Throughout the centuries and today, kids in China could look up to the Shaolin legends, Guan Gong, Huang Fei-hung and Bruce Lee as being roles models, figures of national pride and personal heroes. As a kid growing up in England, raised by God-fearing Scots parents, one of my heroes was King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable. Yet films about Arthur always left me feeling disappointed and I never knew why…until now.
Director Guy Richie‘s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword struck me with the same awe and excitement that I had when I began watching kung fu films based on wuxia stories, the Jiang Hu world and knight errant swordsmen. They made me feel like I was home.
Due to taking 30 pills/day to combat the deadly childhood disease cystic fibrosis, some of the meds jumbled and clouded my mind, making school more challenging than for most, thus I’d constantly fail writing class. Teachers lauded my imagination, but in the 1960s-70s that wasn’t an important part of the traditional writing process/grading system.
As I’m watching King Arthur, I recalled how as a 10-year-old and with my medication stupor mind. I wrote a rambling 20-page assignment (supposed to be one page) on my version of Arthur’s tale and how with his sword artistry he slew evil creatures and invaders set on destroying Britain. Arthur and his Knights lived and fought with a strict moral code of honor, righteousness and brotherhood…fighting the good fight. Then it hit me, my Arthurian legend was seeped in ancient Chinese martial art folklore, which back then, I knew nothing about. Legend is the first King Arthur movie to capture this spirit.,
A true-life British leader, Arthur fought Saxon invaders in the late 400s-early 500s A.D. Details of his heroics were put into writing in 1138 by Geoffrey of Monmouth in History of the Kings of Britain. He told tales of yore and gore on how Arthur used superlative sword skills to defend Britain from human and supernatural enemies. His treatise also spoke of Arthur’s dad Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s wife Guinevere, Merlin the Magician, his final battle against Mordred, Arthur’s final resting place in Avalon; and the most important person in Arthur’s life…his sword Excalibur. French writer Chrétien de Troyes, later added Sir Lancelot, the Holy Grail and Knights of the Round Table.
In Western and Eastern history, swords are a symbol of bravery, justice and honor. Chinese folklore reveals that swords have names and after they taste blood they develop a spirit as depicted in film by a sword’s high-pitched shinng when drawn from its scabbard. They’re not weapons or an extension of the hand, they’re living entities and are the hand.
I felt like I had found Excalibur’s brothers, which made the legend of King Arthur more real and alive to me. Ritchie reflects this spirit throughout the film especially during an epic battle with Mordred when Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) had to pull Excalibur out of a cement pillar and did so with a loud, resonating shinnnng.
Ritchie never lost sight of the fact that Excalibur was a main character in the film. Thus they had an exhaustive casting process for the weapon.
For the 2000+ swords used in the movie, the filmmakers made a 3D model of one sword put it in a computer numerical control machine and churned out a sword every few hours.
However, this wasn’t suitable for the co-star Excalibur, it had to be special from all the others. Ritchie didn’t want an elaborate, jewel-encrusted sword but a weapon with a Damascus blade and made the old fashioned way…requiring layering of carbonized steel and normal steel to make it hard, sharp and very flexible. He also wanted a special scabbard to show off Excalibur’s blade whenever Hunnam wore it.
Head armourer Tim Wildgoose put together a team of expert craftsman: a blade forger; a hilt maker, a handle designer, a scabbard smith; a leather worker; a crystal maker for the sword’s pommel; and a blade etcher who etched into the blade the phrase “Take me up, Cast me away” in runic script, an ancient, 1st century A.D. Latin-based alphabet.
Excalibur is more than a fine piece of weaponry. Hunnam shared, “One beautiful idea about Excalibur is that it creates a circuit when you hold it with both hands. Energy passes through Arthur’s body, but his past emotional trauma blocks that energy. Arthur must use the sword to go through a catharsis, flush the emotional trauma out of his system as to achieve the balance necessary to control the sword. Excalibur’s an exciting instrument and contributes to the arc of the character’s narrative.”
The film’s next important component was Arthur’s swordfights. To me, Legend truly delivered. With each escalating fight, and by using British broadsword choreography, it was all about Arthur learning from his weapon as the two became one.
Hunnam affirmed, “The relationship between Arthur and Excalibur was key. The sword had to aid in the narrative and have a visual impact. The challenge was balancing those two elements. Is the sword or Arthur in charge? As he develops control over it, their relationship changes, the fights and effects should reflect that. So, in every sequence the effects of the sword changes as Arthur gets more in tune with Excalibur and himself.”
Spoken like a true British Knight and a Chinese wuxia swordsman.