Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Iliad, most Shakespeare plays, most Bible stories; stories we all know but nobody can tell correctly on screen. I wrote one of my infamous filler articles from the days of yore on great ancient stories that for some reason baffle and trouble film producers when you’d think they’d probably be really easy to adapt, and today I’m going to do that again, but focusing on one particular legendarium that I have always loved, but that has spawned uncountable droves of shitty movies. I am, of course, referencing King Arthur. For what should be obvious reasons, I won’t be discussing Monty Python and the Holy Grail here, and instead focus on the “serious” and “faithful” adaptations.
Screenwriters John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg cite Thomas Malory’s novel Le Morte D’Arthur as the source for their epic cinematic retelling of King Arthur’s legend. The book, first published in 1485, spans the entire Arthurian saga, from his criminal conception and birth to his death and EVERYTHING in between. The mass market paperback edition clocks in at 576 pages. The film, running a lengthy 140 minutes, stubbornly refuses to cut anything out. We get the story of Arthur’s birth, his childhood with adopted brother Kay, his removal of the Sword from the Stone, his crowning, his formation of the knights of the round table, the retrieval of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, Morgan Le Fay’s training with Merlin, her treachery against Arthur, the birth of Mordred, Arthur’s first meeting with Lancelot, his friendship with Lancelot, his marriage to Guinevere, the torrid affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, Arthur’s wrath, the Grail Quest, Mordred’s rebellion, Le Fay’s imprisonment of Merlin, the final battle and everyone’s death. That’s about six or seven minutes per thing. In addition to being the shiniest movie I have ever seen, Boorman’s Arthurian epic is a brusquer and less heartfelt checklist than the third Harry Potter film. Perhaps it’d make a good miniseries, but there’s simply too much going on for one movie. Believe it or not, 140 minutes isn’t enough time to tell this story. It’s way too much time though, to spend watching Excalibur, which, apart from failing as an adaptation, is also just a really bad movie.
King Arthur (2004)
Coming out after Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings made swords cool again, but before Batman Begins showed people how to make gritty reboots, this reimagining opts for an embarrassingly self-serious “historical” approach to the Arthurian legends. King Arthur, who probably didn’t really exist, might have existed as an early king of the Britons around the time of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, long before shiny helmets, feudalism, and Robin Hood came to the British Isles. This revisionist film has all the pretense of accuracy, putting the kibosh on the accepted but woefully anachronistic popular visions of the Knights of Camelot; unfortunately nothing about this movie is even remotely accurate to any sort of history, made up or otherwise. It’s sort of like how Anonymous tries to upstage an accepted history but flat-out refuses to offer any supporting evidence. No, instead, possibly because it came out in the year 2004, this Arthur (a sadly misused Clive Owen) stands in the rain, gets dirty, makes out with Keira Knightley, and fights Saxons (??? for some reason) with a kick-ass sword, bro. King Arthur also features an offensive waste of Danish Superstar Mads Mikkelsen and that, friends, is truly unforgivable.
First Knight (1995)
The most amazing thing about First Knight, and indeed about all Richard Gere films, is that it exists as a serious film that someone thought would be good, and not as a cruel satire of the Hollywood machine. Now, I cannot tell a lie: I have not actually seen all of First Knight, but I have over the years seen several segments out of context. From that, I think I can piece together some sort of narrative ensemble, and from that I think I can afford to say, loudly and resoundingly, “Wow.” Focusing on that aforementioned EXPLICIT AFFAIR between the newly-knighted Lancelot and the newly-queened Guinevere, and all the while somehow managing to waste Sean Connery as King Arthur, First Knight distinguishes itself as a quintessentially earnest and shallow mid-90s historical romance, trapped partway between trying to appeal to the enigmatic youngsters of the era and trying to be a good movie, and failing rather embarrassingly along those lines.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Disney receives due credit for what is, by my reckoning, the only truly good King Arthur movie. Focusing on a young Arthur working as an assistant to the brilliant travelling wizard Merlin in what today would be called King Arthur: Origins, The Sword in the Stone mixes loyalty to the text with Disney’s innate early 60s magic to create a lighthearted story for children that, remarkably, never undercuts or undermines the integrity of the source material. Even though Arthur gets turned into a squirrel at one point and a little bird at another. Somehow, this animated adventure achieves more than any of the previous films I mentioned, and I think the most likely reason is due to its lack of pretense. All the other movies clearly met the world with a “come at me bro” attitude, boasting at various points to be the definitive telling of Arthur’s legacy. The Sword in the Stone just wanted to be itself, and never anything it wasn’t, and so, like most movies who share similar goals, couldn’t possibly have failed.
Of course, this list offers a mere spattering of Arthurian adaptations (IMDb credits the character with nearly a hundred and fifty cinematic incarnations), and let us not forget the Avengers-style Knights of the Round Table expanded universe joining us in 2016, directed by Guy Richie and starring a confusingly American Charlie Hunnam as Arthur. That’ll be good.