Warning: SPOILERS ahead for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
It’s safe to say there’s never been an adaptation of Arthurian legend quite like Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, who fights to claim his kingdom from the control of his usurper uncle King Vortigern (Jude Law), The Legend of the Sword all but abandons any semblance of the traditional myth of King Arthur. In this new incarnation, Arthur’s quest to become King is the story of Camelot by way of a hyperkinetic Guy Ritchie heist film, with a back alley crew of thieves and sorcerers plotting a revolution to bring down the establishment and install the Born King to the crown.
For anyone familiar with Arthurian legend – whether from films like John Boorman’s Excalibur, the musical Camelot and the film adaptation starring Richard Harris, the Disney classic The Sword in the Stone, or from literature like Sir Thomas Malory’s “La Morte D’Arthur” or T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” – Legend of the Sword can be a bewildering divergence from the classic tropes of the legend. Among the major changes made by Ritchie and his screenwriting team Lionel Wigram and Jody Harold are a complete reinvention of Arthur’s origin story, the absence of Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, and Sir Gawain, and the removal of the classic love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere.
Instead, Ritchie’s King Arthur reinvents the classic mythology in ways that would baffle your Classical Literature professor. Here’s how Legend of the Sword upends tradition and delivers a King Arthur experience unlike any other:
CAMELOT BEFORE ARTHUR
King Arthur opens with an immediate shock: Camelot already exists. Instead of a golden castle founded by King Arthur, Camelot is a fortress castle located in the mountains of England. England is also in the midst of a civil war with the Mages, a race of sorcerers which counts Merlin among them. However, the Mages at war are being led by Mordred, a powerful evil Mage. Traditionally, Mordred is Arthur’s offspring but in Legend of the Sword, Mordred instead is killed by Arthur’s father King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who wields Excalibur against him and heroically saves Camelot.
Arthur is still very young when the Mages are defeated by King Uther, but Uther’s brother Prince Vortigern makes a successful play for power. Vortigern, with the magical aid of the Syrens (see below), executes a successful coup to usurp the throne. Vortigern kills King Uther and Queen Elsa, but Arthur is able to hide in a small boat and escape by river. It is later revealed Vortigern plotted with Mordred to start the war. Mordred shared some of his magical secrets with Vortigern, specifically building a magical tower in Camelot similar to the magical tower of the Mages, which becomes a nexus for their power. When Mordred failed to kill Uther, Vortigern turned to his plan B of asking for help from the Syrens to murder Uther himself.