King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

In its current theatrical version, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, re-cut to meet commercial viability, does not pass muster, according to Christian Tesfaye. Scenes don't hold together, the dialogue is mostly mundane and the swordplay scenes make this film look more like a video game. The only thing going for it is the movie's almost revolutionary soundtrack. 5 out of 10 stars.

The legend of King Arthur is such an enduring myth it seethes to be retold again and again. His legend was created by the same hopeful, romantic, long-ago men that gave birth to the fable of Robin Hood. The Dark Ages were a terrible, immoral time to live in (Christianity was coincidentally at its zenith) that such unlikely heroes seemed to make life just a little bit tolerable. King Arthur brought peace to Briton, expelled all the foreigners (this makes him a Brexiter) and created a kingdom based on the rule of law.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the most expensive of Arthur’s cinematic incarnations. It is also the first one to be told in 3D. And if it were not for some foreseeable circumstances it would have also been the best.

Legend of the Sword shares much of the plot with the legend, adding theatre. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is born a royalty to Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), king of the mythical city of Camelot. Like in Hamlet, Arthur has an envious uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), with imperial ambitions. Vortigern usurps Arthur’s crown by killing his parents. Fortunately, Arthur escapes unscathed – Moses style, in a wicker basket – and is found floating downstream a river by a throng of prostitutes (luckily, with a heart of gold).

Arthur grows up to be strong and smart and moral. At the same time, the powerful sword, Excalibur, rigidly stuck in stone, reveals itself. Men from all around Britain try to pull it free, but none succeed. Until one day, when Arthur is caught by the authorities, who bring him to Excalibur, which decides his fate and the future of Camelot.

Those familiar with Arthur would realise that Legend of the Sword only tells part of the mythology. This movie deals with Arthur’s attempt to reconcile his destiny and reclaim his throne from his uncle. But Arthur’s legend does not end there. And neither does the film version. According to press reports, Legend of the Sword is but one film to a franchise of five. If this movie makes a modest amount of dough, brace yourselves.

As I have intimated earlier, this is not the first King Arthur movie. They are a handful – most of them just as serious, sure of themselves, and mostly unremarkable where cinematic history is concerned. But one very popular take on Arthur has been wholly unforgettable. Monty Python and the Holy Grail recounts Arthur’s doomed quest to find the Holy Grail. Told imaginatively, bravely, with no respect whatsoever towards the legend, it is considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. Though my least favourite of the Monty Python features (the ingenious The Meaning of Life and the blasphemous Life of Brian are somehow funnier), I find myself returning to it at least once a year.

Legend of the Sword is co-written and directed by Guy Ritchie, a British import to Hollywood. I am slightly prejudiced towards Ritchie, just as I am towards other filmmakers who have made movies I really liked. He started making independent movies with his producer friend Matthew Vaughn (future director of X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service). His first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was a hit. It enamoured him with tasteful audiences, with Smoking Barrels being considered a film worthy of Quentin Tarantino’s talents.

I still do not like the movie much, and the Tarantino comparisons were wholly undeserved. The film starts out promisingly but spirals out of control for dramatic and farcical reasons. But Ritchie came out two years later with Snatch. Plot-wise, the film is very similar to Smoking Barrels. Nonetheless, Snatch was far better, far more humorous and visually boisterous. It is a fantastic movie, employing heterogeneous characters who zigzag through each other’s illegal schemes with preposterous consequences.

Legend of the Sword represents, in a way, Ritchie’s downward spiral. His latest projects are embarrassing at worst and mediocre at best. The two Sherlock Holmes movies are passable but Swept Away, and Revolver is unwatchable. But I have never lost hope in Ritchie. I have a feeling that if he gives up his infatuation with big budget movies, he could create something fun.

Reportedly, the first cut of the Legend of the Sword was three and a half hours long. We all know that studios which sink hundreds of millions of dollars in a movie rarely allow a film to run that long, as multiplexes will be reluctant to play it. Matti Multiplex, for instance, screens five movies per theatre a day; they can only do this if the films they show are not much longer than two hours. So, the movie was re-cut to meet commercial viability.

If we are lucky, there would be a director’s cut, and we would be able to judge Ritchie’s vision more accurately. But the way Legend of the Sword currently exists, it does not pass muster. The scenes barely hold together. And although the actors do their best, the dialogue is mostly mundane. What was worse, nonetheless, were the swordplay scenes. For my taste, the movie looked too much like a video game.

The only thing Legend of the Sword has going for it is Daniel Pemberton’s score, who also worked for Ritchie in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The score is almost revolutionary; I have never heard it employed quite the same way. Most of the time I was reminded of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch, which, to anyone familiar with Radiohead’s work, is quite an endorsement.


By Christian Tesfaye

Published on May 20,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 890]



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