How Bad Is…King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)?
Time once again to look at a famous box office flop and see if it earned its terrible reputation.
Last spring’s sword and sorcery epic, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, was a legendary failure. The Guy Ritchie directed fantasy film cost 170 million dollars to make, not including marketing. Against this, the film went on to gross just 39 million dollars in the US, and 140 around the world, making it one of the costliest flops on record. While Arthur was able to pull the sword from the stone, he wasn’t able to pull to pull any praise out of critics, garnering just 28% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 4.8 out of 10.
Via ticket sales or criticism, Legend of the Sword did not fare well…but some hold-outs claim the film is wrongly maligned. Guy Ritchie certainly has a style that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and besides the Sherlock Holmes franchise, he’s not known for making big studio driven blockbusters. Doing our due diligence for king and country, we put Arthur through his paces to see if this film should inspire Mordred or less.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017).
Following a bloody insurrection between the rightful High King Uther Pendragon and a coven of rogue mages, Uther’s brother Vortigern usurps the throne. Uther manages to get his young son, Arthur, away from the bloodshed before losing his life. Alone and abandoned, Arthur is taken in by the staff of a brothel and raised as a commoner. Seeing Vortigern’s injustice firsthand, Arthur is inspired to become a tough and independent young man. His larger destiny is revealed when he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone and becomes the catalyst for a rebellion against Vortigern.
What Went Wrong?
A Muddled Mash-up of Multiple Movies.
The first, and biggest, problem with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is that it doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. There are too many genre styles in play, all of which are fighting for control of the tone and the plot. Sometimes a movie can create a really cool synergy by adding additional genres to the mix: think of how Marvel used cold-war espionage to establish tension in Captain America – The Winter Soldier, or how Logan added emotional depth by playing up motifs of the American western. King Arthur, by comparison grabs genres that just aren’t compatible or that don’t add any depth to each other.
Part of this movie wants to have the big spectacle set pieces of a fantasy film like Lord of the Rings. Another part wants the smaller, character driven appeal of a stylish crime comedy. And lastly, the film wants to have the gravitas of a historical epic. They don’t jibe. Fantasy relies on archetypes that are different and opposed to a dark comedy. A crime flick feels hokey when you add fantastic elements. Both genres rob a regal medieval period drama of heft, turning serious moments into a farce.
Ditching the Source Material.
Another way Arthur muddies the water is by screwing with the canon of Arthurian events. Without going into detail, the relationships between Uther, Vortigern, Arthur, Merlin and pretty much every other major and minor character are all mixed up. People generally don’t know or care about who Vortigern was, but major details like Arthur’s genesis and the nature of his rise to power are set in stone. The omission of characters like Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin also stand out. This story is less of an origin tale as a complete rewriting of the myth. It strays so violently from the source material that it becomes boggling why this film is even called King Arthur. Besides getting a sword out of a stone, there’s almost nothing Arthurian about this flick.
The Wrong Movie for the Wrong Time.
In one sense, this movie was dead on arrival. Historical epics and period adventures are box office poison, and have been for about a decade. Except for Lord of the Rings, focusing on guys waving swords has been the quickest way to loose 100 million dollars. Guess the key is to add a Hobbit! Trying to be subversive or ironic about it doesn’t mean audiences are suddenly going to see a genre that they’ve shunned.
In another sense, this film suffers from pervasive anachronisms. The setting becomes impossible to judge because Uther and Vortigern’s conflict seems to happen in a mythical past while Arthur’s Londinium seems to exist in a roughly Elizabethan era. There’s at most 30 years of movie time between giant elephants roaming the pristine green hills of England and the mostly pre-modern cityscape Arthur lives in, which makes zero sense. I understand why Ritchie does it – an Arthur walking around in chain-mail while rattling off cockney wit would be absurd – but the fix was not to introduce an equally absurd world where pre-history and recent history are happening at the same time.
What Went Right?
Charlie Hunnam Gives 110%.
One thing you can’t fault about Guy Ritchie is that he gets a ton of energy out of his casts. Except for Jude Law giving a sedate turn as the villain, the players in this film all seem invested in the project. Arthur’s companions are all vividly portrayed, and they seem to throw themselves into the tilt-a-whirl plot with gusto. No one gives more energy than Charlie Hunnam as Arthur.
When Hunnam talked about how much work he did to just get the role, I can believe it. He pulls off the smooth patter Ritchie’s dialogue is famous for while also delivering an intense physicality to the action sequences. While shifting tones and clunky CG sell him short at many turns, you can’t put the failings in this movie on Hunnam’s plate; he’s a dynamo here, and his commitment to the role is a major redeeming factor.
Individual Elements of the Plot Work.
The weirdness of this movie really takes away from how good Guy Ritchie is at certain things as a director. Movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch have amply proved that he can make a crime comedy that is sharp as a tack and filled with colorful characters. When King Arthur is playing in those streets, it’s just as good as many of Ritchie’s best films.
Likewise, Ritchie is good at creating worlds that feel lived-in, and Arthur’s Londinium feels like a living city. Finally, Ritchie does craft some stylish action sequences in his films, and Arthur has some fun set-pieces. The only part of the film that resoundingly falls flat is the fantasy elements, which have lackluster execution and cruddy CG. The major problem is that this film has several tasty appetizers that have been thrown together in a blender and sold as a full meal.
There are Some Fresh Takes to Be Had.
Not all of Legend of the Sword’s re-imaginings are failures. Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays an enigmatic mage who helps Arthur, blending elements of Merlin and Morgana in an interesting way that feels at home in an Arthurian film yet also fresh. Some of the pre-round table knights get a fun backstory, and you see them grow into the legendary protectors in some unexpected ways. Arthur himself is a pretty fresh character; he’s angry but smart and hungry for street justice instead of high minded idealism. The whole “I’m not a hero!” rut he gets stuck in is pretty annoying, but when he’s not trying to beg off from his destiny, he’s interesting. As Disney’s The Sword in the Stone showed, there’s lots of fun to be had looking at Arthur before he was king.
How Bad Is It?
I came away from watching King Arthur: Legend of the Sword with one thought – this film is a mess…but it’s not exactly a BAD mess. It shares a lot of flaws with Matt Vaughn’s Kingsman movie (not surprising, since the two directors have worked together quite a bit) and that movie was indeed a BAD mess. While Arthur is a jumbled tonally, it’s not nearly as self-satisfied and snarky as Vaughn’s flick. It just can’t pick a lane.
You have three films that are interesting and mostly entertaining all forced onto the same stage. At some points the edgy cockney crime comedy is taking point, at others the sword and sorcery fantasy is in front, and for most of the film a mildly interesting medieval drama is going through its paces. It’s not that they’re necessarily singing off key, its that they’re all passably singing a different tune at the same time. If somebody had come along and made some hard cuts or wrestled the performers into sticking to one theme, it would have been every bit as entertaining as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes re-imagining.