Man, after slogging through a few Arthurian B-Movies—Excalibur Rising, The Dragons of Camelot, The Real Merlin—I was relieved to finally see an Arthurian film with money behind it, and good acting, and CGI which didn’t make me want to gouge my increasingly twitching eye out. Enter, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword. Is it the best Arthurian film made? Probably not but it was hugely entertaining all the same.
So, that being said, I am not going to wax eloquently about what is and is not historically accurate. Same for whether the actual Arthurian legend is being used “correctly”; spoiler alert, the film isn’t historically accurate, and it is impossible to use the legend “correctly” to begin with since there were many different iterations even during the middle ages and those versions tended to say conflicting things. If a die-hard lover of the bloodlines and family trees wishes to provide a detailed synopsis of what they think about Ritchie’s take, then be my guest. I, however, will be focusing on less specific aspects of the film.
At its core, Ritchie’s film is a simulation of Arthuriana. By “simulation” I mean that Ritchie uses the gears and cogs of the Arthurian legend to tell a story which, if we are being honest with ourselves, could have easily been told without the legend. Camelot, King Arthur, and company only exist to add some spice to the story. So, it is less a take on Arthuriana and more a story garbed in an Arthurian dress. In this sense, it is a simulation, something which is almost real, almost a text which engages Arthuriana but not quite, not until it loses its genericity and probes the legend in a substantial way.
The fact that Ritchie’s film is a simulation is no strike against it. On the contrary, it remains an exciting, well directed and put together summer popcorn film. But, it is a blockbuster which has some noteworthy elements aside from the high-production values. Elements which are resonant with the current political atmosphere.
As anyone who has been keeping up with the assorted controversies in medievalism of lately will note, race and racism have been a key topic. The presence of non-White people in any texts about the middle ages—a Person of Color, mind you, who hasn’t been typecast as an antagonist—has enraged neo-reactionaries to the point where any slight appearance of a Non-White person has Alt-Right dweebs screaming bloody murder. Therefore, I found the appearance of several non-White actors as warming.
Ritchie decided to cast Bedivere as a Black man (Djimon Hounsou). Another character, George, played by Tom Wu, is of Chinese ancestry and though he plays only a minor role in the narrative, it is a role which is portrayed in a positive light. Although both of these roles, and others, do not push the narrative in any sizable socially justice oriented direction, I feel that the representation given here is a step above tokenization, if only barely; at a time when fascists have been waging a protracted battle to lay claim to history, prominent roles being given to major characters, characters normally portrayed as White, is nice to see.
Does this mean that Ritchie is above reproach? Absolutely not.
As I remarked before, whether it is tokenization is up for debate. Even if it is not tokenization, it is awfully close. Adding an additional layer, we must not forget that Wu’s character, despite his archetype rarely being seen, to my knowledge, in Arthurian texts, remains the stereotypically “wise, Asian warrior”. Sure, all the characters are cardboard cutouts, but that is barely an excuse and doesn’t excuse the limited representation. Among the problematic elements other than race, Ritchie writes repeated scenes with thinly-veiled homophobic lines; sure, the dialog never crosses the line, but it is “bro humor”, “no homo”, sort of writing which uses male-to-male intimacy and proximity as a short-hand way of expressing negativity. Honestly, it is just lazy, and really shows Ritchie’s age as these scenes feel forced whenever such a line is uttered.
Legend of the Sword, though, does have a few progressive elements to it other than the (dubious?) representation of non-White peoples. Because the story is focused on Vortigern building an arcane tower to fuel his power, he must acquire vast resources; building materials, slaves, money, and more must be obtained and usually by force. This makes him hated by his people. By the time that the “true king” comes along, then, the populace is whipped into a frenzy.
Throughout the movie, King Vortigern is near obsessed with anti-state graffiti. Though it is usually written by children and in the poorer districts, Vortigern recognizes it for what it is—a threat to his rule, a potential galvanizing signifier against his reign. In the film’s final act, meanwhile, we see scenes of urban insurrection; the working families of the capital throw improvised explosives against the soldiers in moments eerily reminiscent of contemporary protests. The fact that Vortigern orders these people massacred is even more poignant for our modern comparisons. It is a political revolution, in other words, and something rarely seen in Arthurian texts.
Vortigern is a bad man. Between giving Nazi-esque salutes and selling thousands of young children into slavery, he deserves to be knocked off his thrown, however cartoonish his villainy appears. However, I know better at this point in my cultural explorations to believe that the political revolution against Vortigern is anything other than blasé populism. Such “revolution” remains rooted in Great Man theories of history (the people, remember, are revolting in favor of Arthur, a new and better king, not the mode of production itself). It is not a revolution which seeks to do anything more than making a jump from vague fascistic rule to vague social-welfarish rule. Finally, the purpose of Ritchie’s film is not to use Arthuriana as a springboard for contemporary social-commentary; he is merely interested in using the idea of a revolution as an additional exciting event to pad out the movie’s final act and give Arthur the legitimacy he needs as the true ruler. This “revolution” is nothing more than a changing of the guards.
Guy Ritchie is a famed director but before The Legend of the Sword, I had never seen one of his films before. That being understood, I am happy I watched his take on Arthuriana because it was a delight to see his style of filmmaking. The time-lapse montages, quirky dialog, excellently choreographed action set-pieces, and more made this experience a memorable one (however lacking in depth it may still have). I doubt I will be watching many more of Ritchie’s films anytime soon, but I did want to at least mention that what I was expecting to be an aggressively mediocre action film brutalizing the Arthurian legend, turned into a delightful romp. Though socially and politically Legend is lacking this is par for the course in Hollywood, so it is hard to hold it against Ritchie. To conclude, you can find many films far worse than Legend if you are looking for a quick King Arthur fix.