The Definitive King Arthur


What does it mean to be “definitive?”

Traditionally, the term has been in use in literary criticism for quite some time to indicate a work that is authoritatively final.  For example, there are many translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight floating about out there in the ether, but scholars generally agree that J.R.R. Tolkien’s (yes, that Tolkien) translation – first published back in the thirties, if I’m not mistaken – is a definitive version.  I believe that the term can be used for other art forms as well, such as film.

Film naturally lends itself to challenging audiences to choose a definitive version of a story.  For example, which film in the Alien franchise is the definitive Alien film?  Is it Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking seminal first film (Alien, 1979) – which invented the term “Sci-Fi Horror”?  Or perhaps James Cameron’s classic sequel (Aliens, 1986) – which invented the concept of the space marine?  Or – dare I say it – is it one of the plethora of sequels that came after Aliens (even now, hideous beings of darkness plot yet another sequel in the franchise)?  As you can see, it can be very difficult to peg what is “definitive” in a film.  And yet, it is not altogether impossible.

Case in point: the definitive King Arthur film.  The first film that tried to treat its source material seriously, was Knights of the Round Table released in 1953 and starring Robert Taylor as Lancelot and Eva Gardner as the lusty Guinevere.  The film is entertaining and takes full advantage of Technicolor by garbing each knight in Arthur’s realm in a vibrant color scheme all his own.  But the film’s strength is also its greatest weakness.  The bright primary colors makes it easy to identify heroes and villains and the entire visual motif says the very opposite of “the middle-ages.”  Although honor, chivalry, and romance take prominent thematic roles in the film, the set design, costuming, and lighting scheme make it all a fun ride at Disneyland but nothing more.  The filmmakers should have been less enamored with Technicolor and more concerned with mise-en-scene.

Fast-forward to 1963 and the release of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, an often-cited film for the mantle of the definitive Arthurian legend.  While the film is a little gem of a story – of Arthur as a boy learning under the watchful eye of the wizard Merlin how best to be king – it is, in the end, an incomplete tale.  It only covers the legend up to the part of Arthur freeing the sword from the stone and leaves everything else to our imaginations.  Because of this short-coming, the film cannot be seriously considered as anything near definitive, no matter how charming and entertaining.

Then, in 1981, John Boorman released Excalibur.  That film, more than any other film based on the legend of King Arthur, changed the way moviegoers looked at the Arthurian legend for all time.  King Arthur would no longer be viewed by audiences in the same light as a Tom Sawyer or a Robin Hood – the legend had grown up.  Boorman’s version has sex, violence, incest, and the audacity to juxtapose incoming Christianity with outgoing pagan occultism.  Merlin is a mysterious figure, almost demonic in nature, but tender towards the plight of blundering-in-the-dark man.  Some of its visuals will make you weep and the non-diegetic musical score – lifted straight from Wagner’s ring cycle – sweeps across the screen on gossamer wings born of pure Romance.  The film is lightning-in-a-bottle and cannot be missed by any serious student of the Arthurian legend.  By the way, it is also the most literary of all the versions because it is based on Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.

I think, by now, it is painfully obvious which version I contend as the definitive version of the Arthurian legend on film.  So, I won’t bore you with any further films that have valiantly made an attempt to redefine the legend but have utterly fallen short of Excalibur.  I will say this though: please stop trying to historicize King Arthur by making him some Roman centurion who led a last battle in the name of civilization against the forces of evil barbarism, etc., etc.  We don’t care.  The legend of King Arthur is special because it transcends concerns of history and so-called accuracy.  I would much rather see a version of the Arthurian legend somehow transported to 1920s Chicago or some other setting or context just as fanciful – now that would be interesting to see.  And, lastly, while the casting of Sean Connery as Arthur was a stroke of genius in First Knight (1995)…Richard Gere as Lancelot?  Really??  There was no one else???

Posted by Paul Yim


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