It’s not hard to see why Guy Ritchie was drawn to the story of King Arthur, able to wield the sword Excalibur where all others had failed.
The British director behind the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes films and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has spent the best part of a decade trying to make a movie about the fifth-century British monarch, while other scripts derailed the project.
“It’s a bit like trying to light a fire in a damp forest,” he says. “If you keep trying to light it, eventually something will happen.”
The 48-year-old filmmaker can be satisfied that his relentless determination paid off. His King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a big-budget mix of myth, history and fantasy.
"It's a little bit like Lord of the Rings meets [Ritchie's 1998 gangster film] Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," says Charlie Hunnam, who plays Arthur, here portrayed as a reluctant hero raised in humble circumstances.
He is part of an eclectic cast that includes model Poppy Delevingne, Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen and former Manchester United and England footballer David Beckham.
What convinced Ritchie choose Hunnam, the British actor best known for his role in United States TV drama series Sons of Anarchy for the title role?
“I didn’t choose him,” says Ritchie, bluntly. “Charlie chose him. Charlie was so insistent that he was going to become King Arthur that he became King Arthur, in spite of my reticence. Charlie wasn’t on the list of my King Arthurs.”
Ritchie was particularly uncertain about 37-year-old Hunnam’s skinny build, but the actor was determined to overcome any resistance and win the role.
“I put my name in the hat and Guy had taken it back out and I said, ‘It’s going back in, mate’,” says the actor. “So I flew myself over [from Los Angeles].”
During an afternoon drinking tea in Ritchie’s living room in London, Hunnam got to work.
“I went in and convinced him that I was the man for the job,” he says.
It’s a bold actor that does such a thing once a director has rejected them. He even promised to prove his physicality by fighting the other actors in the running for the role. What was it about playing Arthur that so intrigued and motivated him?
“He is just a regular guy who is trying to make the best of a tough environment he lives in,” says Hunnam. “He has an aspiration for himself but certainly that does not involve being king. And when he’s presented with this destiny, that’s not of his choosing. He rejects it – and that spoke to me.”
Jude Law co-stars as the ruthless power-grabbing monarch Vortigern.
"He's someone who is very much stewing and is rotten to the core," says Law, who previously worked with Ritchie when he starred as Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films.
The actor was very familiar with the Arthurian legend before landing the role.
"I knew about Arthur and Merlin and Lancelot and Guinevere," he says, adding that he had seen John Boorman's 1981 classic Arthurian film Excalibur when he was young.
Like Arthur, Vortigern was a fifth-century leader whose history is enshrined in myth and folklore. Law says: “They weren’t sure if he was a king of England or a king of northern Europe or some awful wife-slaying monster who seemed to fit into the fable.”
Nevertheless, this uncertainty matches Ritchie’s notion of playing fast and loose with the Arthurian story, in the interests of storytelling. “[It’s not] based in absolute historical fact and I liked the idea that they were going to be able to play with these things,” says Law.
Ritchie has ambitions to turn Arthur’s story into a six-film saga, one of the reasons why he deliberately left out key characters, including Guinevere, from this opening chapter.
“That was the challenge that poor old Boorman was up against,” he says. “He was trying to do so much in such a short period of time. That was a conscious decision we all made at the beginning: take out some of the iconic names that you know and put them to the side. The idea was to [distil] the beverage so it was more powerful.”
Hunnam is cautious but keen about the possibility of continuing Arthur’s story in future films.
“The trouble with that is always the uncertainty about who the mantle will be passed to if the person you agreed to collaborate with initially decides not to continue being at the helm,” he says. “But I’d happily make another 20 films with Guy, let alone six.
“I asked him if this was a one-off thing or if he thought he’d move forward and make more. And he said, ‘I’m not giving this to anyone.’”
• King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is in cinemas from tomorrow.