Culture Trips

Holy grail or poisoned chalice: why does Hollywood always mess up King Arthur? | Guy Ritchie

It’s a popular lament in the comment section of this column that Hollywood remakes are to be viewed with scorn and derision. But film-makers surely have a right to try to deliver a truly definitive big-screen version of a famous myth, even if dozens before them have failed miserably.

If so, this bodes well for Zack Snyder, who reports this week suggest hopes to be the latest director to pull Excalibur from the stone and restore King Arthur to the multiplexes.

Snyder is at his best when adapting bounteous source material and at his knuckle-headed worst when he is starting from scratch. Hence, his Watchmen is a lovingly vivid, gorgeously rendered adaptation of the classic Alan Moore graphic novel, while his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is generally terrible, bar the rare moments when Snyder is cribbing directly from the comics.

So what legend is richer in classic fantasy mythology than the tale of the once and future king? There have been scores of film and television series based on different elements of the story, from Arthur’s rise from serf to royalty, to his founding of the knights of the round table, the quest for the holy grail, Arthur’s cuckolding by Lancelot, and countless more. And yet Snyder would be wise to cast his eyes over the rotting corpses of those who went before him, for getting Camelot right is clearly harder than it might at first seem.

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

Guy Ritchie’s recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was originally intended to be the first of six movies starring Charlie Hunnam as the mythical British king, but ended up losing Warner Bros $150m and drawing such scathing reviews that the prospect of part deux sank faster than the lady of the lake. It’s not actually such a bad movie, provided you buy into the idea that Ritchie’s fondness for cockney bruisers, blitzkrieg-quick edits and tabloid-inspired stunt casting – David Beckham as a scar-faced henchman, anyone? – works perfectly for such fantasy material. Unfortunately, even those of us who found the movie an entertaining enough romp probably recognise that another film-maker would have been better suited to the task, though at least Ritchie got rid of the Christian piety of some previous versions.

Drifting a little further back in time, and we have 2004’s King Arthur, a movie that recast our hero as a Romano-Celtic defender against invading Saxons. It was promoted as a tale that cleaved closely to the facts behind Arthurian legend, yet ultimately managed to cut out all the magic without bringing the story any closer to actual historical events – a neat trick indeed. Antoine Fuqua’s film is perhaps now best remembered for a row over Keira Knightley’s chest, which was photoshopped for an American poster, much to the actor’s disgust.

Arthouse fans might point to 1981’s lurid and doom-laden Excalibur, which certainly takes the subject matter seriously and features a stand-out performance from the young Helen Mirren as gorgeous, mad-eyed temptress Morgana. And yet John Boorman’s film is by turns over- and under-cooked, one moment utterly lacking in sparkle, the next ruined by hammy, careless overacting. Nigel Terry, as Arthur, never quite nails the part. Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, based on the TH White novel, is whimsical fun, but hardly momentous. First Knight, from 1994, is so woefully miscast that it’s hard to take seriously.

1981’s Excalibur
Lurid … 1981’s Excalibur. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Perhaps the problem here is that we all know the story of Arthur so well that film-makers fall over themselves trying to bring something fresh to the tale. And yet, perhaps what we really need is a simple, classical retelling that delves deeply into the myth without trying to update it for modern audiences, or tell us “the real story we thought we knew”. White’s Once And Future King quadrilogy ought to be part of the picture, along with its 15th-century source material Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, and other Arthurian literature such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae.

Unfortunately, there remains the nagging suspicion that the tragic nature of Arthur’s ultimate fall from grace make this a troublesome quest for modern Hollywood to successfully take on. Any movie that aims to tell the full legend is eventually going to have to deal with what is as an extremely downbeat ending.

Whoever does get the next bite at the apple, let us also hope that they veer as far as possible from real historical events and peoples as possible. Give us spells, mythical beasts and heroism, rather than Vikings, Picts and Roman withdrawal. Fascinating as that history remains, the story of Arthur and Merlin would never have lasted down the centuries had it been a tale of ancient British warriors trying in vain to stem the Anglo-Saxon tide. It was all the far-out, bizarre and fabulous elements thrown into the cauldron by myriad minds that ultimately made for such a potent fantasy potion.

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