There are just some heroes that everyone knows about. There are heroes and legends that transcend race, nationality or gender or religion. They are icons. They stand for something, and they reach for an ideal that for the most part, we all admire or even aspire to. Quick!….who is the most famous of all time King of Britain? If you ask the average Joe that question at least one out of three will say King Arthur. Yeah, there’s Richard the Lionheart and Henry the VIII, but King Arthur is the one that people really remember. Funny thing is he probably never existed in the way we think of him.
You don’t have to be a British citizen or a scholar to have heard of Arthur…..he’s considered one of the UK’s most beloved heroes, both there and abroad. Of course the tales of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have been told and retold so many times that they’ve evolved over the centuries to fit our romantic notions of knights in shining armor, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still a great story. Even small children will have an inkling of who King Arthur is…or was…how he pulled the magical sword Excalibur from the stone and became the King of England, how he fought for justice and goodness and all that. Much like the other iconic hero I mentioned, Robin Hood, Arthur is a symbol for us, and the Arthurian legends have been made into several movies and TV shows.
Most well known to modern audiences, the 1981 movie Excalibur seems to be the closest to the Arthurian Legend made in fairly recent times. It’s been more than 20 years since I read the story (yes, I’m that old that I’ve been out of school that long) but it seems to follow the tale consistently. Anything omitted from it, was probably for the sake of length in a feature film. The story focuses mostly on the love triangle between Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot, and on the feud between Arthur and his half sister Morgan Le Fay and their son, Mordred. Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Prof. X from X-Men fame), Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne Star in this version with Nigel Terry as Arthur. If you’re looking for a well known King Arthur movie about the Holy grail, well, there’s the absolutely hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Monty Python troupe doesn’t take the story seriously and neither should you when watching this movie. It’s definitely rib-cracking funny, and shouldn’t be missed.
Unfortunately, someone (Jerry Zucker) decided to monkey with the legends of Arthur and make the 1995 movie First Knight. Even though Sean Connery playing Arthur is a pleasing move, the flick is overshadowed by the fact that it’s a King Arthur movie in concept only. The entire movie is there to show what a cool guy Lancelot is. And it’s not even the Lancelot you’d expect from any of the legends. No, this Lancelot is Richard Gere playing Richard Gere in the dark ages. (and these are some brightly lit dark ages) Perhaps First Knight was meant to be a “chick-flick” because my wife liked it, but I for one want more Arthur in my Arthurian legends. There’s nothing wrong with retelling a legend in a different way, but it looks like First Knight was basically made fromt the standpoint of forgetting the legend and just using the names that people would recognize. A movie focusing on Lancelot isn’t a bad idea…he is probably the most famous knight ever…. (Quick! Ask the average Joe to name a famous knight….I’m betting he’ll say “Uh…Sir Lancelot!”) I haven’t seen the 2004 movie King Arthur, but from what I hear it pretty much does the same thing. Guinevere as a warrior babe? No Merlin? (I hear Merlin was in the movie, but not as a wizard) No Excalibur? What were they thinking? Even the limited series comic book Camelot 3000 treated the characters with a bit more respect when changing roles. King Arthur may have been trying to show the historical basis for Arthur, but so what? If we wanted a history lesson we’d watch the History Channel. When I see a movie about King Arthur I want the sword in the stone, the lady of the Lake and Merlin speaking all cryptically.
Merlin, Arthur’s teacher, confidant and wizard is just as much an icon as King Arthur. I don’t have any proof, but I’m willing to bet that Tolkien thought of him when he created Gandalf. (Quick! Ask the average Joe to name a famous wizard…they’ll either say Gandalf or Merlin, I guarantee it.) Merlin has appeared in every entertainment media conceived when a wizard is needed and rightly so. It doesn’t matter if he ever existed, it only matters that he’s become the template that medieval wizards are based on. Merlin for some inexplicable reason popped up in the movie Santa Claus, featured on Mystery Science Theater. How he stopped working for Arthur and took up residence with Jolly Old Saint Nick is anyone’s guess. But he also got a TV miniseries of his own in 1998. Starring Sam Neill, this miniseries shows events through Merlin’s perspective. It’s actually pretty good, and it is available on DVD. Merlin may tweak Arthurian legend a bit, but it’s not the tweaking we mind here…..we just want a good movie, especially when the movie features characters that have been well known and loved for centuries.
If we’re very, very lucky someone someday will make another King Arthur film, hopefully one that will capture the grandeur of the story. After King Arthur has been a hero for hundreds of years….we’re just waiting for him to sail back from Avalon.
Wanna know more about King Arthur? Visit your local library or read up about him here.