Filming began last month on Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur, first in a projected six-film franchise based on the King Arthur legends. Even if you have doubts about the film’s director, Guy Ritchie (whose Sherlock Holmes movies were lively enough) this is surely good news, for whereas television seems to be broadcasting a new Camelot-set mini-series every other month, the mythology is curiously underrepresented in the cinema.
Which is odd, considering there’s enough action, romance and magic to forge an entire genre, one that even has the potential, perhaps, to develop into a British equivalent of the Western, exploring the relationship of landscape, history and myth to national identity. Nor is there any shortage of material, which ranges from Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory to T.H. White, to adventures of the lesser-known knights and damsels with fat plaits, and a full panoply of ghost ships, deadly chairs and questing beasts, all ripe for the picking, that I remember from a King Arthur book I had as a small girl in a richly illustrated edition I have been trying in vain to track down ever since.
You wouldn’t even need a huge budget – just look at some of the films in the list below. But perhaps a blockbuster franchise is just what is needed to get the overfamiliar Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle out of the way at an early stage, enabling more adventurous film-makers to move on and explore some of the more obscure stories. Here then, is My Top Ten of Best Arthurian Movies. Or, to be more accurate, the Only Ten Arthurian Movies I Can Think Of Off the Top of My Head. I have no doubt there are other films on the subject I have forgotten, so, as always, suggestions are welcome.
Knights of the Round Table (1953)
MGM’s version of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is just as stupid and glorious as you’d expect. Ava Gardner is gorgeous as Guinevere, the Tintagel locations are the real McCoy, Lancelot (Robert Taylor) has a clever horse which saves him from quicksand and the Technicolor kirtles are truly velvety. “Modred” (Stanley Baker, more virile than all the rest of the knights put together) is not Morgan Le Fay’s son, but her lover. Elsewhere, men poke big swords through each other’s armpits, and knock over parts of Stonehenge.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Disney’s adaptation of the first part of T.H. White’s fabulous magnum opus The Once and Future King is one of the studio’s most underrated animated features. It’s the story of 12-year-old orphan Arthur – known as Wart – in his lowly pre-Excalibur days. Merlin teaches him the ways of the world by transforming him into a squirrel, a bird and a fish, sings Higitus Figitus (sample lyric: “Hockety pockety wockety wack”) and duels with purple-haired witch Madame Mim, which even now I find more scary than amusing.
Joshua Logan’s lumbering film version of the Lerner and Loewe musical (not the team’s finest hour, it has to be said) is another adaptation of The Once and Future King, specifically the section dealing with the love triangle. Vanessa Redgrave is fine as Guinevere, but Richard Harris is adorable as Arthur, telling us How to Handle a Woman in semi-Sprechstimme, and altogether sexier than Franco Nero as Lancelot. The frocks and furs won an Oscar.
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
The Arthurian myths have strong links to France, and who better to suck all the colour out of the legend than gloomy French auteur Robert Bresson, who (as usual) uses an amateur cast delivering dialogue in an emotionless monotone, evoking a joyless mediaeval world in which life is short, sharp and bloody, with bagpipes. It’s an uncompromising vision, not for the faint of heart. Some of the more extravagant bloodletting looks like a rehearsal for the duel with John Cleese as the Black Knight in…
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
“Funnier than Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac” wrote the reviewer from Time Out – and he was right. I’ll go further, and call this the best Arthurian film ever made. Co-directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, it perfectly captures the digressive, peripatetic nature of the myths, and fully exploits the English landscape to mystical effect – all on a budget that doesn’t even stretch to real horses. Too many highlights to mention, but let us raise a kingly goblet to Graham Chapman, whose performance as Arthur binds all the mayhem together so beautifully.
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
An alarmingly youthful-looking Fabrice Luchini plays the title role in this heavily stylised adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th century epic romance; André Dussollier plays Gauvain, the French version of Gawain. Esteemed auteur Eric Rohmer almost rivals Monty Python for the barking madness of his low budget Arthurian vision, acted out against non-naturalistic sets and lovely colours that sometimes remind you of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The trees are made from metal, there are cartoon geese and a chorus of minstrels, who keep bursting into madrigals. But the horses are real.
John Boorman’s adaptation of Le Morte d’Arthur, shot on location in Ireland, is a heady brew of myth and magic, though the young and sexy cast (Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart are just two of the actors clanking around) is overshadowed by Nicol Williamson’s broad panto turn as Merlin and Helen Mirren slithering around in medieval fetish-wear as the scheming Morgana. When the film came out there was much amusement at the scene in which Gabriel Byrne keeps his armour on while having sex, though I’ve always found it even funnier that the entire Round Table keeps theirs on to eat supper.
Perhaps it was ill-advised to open the film with music from Götterdämmerung, since I personally find The Ring hard to dissociate from an entirely different set of European myths, but the soundtrack is on firmer ground with Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, of course, and there’s a memorable foliage-related moment set to O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana where myth and landscape merge to magical effect. It’s British film-making at its most eccentric and enthralling.
First Knight (1995)
Predictably, critics scoffed at Richard Gere as Lancelot in this Hollywood version of the Arthurian legend, but he makes a dashing romantic lead, exchanging soulful glances with Guinevere (Julia Ormond) under the very nose of gruff King Arthur (Sean Connery). This is lightweight historical fantasy, but not without its pleasures; Jerry Goldsmith’s score is splendid, costumes and design (seemingly inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite vision of the Middle Ages) are exquisite, and you can’t help but admire any film in which an entire army disguises itself as a flock of sheep.
Prince Valiant (1997)
Hal Foster’s faux-Arthurian comic strip, which has been running in American newspapers since 1937, was first filmed in 1954, with Robert Wagner in the title role, but I’m also fond of this cheap and cheerful Anglo-Irish-German co-production, in which evil Vikings steal Excalibur and plant a scrap of tartan so King Arthur will blame the Scots. True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer plays the Nordic prince with the dorky haircut; the cultworthy cast also features Joanna Lumley as Morgan Le Fey, Ron Perlman as Boltar the Dragon Man and Udo Kier as Sligon the Usurper.
King Arthur (2004)
Clive Owen looks hilariously ill at ease in his Roman helmet in Jerry Bruckheimer’s “true story behind the legend”. In other words, no magic, though claims to authenticity are instantly scuppered by Guinevere being played by 21st century twiglet Keira Knightley in a Dark Age bikini. Ray Winstone, Ioan Gruffudd, Joel Edgerton and Mads Mikkelsen are among the half dozen knightly stragglers and woad-painted warriors facing off against a mob of Saxon bovver-boys. Not unenjoyable, but then I’m a sucker for anything with fire-arrows.
This article was first published on the Telegraph website in February 2014. It has been extensively rewritten and added to.