Monday, March 1

Holy grail or poisoned chalice: why does Hollywood always spoil King Arthur? | Guy ritchie


It’s a popular lament in the comment section of this column that Hollywood remakes should be viewed with scorn and scorn. But filmmakers surely have a right to try to deliver a truly definitive version for the big screen of a famous myth, even if scores of them have failed miserably.

If so, this bodes well for Zack Snyder, who reporting this week suggests hopes to be the last director to lift Excalibur from the stone and return King Arthur to the multiplexes.

Snyder is at his best when adapting generous source material and at his worst when starting from scratch. Thus, Watchmen is a lovingly vivid and superbly rendered adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel, while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is generally terrible, bar the rare moments when Snyder draws directly from the comics.

So which legend is richer in classical fantasy mythology than the story of the ancient and future king? There have been dozens of movies and TV series based on different elements of the story, from Arthur’s rise from servant to royalty, to the founding of the Knights of the Round Table, the quest for the holy grail, Arthur’s horns by part of Lancelot and countless others. And yet Snyder would do well to take a look at the decomposing corpses of those who preceded him, as getting Camelot right is clearly more difficult than it appears at first glance.

King Arthur 2004
No magic … King Arthur from 2004. Photograph: Touchstone / Everett / Rex

Guy Ritchie’s recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was originally intended to be the first of six films starring Charlie Hunnam as the mythical British king, but it ended up losing $ 150 million from Warner Bros. and drawing criticism so scathing that the prospect of part deux sank faster. than the lady of the lake. It’s not really that bad of a movie, as long as you accept the idea that Ritchie’s penchant for cockney thugs, quick edits of the blitzkrieg, and tabloid-inspired stunt casting – David Beckham as a scarred henchman, somebody? – works perfectly for that fantasy material. Unfortunately, even those of us who found the film quite entertaining will probably concede that another filmmaker would have been better suited for the task, although at least Ritchie got rid of the Christian piety of some earlier versions.

Drifting a little further back in time, we have 2004’s King Arthur, a movie that recast our hero as a Roman-Celtic defender against invading Saxons. It was touted as a tale that stuck closely to the facts behind the Arthurian legend, but ultimately managed to remove all the magic without bringing the story closer to the actual historical events – a nifty trick indeed. Antoine Fuqua’s film is perhaps best remembered now for a row across Keira Knightley’s chest, which was retouched for an American poster, much to the actor’s chagrin.

Arthouse fans might point to 1981’s creepy and fatal Excalibur, which certainly takes the subject seriously and features an outstanding performance by the young Helen Mirren as the beautiful and alluring Morgana. And yet John Boorman’s film is, in turns, overcooked and undercooked, one moment completely lacking in luster, the next being ruined by careless and sloppy hype. Nigel Terry, like Arthur, never gets the part. Disney’s Sword in the Stone, based on the TH White novel, is whimsically funny, but not momentous. 1994’s First Knight is so misunderstood it’s hard to take it seriously.

1981 Excalibur
Creepy … Excalibur from 1981. Photograph: Allstar / Warner Bros

Perhaps the problem here is that we all know Arthur’s story so well that filmmakers go out of their way trying to bring something new to the story. And yet perhaps what we really need is a simple, classic account that delves into the myth without attempting to update it for modern audiences, or tell us “the real story we thought we knew.” White’s Once And Future King’s quadrilogy should be part of the picture, along with its original material from the 15th century. Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, and other Arthurian literature such as Kings of 12th Century British History by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Unfortunately, there is a lingering suspicion that the tragic nature of Arthur’s latest fall from grace makes this a troublesome quest for modern Hollywood to take on successfully. Any movie that claims to tell the full legend will eventually have to deal with what is an extremely depressing ending.

Whoever takes the next bite out of the apple, hopefully also deviates as much as possible from the actual historical facts and towns. Give us spells, mythical beasts and heroism, instead of Vikings, Picts and Roman retreat. As fascinating as that story remains, the story of Arthur and Merlin would never have lasted centuries if it had been a story of ancient British warriors trying in vain to stem the Anglo-Saxon tide. It was all the outlandish, bizarre, and fabulous items thrown into the cauldron by a myriad of minds that ultimately resulted in such a potent fantasy potion.

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