Oh dear. The relatively low key advance publicity for this has already led me to suspect that all might not be well in the King Arthur camp, and now there’s word that it has under-performed badly in the USA, making it Warner Brothers’ most expensive flop in a long time. While it’s very easy to be wise after the event, it’s pretty clear from a single viewing that the film’s major problem is the director’s inability to stick within a chosen genre.
It opens in full Lord of the Rings mode as the evil sorcerer, Mordred (Rob Knighton), launches an all-out attack on Camelot, complete with thousands of troops and several giant battle elephants. It’s clear at a glance where most of the film’s massive budget has been spent. Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) uses his magical sword Excalibur to defeat Mordred, but he is unaware that his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), is in league with the forces of darkness (those constant nosebleeds should have been a dead giveaway). Vortigern kills Uther and his wife, but their infant son Arthur, escapes in a boat and drifts downstream to Londinium, where he is adopted by a prostitute and grows up in a brothel. Next, we are treated to one of those montage sequences that director Guy Ritchie is so fond of, depicting the little boy’s eventful passage to manhood, which naturally involves plenty of bare knuckle fighting; some martial arts training, courtesy of resident king fu expert, George (Tom Wu); and a fondness for making money. Pretty soon the boy has grown up to be Charlie Hunnam and we’re in a different kind of movie altogether.
Now it’s Lock Stock and One Flaming Broadsword as Arthur interacts with his crew, all of whom talk like they’re in a contemporary cockney gangster movie and most of whom rejoice under comedy names – Wet Stick, Back Lack and Mischief John to name but three. At this point, Arthur is a bit of a Dark Ages Arthur Daly, wheeling and dealing with the Viking oppressors and steering well clear of ‘The Blacklegs,’ who are Vortigern’s men. But of course, it’s only a matter of time before Excalibur rears its handsome hilt, when it is discovered protruding from a block of stone. If Vortigern had any sense, he’d have hidden it but instead, desperate to locate his brother’s missing son, he insists that every man in the kingdom must attempt to wield the sword, a ceremony which is presided over by a Blackleg called Trigger (David Beckham, in a mercifully brief cameo). The rest is, of course, legend…
But Ritchie seems incapable of keeping the good ship Excalibur on a steady course. One moment Arthur and his posse are being diamond geezers, the next Vortigern is communing with some slimy creatures from the bottom of an underground pond, and then Arthur is having visions under the influence of ‘The Mage’ (Astrid Berges Frisbey, nabbing what amounts to pretty much the only half-decent role for a woman in the entire film). A scene where Arthur and his gang are planning to sneak into Camelot could have stepped straight out of a contemporary heist movie, and yet, for the finale, we’re back to epic fantasy again as Vortigern takes on the guise of a giant warrior, looking to eliminate his only challenger for the throne of England.
To be fair, the film has a few memorable scenes – there’s a lovely sequence featuring the Lady of the Lake and there’s no doubting the majesty of that opening battle. But overall, this is too scattershot to be convincing. As for Hunnam (last seen as Sir Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z), well, he makes a decent fist of his starring role, but sadly he’s battling more than just his onscreen adversaries in this one.
Ritchie has pitched Legend of the Sword as the first of a four-part series, but judging by this opening salvo, I’m hoping (to paraphrase a line from Love and Death) that he hasn’t already put a down payment on the battlefield.