“King Arthur:  Legend of the Sword”


            The latest spin on the old magical tale of Camelot is actually the back story: how Arthur came to power.  It borrows unashamedly from other epics, and is heavy on the magical/mystical side, but it is creative.  And a bit dark.

            As a kid, Arthur watches while his ruthless Uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) steals the throne from Arthur's father, Uther (Eric Bana).  Now an orphan boy, Arthur is adrift in a boat on the River Thames when he is picked up by a kindly young woman who raises him as her own.  This sounds like the Moses story in the Book of Exodus, right?  Except instead of being raised in a palace, Arthur is raised in a brothel.  And though he has horrific memories of his parents' demise, which still gives him nightmares, he has no idea about any kind of princely legacy, much less the famous sword in the stone.

            Uncle Vortigern has made his deal with the devil, who's in the form of an octopus with three human-like heads, meeting him in the sewer to extract his pound of flesh in exchange for royal power.  Vortigern freely admits that there is no more intoxicating elixir than watching people fear you, and bow down to you in obesiance.  His alliance with the Dark Side has given him some dark powers, like being able to turn himself into a giant fiery avenger:  Darth Vader with a big hatchet.

            Arthur, meanwhile, learns the ways of the street urchin in early medieval Ludinium.  He learns self-reliance, pickpocketing, fist fighting, swordplay, and street smarts.  But just when you thought you were watching a re-make of “The Prince and the Pauper,” we get back on track with Camelot when Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) encounters Excalibur, the “sword in the stone.”  When he pulls the sword, though, it's not that everyone immediately hails him as the new King.  Actually, he passes out from all the magical energy that passes through his body at that moment.

            It seems that “The Mage,” or the group of folk related to Merlin who deal in the supernatural, have been waiting for Arthur to claim his rightful place.  But Arthur is not at all ready to do that.  So he winds up performing a series of Herculean tasks which call to mind...yes, Hercules.  The one who was invincible when he began to fight. 

            Of course we all want to see the evil King Vortigern overthrown.  And we are surprised to find that Guenivere is actually The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  She seems to have, like Tarzan, an ability to call upon the wild animals to help her accomplish her goals.  But there's no romance here, or hint of later royal marriage.  We're too busy trying to survive the bloody civil war.

            Yes, there's lots of carnage, and in between, somewhat of a human interest story about the emotional development of Arthur.  But his “knights” are right now little more than outlaw henchmen, and will need a lot of grooming before that Round Table is finally finished.  But that sets us up for Part Two, doesn't it?


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  How many versions of “King Arthur” have you seen?  Which did you like the most?

2)                  What's a preferable quality for monarchy, royal blood lines or street smarts?

3)                  How much “magic fantasy” can be tolerated before a literary narrative descends into sci-fi?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association