The legend of King Arthur is a filmmaker's gift. How did Guy Ritchie get it so wrong?

David Beckham in a scene from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - Warner Bros. Pictures
David Beckham in a scene from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - Warner Bros. Pictures

Pity poor Arthur. He’s about to pull the sword from the stone when who should pipe up but David Beckham. “Ands on the ‘ilt, stupid”, grunts the footballer-turned-actor at the key moment in Guy Ritchie’s new film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. And they wonder why it’s a flop.

The film recovered just $14.7m (£11.4m) of its $175m budget at the US box office last weekend. Given the reviews, it seems unlikely that it will be a hit when it reaches our cinemas this Friday. It’s a shame. Arthurian legend is a filmmaker’s gift. You can take it in almost any direction you like. There is no single version to adhere to, no restrictive framework, few historically contextualising facts. Swords, a round table, the Holy Grail: excellent props. What could possibly go wrong?

The Arthurian legend got its big boost from the 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth - Credit: Daniel Smith/Warner Bros
The Arthurian legend got its big boost from the 12th-century historian Geoffrey of MonmouthCredit: Daniel Smith/Warner Bros

Just about everything. The main problem seems to be the overwhelming obsession with creating an epic. Whenever canonical texts or historic literary traditions are taken as inspiration, filmmakers become fired with the ambition to create the definitive modern version of the classic. Just think of Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. If it’s going to be history, it has to be big. Legend of the Sword is intended as the first of six Arthur films. Because that’s what epics are: long.

The success of multi-season dramas such as Game of Thrones cannot so readily be replicated on the big screen. Arthurian legend is fascinating not because it is long and convoluted, but because it opens our imagination to a world so distant and beguiling that we do not care whether it was real or fictitious. Like Homer’s epics, it tells us something about who we are beneath our modern clothes and manners.

There is nothing to be gained by removing those clothes and swapping them for tracksuits. Daniel Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet, currently on at the Globe, has its characters dressed as clowns and dancing to Village People’s YMCA. There is an irritating trend for treating classics as if they are merely skin-deep.

In Ritchie’s film, King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up in a brothel in Londinium, sports a fashionable white quilted jacket, and has a sidekick nicknamed Chinese George. Like so many epics, this one falters because it is overwhelmed by its reverence for the weight of the past on the one hand, and urgency to make it “relevant” and recognisable on the other.

Slick, big-budget, computer-generated graphics jar horribly with the rusticity and magic of Arthur’s world. Arthurian tales call for sensitivity, for conviviality, for warmth as well as drama. John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur came far closer to the mark. Unlike Ritchie’s grungy rendering and Antoine Fuqua’s expensive failure of 2004 (King Arthur starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), Excalibur conveyed the rustic romance of the legend. It was earthy and unshowy and invigorating.

In the British Library, you can look at the 15th-century manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the version of the legend that inspired Excalibur. In its penmanship and flashes of blood-red ink it is a thing of beauty. How well the elegance and the colours of a manuscript, especially an illuminated one, would lend themselves to a new Arthurian epic. Ritchie gives us grey.

Daisy Dunn is the author of Catullus’ Bedspread

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