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Chivalry in Technicolor: Sir Lancelot and the One-Eyed Monster

The Introduction

As the 1950s began, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union took center-stage. After news of the first Soviet nuclear detonation broke in late 1949, America’s ideological commitment to oppose communism rose to a fever pitch motivated by fear of annihilation. President Truman’s doctrine of containment led to American involvment in the Korean War, and President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were quick to raise the stakes with “brinkmanship,” a diplomatic game of chicken played with the threat of nuclear warfare.

Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy, senator from Wisconsin, led a veritable witch hunt for communist spies and sympathizers in all levels of government and the armed forces. His influence and popularity peaked in 1953. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), was simultaneously in the midst of its own war on Soviet propaganda in Hollywood films. They launched investigations into the communist sympathies of people in the movie business in late 1947 and again in early 1951, spawning the infamous “blacklist” that put hundreds out of work. The Hollywood blacklist was most prominent between 1952, when the Screen Writers Guild authorized studios to deny screen credits to anyone who had not been cleared by HUAC, and 1957, when a few victims of the blacklist finally started to fight back.

But while HUAC was busily hunting for communist infiltrators in Hollywood, the motion picture industry’s real enemy was the little box of tubes rapidly infiltrating America’s living rooms: the television set. The manufacturing freeze on televisions was lifted after World War II, and by 1954 commercially-licensed television stations existed in all 50 states. During those years, the percentage of American households with television sets went from 0.5% to over 55%. Televised entertainment was clean, cheap, plentiful, and only as far away as the living room. Something would have to be done if the American public was to be lured back out of their homes by the lucrative flickering shadows of the movie theater.

And this was not the only financial problem faced by Hollywood’s major studios. Even as one branch of the federal government sought to root out communism, another swooped in to halt unbridled capitalism. Prior to the 1950s, all of the major film studios also owned the theater chains where their movies were shown. Each theater showed only the movies put out by the studio that owned it. Vertically-integrated studios controlling production, distribution, and exhibition of movies prompted the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation for possible violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Eventually, in 1938, the U.S. Department of Justice sued all of the major studios for unfair trade practices. In the landmark “Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the studios. However, the “Big Five” studios implicated in the lawsuit (20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO, and Warner Bros.) had already fought off the inevitable for a full decade, and likely would likely have held out much longer but for an unforeseen turn of events.

Floyd Odlum, owner of RKO, had decided to leave the movie business in 1948, in part due to the HUAC investigations that were running roughshod through the industry, and Howard Hughes gained control of the studio. RKO was by far the weakest business competitor of the five, and Hughes quickly saw a way to turn the court’s decision to his studio’s advantage. He believed that a decision forcing studios to cut loose their theater chains would put RKO back in the game as serious competition. With this in mind, he agreed to settle in November 1948, splitting RKO into two corporations and relinquishing control of one.

Hughes’ decision seriously undermined the arguments of the other studios, and by early 1949 Paramount was ready to fold. The other three studios eventually followed suit. Already struggling to get Americans to go to the movies at all, the studios would now have to compete with each other as well as independent producers and distributors in order for their films to be exhibited by the now independent theater owners. Meanwhile, Hughes’ gambit failed to pay off and RKO bounced from owner to owner for several years, its situation going from bad to worse, until it finally stopped making movies for good in 1959.

For the rest of Hollywood, the immediate answer to the crisis was simple: bigger budgets and innovations. Give the audience something they couldn’t get from television, and they’d be sure to come for the experience. Moviemakers could film on location at all sorts of exotic destinations, and they could tackle grittier subjects than television would tolerate. The big screen already held the advantage of color, which wouldn’t see widespread use on television screens until the late ’60s and early ’70s. Costumes and sets got more expensive, extras numbered in the thousands and tens of thousands, and (naturally) big-name stars were a necessity.

Meanwhile, the technological “innovations” that flourished during the early ’50s were mostly novelty gimmicks that quickly lost their appeal (like 3-D glasses and “Smell-O-Vision”). A few, like drive-in theaters, lasted much longer, but eventually died out. One in particular has continued to define the way movies are made today.

In 1953, 20th Century Fox introduced a new screen format called “CinemaScope,” (having bought the rights to the process from French inventor Henri Chr鴩en). It allowed movies to fill a screen twice as wide as before. In the ongoing battle with television, bigger was definitely better. Fox wasted no time releasing its first CinemaScope production: The Robe. The film, a biblical epic about the Roman who won Jesus’ garments before his crucifixion, was a great success. Almost immediately, several movie studios were clamoring to license the process from Fox while others scrambled to develop their own.

MGM, declining to develop their own method, licensed CinemeScope from Fox. Their first CinemaScope offering (and the first CinemaScope film not made by Fox) was Knights of the Round Table. The film was released just a few days after the new year, 1954. MGM had gone all-out, throwing their best people at the project with plenty of money behind them.

The director, Richard Thorpe, was known for finishing productions under budget and ahead of schedule. His workmanlike and unimaginative approach to directing wouldn’t win critical acclaim, but it certainly got the job done. By 1953, he already had over 150 movies under his belt, including several Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films and the fifth Thin Man movie. Most importantly, he was fresh from the success of 1952’s Ivanhoe, one of MGM’s only box-office hits that year. Knights of the Round Table was calculated to ride the coattails of that film’s success. The films even shared the same star, big-name leading man Robert Taylor. He had played Ivanhoe, and now he would play Lancelot.

Also along to star with Robert Taylor were Ava Gardner as Guinevere and Mel Ferrer as Arthur. Gardner was one of the most dazzling leading ladies of that decade or, some would say, any other. She always had steady work, and her beauty was considered a solid box-office draw. The decision to cast Mel Ferrer is a bit of a mystery. This was his first starring role in a major movie. He had about as much experience as a producer and director as he’d had as a film actor, and had distinguished himself far more behind the camera than in front of it. Nevertheless, Arthur plays a relatively minor role in the movie next to Lancelot’s central one.

And the director and leading man weren’t the only members of the Ivanhoe cast and crew who were assigned to the new film. MGM also threw in the same producer, cinematographer, and composer (all of whom had received Oscar nominations for Ivanhoe), as well as the same screenwriter, editor, art director, costume designer, and so on. Many of them had distinguished records, some including Oscar wins.

The producer, Pandro S. Berman, was responsible for the pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and for Katherine Hepburn’s rise to stardom. Noel Langley, the screenwriter, had penned the screenplay for the beloved adaptation of The Wizard of OZ. The composer, Mikl󳠒󺳡, had worked for Alfred Hitchcock, and would later write the memorable theme for TV’s Dragnet, but his real specialty was scoring epics. He had already done several by 1953, and would go on to do many more, most notably Ben-Hur in 1959. The cinematographer, Freddie Young, later worked with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago in the 1960s.

The opening credits of Knights of the Round Table claim that it is based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, however that is perhaps because almost all comprehensive retellings of the Arthur legend must trace their adaptations back to this source. This particular version seems to owe a great deal more (in tone, in style, and in outlook) to an American, Howard Pyle, and his illustrated version for children published in four volumes in the first decade of the twentieth century. Deviations from standard Arthurian lore in Knights of the Round Table seem to exist for three reasons: efficiency, decency, and conventionality.

First, characters are conflated, subplots combined, and events streamlined in the interests of getting through a complete and mostly coherent movie-length story (the film clocks in at five minutes under two hours). Guinevere, on her way to marry Arthur, is captured by the Green Knight. Lancelot and Percival are the only named knights who get a significant amount of screentime, particularly Lancelot as the film?s chief character. Gawaine (guh-WAYNE) is mentioned once or twice. Several key events, such as the second war between Arthur and Mordred, take place off-screen.

Second, extra-marital sex is eliminated from the story where possible and euphemized everywhere else, and this version of the legend is all sword and no sorcery. In keeping with the spirit of the times, relationships between the chief characters are always honorable, and the iniquities of less savory characters are not even hinted at. Morgana Le Fay becomes Arthur?s sister by virtue of sharing a father, and although Arthur?s birth is still illegitimate (thus allowing for the ongoing civil war), this eliminates any need to discuss the rape of Igraine by Uther Pendragon.

Mordred’s origins seem better off unmentioned (in Malory he is the illegitimate child of Arthur?s incestuous one-night stand with his half-sister, Morgause). Lancelot, originally seduced (twice) by an Elaine pretending to be Guinevere in Malory, actually marries Elaine well before the formerly illegitimate Galahad appears. As for Lancelot and Guinevere, their relationship is really no more than a very close friendship, and they never move beyond a rather chaste (and fully-clothed) kiss that comes when they are already compromised by the filthy inferences of low minds.

Meanwhile, Merlin does not seem to be a practitioner of the magical arts at all. He is simply and old man who knows things. There is no Lady of the Lake, no Nimue, and no magical swords or other enchantments of any kind. Stepping in to fill this vacuum is a heightened role for Christianity (not entirely unprecedented in Arthurian tradition), which forms the basis for the principles of chivalry as well as the recurring but mystifying role of the Holy Grail.

Third, various events are rearranged or invented to accomodate certain cinematic mores. One example of this would be the dramatic cliffside duel between Lancelot and Mordred (complete with the decidedly odd presence of a pit of quicksand), satisfying the requirement for a definitive final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. An even more notable example is the uprooting of a great part of the Grail quest and its relocation off-screen to a post-Arthurian period. The film ends with Percival seeing a vision of the Holy Grail floating above the deserted Round Table as a heavenly voice instructs him to encourage Lancelot. His son, Galahad, will one day complete the quest for the Grail and restore Arthur’s destroyed kingdom.

The movie also sports all of the trappings of a 1950s period spectacle. The location shooting was done in Ireland, and the sunny, green countryside, shown to full advantage in brilliant technicolor, certainly evokes the “Summer Kingdom” imagery of legend. The interior sets are wide-open, well-lit, and completely spotless. The costumes likewise maintain a flawlessly well-laundered appearance throughout. The dresses are rich and flowing, and the mens’ courtly garb is equally lavish. Passtimes at Camelot include friendly archery matches (and friendly wagers on said matches) and hawking. Jesters and minstrels abound for dinnertime entertainment.

The knights’ armor is shiny and covered by brightly-colored tabards which match the drapery that covers their horses (Lancelot and his horse, Merrick, opt for a striking candy-apple red, as though the great knight were cruising in the medieval equivalent of a Cadillac convertible). The armor does not appear to have any appreciable weight, and does not inhibit movement in any way. The large swords that the knights wield also seem light, making for large-scale battles and duels that consist chiefly of chaotic flailing and lunging (fencing would seem unnatural with a broadsword).

The characters, and Lancelot in particular, speak in a stilted American version of stagey chivalric English that more closely resembles Mark Twain’s pasquinian “Sir Boss” and the charades of Tom Sawyer than the prosaic figures of Malory or even Tennyson; a holdover, perhaps, from the many film versions of Connecticut Yankee. In the end, really, these clich鳠make the audience immediately comfortable in their surroundings because they are all holdovers of well-established Hollywood conventions in dealing with this particular period.

This adaptation of the King Arthur legend reflects a story told in an America that unquestioningly saw itself as the good guy battling evil in an ongoing series of ideological conflicts. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is a complex tragedy where conflicted characters have as much to do with their own downfall as the evil forces that oppose them. MGM’s Knights of the Round Table is a much simpler tale that never questions the virtue of its heroes or the vice of its villains. Arthur’s tragic flaw here is an excess of decency in trusting the word of a defeated enemy. Evil is eventually defeated by a Lancelot who is both as innocent as a dove and as wise as a serpent.

At the end of it all there is no promise that Arthur will return one day. Instead, hope for the future lies with the logical heir of the chivalric tradition and the culmination of the quest for a salvific Christian symbol. Perhaps Galahad will complete the temple that Lancelot failed to build because of his involvment with another man’s wife. Either way, the major Arthur movie of the 1950s is a larger-than-life spectacle, full of action and mass appeal, with a keen awareness of the biblically-attuned elements of the story, a steady hand on the pulse of the culture’s perceptions of itself and its literature, and a firm barrier around anything that might keep families out of the theater.

Knights of the Round Table was nominated for two Oscars at the 1954 Academy Awards: Best Art Direction, Color and Best Sound. It lost the former to The Robe (which also scooped up Best Costume Design, Color). 20th Century Fox received an Honorary Award for introducing CinemaScope to the movies. The latter went to From Here to Eternity, possibly the biggest picture of 1953. That film featured an ensemble cast which included Frank Sinatra in a role that won him an Oscar and single-handedly revitalized his flagging career. Ironically, shortly after filming was complete on Knights of the Round Table, Ava Gardner separated from Sinatra, her husband of three years.

From Here to Eternity swept the Oscars with 13 nominations and 8 wins. Other acclaimed nominees included Roman Holiday, the light romantic comedy that launched Audrey Hepburn’s career, iconic western Shane, and How to Marry a Millionaire (20th Century Fox’s second CinemaScope offering). And, for the second year in a row, tens of millions of Americans watched the ceremony from the comfort of their own homes . . . on their television sets.

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~ by Jared on March 2, 2007.

3 Responses to “Chivalry in Technicolor: Sir Lancelot and the One-Eyed Monster”

  1. It’s <em>GAW-un.</em> Get it right.

    Otherwise, a very nice bit of work.

  2. I’m not sure if I’m misreading your comment or just didn’t make myself clear in the post. I was noting that “guh-WAYNE” is the way the name is pronounced throughout the movie. I believe this was the version I saw on TV when I was somewhere between 7 and 9 and was probably among my first exposures to Arthurian lore. I am convinced I can trace my incorrect pronunciation back to this source.

  3. I see. Two things just happened here, then.

    First, I did not understand that you were only taking note of the pronunciation in the film; I thought you were advancing that pronunciation on your own authority. In fact, I thought you were continuing our old joke.

    Second, I was engaging in a bit of humorous needling of my own, attempting to carry that ancient joke a step further.

    In fact … “guh-WAYNE” is, according to some dictionaries, a perfectly acceptable pronunciation of the word. I have no opinion on the matter.

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