Our Favorites: King Arthur Films.
We search decades of Arthurian films to find the Holy Grail of cinema.
With Guy Ritchie’s grim and swaggering take on King Arthur falling off its horse this weekend, we decided it was high time to look back at some of our favorite films concerning Artie and his circular table. The list of films drawing inspiration from the Arthurian legends is longer than Merlin’s beard, so we opted instead for a battle royale where each aspect of the genre must compete in our awards-show styled feature.
From best Arthur and Merlin to weirdest adaptation of the source material, we look to draw forth the best performances like mystical cutlery from a stone.
Our Favorites: King Arthur Films – The Categories.
Best Actor – Arthur.
You can’t have an Arthurian tale without King Arthur, in some form or another. From his humble youth to his meteoric rise and eventual tragic fall, many films have focused on different aspects of the character. Here are our selections for best portrayal.
Nominees: Richard Harris (Camelot), Graham Chapman (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Nigel Terry (Excalibur), Sean Connery (First Knight).
Winner: Graham Chapman.
Richard Harris played Arthur with a gallant authority. Connery’s king was more stern and majestic. Nigel Terry portrayed Arthur as rash and hot blooded, eager for justice but lacking in wisdom. Our pick goes to Graham Chapman who managed to embody many of those traits and yet remain regal as the monarch of a very silly kingdom. He displays his kingly wisdom on ornithology, his brash aristocratic background when confronting rebellious commoners, and remains unflappable in the face of French taunts. What really puts him over the top is that he also shows his martial prowess by hacking the Black Knight to pieces. For all of the films about Arthur, there’s barely any that show him actually winning a fight!
Best Actor – Merlin.
Arthur wouldn’t have accomplished much without his closest advisor. He’d probably still be scrubbing Sir Ector’s chamber pot without the constant schemes of Merlin. Arrogant trickster, potent sorcerer, or bumbling old fool, Merlin has had as many interpretations as Arthur, and nearly as many movies just about him.
Nominees: Nicol Williamson (Excalibur), Karl Swenson (voice, The Sword in the Stone), Laurence Naismith (Camelot), Murvyn Vye (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).
Winner: Karl Swenson.
There is a lot to be said for Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Merlin: he’s confident and arrogant, tremendously powerful, and has a tongue as sharp as Excalibur. As fun as it is to see his mercurial portrayal, Karl Swenson is my favorite Merlin in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.
The Merlin of Disney’s origin story is a multi-faceted character who manages to be entertaining no matter what he’s getting up to. You see flashes of his terrible power as he has a magician’s duel with the conniving Madame Mim, but ultimately it is his quick mind and depth of knowledge that wins the fight. While trying to teach Arthur about life and love, he reveals a vulnerable side, wistfully opining that when it comes to romance he’s just as clueless as young Arthur. He’s a mentor and formidable conjurer, but he’s also a riotously funny old goat who’s own temper causes much of the trouble he and Arthur have to escape.
Best Actress – Guinevere.
Nominees: Vanessa Redgraves (Camelot), Ava Gardener (Knights of the Round Table), Cherie Lunghi (Excalibur), Julia Ormond (First Knight).
Winner: Vanessa Redgraves.
This is a surprisingly tough pick. At first blush, Guinevere is usually little more than a plot device and the silent victim of the powerful men around her. Yet in these picks, we often have quite a formidable queen. Julia Ormond is introduced as a captive, but doesn’t remain a damsel in distress for long. Cherie Lunghi plays Guinevere as young and impetuous, much a match for Nigel Terry’s brash Arthur. Finally, Ava Gardner is commanding and majestic…not to mention gorgeous. She certainly looks and acts like a queen whose charms split the round table.
Vanessa Redgraves plays a milder heroine, but also a more interesting one. From her first song, we see a conflicted and vulnerable young maid who nevertheless has a big heart and strong sense of justice. That her heart will eventually lead to ruin for those she loves most is especially poignant because Redgraves makes Guinevere so sympathetic. Her songs are some of the best in the musical as well.
Best Actress – Morgana/ Morgan Le Fey.
While Morgan Le Fey shows up less often in retellings of the Arthurian legend, her character is one of the high points. I’m surprised more big name actresses haven’t demanded the role, as she’s easily one of the most compelling and complex villains in any genre.
Nominees: Anne Crawford (Knights of the Round Table), Helen Mirren (Excalibur), Virginia Field (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).
Winner: Helen Mirren.
There’s really no competition here. Helen Mirren owns this role, and becomes the central antagonist of the film. It certainly helps that Excalibur elides several characters into one, allowing Mirren to play a temptress, a power-seeking matriarch and a jilted lover. Her performance is riveting and makes you forget all about peevish young Mordred. His hand will hold the spear to pierce Arthur, but it is Morgan’s actions that propel the blade.
Best Supporting Role – The Knights.
The round table would be pretty boring with just Arthur and Merlin sitting alone, so luckily the legends and films supply us with no end of interesting and complicated knights. It would take forever to name them all, so we’ve narrowed the field to several actors who embody the ethos of each knight best…and line them up to duel to the death for our pleasure.
Nominees: Richard Gere (Sir Lancelot, First Knight), Eric Idle (Sir Robin, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Murray Head (Sir Gawain, Gawain and the Green Knight), Djimon Hounsou (Sir Bedevere, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).
Winner: Richard Gere.
Djimon Hounsou is the go to guy when it comes to playing the right hand man. In the latest film he’s basically reprising his role from Gladiator as the noble and wise friend who keeps his pale protagonist friend pointed in the right direction. Eric Idle manages to take a made up knight and make him the most interesting of Arthur’s bumbling companions. He even gets his own song! Murray Head may not be well known, since the film he stars in is criminally under-watched, but I love it and it has a great protagonist and antagonist. All that being said, Lancelot is Arthur’s number one guy, and Richard Gere played him best.
I don’t usually like Richard Gere, and I don’t usually like Lancelot. He’s usually a prick who ruins the day when he can’t control his prick, and has a holier than thou attitude. At this point, I’ve forgotten if I’m talking about Gere or Lancelot…which is why his portrayal is the best. He effortlessly brings out the defining characteristics of Lancelot, gets you to hate him, and then flips it all around by making you root for him. First Knight is not a great Arthur movie, but that’s because it is a great Lancelot movie.
Best Supporting Role – The Villains.
Nominees: Helen Mirren (Morgan Le Fey, Excalibur), David Hemmings (Mordred, Camelot), Richard Burton (The Black Knight, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Nigel Green (The Green Knight, Gawain and the Green Knight).
Winner: Helen Mirren.
This contest came down between Nigel Green and Helen Mirren. The whole menace of the Green Knight is his implacable nature. He doesn’t particularly seem to care about killing Gawain, only in exposing the folly of his youthful chivalry. He rides into court mocking the bravery of the men hanging about Arthur, and the king agrees with him. In the final confrontation, he again mocks Gawain, goading him as to whether a year of high adventure has made him as brave as others boast he is. In the end, Gawain admits that his boyish dreams were foolish, and this maturity saves his life.
That being said…Helen Mirren is the best baddie in a King Arthur movie. She just blows the competition away. She’s literally three villains rolled into one, and she excels at each aspect of her villainy. More imperious than the Green Knight, more boastful than the Black Knight, and far more effective than Mordred, she moves behind the scenes destroying Arthur and his ideals. That’s some grade A villainy.
Nominees: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Sword in the Stone, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.
Winner: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Umm, those other movies are fine and all (well, not A Kind in King Arthur’s Court…that one is just there because I needed to pad out the nominees list.) There’s plenty of great funny moments in The Sword in the Stone, and Bing Crosby was quite a comedian in addition to being a world class crooner. But seriously. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is not just the funniest Arthurian comedy, many would argue it’s one of the funniest comedies of all time. Flying killer bunnies, silly Knights who want shrubberies, and outrageous French accents! This movie has it all.
Best Action Sequence.
Nominees: King Arthur vs. the Black Knight (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Sir Lancelot survives his trials (First Knight), Arthur kills Mordred (Excalibur), Lancelot avenges Arthur (Knights of the Round Table).
Winner: Arthur gets closer to his son, the hard way (Excalibur).
That is some tough love. The kid was just asking for a hug, after all. Perhaps they never bonded earlier because he followed up his request by immediately impaling Arthur. It’s hard to really build up a rapport when you both run each other through seconds after meeting. Not only is it a great final scene of cathartic violence, it is the capstone to ten minutes of brutal medieval warfare which sees Lancelot tossing guys around like they’re made of paper instead of wearing 50 lbs of steel armor.
Best Arthurian Film not starring Arthur.
The Arthurian legend creeps into all sorts of movies. Whether films are borrowing the atmosphere of Arthur’s idealistic kingdom, using the legend as an extended metaphor, or simply stealing motifs or characters to juice up their credentials, you find a lot of King Arthur in films that aren’t about him.
Nominees: Gawain and the Green Knight, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fisher King, Army of Darkness (no seriously).
Winner: The Fisher King.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m just going to toss this one to Army of Darkness because it is the best action fantasy comedy starring Bruce Campbell with a chainsaw hand. Honestly, I included it here because my first reaction was “oh come on, Wikipedia, how did Army of Darkness get on the page of films inspired by Arthurian legend.” Well, one trip to IMDb later, sure enough the king in that movie was indeed called Arthur.
Gawain and the Green Knight is a personal favorite of mine…but it doesn’t stand up well over time (either the stately 1973 version or the campy 1981 version featuring Sean Connery.) Indiana Jones is great, for a lark, but once again the best part is Sean Connery.
So, the winner is The Fisher King. This lunatic drama from Terry Gilliam stars Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, and is as weird as it is brilliant. A troubled homeless man imagines himself a Knight of the Round Table, out to secure the Holy Grail, and in the process saves the soul of a very jaded radio celebrity. It makes sense if you watch it, and it is fun and harrowing at the same time.
The final category. When you put it all together, which film conjures up the majesty and tragedy of King Arthur in way that elevates it above the rest.
Nominees: Camelot, Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The epic that tops them all, John Boorman’s sprawling but gorgeous Excalibur brings nearly every iconic element of the legend to the big screen. The characters are larger than life and the performances from the cast compete in every category for best interpretation. The cinematography is still breath taking to this day. The action sequences are a tad uneven but still memorable (Hollywood had never really found a way to make fights in plate armor look stylish and grand until CG was able to literally lighten the actors’ loads.) At 140 minutes, the film moves with fantastic pacing, covering everything about Arthur from his conception to fated duel with Mordred.
John Boorman threaded the needle with his masterpiece, managing to capture the fantasy and heroics of Star Wars with a tragic drama that was mostly faithful to the legends. If you’ve never seen Excalibur, set a joint of mutton to roast, have your page fill your tankard, and settle in for swords and sorcery like none have ever matched.