Part two: the story; King Arthur Legend of the Sword
If you don’t know much about the Arthurian Legend, or have not encountered it before, the usual Arthurian story (where Arthur is the protagonist) has Arthur growing up an orphan and not knowing he’s the rightful king. Through some means (depending on which version you’re reading, there are a lot) Arthur gains Excalibur (pulling it from a stone is a contemporary addition to the legend), a symbol of his birthright, and has to fight whomever is king, overthrow them and be crowned.
There’s a lot more to the legend that this, from Arthur’s conception, to the dolorous stroke, the love triangle, the Saxons and much, much more, but there’s only so much you can cover in two hours (or 120 pages of script) without overdosing the audience and causing them to disconnect from the film.
From what I’ve read online, Warner Bros (WB) has been trying to produce a retelling of the Arthurian legend for a decade, and this is expected (if the film does well) to be the first of 6 films. WB has spent a lot of money promoting this film and moved the release date twice to ensure it is not up against any major opposition the weekend of its release. I’ve seen at least 5 trailers for this movie over the last year or so, each one revealing a bit more to increase the hype around this film. There’s been countless interviews and promotional images released. WB wants this to do well.
In cinema at the moment we’re seeing a lot of adaptations and each of these comes with its own ready made built in audience. People who will go see them because it is an adaptation of a beloved story. The Arthurian Legend isn’t like that. It doesn’t have the same sort of built in audience because it isn’t adapting a book, play, film, comic/graphic novel or TV series; it’s retelling a legend. The people who know the Arthurian Legend know the Arthurian Legend and will spend a few hours watching the movie and then weeks happily shredding it to pieces. They know a lot. I know a lot and we have high expectations of what a film retelling could be, but we’re also realistic enough to know it’s unlikely to happen. The built in audience for this film comes from fans of Guy Ritchie, Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law and other actors, but I’m not sure it’s enough for a franchise to be built on. And I’m not sure tapping into current trends by turning Arthur into 7th Century superhero* is either. To turn the Arthurian Legend into a successful 6 film franchise WB needs more than this, more than Guy Ritchie or Charlie Hunnam and more than tapping into the fan base of Camelot or the TV series Merlin. It needs to have adapted a book, and there are thousands of great contemporary retellings out there, from Parke Godwin, to Mary Stewart, Stephen Lawhead and so much more.
There are several possible primary texts that could have been used as the source material for this movie, and given that WB is hoping for a 6 film franchise the most likely candidate is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort Darthur as it has the most material to draw from. Malory loves to wander off from the main story and follow the adventures of other characters. I find it annoying, but it will give WB the material they need to create their franchise.
This first film will essentially cover Arthur’s rise to the throne. We’ll see it establish his court, knights and other key characters. This will become the setting for the subsequent films. The key characters introduced in film 1, will most likely become protagonists in the others. It’s what is going to enable WB to plan 6 films and not tie Charlie Hunnam down to having to be the lead for all 6. It doesn’t mean we’ll watch them, we won’t get bored before then or that they’ll get made.
There’s been a bit of talk recently, such as in Nick Miller’s article for the Sydney Morning Herald where Guy Ritchie promotes his Arthur as an ‘Everyman’, as if it is a new take on the legend. Pitching Arthur as an everyman is not a new idea. It may be an uncommon approach in Arthurian Cinema, but it’s not in terms of literary retellings. Authors retelling the legend have been doing this for decades. If the Victorian era reinvigorated the legend and saw Arthur as an ideal king, then 20th Century** writers took him off it, humanised Arthur, reminded readers that he may be a leader and ideal king, but he’s one of us. He could be the person down the street. He could be you.
This film will do exactly that. Arthur is a poor street kid, hustles for money, saves whatever he can, learns to fight. He’s one of us, and he becomes king. If Arthur, a kid whose parents were murdered, a kid who grew up in a brothel could become great, could become a king, a leader, then maybe you could too.
If you decide to part with your hard earned cash go into watching this retelling with your eyes open. It’s a Guy Ritchie take on the legend starring Jax Teller with a sword as Arthur. Do not expect it to be a brilliant retelling of the Arthurian Legend or even come close to what could be done.
The film doesn’t open here for another week and I’m planning on seeing it at least once before I pull it apart. In the meantime I’m trying to avoid reading reviews. When you see it, let me know what you think of it. Is it fun? What annoyed you? Can Charlie Hunnam act? Why are there elephants?
* There’s a hint of this in the trailer. Keep an eye out for the scene where Arthur is wielding Excalibur and the action/time slows.
** The other key development in 20th century retellings is the feminist overhaul of the legend.