It is my opinion that the definitive Arthurian film has not yet been made. I’m looking forward to the day when it is, but we’re not there yet. Part of the problem is the story is so long, and so complex, that it gets difficult for filmmakers to pick one part and stick with it. So, the results are frequently choppy. Some very fine attempts have been made, however, and here are my personal picks. I warn you though, this list is highly subjective, and slightly acerbic.
| Camelot (1967)
This musical starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave is a decent film adaptation of the stageplay with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. I’ll say that I don’t like this take on The Once And Future King, because it entirely misses the point of the book, which was social commentary and not romance. I expect this makes me a grump, but there it is. It is a good musical, however, with memorable and singable tunes, and it is certainly one of the most famous modern takes on the Arthurian story.
| Tristan And Isolde
All right, I’m going to cheat a little here because I’m not going to specify a single film. But, I say if you’re going to watch this one, go with Wagner. This is a story that benefits from grandeur and distance, not to mention really stunning music. There are at least two filmed versions of the opera readily available.
| Merlin (1998)
Make no mistake. This is Arthur via the Renaissance Faire. That said; it was a lot of fun. There is plenty of evidence that somewhere in the making of this somebody read the old epics, like Roman de Brut and The Life Of Merlin. The twists on the story are well considered, and entertaining. The quips are fun. The marriage of Guinevere and Arthur with the wind blowing through the unfinished hall at Camelot is haunting. To top it off, the interpretation of fairy is one of the best I’ve ever seen on the screen, and (and these are words I never thought I’d write), Martin Short turns in a surprisingly engaging performance.
| Lancelot Of The Lake (1974)
This is a French take. It’s slow, stiff and formal and where the heck the director got the idea to shoot long portions of it showing you only people and horses from the waist down, I don’t know. But, it is one of the few films that takes on Lancelot’s spiritual struggles and makes you believe them. It is also much more about true goodness and mercy, and the struggle to do what is genuinely right than any of the newer, more casual versions. It also silently, starkly, shows the sorrow and futility of the defeat that comes after you’ve done all you can. This last is the heart of any of the great tragedies.
| Knights Of The Round Table (1954)
This one’s the Hollywood Cinemascope epic. It’s bright, stiff and grandiose but, it sticks close to Le Morte d’Arthur (cleans up the incest, but hey, it was made in 1954), but makes a deep bow to Henry V. It has the inestimable virtue of all the characters acting smart and noble. It’s also one of the few post-Once And Future King variants that shows Arthur acting both grown up and heroic. Good battle scenes, good sword fights, and the only one with a renaissance pillow fight on horseback. Break out the popcorn and enjoy.
| Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)
No way out of it. This has to be part of any top 10 list. The only reason I’m putting it this far down is that if I’m going to flake out on the sofa with a video, I like straight takes better. That, and after writing four books in a series called Paths To Camelot, I’ve got a real love/ hate relationship with this one. You try writing a few hundred thousand words about King Arthur without giving your readers any excuse to say “No, Camelot’s a silly place, let’s not go there” or “Three is the number to which one counteth…” But of all the comedies that have been made on the Arthurian theme, there is none funnier, certainly none smarter, or more multi-layered. And, strangely, it might be the movie that sticks closest to the feel of the oldest ballads.
| Once Upon A Classic –
A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (1978)
No. This is not the Bing Crosby version. Actually, I can’t find this on DVD or VHS anywhere. This was made for TV (amazing how many works on this list were). I saw it when it was originally broadcast, and it grabbed hold of me. It got the satire of Twain’s story dead on. It presents his very human, very flawed characters beautifully, and has a truly impressive Merlin. And with all due respect to J.K. Rowling, this remains the story with the best set of magic words ever.
| Sword Of The Valiant (1982)
Sir Sean Connery has been in two Arthurian films. This is the one worth seeing. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it’s presenting my favorite Arthurian story, and is unabashedly romantic. This merges the stories of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s choppy, and some of the effects don’t hold up so well, but it is thoroughly entertaining. It’s also the one where I keep meeting people who say, “I saw this one with Gawain, and this girl… and I can’t remember the name of it, but it was really great!” This is that one.
| The Fisher King (1991)
This gets it down to a nutshell. It’s about fall, sacrifice and redemption. It’s not really Arthur, it’s Perceval, which allows you a happy ending (in that he’s the one who did find the grail) without gutting the story. Acting, script and cinematography are fabulous, and the understanding of the root story is dead on. It is also perfectly accessible and engaging, unless you don’t like Ethel Merman.
| Perceval Le Gallois (1978)
The Arthurian legends have been remade to the fit dictates of fashion for almost 2,000 years now. The current fashion is for ‘accuracy’. So, filmmakers stand the actors ankle deep in mud beside thatched hovels and paint fake wode on them and say, “Look, look! It’s historically accurate! This is the real King Arthur.”
These guys are all missing the point. These stories weren’t told to take you down into the mud. They were told to bring you out of it. Eric Rohmer, who directed this one, gets it. He staged a presentation of the original, unfinished, ballad by Chretien de Troyes, done as if it was a spectacle presented to, say, the court of Eleanore of Aquataine. The music, singing, sword fighting and costumes are historically accurate for the high middle ages, and there’s a passion play that could teach Mel Gibson a thing or two. By keeping the staging somewhat abstract, Rohmer allows for suspension of disbelief, which means he didn’t have to attempt to update the words or the story for a modern audience that might otherwise be tempted to ask “Why the hell are they acting like this?” Perceval is about chivalry, honour, the proper worship of God, and it is about love, courtly and otherwise. It is pageantry and spectacle, mystery and miracle. That is the real King Arthur.