When I went to my Movie Archive to survey the Arthurian movies I have found and reviewed, I counted eighteen of them. Almost all of them are disappointing for one reason or another, but taken altogether they are a marvelous tapestry depicting one of the foundational myths of Western Civilization. The first problem to be faced by anyone coming at this material through a chosen combination of books and movies is the bewildering array of contradictory detail on characters and situations. All the familiar elements of the Arthurian legends, including many tangents and irrelevant add-ons, are the inventions of their authors and symptomatic of their times. History enters the picture only as a backdrop. It is well-known that this legend has its roots in the time when the Roman Empire abandoned northern Europe and pulled back to its place of origin to face its own collapse by 500 CE. There is some fragmentary evidence that there may have been a warrior chieftain who united the tribes of Britain to face the challenges of autonomous rule in the early 6th century, but that is where the facts end. More than six hundred years later, there was a book called History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that applied a good deal of imagination to reconstructing the court of King Arthur.
The Arthurian legend as imaginative literature begins for many readers with the work of Chretien de Troyes (say Trwaw), my personal favorite. A Frenchman who wrote romances about the fabled court of the Round Table, he invented whole new episodes including the love affair of Sir Launcelot and Guinevere (perhaps inspired by the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult), and the theme of the Holy Grail. His is the most memorable of similar romances published in 12th century France.
The next milestone came in 1485 when William Caxton of England employed his newly delivered printing press to publish a manuscript by Sir Thomas Malory called Le Morte d’Arthur, which incorporated the French romances. This monumental work became the source for most novelists and screenwriters of later centuries who wanted to add their own stamp of originality to a legend that was already a Christmas tree of ornamental vignettes. Each author from then to now has felt at liberty to tell the story free from the constraints of history because what we know is pretty much all fiction anyway.
The complete list of the movies I have collected on this subject will be found in the archive on the toolbar above. Here I will put in just a few samplers to set the scene. England was not the epitome of Civilization 1500 years ago, but it can be interesting to see how it laid the groundwork to one day achieve that distinction before it too tumbled.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)
Before this study gets too serious, here’s a little bit of fun. Among the most flamboyantly distorted versions of King Arthur’s realm is the 1889 novel by Mark Twain called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It has been made into a movie several times over with little regard for the integrity of Arthurian legend, what there is of it, or the intentions of Mr. Twain. An early film version starred Will Rogers and made it a vehicle for his home-spun humor. The version featured below gave Bing Crosby a chance to do some singing and did not require him to revert to period costume. There have been many other adaptations of this book, all of them applying a heavy does of imagination, if not inventiveness, to the idea of fanciful time travel back to the sixth century CE. It should be mentioned that Twain’s satirical novel ends with a staggering slaughter of mindless armies, usually omitted in the movies.
The YouTube account for this trailer has been terminated.
Knights of the Round Table (1953)
In 1953, there appeared a movie that prodded in me some early childhood memories of Arthurian England. Like the books for young people by Howard Pyle, this full-color movie stripped the legend to its most essential parts eliminating sordid situations and putting the spotlight on heroism. The downside of this 1950s filmmaking approach was stiff dialogue and cardboard characters. It premiered when I was a young boy and I felt betrayed when I saw that they had decided to cut the entire episode where young Arthur, at about my age, pulled the sword of kingship from an anvil. This great moment in fictional history would not get full recognition until Walt Disney released The Sword in the Stone (1963). I had to do some digging to find out whether it was a stone or an anvil, or both. My findings were inconclusive.
The Sword in the Stone (1963) / Camelot (1967)
Mid-century interest in Arthurian legend was inspired in large part by T.H. White’s highly regarded novel, The Once and Future King, written in the years surrounding World War II and published in 1958. The key element in White’s work was an examination of the fate of Arthur’s ideals of chivalry as the means to save the world from barbarism. This theme had nothing to do with the original Arthur, if there ever was such a man. It grew instead out of the emergent cultures of Europe in the aftermath of the Roman Empire.
Many more variations followed Malory’s 1485 effort to record the definitive legend. By the 20th century, the material was fair game for the movie industry. T.H. White’s imaginative novel was directly responsible for Disney’s animated story of young Arthur and for the Broadway musical relating the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. It became a movie in 1967 with Richard Harris as Arthur. It’s interesting to note that all of the Arthurian movies dress this 5th century legend in 15th century medieval attire. This is a testament to the influence of Chretien and Malory. As I grew older and realized that I would never be a king, or pull a sword from anything, I began to understand that legends are the playthings of those who tell the stories.
The Mists of Avalon (2001)
Many Arthurian movies were made between the Technicolor 50s and the turning of the millennium. It was a time when the West looked over its shoulder to see where it had been. Most of these movies were revisionist, putting a different spin on what was once well known. As the decades passed, details grew darker and the violence more extreme. One film, more revisionist than most, stood out for its fresh perspective and timeliness. It was The Mists of Avalon (2001), based on the 1982 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It looks at the Arthurian legends through the eyes of the women who have stood in its shadow for 1500 years. This was a made-for-TV movie that has suffered from some neglect. Only a brief trailer is available. It is a dense movie and difficult to follow, but worth the effort if only for the other side of the story.
I cannot make a link to the trailer, but you can go to YouTube and find it.
Tristan & Isolde (2006)
Yes, this is the same medieval legend that Wagner made into an opera. The tale is set in the British Isles after the fall of Rome. Things are in disarray and tensions are building among the various tribes. The warlord Marke is attempting to unite the English tribes against their most powerful enemy, the Irish. Tristan (James Franco) is a young Cornish warrior who falls in love with Isolde, a beautiful Irish girl of noble blood. The DVD package touts this as a precursor to Romeo and Juliet but it is more like Lancelot and Guinevere (indeed that Celtic legend was much embroidered by French romances). She is married to an Irish warlord. Tristan dies of war wounds at the end but the filmmakers decided against the death of Isolde. For reasons that are not clear, this well-made film has difficulty lifting off the ground; it has a sort of medieval trudge to it. The Making Of documentary on the DVD emphasizes the fact that this period piece was forced to work on a very modest budget. They did a nice job but it never transcends. This work is set on the fault lines between barbarism and Civilization. There is a full article on the evolution of the legend in Wikipedia, under Tristan and Iseult. See also the excellent review by Roger Ebert.
Medieval Europe Related Posts:
*Go to FAQ for use of the term post-paradigm and capitalization of Civilization.