Guy Ritchie’s new film adaptation of the legend of King Arthur has been panned by the critics. But while this version may have flopped, there have been many more successful big screen depictions of the king and his round table retinue over the years. Colin Davey suggests five better ways to watch knights at the movies.
Don’t get me wrong. I gather it may be ‘reasonably good fun,’ and even ‘cheerfully ridiculous’, and I’m not opposed to that in a summer movie at all. But it seems clear that in terms of general critical reception, and crucial opening box office, Guy Ritchie’s early chapter of Arthur’s life has ended up a more ‘pyteuous tale’ than the last part of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur – the archetypal medieval English Arthurian compendium from which (at least loosely) it draws its core material. Why?
As Malory himself knew – and medieval storytellers demonstrated in endless, wonderful variety – the Arthurian legend is incredibly flexible and adaptable. That’s why it has been so popular so long: every period bears witness to the Arthur it deserves, more accurately perhaps the Arthur it wants (or needs?). Has Ritchie, in what one might generously call a ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Dragons/Game of Thrones’ mash-up, simply failed to deliver a completely effective, timely Arthur? Perhaps.
For all of that infinite variety the material allows, there is an unwritten law that Arthurian film (along with literature and other art too) must obey, in order successfully to talk to its audience and arguably to abide in the memory. This requires a serious-mindedness – even while being playful – about knights, castles, magic, damsels and all, but also about the key elements that make the story echo through time: a messianic hero, national crisis, honour, hubris, intense love in a fallen world and fellowship. As a director you don’t have to take them all seriously, but you have to be – elusively – ‘Arthurian’ about them, in your design and mood. The cinema’s interaction with Arthur is rich and varied. Here are five very different outings you ought to see on their own considerable merits.
Knights of the Round Table (1953), directed by Richard Thorpe
The sort of film my father enjoyed as a young man, on the back of a boyhood of Saturday afternoon serials. This MGM Technicolor confection is loosely but broadly true to the Malorian story arc. Robert Taylor, here as Lancelot, was the post-war medieval matinee idol bar none; Eva Gardner a stately, alluring Guinevere; Mel Ferrer a brooding but human Arthur. Filmed in England at Elstree – but also at legendary Tintagel, and in Ireland – particularly if seen when you’re young it delivers strongly on emotion, an unabashed spirituality, adventure, pomp, pageantry, and fun. A true romance like its great source.
Camelot (1967), directed by Joshua Logan
The Lerner and Loewe Broadway show from 1960 of course will forever be associated with the Kennedy administration, lending its name to ‘the Camelot era’. The show is (freely) based on T.H. White’s epic tetralogy The Once and Future King and so the movie is a palimpsest of a palimpsest of the medieval Arthur, White using his trio of lovers and their world for a very 20th century take on the key question he found in Malory: is might ever right? The tunes are hard to resist with their quirky lyrics: the ‘wee folk and the grown folk’ who wander to and fro ‘have ways known to their own folk we throne folk don’t know’. Design and costume were both Oscar winners, and it shows. Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave both sparkle; Franco Nero (an obvious romantic lead, as Robert Goulet was on Broadway) is too good looking for White’s plain, awkward, ‘Ill-Made Knight’.
Lancelot du Lac (1974), directed by Robert Bresson
A firm favourite amongst many medievalists, this under-viewed film is a gem. Bresson’s characteristic oblique camerawork and choice of amateur actors lends the production a feel of mythic unravelling, but among real people. The location shooting presents a rough but convincing medieval backdrop for knights who are seldom out of their stiff armour. And the film is as notable for its soundscape as for its visuals, with the clash of arms and the sound of horses reminding one where the word ‘chivalry’ actually comes from. Luc Simon’s Lancelot and Laura Duke Condominas as the Queen are at the centre of this piece, their tragedy unfolding with painful slowness. Once seen, never forgotten.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam
No Arthurian film library is complete without this, but it’s more than just sketches strung together and gags memorized by generations of students. It’s intensely interested in the notion of ‘historical’ film and playful with the idea of historical documentary. It’s curiously faithful to chunks of the Arthurian legendarium, in spirit if not in detail. It thus undercuts the romance of medieval tales, but only because it is so lovingly aware of, and attentive to, much of their milieu. Oh, and it’s hilarious. Arthurian literature and comedy may seem antithetical, and the pairing has not been attempted since, but the Pythons triumphantly pull it off.
Excalibur (1981), directed by John Boorman.
We haven’t spoken about Merlin yet (he’s notably missing from Ritchie’s film) but now is the time. Boorman’s earliest Arthurian ambition was a Merlin project, and in this resultant Arthur film Nicol Williamson’s irascible, chrome-pated druid is majestic, and arguably the star. With a 70s/80s camp vibe, hyper-real sylvan settings (it’s a key film in Irish film-industry history and makes beautiful use of locations), a deliciously dangerous ‘Morgana’ in Helen Mirren and a soundtrack unashamedly featuring Orff and Wagner (yes, the obvious bits), it is not for Malory purists. Though it does include elements that lots of other films eschew. A heady, romantic, magical, Celtic, New Age trip – it’s difficult not to be swept away by it.
I’ll now do the decent thing and go and see King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. But I do believe it has some big sabatons to fill.
Listen to more of Colin Davey’s research on the legacy of King Arthur in books and film in this podcast.