Okay, so let’s talk about “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” the new Guy Ritchie movie. (Hint: That means there are spoilers below.) First, you should know that I am a bit of a King Arthur nerd. Not so much that I have a degree in it or anything, but enough that one of my most cherished possessions is a several hundred year old copy of Le Mort d’Arthur. King Arthur references (some subtle, some not) have made their way into every book I’ve ever written.
So I was hugely grateful when the movie opened on 300′ tall Helliphants (Worse than Oliphants, you see. Take THAT Peter Jackson!) and a text crawl informed me that obvious good guy Uther Pendragon was being attacked by the evil mage Mordred. OKAY, I thought. So this movie isn’t going to have a thing to do with any canonical telling of the King Arthur mythology. Cool. I know now. I can just lean back and enjoy the popcorn cheese of it all.
And honestly? I mostly did. It was a very enjoyable movie, with great patter, stunning special effects, and fantastic atmosphere. I will be buying the soundtrack as soon as possible, because it is SO GOOD. Guy Ritchie’s unique style of visual storytelling was, as always, a treat. I delighted in Guy Ritchie’s scoffing in the face of anyone suggesting a post-Roman England would need to be all white — multiple people of color are featured as major characters, without apology or explanation. (Indeed, one of the characters is named ‘Kung Fu George’ lest you miss that yes, he IS Chinese.)
Oh man. BUT…the devil is in the details, isn’t it?
In this case, I knew I was going to be in trouble right from the start, when King Uthur woke up his wife, Queen Igraine (at least she has billing in the credits) with the greeting “Woman.” Woman? Queen of England and mother of his heir gets nothing more than ‘Woman?’
I suppose she didn’t really need a name, considering how quickly she dies.
Sadly, this was to be a precursor of things to come.
It gets worse.
So you see, this is a man’s movie. To be fair, that’s not unusual for Guy Ritchie, is it? His movie’s are men’s movies, movies where women exist only peripherally if at all, movies where men do manly things in a manly, violent way. And I’ve always been fine with that previously, mostly because I always had the sense that there was a keen sense of self-mockery going on. Guy Ritchie having a bit a laugh at all the toxic masculinity. Look, his previous movies always seemed to say: here’s a bunch of men behaving like men, oh and also being total idiots.
But this isn’t a movie where that sort of gritty buffoonery is appropriate, and it’s highlighted this fatal flaw. The women, Guy. What the fuck is your deal with women?
You see, very few of the female characters in this film are even dignified with a name, even though Arthur makes a point of introducing every single member of his all male crew. There are no women in his crew. Oh, that’s not quite true. He’s pimping the whores who raised him. And that’s what the vast majority of women are in this movie: whores. Whores or princesses or serving girls. Which honestly wouldn’t be a problem for me (I have no problem with any of those occupations) except that in this particular instance, whores or princesses or serving girls all seem to be synonyms for victim, for plot device, for that which must be sacrificed or endangered to move the story forward. Women rarely have agency of their own. They are there to be abused and rescued, or placed in peril and not rescued, or kidnapped and held for ransom, or…you get the idea.
There are two half-hearted exceptions to this: Maggie, a serving girl who is spying on the evil King Vortigern and The Mage, a mysterious French woman who has been sent by Merlin to help see Arthur made king. In Maggie’s case, she’s found out by Vortigern, who gloats that she is an excellent tool he will use her for his own ends (Hey, at least Vortigern lampshades his objectification. +10 points to Slitherin for refreshing honesty) before throwing her into a dungeon so everyone can forget about her for the rest of the movie.
The Mage is even worse, because even though she is a complete bad-ass who can control or summon multiple animals at once and cause all sorts of havoc and calamity when she’s rescuing Arthur, she becomes meek and vulnerable the moment one of the enemy soldiers brandishes a sharp knife in her vicinity. While I’m not against the idea of leaving her nameless (if the next movie doesn’t reveal that her real name is Guinevere, I’m going to be VERY surprised,) such a lack of name would be an appropriate contrast in a movie full of women who are ARE named, which is not the case here. Women were named in the credits, but other than Maggie and Lucy, I can’t remember who any of them were. Catia? Elsa? Kay? Maria?
I got nothing.
I wonder if those names belonged to King Vortigern’s wife and daughters, who were the most literal examples of objectification — you see, King Vortigern’s infernal power requires a sacrifice of something he loves, so he’s been rationing off the female members of his family as needed to feed a dark Cthulhian evil that is itself female and unnamed (in the credits they’re just called The Sirens.) And since Jude Law plays the part, and Jude Law is AMAZING, you can really FEEL the pain he’s going through, how much it hurts him. Oh, his tears! We’re supposed to feel sympathy you see…
So…to put it gently, I have mixed feelings about this film. There was a lot about it that I really loved, but sadly I’m not sure it’s enough to overcome the specter of the movie it might have been if it had remembered that women exist to be more than pawns.
That movie would have been awesome.