I walked into Guy Ritchie’s new film, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” expecting a couple of hours of stupid entertainment. It had had a poor opening weekend, and the trailers made it look high on fancy exploding stuff and low on intellectual fodder. Never have my expectations been so radically surpassed.
“King Arthur” is a superb film on multiple levels. Imagine a film that interacts with the thought of two great political philosophers and a great patristic writer. Sounds refined, but probably pretty boring, right? Now imagine a film that mixes the most thymotic elements of “Lord of the Rings,” “300,” and, say, “Mission Impossible II,” full of dazzling visual effects, gritty action, and non-stop, pounding masculine energy, plus a healthy dose of snarky humor on the side. It sounds like a completely different movie. But can you imagine a film that pulls off both effects at once?
That film is “King Arthur.” Yes, it is visually stunning. Gigantic war elephants and other mythic beasts make Peter Jackson’s creations appear small by comparison. Armies, towers, and palaces are beautiful in their sweep and intricacy. Loving, slow-motion visuals capture every detail of the innumerable cataclysms that fill the movie’s two-hour runtime.
Yes, it is incredibly thymotic. The soundtrack pounds relentlessly. The slow-motion extends to the semi-continuous fight scenes—allowing, again, for every relevant detail of the over-the-top action sequences to achieve full impact. That alternates with a choppy style that keeps the pace fast and energetic.
A More Human Angle
The film does include the aspects one sees in the trailers, and in isolation that gives it the appearance of adrenaline-pumping but stupid fun. Yet it also has a great deal of depth. The human story is very relatable. Charlie Hunnam delivers a splendid performance as the cocky, hard-driven, and likeably obnoxious titular character. His backstory—tormented by dreams of the death of his father—may be clichéd, but it is clichéd for a simple reason: it works. (Arthur’s reluctance to accept his heroic fate—another cliché—is one of the movie’s few flaws.)
Jude Law excels as the evil usurper Vortigern. He is no icy tyrant who cares only for himself. Vortigern genuinely cares for his family. His heartbreak as he sacrifices them to his ambition makes him all the more effective as a villain. He is slowly selling his soul in exchange for power. The torment he endures by his own choice displays the extent of his corruption better than any inhumanly cold indifference could have done. Also intriguing, for the same reason, is the fact that Vortigern never seems to kill gratuitously. He takes a great deal of human life, but never for the sheer pleasure of killing.
Yet there is still another level to this iteration of the Arthurian saga. What ultimately completes “King Arthur” is the degree to which it deals with the ideas of some of the great thinkers of the past. The film raises at least three such issues.
It Goes Deeper and Deeper
Niccolò Machiavelli famously wrote that “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” This is the line Vortigern takes as he leads Arthur out to die. There are important differences. Machiavelli maintained that one should take care not to be hated out of fear, whereas Vortigern could care less about such details. “I’ll even let them hate me, if they will only fear me,” are roughly his words. But the reference is direct enough that a friend who studies Machiavelli also wondered if it was intentional.
Further, “King Arthur’s” basic premise could have been (perhaps it was) directly inspired by Shakespeare’s treatment of Prince Hal in his second English history tetralogy. Shakespeare wrote about a prince who spent his youth not in court, but mixing with less elevated company. He grew to know his people like the back of his own hand, and when the time came, he led them as one of the greatest hero kings of English history—Henry V. “King Arthur” also tells the story of an English hero king “raised on the streets” who owes his later success to his lowly upbringing. That theme runs through the whole film, and some of the dialogue surrounding it is strongly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays.
Finally, there is the capstone, the moment I believe makes “King Arthur” a truly great film. The problem of evil is one of the great and perpetual questions of philosophy. If God exists, and is powerful enough to prevent evil and good enough to want to prevent evil, then why does evil exist? I never expected to hear an intensely powerful answer to that question from a Guy Ritchie film. I never would have expected Hollywood to get the answer right. Yet this movie does both, embedding Irenaean theodicy in the heart of a testosterone-charged adventure epic.
As Arthur brings Vortigern down in their final battle, he tells him that Vortigern is responsible for making him (Arthur) what he is. It was Vortigern’s attempt to kill him that led to Arthur being raised in the rough and tumble environment that gave him the drive and strength to grow into a hero. “And for that, I bless you. You make sense of the Devil,” says Arthur, as Vortigern dies. Is it a coincidence that this is the Patristic Father Irenaeus’ solution to the problem of evil? God allows evil because only in this way can human beings have the opportunity to grow and mature as they ought.
Go See This Film
Reviews panning “King Arthur” as mindless entertainment seem to have missed these aspects of the work. I am not certain that the film’s creators raise these themes intentionally. As instance piles upon instance, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain the movie’s remarkable adeptness as the result of accident. There may be more. Arthur’s childhood escape from destruction could not have been better crafted to mimic the biblical story of Moses.
“King Arthur” fully embraces the fantastic side of its story. Little connection to the traditional Arthurian legend exists. Medieval England is not British or Saxon, but a multiracial society. There is no attempt to limit the armies or architecture to the resources of an historical setting. But this is not a detraction. The world of the movie is not the world of historical England or the world of traditional Arthurian legend, but it would be a shame to let this distract from the incredible achievement the filmmakers have produced. The movie’s world is internally coherent, and once again, it works.
“King Arthur” is a breathtakingly great film on several different levels. You owe it to yourself to go see this movie.