Yesterday, I talked about the movie Knightriders, which is George Romero’s take on the Arthurian legends, but with the knights riding motorcycles instead of horses.
Today I thought I’d list what I consider the best movies on King Arthur. I’ve been a fan of the stories of Arthur and Camelot since I read Mary Stewart’s book The Crystal Cave, which is actually the first book in her trilogy about Merlin and Arthur, which includes The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. The trilogy is told from the viewpoint of Merlin and was my first introduction to the world of Arthur and his knights. I highly recommend it.
If you want to find a list of movies and television shows based on the Arthur legends, Wikipedia has a list here.
The Knights of the Round Table – Released in 1953, it stars Robert Taylor as Lancelot, Mel Ferrer as Arthur, and Ava Gardner as Guinevere. Yes, that Ava Gardner. I’m not a big Robert Taylor fan, but this movie fits the decade in which it was released, with a lot of derring-do and pageantry.
The Sword in the Stone. This is Disney’s animated version from 1963. I saw this when I was kid and it’s still one of my favorite animated versions of the Arthur legends.
Camelot – Based on the hit musical of the same name and released in 1967, this is a musical adaptation which stars Richard Harris (who went on to play Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies), Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and Franco Nero as Lancelot. This is another version with a lot of pageantry and singing of course. But the songs are great, Harris is wonderful as Arthur and the ending is one of my favorite of the Arthur influenced movies.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Best comedy ever about King Arthur. Actually, I think it might be the only one. Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, put it on your must-view list. It was released in 1975
Excalibur – Released in 1981 and directed by John Boorman, this was probably the first of the Arthurian movies to get gritty, bloody and sexy. There’s nudity and sex in this film, bloody action and it also leaves no doubt that Arthur and Morgana got it on and produced Mordred. One of my favorite of the Arthurian films and features a young Liam Nesson as Sir Gawain and Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fey.
First Knight – Not one of my all-time favorites (I still think Richard Gere is too old to play Lancelot) but in relation to Sean Connery playing a much older Arthur than is usually shown in the films, I suppose it’s alright. If you see this movie and you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll see a younger Liam Cunningham playing the part of Sir Agravaine. In GofT Cunningham plays Ser Davos, the Onion Knight, and Stannis’ Baratheon’s right hand man. First Knight was released in 1995.
Merlin – 1998 saw Merlin brought to television as a miniseries. This film, like Stewart’s book, tells the story of Arthur from Merlin’s perspective. Merlin is played by Sam Neill (one of my fave actors) and features Isabella Rossellini as Nimue and Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan Le Fey. Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere don’t figure as prominently in the film as in other adaptations. They’re more of a backdrop to Merlin’s ongoing battle with his former mentor, Queen Mab, played by Miranda Richardson.
Mists of Avalon – The 2001 TNT miniseries is based on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s book of the same name. It stars Julianna Margulies as Morgaine, Angelica Huston as Viviane, the Lady of the Lake and Joan Allen as Morgause. Mists is told from the viewpoint of the women involved in the Arthur legends and it’s one of my favorites.
King Arthur – 2004 saw the release of King Arthur, starring Clive Owen as Arthur, Keira Knightly as Guinevere, and Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot. This version tried to base the Arthur legend more in historical “fact”. Arthur and his “knights” are Romanized and Merlin is more of an adversary than an ally. This movie doesn’t entirely work for me on all levels, but the performances are good and the action sequences exciting.
Finally, and one of my favorite Arthurian adaptations, the BBC’s Merlin. Once again, the story of Arthur and his knights are told from the viewpoint of Merlin, but in this version Arthur isn’t even king yet when the series begins. He’s Prince Arthur and his father, Uther still rules. Magic is outlawed and punishable by death and Merlin, who comes to Camelot as a young man, must hide the fact that he does magic but he must also protect and help Arthur to fulfill his destiny and become king. The series plays around a lot with many of the tropes of the Arthur legends, which I liked. The Arthur stories don’t always have to adhere to what’s been done before. They shouldn’t. That’s the beauty of the Arthur legends.
Whether the knights ride horses or Guinevere starts outs as a servant, the stories of Arthur, Merlin, Camelot and the Round Table continue to be told for a reason and will continue to be told as long as there are storytellers to tell and people to listen.