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On the KING ARTHUR Set, the LEGEND OF THE SWORD Gets Forged Anew

On the KING ARTHUR Set, the LEGEND OF THE SWORD Gets Forged Anew

It’s one of Western civilization’s oldest, most enduring myths. Before Star Wars, before Harry Potter, before The Lord of the Rings, there was the original fantasy saga of destiny and salvation: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

The story of a boy who pulled a sword from a stone and wound up ruling a nation, the Arthurian legend is woven into the fabric of pop culture. So it makes sense that Guy Ritchie—no stranger to period films reimagined—would milk the stone for all its worth. The iconoclastic English director established his distinct lightning-paced, electrically-edited style on crime caper films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, before bringing his sensibility to period films like the Sherlock Holmes movies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. But on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Ritchie goes all the way back to a mere two hundred years after the Roman Empire left an undefined, pre-medieval Britain. His goal, paradoxically, is to create an Arthur for the twenty-first century.

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It’s a trip we take with Ritchie when we arrive on the film’s set at Warner Bros. Studios London. An entire town has been built on the green, rolling hills of the studio’s back lot — “Londinium” (as London was then called). It’s filled with massive stone (or rather plaster) columns, mud-covered market streets, and a dock upon which laps the mighty Thames (a modest-sized pool here). Just beyond the town runs a wide dirt road that climbs a small hill cradling a crumbling castle. All of this will look massive on screen, of course, with the road suspended atop an enormous river bridge, on which trod all manner of man and beast. (The word elephants has been mentioned once or twice.) And the castle? It’s the foreboding home of Vortigern (played by Jude Law) — the cruel uncle of Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), who has seized the throne that once belonged to the boy’s late father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana).

“If you look at these sets,” says Hunnam, when he sits down to chat with us during a break in shooting, “as much as possible we’ll do in real time, and there’s real stunts going on. I think there’s a creative texture to it, because you can do everything CG now. But fuck, why? Why do that when you can do it for real, you know? Because I always think it’s gonna be better. I think the human brain is so sophisticated, and we live in reality and are pretty fucking hip to the way reality works. As great as CG can be, my mind doesn’t believe it. Anytime it goes out of the realm of what’s possible, my brain doesn’t believe it. No matter how fucking realistic it is.”

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Today, in the final month of principal photography, Hunnam’s in the midst of eight days of filming a single chase scene, in which Arthur and his men run through the streets of the city. “This comes at the end of a very long, lone-survivor-esque survival sequence,” laughs the actor — sporting a smart blonde goatee that would make Green Arrow proud, pale tunic, and leather trousers and boots — “where we’re getting chased and smashed and falling off of buildings. People are getting fucking mauled and punched in the face. I split my eyebrow open while we were doing this sequence.”

Hunnam’s hero offers a different take on Arthur, that of a young orphan raised in a brothel after the death of his parents. His most valuable lessons come not from the wizard Merlin, but from the city’s underworld. His gang, which will one day become the Knights of the Round Table, includes the steadfast Bedivere, played by Djimon Hounsou, and the slippery hoodlum Goose Fat Bill, played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen.

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“It makes it really easy for the actors to have a brilliant set like this,” says Gillan. “You just feel like you’re there. If you’re doing a chase scene, there’s always another alley that you can just run up…and it does happen like that. The stunt guys run all the actors through a number of moves and little fight sequences…but there will be something else that will just be cobbled up on the spot — ‘Why don’t we use that alleyway? Why doesn’t somebody jump off that roof? Why doesn’t somebody start firing arrows off that turret?’ It really is a proper, working city almost. So that makes it easier for us, because you really believe that you’re there.”

Hunnam describes the camaraderie that exists between Arthur and his friends as “modern and easily recognizable as boys’ banter…the sort of stuff Guy does very well.” But he points out the world the film depicts, and the pace at which its story is told, are more of the period. “I don’t think it feels like an uber modern rendering of it.”

This juxtaposition of old and new is mirrored in the style of shooting Ritchie’s employed, in which fight scenes are lensed separately, in slow-motion and real-time, and laid over each other to happen simultaneously on screen.

According to Ritchie’s producing partner Lionel Wigram, the end result, both visually and narratively, is a King Arthur for today’s audiences. “It’s what Guy and I tried to do for Sherlock and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” says Wigram. “We’re trying to do [that] with the sword and sorcery fantasy genre. [If] you think, King Arthur was one of the most important stories ever told, for various thematic reasons. We’ve tried to keep those themes, we’ve tried to keep some of the very important tropes, but we’ve also reinvented in various different ways.”

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As Wigram points out, there hasn’t been a significant cinematic reworking of Arthurian Legend since 1981’s Excalibur. But where director John Boorman’s adaptation of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur emphasized Wagnerian opera and Celtic mythology, Ritchie’s version centers on a pug-nosed street fighter who accidentally stumbles into a greater purpose.

“I’m sort of a fuck-up,” laughs Hunnam. “Everybody’s been waiting for the true king to emerge. And when he emerges he’s somewhat selfish and a bit coarse and a bit less sophisticated than this lot was hoping he would be.”

Fortunately for Arthur, Hounsou’s Sir Bedivere sees something in him he doesn’t see in himself. “My character,” says Hounsou, “waited twenty-five years to see the legitimate son appear again and inherit the throne. So the minute he hears somebody pulled the sword [from the stone] he immediately goes looking for him. Our collaboration starts from that point on… The one obvious thing that you’ll see more of in this story is that it’s really about the Knights of the Round Table. How all of those knights came to make the king who he is.”

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With its gritty sets and earthy relationships, filmgoers may be wondering if Ritchie’s King Arthur is completely bereft of mysticism. But Wigram assures us that magic remains a vital part of the tale, with Merlin represented by a race of magicians called mages.

“King Arthur is a fairy tale, there should be monsters, there should be magic, and so we wanted to deliver that… Our period is a fairy tale period, it’s a magical period. It’s not any specific historical period, it’s not meant to be that. It’s meant to be an imaginary world inspired by certain historical realities.”

“A lot of what we try to do,” adds Wigram of his and Ritchie’s philosophy, “is give you a world to escape into. It’s not about making gritty, realistic documentaries, it’s about escaping. Giving the audience a two-hour escape from their lives, going into another world, having fun, seeing something you’ve never seen before, enjoying it. Then coming out of the cinema, going, ‘I got my money’s worth.'”

Are you looking forward to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword? Let us know below!

Images: Warner Bros.

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