It is axiomatic in my critical writing that a work should be taken on its own terms as much as possible, and I try to then understand given it succeeds, what meaning the thing conveys. This is a very difficult criterion to use when encountering works that are themselves explicitly remakes of older films, explicitly re-imaginings of previous source material, or explicitly meta-textual in some way. With versions of King Arthur, there emerge a range of, if you like, Sacred Cows – Merlin, Excalibur, Mordred, Guinevere+Lancelot, the round table. Films that try and use just parts of the legend are often not that successful, or end up feeling like they used the key names as a ploy for telling an unrelated story. And in the specific case of Arthur, they’ve got to project their identity strongly enough to overcome one of the foundation texts of English, L’Morte d’Arthur, and one of the most widely seen and adored satires, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Guy Ritchie’s film, unfortunately, runs face-first into most of these challenges. It’s not quite as dire as King Arthur , but there’s a lot that the film does to undermine itself, creating a narrative that’s semi-coherent at best. The challenge, in a way, is explaining why I still somewhat enjoyed it – an admittedly emotional rather than rational response. As I always say, the starting rather than the ending point for engaging with a film.
I think the way to approach the film is not as a fantasy epic or quest at all – nor as some critics have done, as a tale of the criminal underworld. I think the most productive way to think about it is as a superhero story. Seen as a super-hero origin story the outline plot begins to look familiar: ambitious boy of unassuming (apparent) origins acquires power and must learn to use it before facing a powerful villain. The scenes in Londonium which otherwise seem like off-cuts from a medieval Ritchie caper flick then start to make sense as the small-scale testing ground for the powers he needs. Vortigern has the usual supervillainous interest in obtaining some ultimate weapon, and so on.
If this reading is right, the bigger question becomes one of how we interpret fictions. What is it that makes a super-hero version of Arthur the Arthur that we need right now, compared to the gritty world-weary commander from 2004, or the naive dreamer of 1967, or the wonder-struck idealist of 1963? Just as importantly, why doesn’t this Arthur need most of those trappings, so essential for 500-odd years since Malory? I think the answer comes down in a way to the capstone of this film: the formation of the round table. Arthur is king partially because of his birthright, but mostly by the assent of the other knights – that’s why the table is round, in order to give equal voices to all those sitting at it. Arthur may be king, but that makes him first among equals, and of course, famously he is not the best knight – that’s Gawain, nor the most noble, that’s Percival, and so on. Recent TV versions have emphasised Merlin as a central driving character, eschewing the notion of royalty as centrally important, but what Ritchie’s Arthur has instead of magical powers is a reliance on his close group of allies.
Despite enjoying it, and thinking that it touches on some really interesting ways of thinking about Arthur, I have to admit that the logical and structural problems with this film are immense – by the way it establishes its own expectations I think it’s pretty clearly not a whole-hearted success. I can’t quite call it a failure though. Deeply flawed, but nonetheless interesting.