Public perception of Arthurian legend generally boils down to a selection of action highlights. There’s the lady in the lake holding up the magical sword Excalibur; the same sword being drawn from a stone to confirm the boy Arthur as the unlikely king of England; wizardry from Arthur’s mentor Merlin; the knights of the round table upholding virtues of chivalry and honour; Queen Guinevere’s love for Arthur’s best knight Sir Lancelot spoiling the party; and the quest for the Holy Grail to restore unity from division.
Plenty there for filmmakers to get their teeth into, though trying to work the material into a coherent narrative through-line has been more of a challenge, given that the primary source, Thomas Malory’s 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur, is not exactly widely read or celluloid friendly. That might explain why Hollywood’s more conventional Arthurian undertakings – including 1995’s First Knight, the 2004 King Arthur, and Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) – have so often underwhelmed. That’s left room for filmmakers of a more visionary bent to put their own stamp on the Arthurian saga, alongside the less earnest approaches offered in animation, comedies and musicals.
From Disney to Bresson, MGM to Boorman, the Arthurian legends have provided inspirational cinema right across the spectrum, and David Lowery’s new chivalric romance The Green Knight demonstrates that the wellspring shows no sign of running dry.
Knights of the Round Table (1953)
Director: Richard Thorpe
An MGM leading man since the mid-1930s, Robert Taylor (real name Spangler Arlington Brugh) was the studio’s go-to-guy for humourless nobility with added swordplay. Thus it he who was dispatched to England for Hollywood’s first big Arthurian showcase. He’s playing Sir Lancelot to Ava Gardner’s Guinevere, though the movie’s rather stymied by the casting of charisma-vacuum Mel Ferrer (aka Mr Audrey Hepburn) as an uninspiring King Arthur.
The love-triangle plot evidently feels a bit unbalanced, but Stanley Baker’s ferociously power-hungry Mordred pretty much steals the movie – not only does he have a ginger wig, his helmet also boasts a massive black plume so we just know he’s BAD. With well-mounted CinemaScope battle scenes, and ripe vintage Technicolor giving it the visual quality of a child’s storybook, overall it just about does the job, which is more than can be said for many of its would-be-blockbuster Arthurian successors.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
English scholar T.H. White brought Malory to life for a new generation with the publication of four novels gathered together as The Once and Future King (1958), which chronicled the whole Arthurian saga for a modern audience. The first book, 1938’s The Sword in the Stone, creatively imagined Arthur’s boyhood education under Merlin, which would stand him in later stead when he was crowned king.
Walt Disney spotted its family-friendly combination of magic and life-lessons, and while not the best-known among the studio’s classic animated features, the results are a modestly-scaled delight. Highlights include Merlin turning the boy into sundry furry, feathered and fishy creatures so he can gain a broader perspective on his place in the world, all leading up to a fantastic shape-shifting face-off between Merlin and witchy old lady Madame Mim. We get to the sword-pulling eventually, but the point of all this is an enterprising prequel to the familiar Arthurian legend. In that it succeeds wonderfully.
Director: Joshua Logan
From the Lerner and Loewe team who brought us My Fair Lady and Brigadoon, this 1960 Broadway smash – also adapted from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King – centred on the idealism of a good monarch establishing just rule of law. It struck a public chord during the Kennedy era, which saw the White House dubbed Camelot. JFK’s assassination only sharpened the material’s tragic implications and while the film is hobbled by strange creative choices, an emotional charge remains.
The script’s dramatic demands called for singing actors, and while Richard Harris has the pipes, he rather overdoes the method gurning (and the eye shadow’s simply bizarre). Meanwhile, Franco Nero – fresh from playing spaghetti western badass Django – is wholly miscast as the angelic Lancelot, even if his chemistry with Vanessa Redgrave’s marvellous Guinevere led to a life-long off-screen partnership. Sun-baked Californian exteriors and clueless direction from stage specialist Logan don’t help either, but somehow the story’s bittersweet essence cuts through the chaos.
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
Director: Robert Bresson
It won’t be to all tastes, but there’s an aesthetic purity to Robert Bresson’s approach that gives his film a startling, timeless quality. He chooses to shoot only parts of the body, often clanking armour-clad legs and torsos, to convey the disorienting strangeness of this archaic world. Far from exemplifying the glories of chivalry, the court is at crisis point: the Grail quest has failed, Arthur awaits word from God, Lancelot feels shamefully tainted by his past assignation with Guinevere. Everyone’s blighted by their inability to live up to their own high ideals, and it will end in the bleakest finale of any Arthurian movie.
As a viewer, you need to adjust to Bresson’s way of seeing, with its undemonstrative performance style and avoidance of conventional action. Yet his fierce ability to focus only on the essential becomes truly captivating – notably in the set-piece of a crucial jousting tournament cut from the rhythms of hoisted pennants, galloping hooves and fallen combatants. Mesmerising.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Directors: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
The Pythons’ first attempt at long-form narrative after their TV sketch show had run its course offers an oblique, witty and affectionate deconstruction of sundry familiar Arthurian motifs, then pieces the bits together to run to feature length. It’s comedy gold all the way, whether poking fun at the brutality of medieval combat, or arguing over the provenance of the coconuts that provide the clip-clop of horses the minuscule budget couldn’t afford. Then there’s the joyous silliness of The Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, the impossibly dangerous bunny rabbits and the moment when the Grail quest is jeopardised for the lack of a shrubbery.
Pitting chivalric ideals against modern madcap comedy proves surprisingly compatible, not least when you have writing this sharp, performers to do it justice, and directors capable of providing an endearingly ramshackle period context. Endlessly quotable isn’t the half of it: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” Hard to argue with that.
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
Director: Eric Rohmer
To come from Eric Rohmer’s forensic comedies of modern manners to this adaptation of a 12th-century chivalric romance is like stepping into another dimension. In a studio of papier-mâché meadows and tiny cardboard castles unfolds the spiritual education of a youthful knight, recited in often rhyming dialogue, framed by historically-influenced ballads sung and played on-screen. At first sight, it’s heroically bonkers, but, like Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, its wilfulness is so specific that the viewer eventually gets drawn in.
Fabrice Luchini, now an icon of French cinema, is utterly hypnotic as Perceval, who’s been brought up sheltered from the world and is given various precepts to live by when he leaves home. What he’s been taught, what he’s absorbed, and what he actually does all prove somewhat divergent, and amid the arcane settings there are still echoes of Rohmer’s later modern-dress output as the waywardness of human foibles play out.
Director: John Boorman
The only film to date that attempts to bring Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to the screen in one fell swoop, John Boorman’s gallant effort is a blend of visionary accomplishment and bodged storytelling. It’s full-on sincerity leaves no choice for us but to go with the swerving narrative trajectory as the boy Arthur becomes king and fearsome warrior, turns to benign peacemaker instead, then allows his kingdom to fall to pieces, rotted by Guinevere and Lancelot’s presumed infidelity.
As mace-wielding mayhem cuts a swathe through Ireland’s greenery, here is the thrilling essence of pre-CGI cinematic spectacle, while the actors do their best with their characters’ sometimes opaque motivations. From Gabriel Byrne to Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds, a whole generation of Irish acting talent cut their teeth here, though Nicol Williamson’s mind-jolting line-readings and accent make him cinema’s most enigmatic Merlin. Still, lashings of Wagner and Carl Orff on the soundtrack seal the deal with irony-free bombast.
The Fisher King (1991)
Director: Terry Gilliam
It’s a testament to the enduring power of Arthurian myth that this modern-dress drama of huge emotions is held together by the redemptive power of the quest for the Grail. Jeff Bridges is a radio shock-jock whose callous on-air attitudes influence a mass shooting. His career suddenly on hold, he’s mired in depression when he encounters Robin Williams’ manic down-and-out, and realises that by saving this lost soul he’ll also turn himself around. The key is fulfilling Williams’ dream of retrieving the Holy Grail from a wealthy magnate’s downtown mansion, where he believes it’s secretly ensconced.
Gilliam’s response to the rollercoaster script’s melodramatic contrivances is to turn all the dials to 11, but the risk-taking pays off. While Williams’ delusions of a medieval red knight pursuing him through the streets of Manhattan are brilliantly visualised, the actors also have the wherewithal to guide us through the story’s peaks and troughs of self-loathing and renewal. It’s quite a ride.
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
Director: Joe Cornish
A boy, a sword and a stone – never gets old, does it? Writer-director Joe Cornish’s big idea wasn’t just to transport Excalibur to a modern-day London demolition site, where it’s waiting to be hoiked out by a passing schoolboy, but to reignite a centuries-old conflict twixt good and evil. Fair to say that Thomas Malory never envisioned sorceress Morgana Le Fey banished underground with an army of undead knights, who are ready to be resurrected when the magic sword exited the stone again, but then again he wasn’t writing for a CGI-ready cinematic crowdpleaser.
All this takes some explaining to younger viewers unfamiliar with the Arthurian legacy, but Cornish’s faith in the youth of today sees him extolling the chivalric virtues of courtesy, truth and friendship to bolster a strong anti-bullying message. That said, when the undead knights are besieging your school, flames leaping from their swords, it’s time to hack them to bits in return… all within the parent-friendly strictures of PG-rated mayhem, of course.
The Green Knight (2021)
Director: David Lowery
Years of sword and sorcery fodder on streaming TV have made the medieval seem decidedly ordinary, but here’s a film with the visionary intensity to make it new and strange again. In this adaptation of the anonymous 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Dev Patel is the focus of attention as Gawain, a young man waiting for his time to shine. When the Green Knight, a scary man-tree hybrid, lays down a challenge, Gawain beheads the interloper – yet by taking on the fight, he’s agreed to accept the same wound himself in a year’s time.
From here we journey through a dreamlike realm of rugged countryside and austere castles, populated by tricksters, giants, lords and ladies, talking foxes and female temptation. It all seems loaded with metaphorical meaning, yet the film compels by withholding its secrets, delivering an oneiric tapestry of suggestive nuance as a young man must discover whether he’s running towards or away from his destiny.
The Green Knight is in cinemas and on Amazon Prime from 24 September 2021.