Swashbucklers at the Round Table
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Amongst the popular Arthurian movies are the big Hollywood productions of the 1950s and 60s and recently First Knight (Zucker, 1995), and John Boormans Excalibur (1981), which was also produced in Hollywood for a large audience.

The legends surrounding king Arthur fit perfectly into the scheme of popular adventure narratives because most of the Arthurian heroes are excellent embodiments of the light in the darkness, the hero on a quest, who gains a name and a girl and brings prosperity to the society he lives in. This scheme was used for hundreds of adventure movies that were produced in Hollywood since the 1920s, in the so-called Swashbuckler-genre, featuring heroes like Ivanhoe and Dick Turpin. And every generation has its own Robin Hood: who has always been Swashbuckler number one.


Errol Flynn

Errol Flyn "King of the Swashbucklers" kissing Olivia de Haviland; in Robin Hood (1938, Curtiz)


It is quite surprising that no Arthurian stories were used until the 1950s (apart from a few silent movies and adaptations of Mark Twain's parody A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Apart from some technical reasons (widescreen, bigger budgets), this can be ascribed to some unwelcome themes that travelled with the legend since medieval times. The inevitable downfall of the kingdom, the incest between Arthur and his (half)sister Morgan le Fay, the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere and the central role of supernatural phenomena all go against the conventions of the Swashbuckler-genre.

In the 1950s two Hollywood studios dealt with these problems in a way that had been used since medieval times, by simply introducing a new hero to king Arthur's court. This resulted in two quite successful movies: Prince Valiant (1954, Hathaway), who was already famous in the United States through the cartoons, and the lesser Black Knight (1954, Garnett) which is usually described as an Arthurian Western. In both films Camelot is merely the background for the adventure.


Prince Valian

Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner in Prince Valiant


The Knights of the Round Table (1953, Thorpe) differs from these two because the writers based their script directly on the chronicles of Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth. But in this film the incest is not mentioned, Lancelot and Guinevere suffer without relief and the supernatural Holy Grail is only used to give the film an upbeat ending. Those omissions did not pay off; the story was still far too gloomy and tragic for a Swashbuckler. (A short summary of the plot below).

After the 1950s the Swashbuckler-genre evolved dramatically. In the 60s Lancelot and Guinevere actually get their moment of joy in a movie that is not surprisingly titled Lancelot and Guinevere (1963, Wilde). The Adventure-heroes had to learn to ironise their own status in order to survive in the 1970s and 80s. This irony made it for instance possible that Indiana Jones and his father share the same woman in Indiana Jones and the last Crusade (1989, Spielberg). And the rise of Fantasy as a filmgenre made the supernatural acceptable, mildly used in the Hollywood (and Swashbuckler) blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, Reynolds).



Knights of the Round Table, summary

Director: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Anne Crawford, Maureen Swanson, Felix Aylmer, Stanley Baker and Mel Ferrer. 1953, MGM

(Watching the film on a television set is not a good idea. It was the first MGM production in Cinemascope and the cinema is the only place to enjoy the wide panoramic view on the scenes that were shot partly in Ireland and Cornwall.)

"King Uther has died. Both Arthur and Mordred (here Mordred is the lover of Arthur's sister Morgan) want to be his successor. Mordred has tyranny in mind, Arthur intends to be a king for the people and has Merlin on his side, who is his counsellor rather than a magician. Arthur draws Excalibur from the stone, but Mordred refuses to give in.

Lancelot, the son of the French king Ban of Benwick, is looking for king Arthur, the only lord he wants to serve. In a forest he meets the young lady Elaine. When he is ambushed (by Mordred's men who are waiting for Arthur) a knight comes to his aid. Lancelot does not like to be helped and challenges the knight. After a long and undecided duel the knight turns out to be Arthur. Lancelot offers him his service, and so does young Perceval, who comes to pick up his sister Elaine.

Lancelot joins Arthur on his way to the council at the ring of stones (Stonehenge). There Mordred tries to kill Arthur, but Lancelot saves him. The war is on. After his victory Arthur establishes the Round Table. But soon after he gets into conflict with Lancelot, who does not want him to pardon Mordred and Morgan.

Guinevere is to marry Arthur, but on the way to Camelot she is captured by an evil knight. It is Lancelot (as a nameless knight) who saves her and orders the evil knight (who will be one of his companions later on) to bring her to Camelot in safety. After the wedding the knights are to pay homage to their king and queen. Lancelot reappears and is the first to kneel before them. Arthur makes him the champion of the queen.

Lancelot and Guinevere feel deeply for each other, but do not consume their passion. Instead Lancelot marries Elaine to silence the gossip about him and the queen, and he takes his bride away from the court. Gawain and Gareth are Lancelot's loyal companions: Gawain watches over Elaine, while Lancelot and Gareth are out fighting the Picts. Perceval visits them and talks about his quest for the Holy Grail. Elaine dies after giving birth to a son: Galahad.

Mordred and Morgan are responsible for the death of Merlin and a plot to get Lancelot back to Camelot and Guinevere. Lancelot pretends to have lost his feelings for her and flirts openly with lady Vivien. The queen is hurt by this and visits his chambers late at night. When Mordred's men (amongst them Agravaine) are banging on the door and all is lost, she sees proof of Lancelot's love for her. They kiss for the first and last time, right before Lancelot kills Agravaine and his men and brings the queen to safety.

King Arthur has to judge his best friend and wife, but does not give in to Mordred's demand to have them killed. Instead Lancelot is banished to France and Guinevere has to retreat in a convent. The union of the Round Table falls apart and Mordred finds support to challenge Arthur again.

Once again the civil war rages over the country and Arthur is mortally wounded. It is Lancelot who throws Excalibur into the lake and then kills Mordred. Afterwards Lancelot and Perceval enter the ruins of Camelot. Perceval has a vision of the Holy Grail and hears a heavenly voice that tells him Lancelot will be forgiven for his sins and Lancelot's son, Galahad, will be the most accomplished knight ever."


Knights of the round Table

The wedding in Knights of the Round Table



Last update: 15-08-2000

© Iman Keuchenius 1998.