With a certain comforting certainty, a new version of the Arthurian legend seems to hit cinemas about once a decade: think of Camelot (1967), Excalibur (1981), First Knight (1995) and King Arthur (2004). This is not to mention the numerous television versions that have appeared in between. Now we have director Guy Ritchie’s take on the subject, with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Each of the previous iterations had a very different focus – and like all good (vaguely) historical fiction, tell us more about the present than the past. This is particularly true for myths because they always have a “built-in ambiguity that makes them applicable to a variety of times and places”, as the US theologian S Brent notes.
For example, while Excalibur was emphasising the magical elements of the myth with the wizard Merlin at its centre, both First Knight and King Arthur tried hard to “historicise” the legendary king.
First Knight presents a traditional Arthur as a benign and ageing king (played by Sean Connery) ruling over Camelot as the most advanced and bustling metropolis of its time. In his old age, he marries the much younger Guinevere (Julia Ormond), who will ultimately betray him with the much younger Lancelot (played by Richard Gere at the height of his career).
It is a tale of a great nation being brought down by individual failure. Religion also plays an important role in the film as it is faith rather than magic from which Arthur draws strength, for example when he publicly prays: “May God grant us the wisdom to discover right, the will to choose it, and the strength to make it endure.”
The 2004 version directed by Antoine Fuqua provides a stark contrast to this theme. Not only does it set the story about 1,000 years before the more common medieval period, it also boldly claims that the myth was “based on a real hero, who lived 1,600 years ago”. It promises its audience the “truth behind the myth” – by creating an entirely new version of it.
Sitting neatly alongside other sword-and-sandal blockbusters of the same year, such as Troy and Alexander, King Arthur moves its subject to late Roman Britain. It presents Arthur (Clive Owen) as a Roman soldier, who is on a last mission to free the Pope’s godson from the savage tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall.
What he discovers, however, is the savagery of the Christian church, ultimately siding with the pagan tribes to free Britannia from Saxon invaders as well as from Roman deprivation. Magic is almost completely absent. Instead, it is Arthur’s skill as a seasoned soldier and clever strategist, rather than a magical sword, which makes him successful.
What then, can we learn from the most recent instalment of the myth, claimed to be the first in a series of six? First of all, Guy Ritchie’s version sets the story in a fantasy time that is somewhat hard to pin down. While the chainmail armour and lady’s dresses are loosely medieval, the settings of the Royal palace are hard to define, and the CGI skyline of Londinium (which features more prominently than Camelot) is scattered with Roman ruins, including an enormous Colosseum.
It also returns to a focus on the more magical elements of the story, stating in its opening line that “for centuries, man and magic lived in peace…” The first few minutes of the film establish its apparent attempt at offering a new Lord of the Rings, including giant elephants battling a hilltop city. We even get a close-up shot of a fiery magic eye that is reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s visual rendering of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.
What then about the myth? In this film, Arthur is a streetwise boy rather than a royal knight or an experienced soldier, a rags-to-riches story fit for a time in which class hierarchies are continuously challenged. He is a thief, driven more by personal revenge than the higher motive of freeing his nation.
Moreover, the film revives and expands the magical and fantastic elements of Excalibur to align itself much more closely with epics such as Lord of the Rings (2001-3), The Hobbit (2012-14) and the enormously popular television saga Game of Thrones, rather than its immediate cinematic predecessors. This in itself is not a problem.
The problem is that Ritchie seems to misunderstand what makes those works successful as myths. Ritchie’s iconoclastic style may have worked well in small crime comedies such as Snatch (2000) and maybe to some extent even in his take on Sherlock Holmes (although I’m sceptical, but that’s another story). Here, it simply undermines the epic grandeur suggested by the visuals.
For example, as Robbie Collin notes in the Telegraph: “The sword-pulling scene … is sabotaged from within by a David Beckham cameo that goes on for line after forehead-slapping line, and saps the moment of its mythic excitement.” Whereas you could argue that myths have always been somewhat of a mash-up of various cultural influences, Ritchie’s film is so eclectic that it fails to develop any coherent mythical realm in which the audience can immerse itself.
The film also features magical Egyptian pyramids, a powerful sea monster hiding in a cave reminiscent of Beowulf (2008) and a Kung Fu school – to name but a few. All this makes for an entertaining and visually stunning cinematic spectacle, but it fails to provide what myths can do best – namely offer a coherent and inspiring worldview and ethos. Sadly, it may be exactly this lack of this inspiring vision that makes this film so contemporary.
Sylvie Magerstaedt, Principal Lecturer in Media Cultures, University of Hertfordshire.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.