King Arthur in the 21st Century: A Tale of Two Box Office Disappointments

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the myth’s second big studio misfire this century. We consider what both Arthurian flops represent.

For their studios, it was the worst of times, and the still pretty awful of times. It was the winter of incredulity and a spring that barely thawed. It was the age of disappointment, but also a time of corporate frustration too.

In short, there isn’t a whole lot separating the receptions garnered by Disney/Touchstone’s King Arthur in 2004 and Warner Brothers’ King Arthur: Legend of the Sword in 2017. Both received lukewarm reviews, and both bowed under $20 million during opening weekends (though the ’04 vintage was able to drift above $15 million even without inflation). In a century where Hollywood success is dictated by a frontloaded debut, neither are going to be the subject of songs or ballads.

Nevertheless, they represent a fascinating study in contrasts. In 2004, King Arthur was a gritted-teeth and bloody-faced attempt at grounding a legend into dusty reality while the 2017 film was a full-tilt charge toward jumpstarting a shared cinematic universe. Their differences are as profound as their similarities—slain casualties of failed studio groupthink that produces every decade’s (or generation’s) tropes and clichés. Time capsules of branding at the expense of source material understanding.

So please join us as we use both movies to consider our multiplex entertainment, then and now, as well as perhaps why neither Arthur will last long enough to see his Camelot.

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War & Peaceful Superheroes

Obviously the most striking juxtaposition between these two King Arthurs is exactly what they attempted to do in the pop culture landscape of their release, and perhaps just why that topography sloped the way it did.

In 2004, as foreign as it now sounds, Walt Disney Pictures was thirsty for box office hits in any form, whether under their official banner or in the alternative outlet for PG-13 and R-rated entertainment, Touchstone Pictures. With then-studio chief Michael Eisner’s continuing bad blood pouring out against Pixar, he was desperate to grow profits from any of his company’s in-house brands. Yet instead of being a bright spot, the July release of King Arthur was just one more nail in the coffin for Eisner’s tenure.

As a project orchestrated by the master of ‘90s summer bombast, Jerry Bruckheimer, King Arthur made no bones about what it was meant to be: a PG-13 and teenager-accessible continuation on the recent revival of ancient war epics. After all, and as the marketing made sure to highlight, screenwriter David Franzoni was the original scribe for Gladiator too—the guy who looked at The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and said, “We can do that today, but with tigers, dammit!”

To Franzoni’s credit (as well as Ridley Scott and the picture’s second screenwriter, John Logan), Gladiator was a massive success, a gripping opera of blood and sand that won the Oscar for Best Picture. And along with 1995’s Braveheart, the Maximus movie ushered in a decade’s worth of swords and sandals, and scorched earth warfare. This includes King Arthur, which came out on the tail-end of the genre craze that was already looking a little long in the tooth that summer after the success of the much more expensive (and entertaining) Troy.

Like Troy, King Arthur did away with the dippy sorcery, magic, and god(s) that studio logic in the early 2000s perceived as box office poison (the lessons of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were still slowly bleeding into the zeitgeist). As the marketing brazenly and misleadingly suggested, King Arthur was supposed to be “the true story that inspired the legend.” Ads even dubiously claimed recent archeological discoveries had led to a consensus that King Arthur really existed and was based on the Romano-Briton Ambrosius Aurelianus (albeit they misname him as Lucius Artorius Castus, a different Roman officer active in Britain several hundred years before the story is set).

Placed within a decade before the fall of the Roman Empire, King Arthur is a brooding and hazy tale—quite literally as the fog of war makes it very difficult to see much of what director Antoine Fuqua is shooting. It reimagines the conflict between Britons and Anglo-Saxons as a struggle for a William Wallace-esque sense of vague “freedom” between enlightened Samaritan Knights serving on Rome’s behalf and Viking-like barbarians at the gates of Hadrian’s Wall.

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The picture’s idea of courtly romance is Arthur (Clive Owen) and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) discovering a teenage Guinevere (Keira Knightley) half-starved and buried alive in a dank tomb. They later see her fight alongside them in a battle wherein she wears the blue war paint that’s synonymous with Celts and Mel Gibson movies alike. There is no magic to be found in Excalibur here, other than Arthur had to pull it out of his father’s funeral mound to defend his mother from being raped and murdered.

By contrast, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is all about the magic of Arthur’s sword and what CGI wizardry can be created from that today. Whereas any CGI in the 2004 film was done in the hope of creating a reality and verisimilitude to the battles of barbarians and slightly more noble barbarians, in 2017 plenty of the Arthurian legend’s mythology, like farcical aquatic ceremonies, get the CG-treatment. And plenty more are invented to pummel the viewer with CG-razzle dazzle, such as newly added giant elephants reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and also giant smoke-shadow monsters similar to more recent Game of Thrones sorcery. There are even evil aquatic sea witches with tentacles because…reasons?

This newest Hollywood attempt at Arthur has mostly come out in an era of interconnecting and endless superhero movies. And while war, violence, and even terror were toyed with by big blockbusters during the Bush Years, including in their superhero fare, by the time of Obama’s second term—Legend of the Sword began production in 2014—American and international audiences alike had come to expect a strictly fantastical adventure wholly removed from our reality. So like more recent popular movies about capes and masks, Arthur has an origin story where he learns to be a man and come of age even though he is well past 30 (perfect for we Millennials in the audience).

He sees his parents die and then gets superpowers by holding a MacGuffin, in this case Excalibur. How un-extraordinary.

Neither film’s approach has scant to do with the actual story of Arthur told much more earnestly in Excalibur (1981) or even Camelot (1967), but both fit the moods and perceived appetites of their eras like a glove.

Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Until It’s Not

Another amusing give-and-take between these two Arthurs is how they handle audience expectation for romance… or a lack thereof. The original Arthurian legend’s origin is debated, but there is no denying that by 13th century, the continental retellings of it focused on the romances, which increasingly was of the courtly and strained variety between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

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As both Hollywood films of the 21st century eagerly wished to appeal to teenage boys, it’s worth noting that neither makes much at all out of the love triangle—but in addition to there not being a triangle by the 2017 film’s release, there is also no named major female character in the whole picture.

In the case of King Arthur (2004), there is the aforementioned meet-cute in the bowels of a dungeon filled with Pagan Celts (or “Woads,” as the movie inexplicably calls them). And while there are some stolen romantic glances between Lancelot and Guinevere after the fact, it never amounts to more than Lancelot dying to save her in battle before even a whiff of impropriety can drift Arthur’s way.

Much more dead-set on selling the grittiness of its setting—as well as offering a bit of a Dirty Dozen vibe about Arthur and his Samaritan Knights on a mission to save a Roman boy, similar to the then recent, Saving Private Ryan—the film is still adamant about suggesting a theoretically steamy love story between Owen’s Arthur and Knightley’s Guinevere, complete with a respectfully discreet and trailer-friendly love scene.

Intriguingly, on top of there being no Guinevere or Lancelot in Legend of the Sword, the origin story also doesn’t even feature a romantic foil for Arthur. There is Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as a character simply called “the Mage,” who may be Guinevere or Morgan Le Fay, or neither. Honestly, it’s moot. One can hear Guy Ritchie’s disinterested yawn whenever the film cuts to her.

On the one hand, this could be just a wrinkle of Ritchie as a storyteller, who is notorious for his lack of important female characters. It also, in some ways, could be viewed as refreshing that the lone feminine presence is not presented merely as a romantic object of desire for the male lead—nor is she unconvincingly placed in some blue war paint and leather straps like Knightley and told to imitate a Wilhelm Scream. And yet, considering the Arthur legend is in general remembered as a romance, the absence feels less progressive than it does practical for its age.

As one marketing research firm humorously documented in 2013, there are fewer love scenes in Hollywood movies these days because “sex scenes used to be written, no matter the plot, to spice up a film trailer. But all that does today is get the film an adult-only rating and lose a younger audience.” Increasingly, special effects and budget-heavy spectacles are happy to return to the chaste courtships of the Hays Office of 1930s Hollywood, or better yet to remove romantic entanglements altogether.

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In many ways, this has actually improved the roles for actresses in big budget movies. Now instead of playing the girlfriend of the superhero, many are getting to play superheroes themselves, albeit usually still in an ensemble role where there are five actors for every actress who gets to shoot CGI laser beams. Luckily though, this too appears to be changing for genuinely good reasons thanks to Hunger Games and now Star Wars.

But in the case of Arthur, it leads to the amusing irony that a romantic tale further goes the superhero route where there is one woman in a crew of men who indeed has superpowers as “the Mage.” But the tokenism is still implicit by the fact that the Mage doesn’t get to sit at the roundtable with the bro-knights at the end of the movie. She isn’t the girlfriend or wife, and she still seems there to fill out the trailer in other ways. She also thanklessly gets placed in the damsel role. Twice.

An Ending vs. a Universe

Yet the most definitive difference between the two films is really in how they tell their tale. While both likely had producers crossing their fingers for a sequel, King Arthur (2004) did not rely on the hope for setting up more movies while Legend of the Sword all but begs for a continuation.

This is the real pronounced difference as big budget moviemaking tastes change. Released with nary a subtitle or a post-credit scene, the previous King Arthur opened under the assumed wisdom of a century of storytelling that films need to be self-contained narratives. Plot threads may not be completely and neatly concluded, but for the most part there will be resolution. In the case of this film, Arthur and his knights defeat the Anglo-Saxons and pretend that the Britons were never wiped out by Saxons in the decades to come, and that an age of wisdom and reason elevated England during the dawn of the Dark Ages. Arthur and Guinevere are married, Lancelot and Tristan (a woefully underused Mads Mikkelsen) are buried, and the villainous and bored-out-of-his-mind Stellan Skarsgaard is beheaded.

All’s well that ends well.

In comparison, Legend of the Sword is “the first chapter” in a narrative that Ritchie and Warner Bros. previously said could last six movies. Only in the final minutes of the picture is King Arthur actually crowned King Arthur. His roundtable is still incomplete; his Mage (and sister? Wife? Who cares!) is to the wind; also, none of the most famous knights like Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, or Bors have even been introduced. What WB truly would like is for each Arthur sequel to introduce one of these knights who’d be so popular that they could in theory be spun off to have their own adventures, also like the courtly myths borne after the Middle Ages from these characters.

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King Arthur isn’t about a single movie narrative in 2017; it’s about a copyright-free brand that in theory can generate countless entwined movie narratives, similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As such, it mustn’t tell one story—it must tell a segment, a chapter, a prologue. A pilot for a cinematic serial.

In King Arthur, his war is done and he is a man wary of battle after 15 years of the stuff. In Legend of the Sword, he’s a man-child who hasn’t even had his first quest. One is a movie, the other is a TV series in disguise.

For a Brief Time, There Was Supposed to Be Camelot

There are other amusing counterpoints between the films, such as how the first was produced before the release of Passion of the Christ, and as such takes a cynical view on Christianity and religion, painting its Roman Catholic bishops as hypocrites and its monks as murderous fanatics. Meanwhile, after realizing the amount of money Born Again evangelists command at the box office, Legend of the Sword like most other modern Hollywood movies bypasses religion altogether, even if its source material is a medieval yarn about a king who, among other things, sought the Cup of Christ.

In the end, however, they each must ultimately stand on their own. And honestly, both are found wanting. Between the two, I personally think Legend of the Sword is more enjoyable. For all of its flaws, Guy Ritchie has a kinetic sensibility and his kitchen sink mindset allows the film to embrace the sword and sorcery appeal of Arthurian legend, making for a ludicrous movie. It’s not very good, but it is eminently watchable.

The 2004 film, for all of its cinematic purity, is actually a pretty dull affair. Rumor has it director Antoine Fuqua and star Clive Owen did not get along on the production, and it shows in Owen’s rather flat and uninspiring performance—strange as he was magnetic just the year before in Closer and a hell of a lot of fun 12 months later in Sin City. Robbed of any magic, fantastical or otherwise, that movie lives or dies on its epic battle scenes. And die it does, for Fuqua is no Ridley Scott or Peter Jackson. As it turned out, he wasn’t even Wolfgang Petersen. The piles of corpses were not the only thing lifeless in those battle scene frames.

Meanwhile, Charlie Hunnam gives a playful and charismatic turn as a cocky cockney Arthur. The movie he is in is mediocre, but it makes sense that a studio would wish to build a franchise around him.

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Still, neither approach went on to set the box office on fire. A cynical interpretation would be that audiences no longer have a taste for King Arthur or his noble knights. But given that Arthurian-influenced fantasies like Game of Thrones and The Hobbit can set TV ratings and box office receipts on fire, this likely is not the case. Perhaps the real issue remains trying to squeeze Arthur into a box, be it in Mel Gibson and Ridley Scott wrappings, or in a shiny new MCU bow. The next time a studio wants to take a stab at Excalibur, it might do well to actually unsheathe the classic fantasy from its stone. Who knows, there could be even an elusive sequel or two built into that bedrock.