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Arthur: Legend of the Sword – a film obsessed with effect rather than substance

Cinematic adaptations of the King Arthur story have frequently assigned a central place to the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot – most famously in the saccharine Hollywood remake, First Knight (1995). Not so in Guy Ritchie’s latest remake, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The film lacks any romantic component and instead foregrounds questions of sovereignty, legitimacy, and authority, by focusing the narrative on Arthur’s ability to wield the magic sword Excalibur.

In doing so, Ritchie follows in the footsteps of a long-standing, distinctively British Arthurian tradition, where the interest focuses on military, strategic and political issues. The most influential medieval versions of the legend invariably concentrate on the problem of sovereignty and the establishment of “British” identity in a divided country threatened by foreign invasion.

Often such adaptations also functioned as commentaries on contemporary concerns. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s hugely influential 12th-century account of King Arthur’s rise and fall in the Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), for instance, was written against the background of the recent Norman invasion and settlement in Britain. It also channelled a number of Welsh oral traditions concerning the prophesied “return” of King Arthur, a native British King destined to expel the invaders.

Thomas Malory’s Morte D'Arthur (c. 1469) similarly gives us a King Arthur at pains to establish his sovereignty in a kingdom torn apart by rival factions, in ways that are clearly reminiscent of the contemporary civil unrest bred by the Wars of the Roses.

Arthur’s motley crew

Regardless of its debatable artistic merits, Ritchie’s adaptation also gives us an unmistakeably contemporary Arthur: unrefined, cunning, opportunistic, and verbally aggressive. He is neither eloquent or charismatic – and his laddish banter seems eminently inappropriate for the legitimate heir to the royal crown. But he somehow commands the respect and admiration — if not quite the affection — of his band of brothers, who display none of the aristocratic sophistication or courtly trappings we usually associate with the Knights of the Round Table.

Band of brothers: Arthur and his crew. Courtesy of Warner Bros

A populist Arthur, then, channelling civil discontent, who eventually and unwillingly becomes the leader of a revolt against the usurping Vortigern. Vortigern’s forces embody the ruthless, machine-like efficiency of a dehumanised, oppressive establishment, upheld by an army of faceless and heavily armoured knights who are part imperial Stormtroopers, part SS officers, rallying under the banner of an ominous imperial eagle and ruling from an impregnable fortress dominated by a stone tower.

Arthur’s band by contrast is a motley crew of disaffected characters, gathering in a London brothel and united by little more than a steady flow of banter in a mixture of mockney and regional accents. We have a Black Bedivere, the Asian Kung Fu George — who “don’t speak English good” but is an OK sort of a geezer – and Perceval as a dopey lad with a knitted tea cosy on his head. London too seems strikingly multicultural. Part Bangkok mean streets, part Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, part crumbling Rome – complete with ruins of an improbable Coliseum – the whole held together by a vaguely Celtic soundtrack rich in bagpipes.

Sword and sandals

Beneath this rough-and-tumble portrait of a streetwise Arthur lies a much deeper unease about the difficulty of constructing and negotiating something like a British identity and addressing questions of political sovereignty and legitimacy in the contemporary context.

With generally awkward dialogue and little in the way of plot, character development, or proper content, it is the film’s eclectic style that takes centre stage. Legend of the Sword is a film obsessed with effect rather than substance and Arthur is less concerned to further a particular cause than to look good and sound good in the eyes and ears of his mates.

Arthur’s crew accordingly punch their way through this movie without any discernible plan or ideological affiliation – and seem content with delivering short, snappy but vacuous replies to any taunts or threats as they arise, shrugging off any opposition or disbelief. Thankfully, little is needed in the way of structured thought and speech, as one of his opponents conveniently reminds him: “If you’re lost for words, the sword will speak for you.”

Appropriately, then, the sword itself becomes the central signifier in this film, rendering the development of anything like character, plot, or a structured ideology unnecessary or impossible. All that is required is for Arthur to overcome his hesitation: “You are resisting the sword,” he is told by Merlin’s envoy, the female mage. Arthur must take the power into his hand by letting go of his rational side and thus the movie effectively becomes a weird, warped narrative about the renunciation of individual will.

As soon as Arthur grasps the sword – unmistakably modelled on Tolkien’s ring – the world around him is transformed in a vision. It is finally the sword itself that supplies the much-needed “vision” that eludes all human characters. In this sense Ritchie’s film is symptomatic of a much broader modern unease concerning traditional political structures and discourses and specifically the loss of confidence in the possibility of articulating something like a consistent, viable political vision through human language. Rather than being ideologically motivated, Arthur’s rebellion is brought about by a set of coincidences and contingencies.

The sword becomes a magical surrogate for the lack of a genuine social or political ideal, an almost spiritual object able to cut through the Gordian knot of doubts and difficulties – and through the painful need for negotiating competing claims and contradictions in an uncertain and unstable world. In such a world, personal and political responsibility are conveniently dissolved and the victorious Arthur finally merges with the land itself.

As he turns to an embassy of very hipstery Vikings in the closing scene, Arthur reminds them that they are now “addressing England” – and they promptly fall to their knees. Arthur, for his part, bears no grudges, seems overjoyed at his own improbable triumph and welcomes the coolest Vikings since the Leningrad Cowboys into the fold of the Round Table, declaring: “Why have enemies when you can have friends?” No matter how desperate it may sound, we all need more hygge in such troubled times.

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