Le Morte d'Arfur
One of the various innovative ticketing initiatives/scams that my magic cinema entry card allows me to avoid is so-called 'Blockbuster Pricing', whereby the powers that be routinely stick a couple of quid on top of the regular cost of a ticket, if they think it's a film that a lot of people are going to want to see. Quite who decides on this sort of thing I don't know, I imagine some sort of panel meets in a darkened room somewhere and makes a ruling on a quarterly basis. Not that they always seem to get it right: currently enjoying an extra quid on top of the regular price is Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which strictly speaking looks like being a blockbuster only in its aspirations – early projections are apparently that this is going to turn out to be a historic bomb.
There have of course been lots of Arthurian movies down the years, many of them rather undistinguished of course, perhaps the best-known being John Boorman's Excalibur, and the most recent high-profile offering Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur from 2004. Excalibur did okay at the box office, by the standards of the day, but King Arthur didn't, and it has been suggested that this is just one example of a curious trend where historically popular stories and genres are not capturing the imaginations of modern audiences – last year's Tarzan movie, for instance, was only modestly successful at the box office. Perhaps it's simply the case that the kids just want to go and see the latest superhero or computer game adaptation.
In any case, Legend of the Sword seems to be trying fairly hard to lure in a younger audience, for it opens with a virtual reprise of various bits of Lord of the Rings, with the fortress of Camelot under attack by an evil wizard and his minions (including some rather surprising elephants which are about the size of oil-rigs). Noble King Uther (Eric Bana) springs into action and sees the baddies off, fairly easily, but this turns out just to be a prelude to a grab for power by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern seizes the throne but the king's infant son Arthur floats off down the river to safety, his identity unknown.
He winds up in the city of Londinium (hmmm), where he is adopted by a gang of prostitutes and raised in a brothel. Years whizz past, courtesy of the first of several funky montage sequences, and soon enough Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a grown man, a face on the local underworld scene, and a dab hand at kung fu following regular training sessions down the neighbourhood martial arts school.
No, wait, it gets better (for a given value of better, anyway). In the meantime Vortigern has grown rather concerned about his nephew coming back to take revenge, but fortunately has an infallible method of finding out who he is – there's a big stone outside the castle with a sword sticking out of it, and (stop me if you've heard this one) only the rightful heir can pull Excalibur forth. Young men from all over the country are being rounded up and forced to give it a try, under the watchful eye of David Beckham (formerly a noted football player, m'lud).
Yes, it really is him, and he provides one of the biggest 'You what?' moments in a film not exactly short on them. Truth be told, Goldenballs is not in the movie for very long, but the very brevity of his participation just makes the scale of his achievement all the more impressive: it takes a very rare individual to be quite so arrestingly awful, especially in a part as tiny as the one Beckham has here. He makes Vinnie Jones in X-Men 3 look like Sir John Gielgud.
Well, anyway, having pulled Excalibur out, Arthur is clocked as the rightful heir and things look bleak for him. However, various members of the old regime who are resisting Vortigern's rule rescue Arthur, with an eye to grooming him as a possible replacement. But our man decides he's nobody's puppet and sets about assembling his own gangland crew to take down his wicked uncle, Londinium-massive style! (One thing you can say about that King Arthur, no grannies got mugged when he was around, he never hurt one of his own, and you could leave yer front door unlocked, etc.)
Whatever else you want to say about Guy Ritchie as a film-maker, he is at least consistent. After two Sherlock Holmes movies that weren't exactly purist in their approach to Conan Doyle, and a Man from UNCLE adaptation that frankly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show, he has now rocked up with an Arthurian film which is virtually unrecognisable as anything of the sort. They keep the sword in the stone bit, but there's no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, and virtually no Merlin or Mordred (mystical duties are palmed off to a somewhat ethereally gamine character played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey).
I must confess I was all set to have some fun with the fact that, in this film, King Arthur has the kind of beard and hairstyle you would normally expect to find on the barman of a hipster cafe in Shoreditch, but this seems like a very small matter when you consider that the film also contains magic elephants, half-woman half-squid life coaches, rodents of unusual size, kung fu fights, and many other elements that Tennyson, Mallory, White and the rest just plumb forgot to mention. (There's a moment where King Vortigern tells his lieutenant to 'Do your ****ing job' which I suspect may not be drawn from the Venerable Bede.) These are mostly incidental, though: the film essentially feels like the result of a three-way collision between one of Ritchie's lairy lad gangster movies, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (or, to be less charitable, Warcraft), and a Marvel superhero film – Arthur's claim to the throne is based not on his noble blood or wisdom, but the fact that wielding Excalibur gives him bad-ass superpowers and the ability to slaughter vast numbers of bad guys in the twinkling of an eye.
And no doubt you are expecting me to tear into the movie for all of this. I find that I can't quite do this, not because it really works as an experience – it doesn't, although the sheer incongruity of the different elements does make it bizarrely watchable, simply because you never have any idea just what's coming next – but because it's quite clear that Ritchie has been pretty successful in making exactly the film he wanted to make. It's just that he had zero interest in wanting to make a traditional (some might say 'sane') Arthurian movie. Sequences that could've been quite authentic are simply rushed through, while others which bizarrely resemble chunks of contemporary gangland drama have been spliced in instead.
In some ways it resembles Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale from 2001, another movie which cheerfully took an axe to historical accuracy in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and a film which I rather enjoyed. The difference is that Legend of the Sword doesn't seem to have quite the same cheerful sense of its own absurdity – it takes itself relatively seriously – and that A Knight's Tale wasn't wreaking havoc upon one of the foundational myths of Britain.
I suspect we may be spared the rest of the proposed six-film series which Legend of the Sword was supposed to inaugurate, and I must confess to feeling a little saddened by that – I would've been rather curious to see just how far out there the other films could get, and it would at least have kept Ritchie from getting up to mischief with other properties for a decade or so. There may well be an audience for this film – always assuming there are people out there who want to see a bog-standard fantasy film made in the style of a lad's mag gangster dramedy – but not a big enough one to make this a commercial success. It's not so much a bad film as much as a very, very weird one – but there are still many more bad bits than good ones. And yes, Beckham, I'm looking at you.