Thoughts On: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017)
This will be a long post, but I believe it is one that needs to be written and read.
King Arthur is a pretty troublesome movie. If you saw my previous short review, you’ll know that I absolutely love the movie and even think that it is a modern masterpiece waiting to be tested by time. However, this movie has received ratings and scores that range between bad to mediocre to ok. On the more positive end, I’ve mainly come across non-professional critic reviews that suggests that the film is very entertaining – and some professional critics seem to suggest the same, too, but don’t hold this of much regard. Alas, the biggest draw of interest that this movie has managed to muster revolves a question of “Why was this such a huge box office flop that lost 10s, if not 100s, of millions?”.
What we’ll do today is look past much of this noise and attempt to make a case for this not just being entertaining (though it’d be hard to convince someone of this as this is deeply subjective), but – and this is something that is not as subjective – but a smart movie that, with its combination of entertainment and art, is almost flawless. Before we begin, however, I want to share with you the only ‘marketing’ for this movie that I came into contact with: Guy Ritchie discussing narrative with Joe Rogan and, loosely, the impact of his thoughts on this in regards to his movie. (The whole clip is inciteful, but he begins directly discussing narrative at 4:23).
The first thing that I’m sure this signals is that Ritchie takes story seriously. As a consequence of this, it makes sense to go into King Arthur with an open mind for subtext. After all, whilst he says that watching his movie for basic entertainment is fine, there is a strong suggestion that he has constructed much more below the surface. And further to this, he actually explains some of what is below the surface of this movie: it is about not just confronting the world and finding your true self, but materialising this true self by reconciling with exterior realities that impose a separate ‘self’ upon you. The story of a great king like King Arthur is then a story about a man who transcends the basic pathway of life and manages to master this game of balancing the pressures of the outside world with those of the inside world. And with these ideas alone, you could go into King Arthur and maybe see a different movie, confident that your storyteller, Ritchie, is not just throwing huge CGI elephants and explosions at you for the sake of it; all the flashing lights and explosions are there to provide a dazzling formal experience – what we may call entertainment – but I believe everything in this movie serves a duel purpose; everything is both entertaining and affecting as well as symbolic and sometimes profound. So, what we’re now going to do is take a closer look at what Ritchie suggests story is before going deep into his film.
Anyone who has read a screenwriting book that mentions inner conflict and exterior conflict will be quite familiar with all that Ritchie talks about. The heart of all movies is conflict. Moreover, the heart of all happenings is stress or tension of some sort. As most philosophies of life, derived from religion or otherwise, suggest: life is suffering; life is hard; life is a test; life is a struggle against chaos, destruction, evil, death and worry. This is because conscious life is the synthesis of two opposing elements: entropy and being. It is hard to rationalise such an idea by discussing the abstract universe which we haven’t even come close in fully understanding, but, if you put a seed in the ground, what happens? It grows into a plant, right? No. If the seed is in nutritious soil and is allowed sunlight and water, it will hopefully grow into the plant; if it is provided life-giving sustenance, it is given the chance to live. If the seed doesn’t get these things, it whithers, dies and becomes nutrition for something else. Herein we see the universal flow of entropy and its metamorphosis (through re-contextualisation) into a life force. This describes the material world as we know it. However, conscious life is a little more complex.
Whilst we have bodies that will whither and die without entropy being converted into life force within us, our subjective perception is heavily reliant on an abstract kind of life force that we may call motivation. Some of the greatest motivators in life are death, suffering and pain themselves. We live in close relationship to these sensations, trying to escape getting too close to death and suffering too much, but, simultaneously, experiencing enough pain, and coming close enough to death, so that we know that we are alive. As a result, we are all seeds and adventurers; we are made up of bodies and minds that interact with entropy and life moment-to-moment in an all-encompasing manner.
When we look to narratives we see life and entropy manifested with conflict. Conflict simultaneously motivates characters whilst trying to kill them: it is entropy and a life force. The ingenious creation that is ‘made-up narratives’ are so brilliant because they not only allow us to tweak the mechanics of this conflict that exists in real life, but they allow us to use conflict to say something far more specific than: life is fighting entropy and finding motivation in suffering. As a result, conflict breaks off into inner-conflict and outer-conflict. And this is exactly what Ritchie explains. Not only do we have to face entropy and find motivation within ourselves, but we have to balance this with the forces of the outside world. And because who we are is far more tangible than what the exterior word is, because the inner world is a domain which we have some degree of control and influence over, the inner world is more important than the outer world; the inner world is true and the outer one is, to a degree, false. So, as characters realise and fight this, a narrative progresses. However Ritchie makes a slight mistake, I think, in not stressing the particularities of this idea. In such, whilst he says that this is what all narratives are about, he doesn’t suggests that not all narratives are about successfully waking this path; tragedies are the opposite of finding a balance and so they provide commentary by showing how not to do things, or where you can fall into a hole. Moreover, Ritchie also doesn’t stress that the management of, and the reason given to, inner and outer conflicts is what defines a good story and a bad story and dictates whether a narrative will affect us or not. And even further, there is no implication that there are micro-structures within this macro-structure of storytelling. However, let us not critique Ritchie here as he wasn’t writing an essay or book on the subject. Instead, let us begin to look at the micro-structures and specific ideas of King Arthur knowing that this film is essentially about mastering both the inner and the outer world by finding balance between the two.
One of the main thematic drives in this movie is magic. We are told with the opening that mages and humans lived alongside one another in peace, and then we get the first sequence in which an evil mage attempts to storm Camelot with gigantic elephants before being destroyed by the King Uther – Arthur’s father. The complexity of this opening can only be realised when we question the significance of a mage.
If we re-call any version of mages that we are familiar with, say for instance Merlin in Disney’s adaptation of the Arthurian Sword In The Stone story, we find that magicians are almost always highly intelligent figures, or are at least in the pursuit of wisdom and greater knowledge. And mages themselves are in fact defined to be exactly this: they are a magician or learned person. So, to take the mage out of its medieval context and to put them into a modern one, those who design and create phones, computers, cars, rockets, medicines and a plethora of other highly technological and scientific materials are mages. Further to this, incredibly intelligent managers, scholars and organisers are also mages. Not only do they all do something that we do not understand – that we may as well call magic sometimes – but they have extreme wisdom at their finger tips. In essence, taken out of any context, a mage seems to be the counsellor and assistant that guides society, but does not necessarily lead it. In such, the mage is the king’s right hand man who, though they can’t or won’t assume the throne, counsel the king as he leads. And whilst you could critique modern day governmental systems as they don’t seem to have the incredibly smart people, mages, at the top of systems, we still understand the importance of such figures.
When we return to King Arthur’s opening sequence we are then being told that the system of Camelot is failing because the mages have been put into hiding. As a result, the crown seems to be in jeopardy.
This is, of course, because ancient beasts have been awakened by the evil mage, Mordred (which ironically means ‘moderation’). However, as is implied – and as we later find out – the king’s brother is a traitor, which is why he seems to be psychologically linked to the evil mage.
So, what this story is ultimately about is the kingdom being corrupted from the inside out by a figure consumed by vanity and desire; Vortigern (again, ironically, this sometimes means ‘Great King’) is the archetypal evil, jealous brother akin to, for example, Scar from The Lion King. Vortigern as this symbol of corruption is linked to the evil mage as a symbol of failed diplomacy; he was supposed to study under Mordred, but, along the way, turned against his family. What we then see here is entropy in the form of jealousy arising from within a bubble of conjoined selves: a family. This is the conflict that King Uther, inadvertently or not, attempts to quash in this symbolic gesture:
By having his brother hold the crown after he suggests surrender, Uther clearly means to include Vortigern in the fight against the evil mage, which can now be seen to symbolise a kingdom losing guidance and its power being used to corrupt. Further to this, Uther draws his sword, Excalibur:
This sword, as Ritchie expresses with his discussion with Rogan, is a symbol of ones own power and unified self. However, as we are reminded, Uther only has this sword because of Merlin, a good mage. So, here, the mage, a symbol of technological and intellectual power in a system, is being reconciled with; Uther is using a symbol of a mage – which is intrinsically bound to his own self – to bring peace and, as he later suggests at his table talk, to bring the good mages back into the kingdom. Let us stop here of a moment, however, and analyse what is often used an example of this film’s ludicrousy:
Mages, like great engineers, scientists and thinkers, look at nature, understand it and control it. The elephant itself is one of the grandest manifestations of nature; it is the world’s largest land mammal. As a result, the elephant appears in many mythological tales. Two examples of adaptations/re-tellings would be 300…
… and The Lord Of The Rings…
In all of these films, the elephant is wielded by huge, formidable armies as a symbol of their control over the land and nature. So, like the 300 Spartans fighting off the Persians or the minimal Rohirrim battling the orcs and Haradim, Uther’s knights deflect the evil mage’s giant elephant-lead army as a symbol of the righteous few confronting the corrupt many who abuse their dominion over animals and the land. The elephant is then both awesome to look at, but also captures the idea that the evil mage is abusing nature (and we see nature further attributed to the evil mage with his crown). Added to this, the elephants in fact turn against mage’s army, just like the elephants in 300 and The Lord Of The Rings are the cause of their army’s demise. This implies that the structure and control that king represents is good and so will prevail (as lead by the power of a good mage: Excalibur) whilst the corrupt structure of the evil mage, no matter how monolithic it appears, is fated for demise.
So, coming back on track, despite the destruction of Mordred, the anti-king, the evil right hand of the pinnacle of power, peace isn’t established. This is because the corruption of the evil mage has infected the lineage of the king.
From here, Vortigern then becomes the evil mage and he, of course, kills his brother to assume power. However, he becomes this figure by also killing his wife…
… and feeding her to, what we later find out to be, a snake woman…
The snake is a symbol we have encountered and discussed many times before. The importance of the snake in human history is generally seen to concern the development of human sight: we may have developed greater eyesight through natural selection to see snake eyes and avoid, or escape, them. The snake then rests at the top of a category of beasts, such as bears, giant predacious felines and predatory birds, which humans have often come into mortal conflict with. And one of the most famous projections of the snake symbol, of course, comes in the Christian creation myth of Adam and Eve, or, the Original Sin.
As we know, the snake lead Eve to the, not the Tree of Life, but the Tree of Knowledge: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Because of this, I think Eve becomes a rebellious hero as she follows treachery to awaken the human mind and grant us power to walk out into the real world; to continually fight the snake that exists in nature. So, as we talked about when discussing an idea of a “Saviour Witch”, the snake is a double-entendre. Whilst, yes, it means treachery, deception of this kind is also pivotal for human beings as, without rebellion, how can we ever challenge the state of ‘normal’ (which may be a veil for corruption and inadequacy), whether it be ordained by a parent, by a king or by a god.
Vortigern feeding his wife to the snake lady is not an act of a rebellious hero, however. This is the act of a human snake who, lead by treachery, destroys a collective self: family. And not only does Vortigern destroy his own personal family – his wife – but he does this to kill off his wider family: his brother. What Vortigern then embodies at multiple levels of analysis is the destruction of structure; he destroys his wife, he aligns himself with the corrupt right hand men of the king (mages of wisdom and technological evolution), and then attempts to destroy the height of societal structure itself: the king, his brother. Because he is manifested on so many levels, some of quite a lot of depth, this is what makes Vortigern a brilliantly realised archetype. And so, when we come to find out that he wants to build a new tower to greater his power, but that this tower is at stake of breaking down, we see that he is attempting to build a new structure through corruption; he is trying to raise a corrupt state upon once good, but now dead, lands.
With this set-up, we can now begin to see the depths of Ritchie’s story and his merging of classical symbols and archetypes with elements of the Arthurian legend. And so what this would rebut is even an example of a somewhat positive critique by Josephine Livingstone in her article “What King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Gets Right About the Middle Ages“. In her article, Livingstone suggests that there are silly elements of this film, but that Ritchie does manage to incorporate some medieval mythology into this story well. However, whilst she commends this, she also suggests that this is done with much of an awareness of a greater Western meta-narrative. But, with our brief look at the snake woman and the elephants, which she dismisses, we can begin to see this Western meta-narrative begin to be referenced with more depth and understanding than she would suggest.
However, Livingstone also makes mention of other more peripheral and ‘silly’ elements of the film: the battles, martial arts and cockney gangster vibe. I certainly disagree with a critique of these elements as the fights scenes in this film are pretty awesome, not just in respect to things getting thrown around, but the choreography of movement with slow motion and CGI assisted shots that add an impressionistic edge to the violence is truly stunning and, in itself, artful in my view. I understand if this doesn’t mean much to some people, but I find this pretty undeniable. Nonetheless, the anachronistic reference to martial arts can be understood to fuel the action scenes and give them greater verisimilitude (also they most probably stem from Ritchie’s own interest in actual combat in the form of martial arts). Moreover, concerning the style of comedy and the characterisation of the cockney crew of this film, this is Ritchie telling this story with his own voice – and he does this incredibly well (you would almost certainly agree if you like films such as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). And so, across all of these apparently ‘silly’ elements, we are seeing a genuine story voiced by a unique and individual filmmaker. Ritchie then integrates spectacle and deep subtext into his own style, and to great effect. This means that the only critique of this film that would come from someone who understands its depths would concern more subjective ideas of the movie not being profound enough, or the idiosyncratic styles and approaches simply not appealing to their taste. And so, if you don’t like the movie on these fronts, I can completely respect your opinion. But, if you still think this is dumb, let us go further with the story.
Arthur, after seeing his father die, is raised in a brothel and on the rough streets of Londinium. This marks our hero’s descent into the ‘wilderness’. And this idea, of course, stretches across many cultures; from Rama and Sita being sent into the jungle to Abraham being sent into the desert, heroes are often displaced from their divine or aristocratic origins. Further examples come through Greek mythological narratives that see, for example, Hercules being stolen out of Olympus, Odysseus sailing all over the world, or, in an alternative tragic form, Oedipus making his fatal return to his kingdom. This motif constantly manifest itself in stories about kings – just look to the Lion King and Simba being chased out of the Pride Lands. In all of these stories and a plethora more, this journey into the wilderness eventually sparks adventure and tests our hero to see if the blood within him is true; to see if he will naturally claim the sword and the lands of his father. This idea builds upon the idea that good structures headed by righteous kings prevail. Why is this, however?
The sense underlying this rather arbitrary assumption that the king’s son will be good is actually explored in films such as The Lion King, but more so in King Arthur, through the questioning of the father figure. In short, the son isn’t inherently good, he’s forced and moulded to be just that. This is explored throughout King Arthur with Excalibur and Arthur being unable to see the truth of his past and learn from this. We will come back to this idea, but it is all set-up in the initial casting of the innocent into the wilderness; just like Hercules is stolen from Olympus or Moses is sent down the Nile, Arthur finds his way to the brothel and navigates the streets of Londinium like Rama and Sita navigate the jungle or Abraham the desert to become a king of the realm. It’s here that we then see the king’s son become a king of the streets; he becomes a king of his own domain independent of his father. However, this roughly brings us to the point of the movie in which the ocean levels drop to reveal the the sword in the stone that Arthur eventually pulls free.
Arthur is partly a product of the wilderness and became a king of this domain because of this, but the sea dropping implies a natural force governing his growth. This reference to nature calls us back to the mage and the wisdom of those that understand the ways of nature. And in such, the constant reference to nature implies a stable order that nature (or fate) is inclined to towards; which is why the mage’s (Merlin, who understood nature) gift, Excalbur, calls Arthur. What Arthur represents, what he who was cast into a land of chaos and debauchery, but fought to bring a degree of peace and structure to this place and, in turn, the prostitutes’ – his adopted mothers’ – lives represents, is righteousness. The righteous Arthur is the positive and stable structure that nature yearns, and so this is why the oceans drop and Excalibur calls; Arthur is ready to now become a greater king. And so, it’s here that the idea that the king’s son is the only one who could restore order makes sense. Not only has he fought through the wilderness and become a king in this domain, but he is now going to be confronted with the legacy of a true king – which he will have to live up to.
What we can understand this to be a commentary on is the initial instance of corruption and Uther’s inability to stop his brother. As we have talked about, life is entropy and suffering and to live a great life is to find balance amongst these elements and improve ones own environment as a great king does. However, what if entropy takes over and the king’s brother is infected by power and jealously? It seems that the ill-equipped king – the old king who was not good enough to fight this battle and so sacrificed himself to preserve what little of his power he could…
… must die so that the a new king can not just rise out of those ashes, but fight to free himself of those smouldering chains. This is what the water then symbolises; Arthur has fought in the wilderness and now is ready to confront his naturally revealed destiny – which means he’s going to have to do a lot more fighting.
So, having pulled the sword from the stone, having realised that his king, his uncle, is corrupt and having escaped him with the help of his father’s old ‘crew’ and his own, Arthur is burdened with this responsibility: the knowledge that his destiny is to not just be a king of the streets, but a great king of the land. A key figure here, however, is the new mage…
She represents wisdom and an understanding of nature, and so she brings with her the symbol of the eagle…
The eagle is much like the snake (and the bear and lion for that matter). Like snakes, predatory birds would have played a significant role in human evolution as they may have posed a serious threat to our species many thousands of years ago. However, the predatory bird, the eagle, is not just a threat from above, it is sight (notice how the bird’s eye is put in centre-frame). The eagle’s eye – or an eye resembling a bird’s – then finds its way into key symbols of many cultures, the most famous being Horus’ eye. The eagle as sight represents perspective, which is an incredible power that the mage will provide the king. And the way in which the mage does this is send Arthur into the “Darklands”.
We find the Darklands manifest themselves in a plethora of stories; it is a new depth of wilderness that kings must venture into and so it is often seen as hell or a land of monsters. The Darklands are then the underworld that Hercules must venture into or the dense forests that Rama must travel through, fighting many demons, to recover Sita from Ravana. The Darklands are also where Simba goes after meeting Rafiki and where Maui and Moana go to recover his magic hook. It is then from the Darklands that a young king emerges. To reference Livingstone and her article again, she implies that this sequence falls into the class of ‘silly’ material by referencing the giant bat. However, it is understanding how important animals as symbols are in this story that the selection of animals makes profound sense.
Of course, Arthur encounters the snake, we have touched on what this means already.
Arthur also encounters giant rats like those in The Princess Bride. The rat is a rodent, a bottom feeder and a thief. However, the rat knows how to survive and so are, thought of positively, like Bilbo from The Hobbit or Remi in Ratatouille; a small thief that uses his ability for the greater good.
Arthur also encounters a predatory bird of sorts: the bat. The bat, as we all know from our contact with vampires, is like a dark version of the great bird (for example, an eagle). This is because they are nocturnal, but can (some species) suck your blood or just give you rabies. By encountering this dark predatory bird, much like the snake and rat, Arthur is getting the stuffing knocked out of him; parts of him are dying. And these parts are what the animals, in their dark form, represent. Arthur is then symbolically confronting the parts of his personality that resemble a treacherous snake, thieving rodent and predatory bat.
And we can also add into this the dark wolves; the gang who use their co-ordination for bad. When we think about all that Arthur confronts, there seems to be one mythological creature missing: the dragon. However, the dragon has always been in this narrative. Arthur’s true name, given to him by his father is, Arthur Pendragon, meaning “Chief-Dragon”. And the dragon itself is a creature that manifests itself across numerous cultures, all the way from the classical Chinese dragon to the British dragon. The reason why the dragon is assumed to pop up so universally in mythology is because it is an amalgamation of our many predatory rivals: snakes, birds and mammals like wolves and lions. Not only have we seen many of these animals mentioned in the “Darklands” sequence, but Arthur must confront them all to become a dragon himself. And we cannot forget that Arthur has to become this great dragon to defeat Vortigern Pendragon, the evil dragon – who, in fact, is the dark and corrupt wolf pack leader, the dirty rodent, the predacious bat of the night and the slithering snake. And it’s through realising that he can be the ‘good dragon’ by destroying the dark dragon within him that Arthur can begin to wield the sword and look into his past to find out the truth that Vortigern is the true evil dragon that killed his father.
And so it’s this pilgrimage into the “Darklands” that is, subtextually, one of the most impressive elements of this film that delves deep into human history as well as Western meta-narratives to show Arthur that the animal spirits within him can become pivotal parts of his persona as a king.
After this, we get another pivotal incite into the beginnings of this film. We are told the tale of how Mordred killed the mage king and arose the elephants…
… before Merlin, like Prometheus who stole fire from Mount Olympus for humans, forged Excalibur…
… and used it to destroy the mage king’s tower (a symbol of structure and society)….
… before giving the sword to The Lady Of The Lake, who passed it to Arthur’s father.
Here we have the solidification of our previous ideas on nature, mages and structure. And there is an expressive attribution of nature to femininity that is paralleled by the new mage being female. This provides an animus to the subconscious of this narrative and so seems to draw a line from Arthur’s mother to the prostitutes that raised him, the wilderness that nurtured him and the mage that now guides him. This is all in contrast to Vortigern who not only feeds his wife to the snake woman (an evil animus), but also ends up feeding his daughter to it, too. And this strong feminine presence throughout the film seems to suggests, without much of a romance or love interest, that the female archetype is pivotal in the building of a great king.
However, moving into the meat of the latter half of the second act, we see the first half of the second act mirrored with Arthur being, again, tested. So, whilst he was tested in an abstract world and on his own when he ventured into the Darklands, he is now tested as part of a group when they attempt (and fail) to assassinate the king and escape the city. This sequence is focused on Arthur encountering and building his own crew whilst suffering significant losses. However, one of the major staples of this sequence is, of course, when Arthur realises he has the ability to lead and to protect his crew (which was all founded in his protection of the prostitutes, we may note).
It is this scene that fully sold this film as a masterpiece to me. Whilst we have so far had so much rich storytelling, Ritchie puts to screen some of the greatest action spectacle scenes I’ve ever seen, utilising modern technology like a true and ingenious auteur. If you can’t appreciate this, and all the money that was ultimately sacrificed to create sequences like this, on some level, I honestly think you’re a fool. Whilst the CGI is imperfect and will probably date relatively quickly, the fact that Ritchie put this to screen astounds me. Moreover, the fact that this scene exists in a movie as smart as this leaves no more words needing to be said.
Getting back on track, having suffered the loss of his friends, Arthur wants to reject his sword and neglect his destiny.
But, having giving himself up to the earth, to the wilderness, the animus – the female archetype – rises.
And so it is here that The Lady of The Lake reassures Arthur that he is rightful king by showing him how evil his uncle is and that it is time that he assumes this position with trust in the mage.
So, interestingly, here, the narrative of King Arthur touches on ground that The Lion King, which we should all refer to as a masterpiece, does, but not with much concentration. Emphasising the role of the feminine, King Arthur balances an idea of the kingdom among the genders and creates a unified idea of hierarchy. And it is this that leads us into the final sequence in which Arthur must embrace the snake within him so he can infiltrate the king’s castle…
And it must be noted that it is sight – the mage’s eagle – that makes this possible, delivers the snake to the castle and allows it to grow. This implies that Arthur is only the dragon when he, the snake, is conjoined with the mage, the eagle, and maybe also his crew, the rodents and wolves. But, with Vortigern having killed his daughter and sold her to the dark snake animus, he becomes a dragon of sorts…
And so it is here that we have the final battle between the dragons, which Arthur, of course, wins. This sees Vortigern’s power crumble and his corrupt state fall…
It is now, then, that the round table can be uncovered and a new unified structure can be established…
… which marks the end of this epic masterpiece.
To brings things towards a conclusion, what we see with King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is masterful storytelling colliding with the modern blockbuster in the hands of a unique auteur. I find it hard to see why those that have seen this movie have dismissed it so readily. Maybe, as many suggest, this is a story that no one really wanted, and as an extension of this, the relatively few people that did see this refused to take seriously and so saw to be trash. But, I hope that the few people that end up reading this maybe see the movie slightly differently and would be among the those who really appreciate this for what it is. But, though this was a long post that may have exhausted most, there’s much more to be said about this film. So, what are your thoughts on King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword?
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