the plotting and planning stages since before my own books were published, and this very fact communicated to Zondervan my publisher that people invest a lot of money in stories about King Arthur. In this I owe a debt of gratitude, for The Merlin Spiral might have never received such a wide distribution without King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Still, so much potential, gone.