How Hollywood Keeps Telling the Legend of King Arthur

A new film by Guy Ritchie is cinema’s latest attempt to find something new in the ancient British tales of chivalric heroism.

Warner Bros.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword introduces its title character via a flashy montage about his adolescence on the streets of Roman London in the inimitable style of the director Guy Ritchie. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), an orphan abandoned by his royal parents as a boy, is raised by brothel owners. He climbs the ranks of the underworld, turning into a glorified mobster/bouncer with ripped abs trained in martial arts by a man named Kung Fu George (I kid you not). The whole sequence is presented with ridiculous swagger—you can almost hear Ritchie shouting from behind the screen, “This ain’t your daddy’s King Arthur!”

Legend of the Sword, out Friday, is Hollywood’s latest attempt to revamp one of history’s oldest storytelling brands for a cinema-going audience. Budgeted at $175 million, the film is intended as the first in a six-picture series that would delve into multiple Arthurian legends, meaning it avoids many of those stories’ hallmarks. There’s no Merlin (who’s only glimpsed briefly from behind in a flashback), no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no mention of the Holy Grail or Morgan le Fay. As such, it feels like the most radical take yet on a character who barely exists on the page—in essence, another stab at finally making King Arthur cool.

It’s something Hollywood takes a crack at every decade or so. Nobody owns the rights to the myth, of course, so nearly every major studio has tried to put their spin on the material. There’s Warner Bros. (behind this new effort), Disney (with 2004’s gritty King Arthur, starring Clive Owen), Columbia (1995’s First Knight, with Sean Connery), and the now-defunct Orion (1981’s truly demented Excalibur). There have been multiple TV shows from the perspective of Merlin, works of French art cinema (like Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac), and animated classics (Disney’s The Sword in the Stone).

Many of these movies have struggled with the core problem that Guy Ritchie’s version valiantly tries to solve. Arthur himself is a heroic cipher, a non-entity mostly defined by the characters around him and by an ideal of chivalry that he doesn’t always live up to. He’s the embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth that has informed many fantasy epics—the story of the chosen one, an adventurer called to glory and challenged by temptation and death, who emerges stronger than ever having swept these obstacles aside.

Arthur is known for a very simple act: In almost every take on the legend, he easily pulls an enchanted sword from a stone and is thus marked for greatness. Since there’s little real drama to the moment, some filmmakers have tried to focus on the moral development that follows, the forging of Arthur’s character from winsome lad to battle-tested king. Others have avoided the “chosen one” narrative altogether. For his part, Ritchie tries to have it both ways. His Arthur is fully grown and imbued with a respect for street justice, but once he gets his hands on Excalibur, it glows with mystical purpose. The fatal flaw of Ritchie’s film: However unusual his upbringing, Arthur is still destined to become the dull king viewers know too well.

Clive Own (far right) as Artorius Castus in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (Disney / Touchstone Pictures)

Ritchie’s is a semi-fresh vision that combines Lord of the Rings-style high fantasy (there are colossal elephants, three-headed octopus witches, and otherworldly mages) with vaguely realistic renderings of what remained of Roman Britain in the Dark Ages. It’s a more fanciful take than Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004), the last major effort at updating the stories for modern audiences. If Legend of the Sword is an Arthur for the franchise era, teasing many potential sequels (depending on box-office returns), King Arthur is directly inspired by the success of grittier ancient dramas like Gladiator and Troy.

That Arthur (played by Clive Owen) is a Roman soldier, known as Artorius Castus, defending British Rome against invading Saxons (who essentially function as stand-ins for the more recognizable Vikings). He has the help of mysterious Celtic warriors, including the druid Merlin (Stephen Dillane) and the bow-hunter Guinevere (Keira Knightley), but there’s no magic involved. His final triumph sees him hold off the Saxons in battle and marry Guinevere to unite Britain’s tribes against all foreign invaders. It’s a curiously flat movie, so uninterested in any of the associated mysticism that Arthur seems more of a bore than ever as a stern commander.

Richard Gere as Lancelot in First Knight (Columbia Pictures)

Fuqua’s film also ignores the famed love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and his noble lieutenant Lancelot (played by Ioan Gruffudd, who sports a truly bouffant perm). 1995’s First Knight took the opposite approach, again eschewing the magic but zeroing in on the romance. Directed by Jerry Zucker (who was following up his similarly gooey love fable Ghost), the film gives Lancelot (Richard Gere) an even more unfortunate shampoo commercial of a hairstyle, and puts him in starker contrast with Arthur (Connery), emphasizing their age difference.

First Knight is a movie about chivalry, a classic element of any Arthurian tale and one which Lancelot’s story captures best. The avatar of knightly good, he struggles to attain the heroic ideal, and is felled by relatable human temptation in the form of Guinevere (here played by Julia Ormond). First Knight claimed direct inspiration from the writing of the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, but the result is a bland soap opera. It’s an overlong epic that trudges to its too-easy conclusion (Arthur dies in battle and requests that Lancelot “take care of” the one-dimensional Guinevere).

It makes some sense to try and strip the magic out of Arthur—to make his struggles more relatable and tamp down the “chosen one” narrative. But that means you’re left with a rote medieval warfare film, distinguished by nothing but familiar names. Too many of these films have no grasp on the essence of the Arthurian myth. It represents Britain’s passage from an age of legends—of old gods, druids, and warring tribes—to one of Christianity. It was meant as a reminder that the country once stood as a fairy-tale example of honor and nobility that present-day leaders should strive for.

Nigel Terry as Arthur in 1981’s Excalibur (Orion Pictures)

There’s no better attempt at translating that theme than John Boorman’s 1981 epic Excalibur, a psychedelic, often gory spin on the material that is steeped in heady imagery. It sidesteps the staleness of its main character by presenting him solely as an archetype. As played by Nigel Terry and Nicholas Clay, Arthur and Lancelot are stiff pawns in a larger chess game played by the malevolent magicians Merlin (a truly hammy Nicol Williamson) and Morgan le Fay (Helen Mirren). As in Legend of the Sword, Arthur is sired by a king, Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne). But he seduces Arthur’s mother only because he’s aided by Merlin’s dark magic; Arthur’s chivalrous code is his way of trying to transcend his father’s torrid, lustful character.

Boorman focuses more on the transformation of Britain itself, from a fog-laden land of ancient magic to a more rigid Christian nation. The quest for the Holy Grail, undertaken to cure Arthur after he sinks into deep depression over Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair, ends with the realization that Arthur and Britain are bound as a single concept. Arthur’s eventual revitalization causes the land around him to spring into verdant life again. That’s one thing that Ritchie’s Legend in the Sword shared with Excalibur—a vague idea that Britain is destined for transformation. In Legend of the Sword, unfortunately, that transformation is little more than a teaser, a preview for another movie that may never come.