By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
* Spoiler Alert
Guy Ritchie is certainly trying to shake up traditions in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (KA:LotS). While I’m not sure which country’s folklore the snake-ladies came from, they certainly are not Celtic. I get the sense he’s offering his take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (The Three Witches) and is borrowing from Hindu legends (Nagas). When he is in control as writer-director and actor, playing the warlord Vortigern to claim the throne from Uther Pendragon, this filmmaker is certainly going to insure his stamp is all over the tale!
Many liberties on the Arthur’s origins are taken and early promotional material alleges Richie is drawing upon the Welsh interpretation. There’s plenty of nuances within the film which shows he is, and they work when he’s not trying to add his trademark on top.
I appreciate the fact this movie was partially filmed in North Wales. At least providing regionally accurate sets helps connect the film with the Welsh poem, Y Gododdin. Aneirin’s (the poet) work has a character named Arthur. Whether he is the definitive once and future king depends on which variations of the story readers and historians accept.
If I had to pick a version I enjoyed, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’arthur comes first. KA:LotS is a far cry from his chronicles. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s interpretation in The History of the Kings of Britain is second because he integrated Merlin into the lore.
The mysticism in Ritchie’s version is muddled and unfamiliar. It’s pagan and seems to borrow from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series. Guinevere aka The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) has a back story not meant to be fully revealed and she has powers which suggests being able to control the will of fauna. Ritchie intends on making a series of films to show the rise of Camelot than a one-off and I will be curious in how she will figure into the narrative since this version of the soon-to-be-queen (or trusted adviser) has plenty of mystery about her which needs to be revealed. Early reveals of this character is unclear as to whether she is one or the other.
In the introduction, the use of magic is considered abhorrent. A civil war is about to break out over it. The citizens are fearful and want to rebel. They are kept at bay with Vortigern’s soldiers ready to quell any resistance. This movie moves like a medieval version of Star Wars. To see huge elephants who look like they were stolen from Zack Snyder’s 300 is a clear sign as they are AT-ATs. If there’s ever a reluctant hero, the type of Arthur audiences meet is more of a pauper who discovers his heritage and has no knowledge in what to do with his sudden fame. To see him attempt to master the sword like Luke Skywalker with his newly acquired light-saber has chuckle worthy parallels.
While this film taps into a vanishing of mysticism, just how important this subplot figures into Ritchie’s vision requires developing the character of Guinevere further. Should this film get sequels, I am interested in how Lancelot will function in this world. He’s in for trouble if Guinevere is more than meets the eye. No King Arthur movie can be considered truly Arthurian without him and Merlin. This mage is barely acknowledged and I’m sure I blinked when Mordred was mentioned in the introduction. This character is more important to hail the fall of Camelot than creation of. And without the sword, Arthur can not be king.
Sadly, this film perverts the often accepted fact from later stories about the sword in the stone. Within Richie’s universe, the blade Arthur pulls free is Excalibur. In Malory’s tale, the entombed weapon only proves his birthright and the Lady of the Lake gives him the real magical blade. This director acknowledges both as Arthur tries to throw the sword away, but it’s given back to him because he must become king. He must protect the people. In this film’s case, he has to go defeat Vortigern instead of foreign invaders wanting a piece of Briton. I like how the runes on the shank glows. It’s kind of like a light-saber. This idea most likely came from the fact that the Welsh name is Caladfwlch, a word derived from Calad-Bolg meaning “Hard Lightning.”
From a literary perspective, Arthur’s role is to save and preserve the traditions of his native homeland. If Richie’s tale is to follow suit, he better hone his concept so the conflict of defending Briton against foreign invaders is better defined instead of petty politics between feuding lords for land ownership.
2½ Crowns out of 5