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Face-Off: King Arthur vs. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Nice to see you again, fans of the cinema! This is the Face-Off, where two movies enter and both movies leave, but one leaves in a slightly better light. Yes, here we take two competitors and compare their key elements and see who comes out the champion. It's a fierce competition that results in blood, tears, and online arguments, but the more brutal the battle, the sweeter the victory.

The story of King Arthur has been told time and time again over hundreds of years, making it one of the most recognizable pieces of fantasy and folklore in all human history. So, yeah, a few movies have been made about it over the years, the most recent spin on the story in the form of Joe Cornish's THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING, mixing the Arthurian legend with modern fantasy stories like HARRY POTTER and PERCY JACKSON. But Arthur has had his day at the movies several other times this century, and for this Face-Off, we will be doing a battle of the Excaliburs with the more notable Arthurian takes -- 2004's  KING ARTHUR vs. KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. 

The first movie hails from Antoine Fuqua, with Jerry Bruckheimer producing and Disney releasing the movie. This big-budget take was meant to draw inspiration from the actual historical traces of the legend, making a more realistic movie than past adaptations of the tale. No Holy Grail or magic here, and what's left is...mud? Well, whatever that movie lacked in action is made up for in mind-boggling, Advil-necessitating amounts in LEGEND OF THE SWORD, which is the complete opposite movie to the 2004 take. This movie is all about quick cuts, big action, magic out the wazoo and massive creatures that definitely existed at one point in time. 

Which take wins? The gritty, realistic take or the bonkers, fantastical CGI fest? Scroll down to watch the swords clash!

The Ensemble

Clive Owen as Arthur
Ioan Gruffud as Lancelot
Keira Knightley as Guinevere
Mad Mikkelsen as Tristan
Joel Edgerton as Gawain
Hugh Dancy as Galahad
Ray Winstone as Bors
Stephen Dillane as Merlin
Ken Scott as Marius Honorius
with Til Schweiger as Cynric
and Stellan Skarsgard as Cerdic

Charlie Hunnam as Arthur
Jude Law as Vortigern
Astrid Berges-Frisbey as Mage
Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere
Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill
Annabelle Wallis as Maggie
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Tristan
Craig McGinlay as Percival
Tom Wu as George
Neil Maskell as Back Lack
with Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon

Direction

Antoine Fuqua’s grounded, heavy, intense style is best exemplified in action thrillers like the EQUALIZER movies, SOUTHPAW, SHOOTER – and made him the perfect candidate for taking on TRAINING DAY all those years ago. With KING ARTHUR I feel like he was a bit out of his element, as that approach doesn’t make for the most compelling historical drama. His aim with KING ARTHUR was to take the historical roots of the legend of the title character and wrap it in a compelling action epic, but the problem is he favors the grounded, more realistic elements over any sort of spectacle and makes the whole thing feel way more heavy-handed and bleaker than it needed to be. While he’s good at showcasing the comradery between the knights and working with the ensemble as a whole, he doesn’t do quite as good with the action sequences or the production values. Everything in the movie looks drab, sad and cloaked in some sort of fog – and perhaps the biggest problem is that he perhaps wasn’t quite ready to direct a $120 million (surely well over $150 million in today’s dollars) action epic. He can root the movie in something that feels realistic, but the trick is to balance that with something grand and exciting – which I’m sure is what Disney wanted for their money. Fuqua never quite figured out how to do that with this movie, doing a good job with the more human moments but failing to give anything else a sense of personality or energy.

Take everything you know about Guy Ritchie – from the fast-talking, slick, mischievous characters to quick, energetic action that goes from slow-motion to lighting quick at the flip of a coin – and crank it all up to 12. No, not 11, 12. In an effort to go back to the most fantastical leanings of the Arthurian legends Ritchie was given $175 million and went buck wild, throwing everything possible at the screen from giant animals, demon monsters and CGI-heavy sword fights. Nothing in this movie looks anything looks anything else in the genre and its catapulted at the screen with almost zero restraint. Ritchie's stylings and heavily-financed imagination leave no time for any genuine character moments or chances for the audience to catch their breath, but like Michael Bay when he’s at his most bonkers best, that brimming personality behind the camera makes for a fascinating, chaotic mess on screen. From the moment giant elephants are attacking the screen to the final CGI sword fight between Arthur and a massive demon creature this is a Ritchie movie at its most indulgent in every which way – and it’s never not entertaining. Even when it's moronic, Ritchie’s choices make it so over-the-top and wild that it goes from stupid to manically entertaining. Guy Ritchie is at his most Guy Ritchie here, and that is for both good and bad, but in being that way he left a stamp on the Arthurian canon that will be impossible to distinguish from in future iterations – and given the history of the stories that’s saying something.

Script

David Franzoni wrote one of the best historical epics ever with GLADIATOR, so naturally, he seemed like a good fit to give the story of King Arthur the same treatment. The story and characters here are not near as compelling as in GLADIATOR, with the story of Arthur and his knights having to save a young man (and a bunch of other people) from an impending Saxon invasion being neither epic nor interesting. Where it works is in using that simplicity to flesh out the characters in the story, and when it comes to the knights his script does a good job of crafting these legendary warriors. While Owen’s Arthur drones on about the nature of freedom like a William Wallace wannabe he is at least written with some conviction and honor, which carries throughout the movie. He also gives characters like Lancelot, Bors and Tristan their own distinct personalities that help make the non-action moments worth watching (fleshed out by talented actors). He doesn’t make use of every character well, with Guinevere and Merlin woefully underused, the former smushed into a hammy love plot with Arthur. In trying to paint a more realistic portrait of the legendary characters Franzoni’s script certainly does that in most aspects, even if its all wrapped up in a rather unspectacular story.

I can imagine the script for LEGEND OF THE SWORD is less a script with coherent sentences and more a series of sounds like “CRASH!” and “WOOSH!” and “GLOWY SWORD!” So much of this movie feels like crazy montage after crazy montage, with so many high-priced visuals toppling over each other that it’s nigh impossible to decipher the story out of it. Like, there’s the young Arthur and Jude Law wants to kill him, but Arthur is going to kill him first by getting together a rag-tag group and doing some kind of heist? This movie is so bananas that you have to think really hard about the fact the script makes no room for any sort of compelling character arc, with Arthur starting off and remaining a cheeky street hustler – his only angle being to discover his true past. Even that just has him screaming into the air a lot. The characters are only there to advance the action and lay down certain plans, so really, I don’t even know why this movie needed a script. Everyone should’ve just stood there and said what Ritchie told them to say and let him throw it all together in post in a way only he could.

Best Bits & Lines

Bits:

First Battle

Knights Returning Home

Meet the Saxons

Battle in the Woods

The Dungeon

Guinevere

Guinevere's Bow Skills

Ice Lake

Arthur and Cerdic

Knighting Up

The Battle of Badon Hill

Lines:

Lancelot: You look frightened. There's a large number of lonely men out there.
Guinevere: Don't worry, I won't let them rape you.

-----

Cerdic: You come to beg a truce, you should be on your knees.
Arthur: I came to see your face so that I alone may find you on the battlefield. And you would do well to mark my face, Saxon, for the next time you see it, it will be the last thing you see on this earth.

-----

Arthur: My faith is what protects me, Lancelot. Why do you challenge this?
Lancelot: I don't like anything that puts a man on his knees.

-----

Gawain: Tristan, how do you do that?
Tristan: I aim for the middle.

-----

Lancelot: I will die in battle; that I am certain of. But I hope to die in a battle of my choosing. But if it is to be this one, do not bury me in our sad little cemetery. Burn me, and cast my ashes to a strong eastern wind.

-----

Bits:

Big Ass Elephants

Arthurian Montage

Pulling Sword From Stone

Escape

Cave Rumble

Another Arthurian Montage

Uthers Final Fight

It’s a Trap!/Chase Through the Streets

Excalibur unleashed

Ear Chop!

Lady in the Lake

Big Ass Snake

CGI Arthur vs Horde

Arthur vs CGI Fire Demon

The Roundtable

Lines:

Vortigern: Just do your fucking job. Find him.

-----

Vortigern: When people fear you... I mean, really fear you... it is the most intoxicating sensation a man can possess.

-----

Back Lack: What a waste of brandy.
Arthur: But doesn't it make the palace burn well?

-----

Mage: Pick it up. Pick it up with both hands.
Arthur: *You* pick it up.

King Arthur

As I said above in a bit of slight dig, Clive Owen’s Arthur is written as a less-compelling, less-entertaining William Wallace from BRAVEHEART, going on and on about the nature of freedom and such. But while I did want a little more from the character in terms of complexity, I do like how Owen approached the role, giving him a Shakespearean quality and regality that I expect from a steadfast leader of men. Owen is just such a reliable, good actor that he feels like a perfect choice to play such a role, and he could’ve done an even better job with a better script that gave him more to do.

For Ritchie’s Arthur he needed someone who could bring to life the sly, quick-witted Arthur that was raised in a brothel and had his hands in all sort of shenanigans. For that, Hunnam is a fine lead and is suitably charming – but that’s really all he is in this movie. He spends so much time running between set pieces that he never gets to evolve beyond the point of a street-smart rogue with a chip on his shoulder. That fits well in the style of the movie but doesn’t make for the most compelling character, coming off more as an under-developed comic book hero than a legend.

Production Design & Visuals

You wouldn’t think it by looking at the movie, but KING ARTHUR cost about as much to make as your modern-day superhero blockbuster. That is absolutely insane because it seems almost none of that made it onto the screen. The visuals have no scope, the costumes aren’t especially inspired, and the action doesn’t have the sheer energy and size beyond a typical historical epic. That’s not to say any of those production values necessarily look bad, they’re just nothing to write home about. In terms of big historical epics if you’ve seen any other in the genre from this time, like GLADIATOR or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, you’ve seen it done much better.

Part of the reason why LEGEND OF THE SWORD is so absurd are the outlandish production values and visual effects. This is a movie that opens with a 200 ft elephant stampeding through a battlefield, and where the sword fights with Excalibur put the final fight in MAN OF STEEL to shame on the chaos scope. Some of these visuals look horrendous, like when Arthur goes berserk with the sword at first, the whole thing (including himself) subject to cheap CGI rendering. But when there’s a bit more breadth in the shots, like scenes of the castles and landscapes, it looks pretty good comparatively. Mix that in with some rather elaborate costume design (Jude Law’s king armor looks like Sauron mixed with a Victoria’s Secret fashion show) and you have a distinct looking movie that looks eccentric and fantastical enough to somewhat make up for the utter stupidity of the movie itself.

Musical Mastery

Hans Zimmer is an old reliable, and further proof of that is in the KING ARTHUR score. My favorite part of this movie, Zimmer’s big booming thuds always have the capability to elevate any movie to a more epic status, something this movie was in desperate need of. While not an incredible, diverse score, the big, thudding pieces give the set pieces some much needed weight and leave things off on a grand note when the credits close. It’s a consistent score that will do the job for any movie that needs an extra dose of spectacular.

Daniel Pemberton is quickly becoming one of my favorite composers, with me really starting to notice his work here and eventually on last year’s SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE – one of the best scores of 2018. With LEGEND OF THE SWORD he goes beyond the typical big orchestrations of other sword-shield epics which – as terrific as those sound – all start to blend together after awhile (sorry, Zimmer). In his work here Pemberton is experimenting with a wide variety of sounds and moods, whether they be string and percussion heavy pieces that mesh the fantasy setting with something a bit more classical, all the way to fast-paced, intense pieces like “Growing Up Londinium,” which at some points mimics the sound of quick, rapid breaths.  Along with Law’s performance the music is one my favorite parts of this movie, and I can see myself going back to it in the future, even if I step back from the movie itself for a while.

Villain

Stellan Skarsgard is great; he’s always great. In KING ARTHUR he gets few intense moments as the leader of the Saxons, Cerdic, but he spends most of the time caked in that hair and makeup and having little spats with members of his legion, namely his son, Cynric, who isn’t much of a side villain. Sadly, Skasrgard feels like he’s half asleep through this movie, never raising his voice beyond a low growl. Sometimes he’s menacing, sometimes he looks about to nod off, and maybe that’s because all his character does towards the end is stand around looking dirty.

Jude Law doesn’t get that many opportunities to be the villain in movies – probably having something to do with his heroic, dashingly good looks, or something. But here in LEGEND OF THE SWORD he seems to be having a blast with the part, chewing the scenery and relishing the part. His villain is far more manic, desperate and, frankly, more interesting that Skarsgard’s in his movie. In terms of performances his is the best of the lot, and I find myself more engaged with his character more than even the title hero. That’s a testament to Law as an actor that he can carve out little moments for himself and make them stand out amidst all the chaos, and he’s one of the movie’s saving graces.  I would’ve liked to see him more in the movie, and you know, actually have him fight Arthur in the end instead of his monstrous demon form, but he owns the scenes he has, and has some of the best lines in the movie.

Approach to the Legend

Going back to discussion points made in the “Script” section, I admire the approach to want to dig into the real-life inspirations of the Arthurian legend, trying to give audiences a history lesson in the process. The problem is that those good intentions make for a pretty dour movie, and one that can’t help but feel like a pale imitation to similar movies in the genre. In trying to be so realistic there’s little joy to be had watching the movie, and upon watching it I can’t help but want to see the more spectacular sides of Merlin, Excalibur and even the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Seriously, how are you going to have that many attractive people and not have some romance drama going on? What I’m trying to get at is that the approach to do something more grounded is ultimately this movie’s undoing in a lot of categories, especially as it tries to call back to epics of earlier Hollywood.

We have tons of sword-shield epics out there going back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and even plenty of fantasy epics with dragons and wizards and what not. LEGEND OF THE SWORD tries to take the Arthurian legend back to its fantastical roots, dealing with sorcery, big creatures and all that fantasy goodness. It’s a crazy amount of that stuff, to be fair, and that leads to some bonkers stylistic choices – but ultimately this is the kind of Arthur stories Hollywood should be aiming for. We have enough historical epics out there, and many are great, but we don’t need another one with King Arthur stories. When you have this wealth of lore and characters like the Arthur tales do it does no good to ignore them; embrace the weird and magical that has made the stories eternal, I say. Sure, it may not hurt to tone some things down a tad in the future, but I feel the bold approach is something to appreciate with LEGEND OF THE SWORD.

Awards, Praise & Money

Awards:

Nothing Fancy

**4 Wins & 8 Nominations per IMDb**

 

Praise:

Rotten Tomatoes: 31% (59% Audience Score)

Metacritic: 46 (7.7 Audience)

IMDb: 6.3

 

Money:

$51 million ($203 million globally)

Awards:

Nothing Fancy

**8 Nominations per IMDb**

 

Praise:

Rotten Tomatoes: 31% (69% Audience Score)

Metacritic: 41 (7.2 Audience)

IMDb: 6.8

 

Money:

$39 million ($148 million globally)

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

If we've learned anything from this is that King Arthur in the modern age is a tough nut to crack. Monty Python did the spoof to end all spoofs with HOLY GRAIL, and the classic, fantasy-drama box is checked with John Boorman's EXCALIBUR from 1981, so really, there are not many places to go. On that note,  you can't blame Antoine Fuqua and Co. for wanting to try something more realistic and rooted in history with KING ARTHUR, but the problem is that it's such a slog to get through and is doesn't have the sense of scope that budget was hoping to purchase. It's a well-acted, well-scored slog, but the aim to make a PG-13 action epic with none of the fantasy elements doesn't leave much to work with. That's why LEGEND OF THE SWORD wins the day for me. No, it's not a very good movie, and there's a lot wrong with it on the character and script front, but holy mother of god does it not make up for it with gonzo style and fiery personality. Yes, it bombards with CGI and production values and explanation of how something is "going to go down," but it's mesmerizing in its messiness and often arresting in its brazenness. Guy Ritchie - for better or worse - made a movie about King Arthur that should be rewatched for all sorts of reasons, if not to make a drinking game around all the fast-paced montages. 

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