Tuesday, 30 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain. Here's why.

So last night I had the dubious pleasure of viewing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is basically everything about a Guy Ritchie movie (sweary dialogue, montages, rogueish lads) but at some kind of cosplay convention where they wear historical costume derived from almost every historical period imaginable saving the Romano-British one in which the legends of the King Arthur are mostly set. There is even a scene where David Beckham, yes that David Beckham, roars defiance with a CGI-burned face whilst wearing something from a Mordor Primark. Mostly though, it’s a sort of cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain.

What I fixated on, beyond the terrible plotting, over-editing and crap dialogue with all the verisimilitude of a Year 6 School Play, was how bizarre the assumptions the film made about power,  righteousness and leadership were. Whilst the core story of Le Morte de Arthur and Arthurian romance revolve around chivalry and principle and the tension of being both a Christian and a worldy knight, and the contradictory loyalties of feudalism, the fundamental themes of Legend of the Sword are a bizarre stew of prejudices about education, class and masculinity.

The main character (played by a budget Tom Hardy chap with an undercut) is a swaggery, macho male power fantasy – hardly rare as Hen’s teeth in a low-brow action film – who initially is some sort of low-key gangster in ‘Londinium’. Despite the fact he is a violent-to-the-point-of-sociopathic brothel-owner and small time thief, we are supposed to embrace this character as a standard square-jawed hero. The chivalry of Arthur here extends to violent repercussions against Viking Johns who take allowances with ‘his’ womenfolk. Here, masculinity – even heroism – is expressed as the violent defence of women that are fairly explicitly owned and exploited for sexual labour by a swaggering male authority figure. (The only other female in the plot is some kind of witch
). He is contradicted of course with his foil, the usurping Vortigern. Vortigern is soft-spoken, intimidating and aristocratic: the dialogue between him and Arthur impinge that is his very education and social class which cut him off from being authentic in his relationships, or in his drive.  We know Vortigern is evil because he has usurped the natural order by taking his brother’s throne from the ‘born king’ – the conceit of legitimacy by blood being instrumental to all these stories – and because he has sacrificed his children for supernatural powers. Let’s dismiss this as meaningless moustache-twirling which was clearly a plot afterthought or pantomime homage. Whilst Vortigern is tyrannical, it seems to only be in response to wide-scale dissent in support of The Born King, and his reign otherwise seem orderly and successful. Arthur is a tyrant, too, and also solves his problems only with the application of violence. The only difference is their relationship to the women that make up their household: - Vortigern sacrifices his familial bonds for greater power, Arthur sacrifices power in order to protect his intimates. Two roles are juxtaposed: leader as interested in the preservation of the state, or leader as invested in the preservation of his family. Would Arthur be any less murderous and tyrannical should his legitimacy be challenged? From his conduct as brothel-owner, it seems not. The legitimacy of his reign is explicitly based on his use of violence being more effective. There is a scene where he is basking in the adulation of the crown, the camera fixates explicitly on the sword, not the man himself. And yet, his masculinity, swagger and physicality is what is meant to establish this man has a right to rule to the modern cinema-going audience as well. 

The bonds of fellowship which underpin Arthurian romance are also present, in that Arthur is fanatically, stupidly, idiotically loyal to that fat bloke in the yellow coat from Utopia and a group of ethnically diverse cockneys where every corner of Earth, including several thousand miles beyond the greatest extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, but let’s not go there. This is supposed to the Round Table motif, and that homosocial bonding element is meant to establish Arthur as definitively heroic and relatable. Vortigern possesses no male relationship which is not with an underling or enemy. Despite the Round Table motif from Arthurian romance, there is no equality here, and the others are merely minions of Arthur, who orders them around with the smug self-assuredness of a bullying older brother (again, this man is inexplicably supposed to be the righteous hero of this film). In fact, this routinely impinges his ability to lead. When a comrade has obviously been captured, and the whole party needs to escape, Arthur announces “We’ll wait until first light” – abrogating the responsibility for decision-making and risking everyone’s life to demonstrate the importance of those homosocial bonds.  This laddy, fraternal conceit goes on to the basis of his regime: his coup is followed by the placing of his completely unprepared mates into positions of supreme power and authority. This will be ok, because…

….this film has some weird class politics. There’s this standard ‘you’re only a real person whose experiences matter if they’re authentic – authenticity being defined by being poor’. Now, I don’t normally object to this: it works for tonnes of characters and I’m a commie who grew up on a council estate so it appeals t the chip on my shoulder. This of course makes Arthur innately a great monarch in waiting – the perfect place to learn the ropes of medieval kingship is in petty criminality, apparently. In the picaresque worldview of the films, just like in Lock, Stock, the educated, middle-class or soft are a liability whose conceit makes them incompetent, whereas the rough and tumble characters from the streets are innately super-competent. (The fact Guy Ritchie is a posh southerner and related to aristocracy complicates the psychology of this considerably). This bizarre creation – the lumpenprole king – saunters through a diplomatic meeting with simple assertiveness to make decisive policy. This policy involves a speech about how no-one should fuck with ‘England’ (Where’s that, Arthur? There aren’t any Angles here yet) and reduces decision making to the simple pronouncements of intent. The details of being blockaded by a hostile European power following this decision are not explored, but I do look forward to watching Arthur launch Article 50 and call Merkel a ‘silly mare’ before nutting Jurgen Klopp.  

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