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In Search of the Once and Future King: In Glorious Technicolour

By James Turner

How the story of King Arthur gets told during Hollywood’s Golden Age – the 1950s and 60s.

Upon seeing director Cecil DeMile’s bombastic and ambitious biblical epic The Ten Commandments cartoonist and writer James Thurber reportedly quipped, ‘It makes you realize what God could have done if he’d had the money’. For all its magnificent scale and the rousing pomposity of its carefully crafted script and performances The Ten Commandments was just the foremost example of a widely celebrated genre of staggering expensive prestige pictures with historical or pseudo historical settings.

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The Golden Age of Hollywood, usually understood to cover the 1930s to the early 1960s, is a designation that has attracted significant debate and criticism almost since its inception. Indeed, the application can seem something of a misnomer when contemplating the corruption, systematic exploitation, politically motivated blackballing and social apathy endemic to Hollywood and its cabal of studios during this period. Despite these myriad unpleasantries, some of which still plague the film and television industry to this day, it also represented a period in which Hollywood dreamed bigger and reached a larger audience than ever.

It is in some ways only natural then that having dominated the oral traditions and literature of medieval aristocratic culture, which spearheaded the transition to print within England and formed a central pillar of the later Romance movement, that the Arthurian legends and their motifs made significant appearances in Hollywood during this period both directly and through their implicit influence upon a contemporary understanding of medieval material culture and practices.

Long-form cinema, its conventions, archetypes and the facsimiles of life it presented, came to exert a significant even seminal influence upon its increasingly diversified audience. Cinema’s status as a visual medium and the directness and supreme fidelity with which film could impart its vision of the texture and trappings of its setting to its audience made it particularly potent in shaping conceptions of an otherwise hazy or alien past.

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Poster for the 1953 film Knights of the Round Table – Wikimedia Commons

This influence has led to much gnashing of teeth by historians who lament the manner in which filmmakers’ drive towards high drama, striking imagery and accessibility so often lead to the sacrifice of nuance or the propagation of demonstrable false narratives. Such vitriol is to an extent understandable, I myself have been known to launch into the odd rant here or tirade there which can be hugely cathartic. But to cede the ground entirely, to throw our hands in the air and retreat into a tightly knit circle of the initiated, is to ignore the numerous educational benefits of film and to underestimate the medium’s immense potential in communicating and defining our collective past.

When audiences in 1938, hungry for some swashbuckling action, went to see The Adventures of Robin Hood they did so in the understanding that it was a work of fiction and that Robin himself was a fantastical invention. What they retained as they left the cinema was a vision of the middle ages defined by cavernous grand halls, riotous colour, ornate costuming and the stark disparity between rich and poor. These lasting impressions of the medieval period were created by an emphasis on scale and tone consciously adopted by the studios of old Hollywood’s for their prestigious pictures for creative, dramatic and ultimately commercial reasons.

The curious but ultimately unstable push and pull between cinema’s representation of the past and audiences expectations can be seen in 1991s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves whose grubby and suspiciously ruin strewn, version of late 12th century England presents a medieval world in which life was brutal, nasty and short. This aesthetic, complete with Ewok-style treehouse village, channels both the self-satisfaction of western culture in the 90s and a developing taste for gritty entertainment. The Adventures of Robin Hood presents a glossy stylized world of feast and tournaments explicitly created and sustained through the elite’s rapacious behavior and greed while Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves shows us an entire world brought to the point of ruination by the same corruption and inequality. This differing approach to a shared theme is the result not only of the differing economic realities of the film industry but more fundamentally of changing tastes and attitudes.

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An important and often overlooked aspect of this dichotomy and the interplay between historical accuracy and creativity is that all films regardless of their settings are to an extent Brechtian, artificially allowing us to view the formulated and choreographed reality envisaged and created by the director. The majority of films with historical or pseudo-historical settings are then to an extent parables that allow the filmmaker and audience to engage with contemporary and humanist issues from an altered perspective. So much of the context, cultural milieu and meaning of historical films both now and within classic Hollywood is aimed at inducing and engaging with their original audience rather than replicating the social mores and structures of the historical masquerade.

For example, Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven presents a simplified and very film-specific view of Outremer and the period immediately preceding the Third Crusade which is further distorted by the film’s need to place its protagonist at the center of events. It does, however, ably and often evocatively enable the filmmaker’s primary interest, the meditation upon and representation of multi-culturalism as well as an exploration of the place and parameters of religious morality in a secular society. In addition to tackling this manifestly modern and relevant theme, the film also provides the audience with generally well researched and executed visual representations of life and material culture in a time and place many would have been largely unfamiliar with, including a very cool scene in which the main character is dubbed as a knight.

1995’s Braveheart, possibly the most famous and influential of the modern historical epics, twists around history like a pretzel while making some truly bizarre choices in terms of costuming and aesthetic. We should, however, also bear in mind that while riddled with anarchisms and the rather insulting impression that everyone in the movies’ oddly homogeneous version of 13th century Scotland lived in mud huts, the movie paints a beguiling picture of freedom-loving warrior poets that has fueled a lasting revival in Scottish medieval history.

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The legends of King Arthur with its numerous off-shoots and imitators at first glance occupy a somewhat strange and variable place within the pantheon of Hollywood classics and cinematic representations of medievalism. By their very nature, most historical films are anchored in a particular time period or series of events that has commonly associated imagery broadly recognizable to audiences.

While even the wholly fictitious Robin Hood is locked within the reign of Richard I, as a result of their mythical origins and the centuries of adaptation and reinvention, Arthur and his stories are completely untethered from chronology. While in recent years there have been a number of cinematic attempts to ground Arthur and his stories within a defined or nominally historically accurate and appropriate setting, such as Sub-Roman, the grab bag of associations and imagery that most commonly form the public’s perceptions of Arthur and his knights float in a sort of limbo of ill-defined generic medievalism.

Indeed, the stories of Arthur and the style and tone of their settings are often as much fantasy as they are history with the respective roles of magic, overt supernatural elements and divine mandate varying widely from adaptation to adaption, just as their emphasis and portrayals differed between the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Perceforest and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Another result of the hybrid nature and long history of Arthurian romance literature relevant to its adaptation for cinema is that outside of their basic role as a vehicle for romance and adventure, its stories are sometimes rather thematically vague once stripped of the historical context in which they were originally enjoyed while presentations of Camelot’s dramatic fall contain a distinctly misogynistic streak.

Poster for the 1954 film The Black Knight – Wikimedia Commons

We are told Arthur was a good king, in fact, the best king, but beyond his martial qualifications and repulsion of the Saxons, what precisely did that mean? Well as we have seen throughout this series so far, Arthur is a talisman of past success and former glory, a cipher into which contemporary authors and audiences could pour all their preconceptions of the past and reflected hopes for the future. In this capacity, Arthur has served as amongst other things, a cultural hero, an instrument of hegemonic imperialism, a European wide paragon of the chivalric cult, a political convenient ancestor, a parable for contemporary conflict, the symbol of a lost age of halcyon simplicity, nationalistic figurehead and woefully antiqued figure of fun.

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While the continued relevancy and frequent reconfiguration of the Arthurian legends is impressive, it is by no means sacrosanct or inevitable and many of these roles rightly appear highly dubious and distasteful to modern eyes. Not to get ahead of ourselves but one could argue that the critical and commercial failure of several recent on-screen adaptations of the stories of King Arthur in part stems from their uncertain and shaky central narratives. Similarly, without the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps difficult to see what an institution, as boisterously American and inundated with far more recognizable narratives and imagery, as Golden Age Hollywood would find of value within King Arthur. Well in short it was looking for and found the same things it required from all its prestige historical epics, novelty, spectacle and entertainment.

Almost by chance and for much the same reasons, Hollywood created a number of films inspired by the Arthurian legends and related medieval romances whose tone and imagery would have been accessible and immediately recognizable to the medieval aristocrats who attended the Roundtable Tournament of Edward III’s reign. In contrast to the mud and squalor that was to follow, Golden Age Hollywood tended to present the medieval world as a vibrant one in which knights and their ladies are rendered conspicuous in bright and elaborate costumes. This stylistic and visual boldness works to acclimatize the audience to the heightened reality of romantic tension and the martial exploits of characters bedecked in the chivalric regalia of emblazoned tabards and matching plumes.

As we have seen previously, such adulation and revelry in pageantry and display closely mirrors the manner in which the aristocracy of the 13th and 14th-century sort to venerate and participate within the cult of chivalry through the prominent display and adoption of culturally significant imagery; as can be seen in the practice of dressing and roleplaying as specific Arthurian characters during Roundtable tournaments. Matters of personal honour and adherence to a highly ornate and ritualized codes of conduct are often emphasized within these films as a source of novelty and dramatic tensions that contemporary audiences can nevertheless relate to and understand.

While Edward III and his contemporaries would have clearly seen themselves as practitioners of the chivalry, medieval romance literature and its celebration similarly allowed them to engage in an idealized refined form of a common mode of behavior unhampered by the constraints and practicalities of reality. While the concept of classic Hollywood’s damsel in distress has been rightly lampooned and interrogated, in the cases of medieval-inspired films, at least, it is present within the source material in which it was originally meant to facilitate and reflect women’s participation within the chivalric cult as the ultimate arbiters of chivalric conduct and martial exploits. Strange to say of all the early modern and modern adaptations of the Arthurian legends and medieval romance literature, Hollywood perhaps came closest to creating something that would have been immediately recognizable and enjoyable to a medieval audience, presenting with the same flair the escapist notion of a world in which high romance and daring adventure were enabled and lauded as the highest of purposes.

Released in 1953 and filmed on some of the finest sound stages that MGM’s British subsidiary had to offer, Knights of the Round Table was the brainchild of producer Pandro S. Berman and veteran journeyman director Richard Thorpe who had in the preceding year worked together on the Prisoner of Zenda as well as an award-winning and record-breaking adaptation of Ivanhoe. Seeking to reprise the runaway success they had found with Ivanhoe the duo delved deeper into the world of Romance literature, electing to adapt Le Morte d’Arthur to the silver screen. The greatest strength of Knights of the Round Table is its curiously beguiling and innocent mixture of bombastic sincerity. The film efficiently streamlines its source material and wholesale ejects its more fantastical elements, instead consciously centering itself around the friendship between Lancelot and Arthur and the deep tragedy of the forbidden love that the former shares with the latter’s wife, Queen Guinevere. However, it’s not afraid to alter and adapt the details and structure of this central human conflict to better appeal to the social mores and expectations of contemporary audiences.

Knights of the Round Table’s Lancelot, played by Robert Taylor who also stared in Ivanhoe, enters the story of Arthur somewhat earlier than his counterpart in Le Morte d’Arthur, wandering a ruined war-torn Britain with a small group of companions in search of Arthur. He does so richly adorned and arrayed as if he is attending a tournament, while his heraldry is of a golden leopard/lion on a field of scarlet, presumable because it is a piece of medieval imagery that the audience can be relied upon to recognize. Taylor gives a convincing performance as the legendary knight lending the character a genial gentlemanly air with none of the sleaze that can sometimes be seen in swashbuckling heroes.

Meanwhile we are introduced to Mel Ferrer’s Arthur and his guileful foster father Merlin who are engaged in some last-ditch diplomacy with his half-sister Morgan and her husband Modred. Ferrer’s Arthur is oddly stiff but nevertheless manages to convey much of the warmth and thoughtfulness necessary to convince the audience of the worthiness of the legendary king. Running into each other in a chance encounter, Lancelot and Arthur fight a prolonged somewhat farcical duel against one another over a small time point of protocol and etiquette before earning one another’s respect and revealing their identities, at which point Lancelot pledges to serve Arthur and help him claim the throne.

This conflict is one of the primary ways in which the film channels its more modern sensibilities, artfully meshing them with the sometimes hollow-sounding assertion that Arthur was a great and justice king. The cabal over which Morgan and Modred preside are composed of robber barons and pirate kings who have exploited and oppressed the people in order to enrich themselves, whereas Arthur’s support is derived primarily from the common people and a few virtuous nobles which casts his quest for kingship in a more egalitarian and sympathetic light that it would have had he solely been pursing his birthright. This contrast between the two armies with Modred’s knights and heavy calvary and Arthur’s peasants and archers also makes for some interesting visuals while putting the films original audience in mind of the 1944 adaptation of Henry V staring Laurence Olivier.

Throughout this initial conflict, Lancelot serves as Arthur’s companion and principal commander, saving his life in dramatic fashion from an assassination attempt at Stonehenge when he rather impressively, but irresponsibly from a conversationist point of view, pushes over one of the great standings. Lancelot vehemently disagrees with the victorious Arthur’s decision to grant an amnesty to his former foes and his welcome of his half-sister and her husband into his court.  Once again Lancelot takes to the road wherein in classic chivalric fashion he comes across an evil knight who has imprisoned a lady within his tower after besting her escort at the knightly arts seemingly just for something to do. Lancelot defeats this knight and frees the captive lady who, of course, turns out to be Guinevere who had been captured on her way to marry the newly crowned Arthur. Naturally sparks fly between Lancelot and the Guinevere who is endowed with a certain savvy and wry sense of humour by the great Ava Gardner.

The remainder of the film is consumed by the attempts of the devious duo of Morgan and Modred to exploit the specter of this nascent romance to erode and crack Arthur’s power base. Once again the film divergences significantly from Le Morte d’Arthur while retaining much of the imagery and spirit of the medieval romances. Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship in the film remains thoroughly unconsummated as both also harbour a deep love of Arthur and awareness of the hidden vipers within the court. Their physical closeness and the keen aching awareness of the impossibility of their relationship is a significant source of drama within the movie not to mention the very essence of Court Love as it existed within medieval literature. Of course, limiting Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair to a purely emotional one probably made them more sympathetic heroes than they would have been as outright adulterers in the eyes of audiences in the 1950s.

When they are finally caught in a chaste but seemingly compromising position by Modred’s followers the two flee leaving them to be tried in absentia before the Round Table. Rather than condemn his wife and best friend to death as he does in Le Morte d’Arthur, the heartbroken king forgives the two and gives them his blessing and uses some sort of presidential veto he evidently has to dismiss the charges arrayed against them. Tragedy follows regardless, however, when Modred points out that for all his high-minded rhetoric Arthur disregards the law and conventions of the Round Table to save those close to him while still yoking the other nobles to it. The resulting schism within the Round Table leads to an apocalyptic battle after which the only survivor, Modred, is dispatched by Lancelot. After avenging Arthur, Lancelot narrowly escapes the deadly foe present within Golden Age Hollywood, quicksand, before declining the Grail Quest in favour of Percival.

The Black Knight released the following year in 1954 and directed by Tay Gardner maintains much of the spectacle and splendor of the genre while drawing major thematic influences from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s novel had received a number of cinematic adaptations with Gardner himself directing the most recent 1949 version, a pleasingly glib film starting Bing Crosby that also wandered quite far from its source material. Fittingly, given its subversive roots The Black Knight features an original story and hero whose adventures are framed within the backdrop of King Arthur’s court in much the same way as Chrétien de Troyes and his imitators added to and reshaped the existing Arthurian legends in the late 12th and 13th century.

Scandalously, The Black Knight’s main character is a common blacksmith named John played by Alan Ladd who is hopelessly in love with a woman of noble descent. While of course the inclusion of such a character would have been largely unthinkable in Romance literature’s medieval incarnation, which tended to ignore the existence of the lower orders entirely, it is a great source of drama within the film and just the sort of aspirational egalitarianism that would appeal to contemporary audiences. After all, the concept of a titled aristocracy and the resultant stratification of society is one of the elements of Arthurian romance literature that was satirized by A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a piece of cultural paraphernalia which may have seemed as alien and quaint as the swords and castles to American audiences in the 1950s.

John stumbles upon a plot to destroy Camelot and overthrow Arthur launched by not one but two Doctors in the form of Peter Cushing and Patrick Troughton who play the treacherous Sir Palamedes and King Mark of Cornwall respectively. Interestingly both characters are antagonists within most medieval versions of the Arthurian aligned Romance of Tristan and Iseult, although the film declines to draw further imagery or plot elements from these stories. The forces of the two villains, Sir Palamedes generic “Saracens” are regretfully portrayed as stereotypically and insensitively as could be feared, disguise themselves as Vikings in order to raid freely through Arthur’s realm.

John hampered in his attempts to foil this plot and bring the perpetrators to justice by his lack of status eventually adopts the identity of the Black Knight in which guise he frees his love interest, Linett, whose Muslim captors were, for reason known only to the filmmakers, going to sacrifice her in some sort of pagan ritual at Stonehenge. Even after this, King Arthur whose passivity echoes his role in the stories of the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles is duped by his enemies into imprisoning the Black Knight but fortunately Linett and a few of the less obtuse knights free John allowing him to heroically save the day and break the siege with a suitable cinematic calvary charge. In the conclusion, Arthur rewards John with the right to marry his love to general acclaim.

Another Arthurian historical epic that was released that year was Prince Valiant directed by Henry Hathaway a veteran of the formerly hugely popular Western genre. The film has a slightly strange and circuitous origin story as the adaptation of a comic strip of the same name created by Hal Foster. In both the comic and cinematic adaptation the titular character Prince Valiant was an exiled royal from a generically Scandinavian realm who found refuge and adventure at King Arthur’s court of Camelot, eventually being inducted into the Knights of the Round Table.

While Arthur himself is more or less part of the backdrop, several of his knights including Sir Gawain, a favorite of medieval romance literature within England and the protagonist of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, feature prominently as Prince Valiant’s allies and mentors. Staring Roger Wagner as a bewigged Prince Valiant, the film is an uncomplicated action romp filled with grand tournaments, daring escapes and trials by combat with a spot of romance thrown in for good measure. Prince Valiant incorporates a plethora of Arthurian imagery implicitly contrasting the colour and chivalric excess of Camelot with savagery of the Vikings as the plot yo-yo’s between the two settings.

I will touch upon 1963’s Sword of Lancelot only briefly because I want to avoid being overtly mean-spirited. The film was the passion project of Academy Award-Winning Actor Cornel Wilde who produced, directed and starred in it. Sword of Lancelot is another adaptation Le Morte d’Arthur which in a similar manner to Knights of the Round Table portrays Lancelot as avenging Arthur and symbolically bringing the civil war that consumed Camelot to a close. The film which opens with a joke about the scarcity of soup within Camelot focuses primarily on the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere who here is forced to marry Arthur after Lancelot defeats her father’s champion.

While this is admittedly a rough start to any relationship, the two fall in love rather dramatically and suddenly after Lancelot saves her from an assassination attempt. Really one is left wondering why Lancelot even bothers avenging Arthur who the movie depicts as self-centered, irascible and almost constantly befuddled. Sword of Lancelot’s greatest virtue is Cornel Wildes deep enthusiasm for the story and subject matter which leaps off the screen despite lackluster production values. Also released in cinemas that year was Siege of the Saxons directed by noted genre and cult filmed director Nathan Juran. Despite actually featuring King Arthur, who is summarily killed off at the beginning of the movie Siege of the Saxons draws most of its inspiration and plot elements from Robin Hood. A true B movie, Siege of the Saxons used props and costumes taken from Sword of Lancelot while recycling footage from The Black Knight. Possibly the most interesting thing about Siege of the Saxons was that it was shown as part of the same billing as Jason and the Argonauts with its revolutionary special effects.

Despite the limited or heavily caveated success of these last cinematic adaptations produced by a rapidly eroding Hollywood system the Arthurian legends persisted simply changing their cloak once again in reaction to evolving tastes and fashion as it had done so many times before. The very same year that the now somewhat cliched and tried-looking Sword of Lancelot and Siege of the Saxons were released the stories of King Arthur were introduced to a new generation through Disney’s magically infused coming of age story The Sword in the Stone. It’s perhaps unsurprising given the undeniable camp and anguishing melodrama of the Arthurian legends that they received a highly successful musical adaptation Camelot in 1960 which in 1965 was further adapted for the silver screen.

John Boorman’s magnificent and symbolism strewn Excalibur is as we shall see something of an outlier in which knights clanking around in battleships worth of armor plating unraveling or expounding upon cryptic layers of folklore and pseudo mythology. Overall the dominating trend across Arthurian media and adaptations during this period, awakened by tremors and shifts within the overall culture, was a search for authenticity and historical accuracy. An urge to peel back the proud image of the shinning knight and see whatever savage reality lay beneath. The quest for the truth behind Arthur is always going to be a futile one, he is a literary cipher an insubstantial wraith that inhabits whatever role we provide for him. Yet this impulse to fix Arthur into Sub-Roman Britain will take us full circle and allow us to once more interrogate the principal architect of the legend Geoffrey of Monmouth.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Click here to read more from James

Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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