The legend of King Arthur has enough drama to launch a thousand soap operas: extramarital affairs, an orphan destined for great things, wizards, magic, dragons, incest, and a holy quest. It’s no surprise that the story has been told dozens of times in modern cinema. There’s no way I can cover them all, but here are some of the stand-out adaptations:
The Sword in the Stone
This Disney movie, drawn directly from T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” is one of the most influential versions. This is often how kids are introduced to the story of Arthur, and it introduces the basic plotline that most are familiar with: An orphan boy is taken under an old wizard’s wing, and when acting as a squire he draws a magical sword from a stone – not realizing that it’s an enchanted sword – revealing himself as the one true king. This portion of the book trilogy is a series of ethics lessons taught through magical transformations into animal forms, meant to teach young Arthur about ruling and warfare, which translates pretty well to morality tales appropriate for kids.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
What can one say about Monty Python that hasn’t already been said? It’s hilarious and ridiculous and supremely quotable, from the Knights Who Say “Ni!” to the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow to the old man who’s “Not dead yet!”
This is definitely the kind of movie you’ll be ashamed to admit you enjoyed, mostly because of Richard Gere’s embarrassing attempt at playing an Englishman. Julia Ormond continues her trend of destroying the bond between brothers/friends (Legends of the Fall, Sabrina), but her sincere attempts to put her people and her king above her own interests make her hard to hate. The romance with Richard Gere’s Lancelot is cheesy and melodramatic and OH how they betray the wonderful Sean Connery is just heartbreaking.
This is a fascinating take on the King Arthur legend, following Merlin (the wonderful Sam Neill) from childhood to old age. Rather than create a political drama, this version revels in magic and fantasy, as the young wizard becomes trapped in the middle of a battle waged by the old pagan god Queen Mab, who fears her eventual demise as the people of Britain move away from the old religion. One of my favorite aspects of this story is the twisted, yet oddly sweet relationship between Frik, Mab’s servant, and Morgan Le Fay.
This movie was… unfortunate. The filmmakers went for the gimmick of the “true story behind the legend,” which is a hard claim to make in any case, since the fact of Arthur’s existence is still under debate. In going for realism they chose not to focus on the romance, politics, or religion – all rich fodder for adaptation – instead inventing a story with a Roman legion commander and a wild warrior princess. Arthurian-legend.com calls it “a national insult” and claims that “King Arthur is one of the worst historical, or history-esque, films ever made.” Way harsh. But also, yes, true.
I watched this movie back when it came on 2 VHS tapes. I was only allowed to watch the first tape, because my mom didn’t like seeing Camelot go to pot in the second half. Thankfully that still left me with some fantastic musical numbers: “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “Camelot,” and of course, “C’est Moi.” It’s both grandiose and campy, poking fun at itself in some cases while embracing the inevitable tragedy that follows.