A little like Robin Hood, every few years sees a new version of King Arthur, more often than not they fail to live up to the potential. With the latest incarnation: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword due out next month, it’s a good time to look back at some past interpretations of the story:
The best interpretation of the legend I have come across came, not on the screen but on the page. Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King (1995), Enemy of God (1995) and Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur (1997)) is a trilogy of books telling the story of Arthur from a more grounded prospective. Set in a Post-Roman Britain at a time when the nation was under constant threat of invasion at the same time as being torn apart from within by petty struggles from the kingdoms. There is also a struggle between the new Christianity that is sweeping the country and the Old Religions. The reason the story works so well is the way the magic is stripped away to little more than superstition and legend leaving the writer free to tell a story of realistic historical fiction that retains all the elements of Arthurian mythology. Using the original Welsh legends of the Dark Ages as a foundation, but also including later European characters such as Lancelot. Very cinematic in its structure I am always surprised it has never been adapted for the screen, large or small.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): A ludicrously low budget and silly telling of the story that hits the marks you would expect in a story of Arthur with the comic inclusion of The Voice of God, killer rabbits, holy hand grenades, a wizard named Tim, a Trojan Rabbit, and who could forget The Knights who say Ni. The budget didn’t stretch to horses so the actors skipped along pretending to be ridding they way children would in the playground, while their aids followed banging coconut shells together simulating early foley work. The result is totally ridicules, but hilarious as you would expect from the Python’s.
Excalibur (1981): Taking its name from the legendary sword of King Arthur, John Boorman’s film is based on the 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur (the death of Arthur) by Thomas Malory. Malory’s work has become the basis of many people’s Arthurian stories, it was itself based on existing stories from English, Welsh and French stories as well as his own inventions. The film tells the story of Arthur from his conception to his downfall. The story contains all the characters you would expect: King Arthur, Merlin, Guenevere, Morgana Le Fay, Lancelot, Perceval, Uther, Pendragon, Igrayne, Mordred. A million miles from the reality based version of Bernard Cornwell, this is pure fantasy and, probably the best fantasy version of the story.
King Arthur (2004): Let’s begin by saying the movies tagline “The True Story Behind the Legend” is a bit of a stretch, well actually it is total bullshit! The story is as fictional as any other legend of Arthur. Setting the story in a similar time to Bernard Cornwell’s take on the story, this Antoine Fuqua directed effort goes a stage further taking every sense of magic and fantasy out of the story. Arthur (Clive Owen) is depicted as a Roman cavalry officer. Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is a native Briton and the Daughter of Merlin (Stephen Dillane -best known as Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones) a tribal leader. The story is a little convoluted but culminates in a Briton/Roman battle against Saxon invaders. The film was met with nearly universally poor reviews but was actually an enjoyable if slight film with a fantastic cast making the most of the underwritten characters.
Again like Robin Hood, Arthur has also appeared on TV many times, here are a few of the memorable ones:
Merlin (1998): A three part miniseries depicts Merlin as the central character of the story. A fantastic cast is led by Sam Neill as the titular Merlin and Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan Le Fey. The effects look dated now but the story is good.
The Mists of Avalon (2001): I have never seen this two part, three hour miniseries but am intrigued. The IMDB synopsis reads: Based on the bestseller by Marion Zimmer Bradley It tells the story of the women behind King Arthur; including his mother, Igraine; his half-sister, Morgaine; his aunt Viviane, the Lady of the Lake; and his wife, Gwenwyfar.
Camelot (2011): It ran for just one 10 episode season on HBO and was largely overshadowed by Game of Thrones that started around the same time. It wasn’t great but has some interesting ideas, namely complicated flawed human characters rather than black and white portraits of good and evil. The main reason to watch are Joseph Fiennes as Merlin and Eva Green as Morgan. It is probably a good think that it didn’t catch on as it may have stopped Eva Green making the amazing Penny Dreadful. The other reason I mention the series here, is that its look is very similar to what I can see of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword from the trailer.
There has also been a very popular series Merlin that ran on primetime BBC from 2008 to 2012, I gave up on it after the first episode so don’t really know anything about it beyond its popularity. Will King Arthur: Legend of the Sword be any good and go on to be a franchise, or will Excalibur (1981) remain the benchmark for Arthurian movies. Check back in a month or two to find out.