Chivalry in Technicolor: An American Movie-Goer at King Arthur’s Court

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table first broke onto American movie screens in 1910, seven years after The Great Train Robbery introduced storytelling to the motion picture, and five years before Birth of a Nation revolutionized the industry. Since then, King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Camelot and the Holy Grail have been featured in dozens of American and British films.

Arthurian cinema crosses a number of genre lines: epic, musical, comedy, fantasy, romance, drama and action/adventure. The quality of the films has an equally broad range. Some are quite entertaining; most, less so. Not one has yet proven to be revolutionary or even particularly significant as either a work of art or an industry-defining event.

Nevertheless, Arthurian films are both significant and worthy of study as landmarks of an ever-changing American culture. Despite the wide disparity between the many film versions of the Arthurian cycle, all of the excursions made by American cinema into the realm of Arthur and his knights retain one crucial element of the legendary story: its cultural adaptability. In particular, each of the six major movie versions of the Arthur legend released since 1950 paints a far clearer portrait of the decade in which it was released than of the literature from which it was adapted.

Of course, it is perfectly natural that the Arthur legend should be adapted and re-adapted for the silver screen. Few myths have retained as much appeal, vitality, and significance over such a length of time as the legends surrounding King Arthur and his court. For hundreds of years Arthurian legends have received the attention of some of the greatest names in British and American literature: Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Tennyson, Twain, Eliot. Its characters and situations have long been regarded as a rich and inexhaustible source of material for every form of storytelling imaginable.

Part of the reason for this continued attention, aside from the archetypal qualities which seem to grant the stories universal human appeal (in Western culture, at least), is the malleability that Arthur has retained from one generation to the next. Jennifer Goodman observes that:

Over fifteen centuries diverse intellectual movements have reshaped the story of Arthur and the Round Table to suit their own purposes. Transitions among them are often revealed more clearly in Arthurian literature than elsewhere. Because the plot remains more or less familiar, readers of Arthurian works can focus on the altered treatment of the story. Changes in Arthurian literature mirror changes in our knowledge and beliefs about ourselves and our history.

Whether the men (and women) of Camelot take center stage in a courtly romance poem of the 12th century, an epic work of prose in the 15th, or a Broadway musical in the 20th, Arthur seems to have the ability to be all things to all people.

After its introduction to movie audiences in 1910, virtually all American-made Arthur movies for the next forty years were adaptations of Mark Twain?s satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur?s Court. The dominant role in early American cinema of this popular story of American common sense, industry and mechanical skill triumphing over medieval European superstition and barbarism in Camelot is an interesting social commentary in and of itself.

However, these films, along with many others made throughout the twentieth century, only deal tangentially (if at all) with elements considered central to the King Arthur stories: the Lancelot-Guinevere affair, the quest for the Holy Grail, the illegitimate Sir Mordred?s role in the fall of Camelot, and so forth. That is not to suggest that these films are not important bits of Arthurian cinema in their own right, but merely that it would be foolhardy to attempt to catalogue and account for them all as cultural landmarks (even if they all were).

The six films made after 1950 which attempt to portray (in full or in part) the central threads of Arthurian legend are Knights of the Round Table (1953), Camelot (1967), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, a British-made film, but important to and indicative of contemporary American culture nonetheless), Excalibur (1981), First Knight (1995), and King Arthur (2004). An examination of how each film approaches its source material provides an interesting portrait of the time in which it was made.

Part One — Sir Lancelot and the One-Eyed Monster

~ by Jared on October 5, 2006.

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