When you’re adapting a novel for a movie, there’s always the “Did they mess it up?” angle. It’s another thing, though, when you’re making a film based on a famous story (or set of stories, as is the case here). The new Guy Ritchie film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a version of the Arthur story. It’s not an adaptation of a single work, and it’s not a re-make. It’s a version, an interpretation, of stories that have taken many forms, dating back as far as the 5th century. Certain art works – stories especially – are meant to be told and retold – like songs that can be done and re-done in different styles. The great ones hold that potential. Obviously, the Arthurian legends are great; this is just the latest.
If you like Guy Ritchie (Snatch, the two Sherlock Holmes movies with Ironman, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), you will probably like King Arthur. It’s Guy Ritchie with swords, castles, magic and such. It’s fun and funny. If you like Arthurian legends, then it’s sort of a given that you’re into swords, castles, magic and such – so there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to see this version. There is the gimmicky slo-mo action thing, but that’s part of the Ritchie style, and he usually has a reason for doing it (unlike Zack Snyder).
There are two things I really love about this version. The bad guy Jude Law Pendragon, Brother of Uther and Really Terrible King (official title) is consumed with desire for power. All the large-scale bad guys share this, of course: Vader, Sauron, Satan, et. al.. It is an excellent character flaw for a bad guy, because when you dig down into its roots, we can all relate to it. Just think of how awful it feels to be powerless. When was the last time you felt comfortable or secure living paycheck to paycheck or getting pulled over by a cop? A character who will do anything to get rid of that feeling is a villain; Jude Law Pendragon does terrible things to increase his power. Arthur, by contrast, is uninterested in power. He has no desire to dominate anyone or anything. This is virtue. In the end, the Lady of the Lake and/or Mud Puddle has to give him a vision of what will happen to other people if he doesn’t take up the very powerful proto-lightsaber Excalibur and accept his role as king. It’s a prophecy in every sense, whether a glimpse of the future or an imaginative projection of what might be — either way, it’s what motivates Arthur. These are truths: the good don’t want power for themselves and are willing to face vulnerability. The evil lie awake at night worried about their power and calculating its use for building protective walls around themselves. The great stories show us truth.
The second thing I like might be what makes other folks roll their eyes. Many of the familiar Arthurian widgets barely make an appearance in this movie. You have: King Arthur, Excalibur, Uther Pendragon, the Lady of the Lake, and Percival (kinda). However, the Round Table, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, and all the other famous knights and their very cool tales are either not here or barely here. The thing I like about that is that there’s plenty of room for… sequels! Groan, you say. No. There are so many amazing Arthurian legends, this should have been a franchise a long time ago. Kudos for not over-stuffing this one movie, and now they can explore the entire mythology. How is that not a good thing?
So put aside your cynicism, please. Yes, this is “another” Arthur movie with -who knows?- more in the offing, but that’s okay. These stories have been around for a long time, and this is how we’re telling them in 2017.