King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a sort-of medieval movie

As promised, last week I went and saw the new Guy Ritchie film King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, with the intention to review it for this blog. And how appropriate it was that I saw it just after posting something which had as a major point the mash-up pop culture makes of medieval history!

First things first, is the film any good? Well, no, not really. It’s honestly rather inept on a technical and characterisation level. Arthur himself is very evidently supposed to be a loveably cheeky rogue (what with this being a Guy Ritchie movie and all), but he comes across as just a little bit of an asshole, and the bits of the film which are lightly-medievalised versions of your standard Guy Ritchie protagonists sit rather uncomfortably with the more straight-faced and sombre Arthuriana. This may be because the film’s tone changed part-way through the production process, from something more serious to something more stereotypically Ritchie-esque. Jude Law’s Vortigern, equally, was clearly at one point supposed to be a more textured and nuanced villain, what with his love for his family and conflict over doing Bad Things to Certain People; but the only motivation he’s given is that he loves people being terrified of him. On a technical level, the action scenes are shot in that choppy, modern, Michael-Bay-ish way that critics have been decrying for years. It’s not the worst thing ever, but it’s definitely pushing the lower boundaries of mediocre. Were it not for some – I don’t think deliberate but nonetheless uncomfortable – unfortunate political overtones in the last five minutes, it would be a worthy contender to the 2004 Arthur movie for Bad Medieval Movie evenings.

I’m a bit hesitant to call it a ‘medieval’ movie per se, mind. The first shot of the film is a text scroll telling us how ‘man and mage used to live in harmony’, and then we see Camelot under attack by monstrously large magical elephants, so criticising its historical accuracy is a mug’s game (unlike the 2004 film, which wore its pretentions to accuracy on its sleeve). It is nonetheless clearly supposed to bear some relation to reality: Arthur comes from Londinium and is very specifically king of England (yes, England, I’ll get to that), so this isn’t just the Warcraft movie with the names changed.

(It does feel that way at times, though, although I’d argue the Warcraft movie is better. Mind you, that film’s fairly underrated anyway – not to say it’s great, but it’s perfectly OK.)

In that regard, it’s a good example of the mixing-up of the past I was talking about last week. Vortigern and Arthur share a movie with characters called William and Jack, they live in the city of Londinium (not modern London or Anglo-Saxon Lundenburh), Vortigern’s evil secret police are clearly Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki but with evil Roman centurion uniforms that are most reminiscent of 2000’s Jesus Christ Superstar remake; Vortigern’s throne room looks very like Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen…

(I tried Googling to find an image of the Roman uniforms in the Jesus Christ Superstar remake, but all I got was an unnerving amount of Pontius Pilate fan-art, which is a sentence I never thought I’d say…)

Like I said, criticising its historical accuracy is self-evidently silly. What’s more interesting is that this must have been done deliberately, because at least someone on the crew knows what they’re doing: Vortigern’s big plot is to build a tower, which is straight out of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, one of the few sources mentioning Arthur written within five hundred years of his life; and there’s just enough post-Roman window dressing to put us in roughly the right time. The mashing-up of the past above, then, is a useful example of how this kind of historical melange isn’t necessarily bad. By mixing everything up in this way, the film passes from real history into a vague and legendary past – appropriately enough for a movie about King Arthur – letting us know not to think too closely about the details and go with the flow, setting the audience up reasonably well for such a silly film.