I remember seeing advertisements for Knights of the Round Table being shown on TV when I was a kid, but I never got the chance to watch it. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get the chance because it’s surprisingly a rather distorted version of the Arthurian legend in many ways. Still, when I stumbled across it the other day, I watched it with interest.
First, let me say I’m a sucker for these old movies. Just that it is shot in Technicolor makes it beautiful in many places. There is a lot of color and pageantry, and I give it credit for being, to the best of my knowledge, the first film to try to tell the entire Arthurian story. Previously, King Arthur in Hollywood had been mostly limited to remakes of A Connecticut Yankee.
But in telling the full story, the studio must have felt they had to clean up the story. I mean, even if 1950s audiences, not to mention the movie censors, could get past Guinevere and Lancelot’s adultery, they certainly couldn’t accept Mordred being a child of incest and killing his father.
So some rather big changes had to be made. First of all, Mordred replaces King Lot of Orkney as Morgan le Fay’s ally. I was never quite clear in the film if he is her husband or just her lover, but they are obviously a couple and King Arthur’s primary enemies. The film begins with Morgan, Mordred, Arthur, and Merlin meeting to determine who will rule Britain upon Uther Pendragon’s death. Morgan believes she deserves the throne as Uther’s only legitimate child, but Merlin has Arthur draw the sword from the stone, thus leading to his being proclaimed king. Mordred and Morgan aren’t too happy about this decision and cause plenty of trouble before they finally agree to Arthur’s rule, which he achieves largely through battle and the help of Sir Lancelot, making Lancelot and Mordred enemies.
Arthur is soon pushed to the side of the story in favor of Lancelot. Although the movie is called Knights of the Round Table, the other knights get very little attention, except for Percival, who is on a quest for the Holy Grail. He meets Lancelot early in the film and tells Lancelot of his quest. In the same scene, Percival’s sister, Elaine, meets Lancelot and falls in love with him, and eventually, she is married to Lancelot, after Merlin realizes Lancelot and Guinevere have begun to have feelings for one another so it would be best to have him away from court.
I won’t give away all of the plot, and there’s not much to give away if you know the Arthurian legend, but I do need to discuss the end a bit. I do give the film some points for a stab at historical accuracy since it sets the film at the time soon after the Romans have left. That said, I think John Wayne had a stab in writing the script since upon first meeting, Lancelot says to Percival, “Declare thyself, Cowboy.” I think he should have changed “Cowboy” to “Pilgrim”—it would have been funnier.
The Holy Grail legend has always been an oddball part of the Arthurian story in my opinion, and it definitely is here. At one point, Percival comes to Lancelot’s castle to tell him the Holy Grail appeared at court, which I thought a shame, since the filmgoers never get to see the Holy Grail’s appearance in that scene, but it does lead to the knights going off to seek the Grail. At about this time, Elaine also has a dream about their son. Elaine dies soon after Galahad is born. Later the child Galahad is sent to be raised at Camelot.
And then Camelot begins to fall. After Elaine’s death, Lancelot becomes interested in Lady Vivian. Guinevere accuses him of trying to humiliate her in front of the court by making eyes at Vivian. While they are arguing alone, their enemies find them and accuse them of adultery. They manage to escape without any dramatic attempts at burning at the stake (a disappointment)—no dramatic “Guinevere” song for this movie like in “Camelot.” Things go as expected, leading to Arthur being slain by Mordred. Then Lancelot fights and kills Mordred.
The magic at the end of throwing the sword into the lake is missing because no hand rises up to catch it, but we are left with Lancelot and Percival going together to Camelot to see the Round Table in ruins. The film ends with a vision of the Grail, and Lancelot finding comfort in hearing that someday Galahad will achieve it. (A strange twist since Galahad usually achieves the Grail before Camelot falls.)
I certainly don’t think this film as entertaining as Prince Valiant or Lancelot and Guinevere (Sword of Lancelot) which followed in the next decade, although it does have its moments. People familiar with the legend will perhaps find it mostly entertaining for the fun of picking apart the changes made in the film from the usual legend and try to guess why such changes were made. (The opening credits claim the film is based on Malory, but it’s very loosely based.)
The cast has some big names—Robert Taylor as Lancelot and Ava Gardner as Guinevere, among others, but I have never felt very impressed by Robert Taylor. For me, Franco Nero is the best Lancelot. Ava Gardner is beautiful as always, but she just doesn’t have the role to make her acting skills stand out in this film.
If you’re an Arthurian enthusiast, you’ll want to watch the film, although on a scale of 1-5, I probably wouldn’t give it more than a 3. You can still catch it in reruns on TV or buy the video, or watch online at Amazon Instant Video. For more information on the film, check out IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045966/ or Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_of_the_Round_Table_%28film%29
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com