Guy Ritchie is hardly the first filmmaker you’d enlist for a quality period piece. His signature style— slick, swaggering, and drenched in British testosterone — and disjointed storytelling with byzantine plot lines is hardly akin to the next Pride and Prejudice. But if you look at his recent work, Ritchie has, rather improbably, become one of the best alternate-history storytellers of today.
Consider Sherlock Holmes. In Ritchie’s version of steampunk Victorian London, Robert Downey Jr’s incarnation of the famed detective uses his fists far more than Arthur Conan Doyle’s original creation – not to mention his nebbish sidekick, Watson, is human Ken doll/Jude Law. Is this true to what Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned – or remotely how Victorian London really was? Of course not. It’s a place and time that never truly existed; but it sure is fun.
This isn’t to imply straightforward period piece films can’t be fun. But, whenever these films flub their landings, the most common pitfall is taking themselves too seriously, much like the dour 2004 King Arthur.
Storytellers often mistake diving into the past — whether real or mythological — as a mandate for removing joy. Frequently, in an effort to prove how big and important certain events were, they go over the top in manners that mistake “loud and grandiose” for “enjoyable” (looking at you Pompeii and Exodus: Gods and Kings).
The Sherlock Holmes movies are certainly far from perfect, but they never take themselves too seriously. They know what they’re setting out to do and never attempt to be anything other than what they are. In our current era, when big commercial popcorn flicks increasingly lack self-awareness, this is a breath of fresh air.
Ritchie’s most recent work, the underrated The Man From U.N.C.L.E., showcased this same tendency. Though it was a ‘60s period piece, it didn’t offer any grand comments on the world politics of the time. Instead, it offered a take on the ‘60s that was slick, shiny, almost comically pretty, and winkingly aware of the jaunty caper it was. Its slice of the ‘60s offers a version that by no means truly existed; but its casually subversive gender dynamics offered a gently compelling “what if?” that went down as bubbly and smooth as champagne.
Just as many period pieces dip into pompousness, too many commercial blockbusters are constructed in a slapdash way that assume “the masses” don’t have brains (Looking at you, Suicide Squad). But Ritchie’s dives into madcap versions of various periods find the perfect — and ever rare — sweet spot. They’re evocative without feeling self-important. Buoyant and joyful without shirking any semblance of intelligent storytelling. In that regard, they feel almost old-fashioned in their sensibility, evoking a time before the superhero franchise era so dominated the box office.
That brings us to Ritchie’s ballsy take on the King Arthur tale, which is either the culmination of his alternate history peak, or a sign of his impending midlife crisis.
Although historians still debate about Arthur’s existence, the myth is its own kind of history. We all know the basics: Arthur is a virtuous king who embodies the ideas of chivalric knighthood, has loyal knights, is involved in a love triangle, has a mystical advisor, and certainly has no giant Lord of The Rings-type elephant creatures.
But King Arthur: Legend of The Sword looks delightfully bonkers. There are the aforementioned elephant creatures; King Arthur begins as a swaggering street-wise hustler who yells about “the lads” and engages in medieval fight clubs, for some reason; and David Beckham is involved, as he should be, because why the hell not?
The only tropes that look remotely in line with Arthurian legend as we know it are Arthur pulling a sword from a stone, a wizard type, and some good old- fashioned medieval bookies betting to accompany these medieval underground fighting rings. It’s unorthodox and nutty, but it’s exactly what the period piece genre needs. Hell, it’s exactly what big blockbusters need.
When you think of Ritchie’s oeuvre, you think fast cuts, underground boxing, heists, crooked card games, Jason Statham. You don’t think, “yes, what a great alternate history storyteller!” It’s hard to say whether he’s deliberately re-branding his modus operandi or this is all a slapdash happy accident, much like the plots he writes. Most likely, it’s somewhere in the middle. But, his films are a style that’s fast being overshadowed — the kind of blockbuster that doesn’t involve superheroes and feels like the script was written in more than six weeks — and that’s why Ritchie’s jaunts into the past just might, improbably, save the future of popcorn flicks and carve out a new kind of history for movies of all periods.