King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana and Aidan Gillen. So I’m just going to say this straight up from the start: this is probably the best sword-and-sorcery movie I’ve ever seen, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them going all the way back to Conan the Barbarian and The Sword and the Sorcerer in the 80s.
Guy Ritchie is a unique film maker with a signature writing and editing style that I like to call British Tarrantino, with most of his films such as Snatch; Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels; Rock’n’Rolla and Revolver steeped in the criminal genre and featuring hard-nosed, street-wise characters who have a penchant for violence, bad choices and very funny dialogue. I was more than a little curious going in to this to see how his style was going to translate to early Middle Ages and what he had to bring to the Arthurian legends, especially with the film’s teaser poster featuring Charlie Hunnam as Arthur holding a sword but otherwise dressed as though he had stepped out of an English pub on the East end looking for trouble. I have to admit I was a little skeptical but here’s the thing about this film: you realize from the opening shot that it is an epic, grand production with some serious world building going on and that works, yet when it gets down to the personal scenes, they work too. Written by Guy Ritchie and Joby Harold, who wrote and executive produced Edge of Tomorrow and Lionel Wigram, long-time collaborator with Ritchie as well as producer of the last four Harry Potter productions, this movie brings a lot of talent behind the scenes and it shows. More to the point, Ritchie’s vision of the Arthurian legend and specifically Arthur’s backstory and rise to power, is well thought out and very effective.
I mentioned that this is an epic production and unapologetically so. Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, comes on screen at the beginning as a larger than life figure: king, warrior, husband and father and unflinchingly fierce, a man not to be trifled with and yet a ruler who is loved as good and fair. I was surprised and pleased that he was on screen long enough to develop an actual character and not just a stereotype of a tragic but honorable warrior. Instead, we see many different aspects of him and all of them are convincing. It’s made very clear he truly deserves his heroic reputation, big boots for Arthur to eventually have to fill.
In this adaption of the legend, it is Uthur’s brother Vortigern, played by Jude Law, who assumes his mantle as King and who is the film’s antagonist. Vortigern is an evil man who has aligned himself with dark magic to kill Uther and take the throne. None of these are really spoilers and all of this goes down within just minutes of the film’s opening. Based on a possibly real 5th-century warlord in Britain, Vortigern was not someone I ever associated with Arthurian legend, but I’ve come to learn that was more from my own ignorance than the fact he wasn’t ever in Arthurian stories, especially in more recent adaptions such as the Merlin television miniseries and 2007’s The Last Legion.
We see Arthur come up on the streets and it’s in his day-to-day life and relationships that Ritchie’s snappy dialogue and twisty storytelling quickly communicate a lot of information in a short period of time in what I personally think is a very entertaining way. This style may not be for everyone because it requires paying very close attention to a lot of snap cuts and fast transitions to not miss any details, but even if you do miss a few, the events of the movie won’t really be lost on you. I won’t get into any spoilers about how Arthur’s fortunes change or how he ends up confronting Vortigern but obviously it does involve him pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone and bringing its awesome magic to bear as the One True King of legend. How the sword ended up in the stone in the first place, how Arthur becomes the leader of the resistance to Vortigern’s evil rule, how he meets Guinivere and all the rest are quite different from any earlier interpretations I’ve seen of Arthurian cannon but I have to be honest – I liked all of it. I thought it was well thought out, the story doesn’t have noticeably huge plot holes to fall into as the story is being told and it leads to a very satisfying Third Act which was not wholly predictable but was fantastically well shot. It’s a fresh spin on what has been one of the most often-told tales in history and that is hard to do with this material. There is also magic, which is integral to the story but doesn’t overpower it and also doesn’t come across as inane or lame like so many other would-be sword-and-sorcery epics which just can’t seem to get it right.
Speaking of which, the technical aspects of King Arthur are impressive. Sure, there is a ton of CGI throughout almost every shot, with monsters and beasts and impossible architecture but for me it all worked. It was seamless and while on review people may find glitches or errors, I sure didn’t notice any while I was watching. For anyone who has seen my past reviews, you’ll know that if I get distracted or thrown off by bad CGI or bad editing or poor story form, I will let you know and that is not the case with King Arthur. Ritchie’s style translated beautifully to this story and while some of the scenes are so heavy with CGI that you wonder if any part of what you’re seeing is real, my point is that all of it worked to tell the story. In my opinion, that’s the only reason for CGI and when it’s used effectively, as it is here, it can be awesome.
Now besides all this praise I’m lavishing, there are definitely some points I wondered about or could have done without and I’m sure you will too. Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays Guinevere, although I don’t think anyone actually refers to her by that name in the film. She is a Spanish-French actress and I checked some of her other work and she is capable of projecting warmth and emotion on screen, but in this film her accent comes across as odd and lifeless and she’s sort of dull. She’s not a do-nothing character and in many ways is integral to the story but something just seemed very off about her. There’s not a lot of romance in this film, it’s only hinted at here and there as groundwork for their future relationship but other than her being the only woman riding around with Arthur and the lads, it’s hard to see what he sees in her as she is played. This was a shame because it makes her nearly impossible to like, but it appeared to me to be done on purpose and I couldn’t quite figure out what that was all about.
Annabelle Wallis is also on screen here and there as Maid Maggie, seeming to look like someone significant but not really so much. Where she comes from, what she is doing in Vortigern’s household and why she is helping Arthur’s crew is not explained at all. From what I could find online, it appears that Ritchie was not impressed by her acting and cut back her part considerably and I suspect there are deleted scenes which may come out in some future Director’s Cut DVD which may make it clearer who her character is and why she was giving other characters significant looks in the little screen time she had. That was puzzling.
Overall I’m giving King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a rating of Totally Awesome. If you are at all into historical drama, sword and sorcery adventures or just want to have a rollicking good time at the movies, I think you will love this one. Go see this and let me know in the comments what you thought and please be sure to like and share this review. If you haven’t subscribed to my channel, now is the time. Thank you so much and I’ll see you next time.