Terry Gilliam once told me a story about the making of his medieval epic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” He wanted Arthur, King of the Britons and his men to ride to the crest of a hill on horseback but couldn’t afford enough horses for everyone. Instead he put them on broomsticks with the clomp-clomp of the horses provided by trusty servant Patsy.
“You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together,” says a guard.
It is now the scene everyone remembers from the film but, Gilliam says, if he had the money he wouldn’t have had to use his imagination. Arthur would have been on horseback, no laughs, no memories.
I thought of this while watching “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” a big budget retelling of the Camelot myth written and directed by Guy Ritchie. It’s a huge, no-expense-spared film with without an ounce of these vim and vigour that once made Guy Ritchie’s movies like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” so much fun.
The story begins with a coup. King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), overthrown by his power mad brother Vortigern (Jude Law), is killed, his son Arthur a witness to the murder. The youngster escapes, shuttled off to the safety outside the castle. Raised in a brothel and unaware of his place as the “born King” Arthur grows up on Londinium’s scrappy streets as a pimp and practitioner of the ancient art of UFC battling.
Obsessed in finding and eliminating Arthur, Vortigern subjects every young male in the country to the Excalibur test. Only the “born King” can pull Pendragon’s magical sword Excalibur from the stone it is embedded in, and Vortigern wants to find him.
When it is Arthur’s turn to pull the sword no one is more surprised than he when Excalibur slides out of the stone like greased lightening. He is arrested and will soon be executed, thus cementing Vortigern’s power.
Escaping execution Arthur—with the help of his loyal followers and the anti- Vortigern Resistance—learns to harness the power of the sword and perhaps get revenge on his uncle.
I can only imagine the guy who made “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” would look at the excesses of “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” with wonderment. All the Ritchie trademarks are present and accounted for. There’s the cool English accents, stylish (for the time) clothing, interesting use of music, tricky slow-motion editing plus loads of violence but there’s also a giant kingdom crushing elephant. And that’s just the first five minutes. It is jam-packed but it’s not that interesting. It’s like Gilliam but with money. Instead of innovation we’re treated to a series of expensive set pieces that fill the screen but not our imaginations.
Ritchie takes some liberties with the story, but by-and-large that’s OK. People have been telling and re-telling the Arthurian legend for years. It could use a freshening up but like the “Sherlock Holmes” movies “King Arthur” is more a showcase for Ritchie’s stylistic flourishes then his storytelling ability.
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” isn’t your father’s “Camelot.” It’s a Guy Ritchie’s “Camelot,” a male fantasy—if it weren’t for prostitutes and witchy women there’d be no women here at all—with plenty of bluster but not enough Gilliam.