The many cinematic takes on King Arthur
Director Guy Ritchie has enlisted Charlie Hunnam to take on the title role in this week’s new release from Warner Bros.: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The movie re-imagines the Arthur story as one where he was cast out as a young boy and never told of his royal lineage or birthright.
Growing up among the common folk a as no one, he only grasps his destiny when, through a series of circumstances, he takes hold of the sword Excalibur. That begins to take him down the road to leading an uprising to oust the less-than-beloved current king and embrace who he’s meant to be.
That the movie takes such liberties with the basic legend of King Arthur shows, like Shakespeare’s plays, how flexible these stories and myths are. Like any good fable, as long as you use recognizable characters and hit a few basic ideas, the framework is malleable enough to support a variety of approaches. That means they can be retold and remain relevant to any time period without feeling staid or old-fashioned.
So this week let’s look back at the trailers for a half-dozen movies that have, in some manner, told the Arthur legend before.
A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court
This Mark Twain novel has been adapted for the screen a number of times, beginning with 1921’s silent feature starring Harry Myers as the time-displaced traveler and most recently (and very loosely) in 2001’s Black Knight starring Martin Lawrence.
If there’s a definitive version (aside from the Bugs Bunny-lead A Connecticut Rabbit In King Arthur's Court) it’s the 1949 movie starring Bing Crosby. While it may not be the most accurate to Twain’s original story, it keeps the basic idea of a man out of time who causes chaos in Arthur’s court. The trailer makes it clear to audiences of the time that this is a vehicle for Crosby’s talents as it features a couple of musical numbers and starts with an introduction by co-star William Bendix telling everyone of Crosby’s involvement. It’s sold in the manner of many films from that era, with a focus on the spectacle and the romance, with Crosby at the center of both.
We’re still in musical territory here, with the 1967 adaptation of the hit stage production starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. The story covers a number of core ideas in the Arthur legend, including the illicit romance between Guinevere and Sir Lancelot and the threat that poses to the stability of the kingdom.
The first 30 seconds of the trailer are devoted to the grand scale of the production, showing hundreds of extras as citizens of the kingdom before we’re promised the most romantic tale ever. The narration takes pains to point out that this is the beloved stage show brought to life, showing how it’s been adapted for the big-screen with more outdoor shots and other changes that take advantage of being free from the constraints of the stage. The cast and story get only passing mention in favor of the spectacular visuals.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
No list of movies about King Arthur is complete without Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This 1975 feature was the first original big-screen outing from the British comedy troupe (not counting …And Now For Something Completely Different) and definitely takes liberties with the story. Here, Arthur (Graham Chapman) is on a quest to find the Holy Grail, believing he’s been chosen by God to do so. Things get extremely silly along the way.
The trailer sells the movie in a way only the Python’s could think of. It starts out with standard voiceover talking about the epic scale of the movie but that narrator is kicked out and another brought in, like we’re listening to auditions. Finally, a Chinese-speaking narrator is brought in though that of course necessitates subtitles. He keeps talking about the movie having some funny moments and some low-budget action scenes while footage from the movie is shown. It all ultimately ends with an ad for the Chinese restaurant that’s just a few minutes from the theater.
The Sword In the Stone
Disney took its first of what would wind up being a few stabs at the Arthur legend with this 1963 animated feature. The story tells the story of Arthur, a poor boy who is the only one capable of pulling Excalibur from the stone and so, with the help of Merlin and the talking owl Archimedes, tries to rule the best he can despite his age, inexperience and those who covet the throne.
The trailer for the 1983 theatrical release gives a hint as to how the movie was originally sold, as the story of a boy destined to be king who enlists Merlin to help find a “magic sword.” There are plenty of talking animals and other antics that have little to do with the story, though a foe for Merlin is introduced. Instead we’re told this is a journey of honor and courage. It’s notable that the phrase “magical sword” is used a couple times here as someone obviously felt that would resonate well with younger audiences.
King Arthur (2004)
Starring Kiera Knightly as Guinevere, Clive Owen as Arthur and Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, this 2004 adaptation of the story sought to take out the myth and legend and present a grittier, more realistic take on the story. So it takes out the fancy costumes of Camelot and replaces them with more time-appropriate clothing and sets it in the historical context of the fall of the Roman Empire and other political and military upheavals that would have been taking place in this period.
The trailer starts out right away by selling that demystified, real-world approach as the main value proposition, with grimy and foggy shots of the landscape the story will be set in. Still, it tells us, those legends are based on a real hero and this purports to cut through the myth to get to that reality. It’s all coats of animal pelts and heavy armor as armies clash, threats are made and more, with everyone as mud-covered as they can be and still be recognizable as movie stars. There’s no love triangle here, with Guinevere instead portrayed as a fighter on her own, part of the army that supports Arthur and his kingdom.
This is far from a comprehensive list as the Arthur legend continues to be told and retold in various ways. Disney retold Mark Twain’s story with A Kid In King Arthur’s Court, the better to appeal to young people who aren’t interested in a story starring adults. Starz aired a single season of the show “Camelot” that introduced palace intrigue involving Arthur’s sister and lots of steamy sex and violent action. Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond starred in 1995’s First Knight that focused on the tension between the three. And that’s just naming a few.
Regardless of which type of story you prefer - fanciful and romantic, silly and nonsensical, gritty and realistic - there’s a version of the Arthur legend out there for you. With a marketing campaign that emphasized Arthur’s humble roots before striking out and embracing his royal birthright, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t the biggest departure from the core myth, just the latest way it’s been molded to fit the vision of the latest creative person to tackle it as a means to tell what they hope will be a timely and relevant story.