Sitting in his tall chair at the center of a Lower Manhattan ballroom on a sunny spring morning, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword director Guy Ritchie looks a bit amused. Perhaps relieved as well. When he and his stars Charlie Hunnam and Djimon Hounsou were first ushered into the room before the press, the writer-director’s instinct was to rebuff the central throne, instead bequeathing that chair to his star Hunnam. Yet his reigning authority in that room (and contentedness with the film’s completion) could not be questioned.
Resting there, Ritchie was in a reflective mood while considering his history with the Arthurian legend and how this process really took the better part of a decade. After noting with some playfulness that this is in actuality a French story about England, the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels filmmaker recalls his own personal relationship with the good English king. He was about 10-years-old when he first saw John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and he ponders whether he’s been trying to make his own Arthurian movie ever since.
Yet in truth, Ritchie can pinpoint the exact moment he first began breaking down a King Arthur movie, and how it didn’t find its fruition until Jody Harold penned his own franchise-starting treatment some years later.
“I wrote my version of this about five or six years ago, and for one reason or another it got shelved because Warners bought another version,” Ritchie remembers. “And then there was a third version that came in, and the third version had a fantastic element, it had two things that I didn’t have. One of the things is they thinned out the story. So the problem with the Arthurian legend is how condensed it is. As soon as you get rid of eight of the 10 components, and focus on two of those components, then all of a sudden you have a narrative you can follow. So that was one of their ideas. And then the other idea was to put a fantastic element into it. So the story’s my story, but it’s got the fantastic element into it, and it’s got the thinned out element that Jody brought to the party.”
Nevertheless, the film has still had a long odyssey to the screen that is likely worthy of its own ballads and songs. After all, what became Legend of the Sword was originally due in August 2016. Ritchie likewise hints at the transmutations the magic he conjured on the screen went through during the editing process.
Says Ritchie, “I think we had two years allocated to make this movie and it ended up being three years. My first cut was three and a half hours long, and I’m quite prodigal with my film, so I don’t mind chucking stuff out. So when the first [cut] came in at three and a half hours, I thought, ‘Ooh.’ That was me being strict. By the time I finished it, I got it just down to under two hours, and that honestly was just hard work, getting it from three and a half to two hours. So it was time consuming.”
It also impacted how the film was put together. For instance, Ritchie has a great deal of fun condensing and playing with the chronology of events. A sequence in which Arthur is forced to sink or swim in an endurance test in the wilderness—one involving giant wolves and bats hungry for human flesh—is told non-sequentially with his mentors and peers coming to the decision to throw Arthur in the thick of it. The numerous Ritchie-patented montages like this create a striking viewing experience, even for its star.
“Guy’s pretty bold in the editing room,” Hunnam says with a chuckle. “I actually don’t think I’ve had an experience where the final result was quite as different from what I anticipated. We’re very fortunate to have a big fat budget, so we are able to shoot a lot of stuff. And Guy also works a lot on the fly, so we were trying stuff. I thought I had a clear idea of what we shot, but then I realized it had to be cut down to time, and so once you were going to lose essentially 50 percent of what we shot, it was anybody’s guess as what would end up onscreen and how it would end up onscreen, because some of the editing choices Guy made was very nonlinear, but it was very, very exciting.”
That delicate balance of tone apparently applied to the whole production as well since Hunnam still recalls the earliest obstacles of finding the measure of a classical fairy tale with a rueful step in humor that suggests the picture is always up for a little donnybrook.
Hunnam reflects, “For me at least, the greatest challenge at the beginning of this was understanding the tone, because it was a pretty fine needle that we were threading with taking the world seriously, and the story seriously, and giving it the respect that it’s due, and also throwing all of that out the window, and tackling it with the appropriate level of irreverence and originality. I felt like for everybody for the first couple of weeks there was an ambiguity with the tone, and we tried a lot of stuff. You know, I’ve heard many filmmakers talk about this, and it was certainly true of my experience, that a film sort of tells you what it wants to be, and then that combined with the filmmaker’s creative true north, we just found a path.”
And yet, there is so much more left on that path for Hunnam and Ritchie that they’re eager to walk it again. Beyond what’s just lying on the editing room floor, there is the rest of the Arthurian legend that they have only begun to stamp in a film that each man describes as “the first chapter.” And of course, there is that even broader treatment that Ritchie initially cracked when he considered what his King Arthur movie would be.
“I mean all of us hope we go back again,” Ritchie says. “And if that’s the case, then yes, because it’s such a rich stew, there are so many ingredients, but the problem is it was too rich. So we’ve got plenty of more stew out there.”
Audiences can try their first bite when King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens on Friday, May 12.