As soon as I read the title for Alyssa Rosenberg’s movie review in The Washington Post, I knew I had to watch King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as soon as I could. Rosenberg’s title is “It took awhile, but I found a movie worse than Batman v. Superman”: like, come on, how could I not be pulled in by that? Now, I may not have seen Batman v. Superman unlike some unfortunate souls on this blog, but I still know a bad movie when I see it, and hoo boy, is Legend of the Sword some shit. Unlike Rosenberg, I’m not willing to write the entire movie off as being not worth anyone’s time—though I do agree with her on many of her points. Parts of Legend of the Sword are exactly the schlocky “thinks of itself too highly” moments that make a lot of popular movies great and fun to watch. Still, the rest of it is a convoluted mess that “thinks of itself too highly” in the worst possible pompous British way imaginable; both sides are constantly duking it out in a street brawl that never quite gets a definitive victor.
The “legend” starts with he-who-can-do-no-wrong Uther Pendragon (lol) winning a battle against war elephants, sent by the evil mage Mordred for some reason. After Uther’s victory, his brother Vortigern successfully pulls off a coup and steals the throne, but not before losing Excalibur to the bottom of the sea as well as losing his own (Vortigern’s) wife (He kills her. For magical power. Don’t feel bad for him.) Flash-forward to many years later where baby Arthur—now a twenty-something—is the douchiest street lord that ever lived, but he’s nice to the prostitutes so he’s actually a good guy I guess. Vortigern has set up a test for all the twenty-something males in Londinium to pull the sword out of the stone—the audience just has to assume that Vortigern has the magic to go on a deep-sea expedition to retrieve Excalibur. If these young men can’t pull out the sword, they get sent back with a shiny new brand on their wrist, none the worse. Arthur unluckily gets caught without a brand and is sent off for the test; however, he ends up pulling out the sword, fainting, and getting thrown in the royal jail. Though Vortigern doesn’t really seem like he wants to kill Arthur, he does want power, so in return for not murdering all of Arthur’s prostitute friends, he wants Arthur to allow himself to be executed. Which, for some reason, Arthur’s cool with. The execution is halted when the royals are all ambushed and attacked by a bunch of wild animals, and Arthur is smuggled away.
None too happy with being rescued, Arthur finds himself surrounded by the men who will become the Knights of the Round Table and the mage woman who controlled the animals and saved his life. What follows is an hour and a half of Arthur refusing his destiny as king, being a sassy little shit who’s rude to everyone around him, and montages of the knights plus Arthur pissing Vortigern off by sinking his ships and the like. Eventually, the knights make their move on re-taking Londinium, mess it up, but get another chance at it because destiny and stuff. Unsurprisingly, Arthur ends up defeating Vortigern—who literally is a dread knight by the end of the movie, which I guess is what happens when you kill your conveniently female loved ones to gain power—and he becomes the king.
Legend of the Sword is just a confusing movie that has no idea how to use film techniques properly. Or humor. Every moment that could be spent showing the knights and Arthur actually bonding and learning to trust each other is glossed over in a montage. There’s so much CGI in some battles that I had no idea what was going on. Honestly, the film as a whole is so choppy and disconnected that it felt more like director Guy Ritchie had a bunch of cool ideas for some AU drabbles and just mushed them all together because he felt like it.
More than that, though, none of the characters are noteworthy at all. By the end of the movie, it’s impossible to understand why anyone would put up with Arthur for so long outside of the whole “destiny” thing because he is seriously so unlikable. The movie, for its part, doesn’t do anything to try and force the audience to see him as a good person, but we’re still stuck with him for the whole two hours, so that’s not really a saving grace. The best parts of the film are when people are telling Arthur to effectively shut up and get his shit together. But by the end, nothing in the film convinced me that this group of misfits cared enough about each other that they’d actually stick together and be friends.
While I do like trashy fantasy flicks, the more I think about it, the more I’m finding that it’s less that I liked it, and more that it could have been a lot worse. For one, the film surprisingly does have two larger characters whose weight isn’t pointed out, nor are they comedy characters. Sure, one of them dies and one of them is one of the mysterious magical beings in Vortigern’s basement that give him magical powers, but they’re there. Same with the diversity in the film. Don’t get me wrong: Guy Ritchie’s Londinium is mostly white upon white and if it’s not white, it’s probably just white with a lil’ dirt on it. However, there was more than one Black character in the film, which I personally found shocking. But each Black character is absolutely the “token” Black character of each group. In Arthur’s gang he has a Black friend, in Vortigern’s army there is one Black guy, in the knights there’s one Black guy, and even among the random ladies hanging around the knights there’s one Black woman. The sad thing is that I am almost absolutely sure that Ritchie doesn’t realize this isn’t diversity. Diversity isn’t putting a couple Black characters in with one line who never show up again and have no importance. I will admit, though, that the Black future-Knight of the Round Table, Sir Bedivere, is the most important knight in the whole movie, as well as the knight who does the most. I’m mostly left sitting here thankful that the Black actors were left out of the racist bullshit that was George, the Chinese kung-fu instructor (I am not making this up): that was totally a thing that happened in olde time-y London and was absolutely vital to Arthur’s story.
In my Trailer Tuesday of the film, I expressed worry about how the women in the film were going to be portrayed. I discovered I was right to worry, but I was worrying about the wrong thing. This goes back to what I was speaking of earlier with the “at least this didn’t happen” notion. On the one hand, at least there wasn’t a boring forced hetero romance to sit through. On the other, I would have liked having literally one cool female character with her own motives. Women in Legend of the Sword are there to be beaten and used. The prostitutes are basically all beaten; one in particular—the one who raised Arthur—is shown getting beaten more than once in the beginning scenes. Each woman in Vortigern’s family is murdered by Vortigern in an effort to gain more magical power, and they do nothing else except look scared and pretty. Maggie, Vortigern’s assigned commoner representative (I think? They didn’t really explain her role) in Londinium, is used by the evil king to act like he cares about the public and by the knights to gain information on what Vortigern is doing. And if you’re expecting me to say something about Guinevere or Morgan le Faye, let me stop you right there: they’re not in the movie. The only woman with any screen time longer than one scene is the mage who helped Arthur escape execution, and she doesn’t even get a name; her purpose is only to keep Arthur on the path to being a king, but she only does so because the movie demands it and not because she has any feelings on the matter. So sure, I avoided a shitty love plot that would have no doubt been terrible, but I ended up with no cool women in the movie—I guess I played myself.
I was also right in saying that Legend of the Sword would be a film full of machismo—the keg stand of fantasy movies. The film is fun in its own way, but not the kind of fun that can fill out two hours of woefully written plot and screenplay. Seeing the Knights of the Round Table be relatable and snarky and assholes is entertaining and I would much prefer it to seeing “noble King Arthur and his noble friends”, but it doesn’t excuse the lack of, and clear misunderstanding of, diversity. Legend of the Sword is not a film to see in theaters—it’s a film to watch one night when you have nothing else going on and are cool with letting your brain melt a little bit. So maybe in that way, it’s closer to the perfect summer movie than we’re willing to give it credit for.
Pfft, yeah right.