I’m a sucker for Arthurian cycle reinterpretation (one of my favorites versions is the one written by John Steinbeck). Now Guy Ritchie brings his own take to it. Read only if you don’t mind SPOILERS.
There is not much to talk about this movie in terms of story. And I don’t mean that as something bad. Arthur’s story tells the most basic hero’s plot. Not for nothing, it has been the template for hundreds of movies, video games and fantasy stories (with a few sci-fi ones). Excalibur is the ur-example of the magical sword. In that regard, I would dare to call it one of the most faithful depictions of King Arthur’s story in years (more that King Arthur with Clive Owen at least). It mixes a vibe that could easily fit Lord of the Rings with that of Excalibur by John Boorman.
Now that I think about it, this movie feels like an updated version of that movie, through the lens of Ritchie, which means that true to his personal style, has running scenes in first person, slow motion in combat and a grittiness that made Ritchie’s brand in movies such as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Also, there is a London here, well Londinium (Down to some roman buildings as it should be at the time), it wouldn’t be a Ritchie movie without London. Sound hectic isn’t? I would say eclectic. But that’s what makes this movie such a good piece, one that has been underrated.
Aside from the aesthetic, what this movie brings in a interwoven tale of the main features of an Arthurian cycle for modern audiences. Let’s talk about the differences to the regular legend:
- Humans share the land with a humanoid race named Mages, who are capable of controlling beasts and can enter a parallel world similar to our but with bestial creatures. It is reminiscent of the Underside of the Tuatha de Danaan in Celtic lore.
- Uther Pendragon is a good king, owner of Excalibur that defeats the usurper of the Mage throne Mordred, to be later betrayed by his own brother Vortigern. He then becomes the proverbial stone where the sword is trapped.
- Vortigen is in cahoots with dark powers and is a genocidal king. And can transform into a fiery demon wielding a double scimitar (very similar to a Frazetta drawing), through the sacrifice of his wife and daughter.
- Merlin doesn’t appear in the movie aside a flashback, but his presence can be felt through others. For starters he is the one to forge Excalibur from the staff of the Mage King and with the help of the Lady of the Lake binds it to Arthur0s lineage. His bidding is carried out through a hooded female mage who….
- …Is actually, Guinevere! Well, just in name, because power and character wise, she acts more like Morgan Le Fay (which makes sense since Mordred is already dead by then and bypasses the issue of the incest from the legend). She is also the one to guide Arthur through his quest.
- Talking about Arthur, he is the one that suffers the most changes under Ritchie’s approach: after parent’sents deaths here he is left in a river (very Moses) and raised by prostitutes and criminals, learning martial arts and becoming a criminal boss with his own team. He is forced to pull the sword from the stone and then rescued by the Rebellion, formed by the old allies of his father (Djimon Hounsou as Belvedere and Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill/Lord Willian, who acts like Sir Kay mixed with Robin Hood). From there he starts a guerilla warfare against his uncle, while training to use the full power of Excalibur and finally things come to a head.
- Excalibur itself has been changed here. It is more than just an unbreakable sword with glowing runes. Under the control, of Arthur it becomes a magical sword that can unleash gusts of wind and allows Arthur to achieve some sort of sixth sense (it’s when the camera goes into bullet time) that makes him invincible.
The movie ends when Arthur takes the crown, knighting his companions (you find there that his right hand in his gang is actually Sir Tristan), building the Roundtable and dealing with Vikings, while Guinevere looks from afar. It’s a good open ending that closes all the plot threads while leaving room for further adventures. Which we might not get.
Apparently, the movie is bombing (which considering that is going against GotG and Alien Covenant it was expected). But I think the critics are being too harsh with this movie. While it has some defects, it is a good movie. One that I think with time will become a cult movie. For me it is already a must for my collection.
On a personal note, watching Arthur’s fights with Excalibur in hand is exactly how I envisioned the fights of my main characters on my novel Tempest Blades. So if by any miracle I manage to publish the novel and becomes good enough to become a movie or a miniseries, I would love for Guy Ritchie to direct it. This is how Fionn fighting should look.
Watch it if: you are a fan of Guy Ritchie signature style (like in Sherlock Holmes), you want a more high fantasy version of Arthur or you liked Excalibur.
Don’t watch it if: if you prefer more down to earth Arthurian movies, you can’t stomach Ritchie’s signature style or you are a stickler for orthodoxy in terms of how a movie based on King Arthur’s should be (although this is an oxymoron, considering that not even the medieval romances could agree how it should be and there are tons of versions already).
Grade: 4 out of 5.
Desirability: I will be buying the blu-ray when possible. Just because the photography is that good, and a dvd wouldn’t make it justice.