I would argue that Disney’s The Sword and the Stone is probably in the top three if only for charm and a few good songs.
King Arthur - 2004
Oh how I wanted the more recent Clive Owen King Arthur to be the one. It had so many things going for it. Clive Owen, for one, Kira Knightly had some passible moments and the very decision to include the Cruithni (or Pictish to most) tribesmen was a stroke of brilliance that I had once thought of crafting a tale about because they are just so compelling. But, all in all, the whole movie felt like an “adventure” movie, and not a serious work to embody what is possibly the most significant piece of English historical myth other than George and the Dragon. It had that taint of being a Brookhiemer production, which can be good if you are Pirates of the Carrabiean, a movie passed on a ride at Disneyland. But if you dein to embody true mythos, magic, and the qualities of a king that would be remembered for a thousand years, then it’s actually a curse. Yes there was a nice twist in that the Saxons or Viking raiders were the evil enemy . . . but they had all the cinematic appeal of watching a biker gang try to take over medieval England with their bad attitudes. Merlin as a Pictish was also cool . . . but he was such a minor character, it wasn’t nearly developed enough to make a full impact. And finally, the themes of the movie were beaten by the character like so many dead horses. “Free will, yes or no? How can we decide?!!!” Come on.
In the words of Nicol Williamson’s Merlin to Morgana, “You’ll have to do better than that.”
The King Arthur knights had this novel take based on them being conscripted by the Romans from the plains of Georgia or something. Very interesting and they claimed, based on some historical record. Hmmm. I don’t have a problem with departing from Mallory’s La Mort d’Arthur. After all he was a Frenchy writing about the most famous English king, no doubt he took liberties. But, what a great work that was. It’s hard to leave it behind. And yet, what is this historical work? A bunch of campy adventure dude jokes. Some of the knights seemed well cast, while others felt hollow. Lancelot had none of the mystique of Mallory’s creation. By the end of the movie, one begins to feel like this is getting into more Arthurian territory, as if there might be a sequel. But there was no sequel so whatever potential might have been, was lost on some nice special effects and high production quality, but ultimately something more swashbuckling that heartwrenching and magical.
Other, Other Arthurian "Movies"
My wife would bring up Camelot. Do you want to discuss this musical tragic farce with such hits as, “C’est Moi”? Lancelot literally singing his own praises for four minutes is more than I can take. To be fare, I think Camelot appeals to people who saw it when it first came out or, as in the case of my wife, saw it with someone else who first saw it when the movie first came out—repeatedly.
Are we ready to get real here?
Excalibur: The Best Ever Made
First, let’s just point out that director John Boorman (Zardoz, Deliverance, Emerald Forest) didn’t want big name actors affecting the purity of the legendary characters from La Mort d’Arthur, so he mainly casted unknown British stage actors. So let’s see who he discovered for this little romp into myth:
- Helen Mirren – Morgana
- Gabriel Byrn – Uther Pendragon
- Liam Neeson – Sir Gawain
- Patrick Stewart – Leondegrance
- Ciarin Hinds - Lot
Next, Boorman managed to stage what feel like actual battles of men in armor, riding horses and hacking away at eachother. The beginning of Excalibur shows the time of Uther and has the feel of brute force, unchecked lust for women and battle, and the dire consequences thereof. Merlin tries to help Uther, but the new king is a slave to his desires. “I’ve only known how to butcher men,” Uther says to Igrayne as he pledges to love their new child. But Merlin comes to take his due: the baby Arthur. Uther was not the one, and Merlin had to intervine to hid Arthur away from the many enemies Uther had made. But Uther regrets giving up his own flesh and blood and sets out after Merlin. Instead he finds and ambush of disgruntled knights whose master he betrayed. Ortally wounded, Uther screams into the forest, “No one shall weild Excalibur, but meeee!” and then he drives it into a giant stone and dies.
The way Excalibur jumps ahead in time, decades at times, is somewhat lamentable as it makes it difficult to settle into any one drama for too long. I kept thinking, during this recent viewing, that this is why epic tv series are the only way to adapt books like this one. We could have seen what Arthur’s childhood was like. But, given all the givens, Boorman does a great job to introduce that it’s some fifteen or more years later, Arthur is a squire for his “brother” Sir Kay and there’s a tourney to figure out who shall be raise the sword from the stone and become king. This is the stuff of legend, and the stuff of my childhood. Full disclosure, I started watching Excalibur at age 5 when it first came out on HBO, probably only a year after the theatrical release. It was one of the very few videos I owned throughout childhood and it’s impossible to say how many times I’ve seen it. More than 20 is safe.
To watch young Arthur approach the sword in the stone and, almost as an afterthought, reach out and just lift it from the stone, still gives me chills. It’s an affirmation of power. He reaches out to claim something that’s already his, but he just doesn’t know that yet. And let’s discuss the music. I mean who else figured out Camena Burana was the most epic music of all time for a charge of knights riding into battle but John Boorman? I can’t tell you how infused with ancient magical potential I feel when that music plays. And Trevor Jones did a wonderful job composing a score that hit all the epic, mythic notes and infused some themes from Carmina Burana. There’s something that makes Excalibur feel like you are stepping back in time.
If there is something bad about it, let’s just say, the hair can occasionally feel like we just left the 70’s on some characters. There are a few goofy moments that could have been ironed out. And the sound mix is not very good, truth be told. So bad that Boorman was said to actually drop the Dolby Stereo in favor of a mono one. That sounds like a major screw up to me.
But the movie won some awards for costumes. It’s hard to think of another King Arthur movie that did so much with metal armor as a way to set the knights into this special time and place. From polished, shiny silver knights like Lancelot and Arthur’s last true knights near the end, to the near black armor with demon horns and snouts. And the feminine costumes ranged from sultry to elegant and sparkling like golden firelight.
There is a sense of consequence for selfish actions. Even Arthur is tested when he calls upon the power of Excalibur in order to save his pride and defeat Lancelot, who had rightfully won a contest. This moment troubled me as a child and now I see how significant Arthur’s moment of regret and humility really is for a leader who is given an ultimate weapon. Would only all absolute rulers be able to self-reflect that way.
Excalibur is not a perfect movie, by any means, but I maintain that it captures the magic and drama of the best written tales of the once and future king of England and there has yet to be another movie that does a better job in doing so.