Monday, 29 May 2017

King Arthur - a Gritty Camelot

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Jude Law
Release: 12 May 2017
IMDB Rating: 7.3 (Review)
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 77% (Critics gave it 28%)

I should start off by saying that it is a real shame that this film flopped as badly as it did namely because not only do I tend to quite enjoy films by Guy Ritchie, but he also has this ability of adding his own personality into his productions. While his first forays into the world of mainstream cinema tended to be stories that he had created, of late he has been exploring more popular topics, in particular Sherlock Holmes. In fact his portrayal of everybody's favourite Consulting Detective was the impetus for me actually going back to the original works to see what they were like. However, I will leave any further comment on Sherlock Holmes for another day as today it is King Arthur's turn.

As I do with most of my posts involving films, here is the trailer, though it was originally the trailer that initially grabbed my attention (which meant that it did its job):

The Legend of the Sword

I'm not claiming to be an expert on the legend of King Arthur, and to be honest there are so many different versions of the story out there that it is actually difficult to know what the official version actually is. In fact it is quite unlike other legends, such as that of Odysseus, but then again the legend of Odysseus tends to be accepted thanks to The Odyssey. However, if you go beyond the Odyssey you will discover that, with the exception of a number of major events, the actually story also changes.

This happens quite a lot with myth, and King Arthur is a story that I would also place in the category of myth, even though the truth of the story is quite vague, and it is more than possible that it is simply nothing more than a fantasy story based upon some guy that may have never existed. However, while I have read books on the historicity of King Arthur, this isn't something that I'll be writing about today either, though I will mention that one theory was that he was an Ancient Roman general in Britain, and another was that he was basically a particularly successful king in the Dark Ages whose legend was blown all out of proportion.

As far as I am aware (though I could be wrong), the first mention of King Arthur appears in Geoffry of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. What is interesting is that if you go over to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, you will discover that the period in which Monmouth places Arthur is missing - it seems as if Bede literally skips over a period of one hundred years. As for Monmouth, he claims to have got the information from a book that was given to him, and from that book he created his own works.

It is more likely than not that the story of Arthur was actually an oral tale that was passed down from generation to generation. In a sense it looks back on a period of history where England (or Avalon as the case may be), was great, and it is a case of a fallen empire pining for the past. The story was later written down into a hideously huge work by Thomas Mallory, who was said to have written it while he was sitting in gaol. This is actually quite believable as there is generally not all that much to do in gaol, though it also begs the question of where he actually got his paper and writing implements from.

The story has since been written and rewritten time and time again as poetry and as novels, and lately as a series of films that seem to take a different viewpoint everytime. In many cases we see the story of Arthur and his knights as a tale of high adventure set in an idealised, and somewhat romantic, past. However, it is also tainted with questions of tragedy and sadness, with the story of Lancelot Cuckolding the king, and also his fruitless, and eventually fatal, quest for the holy grail. However, when it comes to the crunch, the story of Arthur really comes down to who is telling it.

Ironically, I also found this YouTube video on King Arthur.


The Legend as we Know It

I probably don't need to actually go over ground that you probably already know, but I do feel that maybe exploring the legend would be helpful as we continue. As I have suggested, while the story may change depending on who is telling it (from Thomas Mallory to Rudyard Kipling to Monty Python), there are still a number of things that generally remain the same. For instance there is a wizard named Merlin, though whether he advises Arthur or not depends on the story - with Monmouth Merlin had died before Arthur was even born. His father's name is Uther, and he was given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. However, Uther is defeated in battle, and plunges the sword into a rock so that only his rightful heir is able to remove it.

It seems as if Arthur, up until adulthood, never knew his father or his rightful place as the King of England. However this all changes when he removes the sword, quite easily mind you, from the rock. He then goes and marries a woman Guenevere (though whether she is a commoner or not once again depends on the story). He then gathers a group of knights together to be his generals, establishes the castle of Camelot, and builds a round table with the idea that everybody who sits at the table is equal, and has an equal voice.

The story then finishes off with Avalon being at peace, though it becomes apparent that Guenevere is actually pretty unfaithful because she runs off with Lancelot. While it isn't in every story, the cuckolding of Arthur is another one of those generally accepted parts. In a way it adds to the tragedy of the story, and even though it is a tale of high adventure and of medieval romance, it is also a dark and tragic tale. However, the cuckolding of Arthur is actually a more recent addition since while it doesn't appear in Monmouth, it does appear in a later work, Le Morte d'Artur.

Finally we have the quest for the Holy Grail. The interesting this is that it is suggested that Arthur never actually got the grail. I'm not entirely sure what the grail is supposed to be, though it could be one of two cups - either the cup that the disciples drank from at the last supper, or a cup that was used to collect Christ's blood during his execution. The first cup clearly appears in scripture where as the second doesn't, however my understanding is that the Holy Grail is actually the second cup. In the end the quest is fruitless, and this obsession of Arthur's is actually his downfall - he obsession with the cup, which is said to provide immortality, ends up being that which not only kills him, but also destroys the Kingdom.

The last sleep of King Arthur

The Legend of Guy Ritchie

So, now we come to the most recent incarnation of the story of King Arthur. Basically the movie is about Arthur's rise to power, and actually deals a lot with his insecurities as to his destiny and how he eventually overcomes it. The story begins with the sorcerer Mordred attacking Camelot and Uther Pendragon single handedly defeating his army. However, Uther's brother, Vortigen, has plans of his own and before we know it, Uther is gathering his family together and sending them down river. At first we don't actually know what happened, namely because the last thing we see before Arthur is pushed off into the river, is a dark knight killing his mother. We later discover that Uther fought the knight and lost, however the sword turned him into stone and he sunk into the river.

Arthur grows up in a brothel and basically becomes what is effectively a powerful underworld figure. However, the water around Camelot drains away revealing the sword, and Vortigen decides to round up all of the men Arthur's age to attempt to remove the sword from the stone so as to reveal the Born King. Arthur, even though he has a number of blacklegs (Vortigen's soldiers) on his payroll, he doesn't have all of them, and he is eventually captured and thus it is revealed that he is the true king. So, the movie them moves into the stage where Arthur prepares himself to meet Vortigen in the final battle and thus claim his throne.

So What went wrong

A part of me is tempted to suggest that maybe people don't get Guy Ritchie's style of filmmaking, but the thing is that it isn't as if he is a lesser known director who has yet to make any blockbusters - Sherlock Holmes is a testament to that. Further, this is a similar style of film making that he has always used, so it should come as no surprise that Ritchie crafted the film the way that he did. However, I suspect that maybe, just maybe, the critics simply weren't to impressed with it, or that it simply wasn't the time for such a film to be released. Though, another thing is that if you consider the Rotten Tomatoes rating you will notice a huge discrepancy between the Critic's rating and the User's Rating.

However, I would have to argue in the opposite here, namely due to the popularity of Lord of the Rings and of A Game of Thrones. Somebody has suggested that maybe Ritchie over extended himself, especially with cost, and that he probably should have toned it down quite a lot. However, the fact that Lord of the Rings was an incredibly expensive film to make, this doesn't work all that well here either. It wasn't as if Fellowship of the Ring was cheap, and due to its popularity they decided to spend big on the later movies - all three movies were filmed at the same time. The other thing is that Peter Jackson actually wasn't a well known director at the time either.

The other thing is that it could also be the style of movie - maybe a gritty King Arthur wasn't what people were looking for. In a sense it is more realistic considering that the story is set during the dark ages, and the idea of nobility and well spoken individuals simply didn't exist. Having Vortigen come along and speak in a cockney accent seemed to be out of place for a person of such high standing, except that this is more connected with later periods in English history. What we have is a story set not in the Middle Ages, but in the dark ages, where it was much rougher, and the kings were only a couple of step above the ordinary person.

Yet the tale of King Arthur is also a tale not only of high adventure, but of high fantasy. This isn't the case - Ritchie seems to be trying to emulate A Game of Thrones just a little too much, and it is here that I feel that he may have fallen down. Unfortunately the story isn't one of a boy growing up in a brothel, and of soldiers and kings with Cockney accents, but rather a tale of refined individuals of high and noble character. Men of valour, and heroes of old. Sure, it is a dark and tragic tale, but more in the lines of Hamlet than of West Side Story. However, while it may not have come across that way to others, I still believe that it worked, and worked really well.

Some Final Thoughts

There are a couple of final things I wish to toss about with regards to this film. First of all is the use of fire and ice. The minions of Mordred, and in turn Vortigen, are represented by fire, whereas Excalibur appears to be a frost blade of some sort. It suggested that Excalibur is always, without fail, going to triumph over the forces of Mordred since frost destroys fire much more easily than the other way around. The other thing is that there is a lot more magic in this version than in many of the others - even though it is a gritty tale, it is a gritty tale of magic and adventure. Excalibur isn't any normal sword, it is clearly a magical sword, and one of no mean power either. In fact the images of the tree spirits near the end of the film was also quite striking.

The other thing is how similar to the story of Macbeth this film seemed to be. In a sense Vortigen seemed to be a reworking of Macbeth - he had sold his soul to three witches, and regularly went to them for advice. Further, the more he desired power, and to protect his own position, the more he drove others away. However, for a while I have viewed Macbeth in a different light to other Shakesperian tragedies as it seems to basically be your typical hero and villain action piece, except that the story focuses more on the villain than it does on the heroes.

Anyway, a post on King Arthur is not going to be complete without a look back at one of the greatest retellings of the tale of all time:

Creative Commons License

King Arthur - a Gritty Camelot by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. If you haven't read it, C.S. Lewis wrote a rather scholarly book about the role of the adulterous romance in Medieval thought (The Allegory of Love). It's really quite interesting, and puts chivalry in a very different light than the rosy one that we often see.

    The Arthur legends are fascinating in all their versions - I've always loved Tennyson's poem - and this movie sounds like an imaginative spin on the story.

    1. That C.S. Lewis book sounds interesting, but then again I always enjoy reading Lewis. I'm going to have to dig up Tennyson as well.