The King Arthur cinematic universe that never was

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Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword was supposed to launch a cinematic universe – but things didn’t go to plan.

This feature contains spoilers for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and various versions of the King Arthur legend.

Earlier this week, Zack Snyder spoke on the I Minutemen Podcast about his desire to make a “faithful retelling” of the King Arthur legend. The filmmaker’s involvement with Warner Bros’ DC Comics universe is likely to end with Zack Snyder’s Justice League but seeing as how he’s made all but two of his movies at WB so far, you might normally think a project like this would find a home at the studio.

That’s a less likely prospect when you realise that Warner Bros already spent the better part of the 2010s trying to build a Marvel-style cinematic universe around Arthurian legends, which culminated in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword. Had the film been a hit, it was intended to be the first of six films about Arthurian characters, culminating in an Avengers-flavoured Knights of the Round Table team-up movie somewhere down the line.

As some of our older readers must remember, Legend Of The Sword was not a hit back in the heady summer of 2017. It wasn’t even the biggest King Arthur-related box-office disappointment of that summer, with Transformers: The Last Knight making an inexplicable detour into Arthurian mythology and scoring the lowest worldwide gross of Michael Bay’s robot war movies.

In retrospect, it’s hard to see where a cinematic universe looked narratively or financially sustainable. King Arthur is one of those literary characters in hard rotation in derivative works, (see also, Peter Pan and Tarzan, both the subject of their expensive WB-backed commercial disappointments in the years before this one) but the sprawling collection of interconnecting texts and tales wouldn’t necessarily translate well to a multi-film arc.

Sure, the stories have inspired plenty of films over the years, including Disney’s The Sword In The Stone, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, and John Boorman’s near-definitive ‘serious’ take, 1981’s Excalibur. However, in the last few decades, takes like Jerry Zucker’s First Knight and Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur have tended to underperform at the box office. To put things in perspective, the highest-grossing King Arthur film ever is Shrek The Third and the nearest faithful version isn’t even close.

Nevertheless, it was a long road from Guy Ritchie’s first involvement with a King Arthur project at Warner Bros in 2010, to the eventual release of an entirely different Ritchie-directed King Arthur project in 2017…


Excalibur and Arthur & Lancelot

It’s common for similar projects to enter development at the same time in Hollywood, but back in 2010, it was altogether rarer for competing versions to be underway at the same studio than it is now. Spurred by the box office success of Snyder’s 300, Warner was mulling over various swords-and-sandals actioners, including a remake of Boorman’s Excalibur with Bryan Singer in the director’s chair.

While no writer was attached to that one, the studio was separately considering a story treatment by comic book writer Warren Ellis. Compared to Star Wars, this one would have focused on the gathering of Arthur’s knights rather than the king’s story. Incidentally, the Ellis project was also called Excalibur but was not to be confused with either Excalibur (Boorman’s film) or Excalibur (the unrelated Marvel Comics UK-based superhero team up on which Ellis wrote from 1994 to 1996).

With us so far? Good.

In 2010, Ellis’ treatment attracted a director in the shape of Guy Ritchie, fresh off a Warner Bros hit with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. Ritchie had a sequel to that film on his dance card, but with a director and a script rewrite by Trainspotting’s John Hodge underway, his version still had the edge over Singer’s, which would have to wait until after WB’s Jack The Giant Slayer and various other projects were completed.

Ultimately, both projects were killed off in 2011, as Warner pursued a third, more advanced pitch written by Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, titled Arthur & Lancelot. Initially described as a “contemporary re-telling” of the story, Dobkin’s film would have been a Batman Begins-style origin tale (they were quite popular at the time, those) and potential trilogy-starter, with Kit Harington and Joel Kinnaman playing the leads.

Warner Bros paid $2 million for Dobkin’s script and fast-tracked the project for a March 2013 release. However, producers also kept their options open by providing a contract clause that would allow Dobkin to take the project to another studio if it didn’t get made.

Reportedly, it was the leads that eventually proved a stumbling block – at this point Harington and Kinnaman were only known for their TV roles. When the budget grew from $90 million to $130m, studio executives got cold feet about the lack of big-name leads to play the title characters.

After a brief shutdown in 2012, Colin Farrell was linked with the role of Lancelot. Further backing up that Batman cred, Dark Knight trilogy stars Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, and Marion Cotillard were attached as Merlin, Galahad, and Guinevere, respectively. Despite these developments, the film was delayed and eventually shelved.


Legend Of The Sword


By all accounts, the film that we eventually got is a composite of the various projects Warner had been developing since 2010, which would seem to be backed up by Dobkin’s “story by” credit on the final product. But the genesis of Legend Of The Sword lies with writer Joby Harold, who pitched WB a six-film series in 2013.

Ritchie – who was by this point well underway on dragging another long-gestating WB property back from development hell in the form of The Man From U.N.C.L.E – came back to the round table in early 2014. The director was eventually credited as a co-writer – along with Harold and producer Lionel Wigram – on the script for the film too.

Once work was complete on U.N.C.L.E, Ritchie started shooting Knights Of The Round Table: King Arthur in February 2015, with Charlie Hunnam playing the king and a supporting cast including Jude Law, Eric Bana, and (in a much-discussed cameo) David Beckham. There were casting changes before principal photography started too – Djimon Hounsou plays Sir Bedivere, a role Idris Elba was linked with, and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey replaced Elisabeth Olsen as the female lead.

Filming wrapped in July 2015, a year ahead of the film’s planned 2016 release date. Both Ritchie and Hunnam were open about how the tone of the film became more fluid while they were making it, and it eventually landed somewhere far away from the more sombre and serious tone that was intended.

The release was subsequently delayed, first to February 2017 and then to the height of the competitive 2017 summer blockbuster season, in order to accommodate extensive, visual-effects-heavy reshoots. The title was changed from Knights Of The Round Table: King Arthur, to the slightly less presumptuous King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword.

Ritchie was open about the long process of editing the film in a preview piece in Entertainment Weekly, where he suggested that the finished film’s runtime might be anywhere in between 110 minutes and 210 minutes based on the cuts he’d made so far.

Clocking at 126 minutes, the final theatrical cut is an odd beast, combining dark Game Of Thrones-brand medieval fantasy with some of the director’s more laddish tropes (with the likes of Lancelot and Galahad in reserve for future films, the supporting cast have Ritchie-ish names like Goosefat Bill, Back Lack, and Wet Stick) in a dreary 12A package that drew scathing reviews.

With all respect to that line-up, there aren’t many more huge names than there were attached to Arthur & Lancelot, a film that stalled because of budget and casting concerns. At least the Transformers sequel had Mark Wahlberg’s character swinging Excalibur around for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Additionally, Ritchie’s film would wind up being a lot more expensive too, with a whopping $175m price-tag after reshoots and delays.

When the film eventually opened in May 2017, it came in third at the US box office behind the Mother’s Day comedy release Snatched and the second-week takings of Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2. What’s more, its $15m opening was one of the lowest for a big-budget studio movie of this mprice, and its final haul at the worldwide box office was just over $148m, pre-empting any further instalments.


Once and future films

“I’d like to go back to King Arthur,” Hunnam told SiriusXM while promoting last year’s The Gentlemen, because there’s a lot of things went wrong during that and a lot of things that were out of our control.”

He added: “The idea was that if it was a success, we would’ve made several of those films, and I’m really captivated by the Arthurian legends and I just feel like we really missed an opportunity to tell a long-form story.”

His comments get to the heart of why Arthurian legends aren’t ideal stories for big-budget franchise filmmaking. The various interconnected tales are ripe for adaptation, but the canon as a whole doesn’t lend itself to mainstream cinematic storytelling – even Boorman’s epic Excalibur only really scratches the surface of the weird and wonderful stories with its start-to-finish narrative – and it trends towards a downer ending.

Without the context of its unrealised sequels, Legend Of The Sword now sits as just another of the myriad origin stories for characters like these, which always come and go in multiplexes and don’t leave much of an impression.

On TV, it’s a different story. BBC One’s Merlin retooled much of the story for Doctor Who's Saturday-night audience, using the young wizard as a way into an epic retelling with a beginning, middle, and end, to acclaim and popularity throughout its five-year run. There have also been various other Arthurian TV shows that similarly remix aspects of the stories rather than faithfully adapting them. It’s a considerably harder sell to make the entire story on film, or across several films.

Sure enough, the major Arthur-adjacent films currently in the pipeline are versions of stories and characters rather than holistic takes. David Lowery’s The Green Knight presents Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, in an epic A24-backed fantasy that was delayed from last summer to this July. Meanwhile, over at Disney+, Bryan Cogman of Game Of Thrones fame has written the live-action remake of 1963’s The Sword In The Stone for Juan Carlos Fresnadillo to direct, but that’s “happening eventually”.


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And so, while Warner is unlikely to be banging on Snyder’s door for another King Arthur movie after taking seven years to make the last one and reportedly losing $150m on it during its theatrical run, the director is probably better placed to take a swing at a serious version than most.

Let’s face it, the legend is not about nostalgia, and if Snyder’s take on Batman and Superman as flawed heroes is good for anything, it’s that he’s not nostalgic about characters like some of us are. Heck, following his nod to Boorman’s film with a cinema marquee in the opening title sequence, the entire third act of Batman V Superman is pretty much a version of the final book of Le Morte d’Arthur, complete with Lois Lane as the lady in the lake, retrieving an incongruous Kryptonite spear on which both Superman and Doomsday are fettled.

If he sticks to his guns and gets his Arthurian film made, it will probably wind up running even longer than the four-hour cut of Justice League he’s unleashing next month. Nevertheless, whether you read this as a compliment or not, there’s arguably no other working filmmaker whose track record is as suited to the kind of expensive, violent, weird downer of a film that a faithful retelling would require.

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