Knights of the Round Table

Knights of the Round Table
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1953
Director: Richard Thorpe
Source: Amazon streaming video

Knights of the Round Table

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) was the first comprehensive collection of the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and according to the opening credits of this film, Malory is the source material for the story, though considering the script, The Boy’s King Arthur by Sidney Lanier (1880) is a more likely candidate. This is producer Pandro Berman’s follow-up to the hugely successful Ivanhoe, with the same director, crew, male lead (Robert Taylor), and composer (Miklós Rózsa)—but this time the team stumbles. It’s harder to boil down a collection of tales like Malory’s into a coherent story than it is to adapt a novel, and Merlin, Guinevere, Arthur, and his knights are more archetypes than fleshed-out characters, two problems that movie doesn’t successfully solve.

Let’s just get the failings of this flick out of the way so we can focus on what’s worth watching in it. First of all, the dialogue is atrocious, stilted Ye Olde Englishe, and the actors deliver it dead on arrival, as stiff as slabs of oak. The characters are all simple and shallow, with about one note apiece (archetypes, remember?). The knights are awkward in their foolish Hollywood plate armor, and the knight-on-knight combats are reduced to painfully artless flailing that goes on way too long. And though the heart of the story is the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, as it should be, Sir Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail is clumsily and intrusively shoe-horned into the narrative, possibly to give the film some moral cover in the staid 1950s, since otherwise it’s basically a tale of medieval adultery. Percival having divine visions is disturbingly out-of-tone, as it’s the only supernatural aspect retained from the tales: Merlin here is just a wise old advisor, not a wizard, and Morgan le Fay uses poison rather than magic.

But this movie is still worth your time, for two reasons. First, it succeeds as a visual spectacle. Based solely on looks, the casting is perfect: Taylor is proud, upright, and stern as Lancelot, Ava Gardner as Guinevere would make any knight forsake his vows, Mel Ferrer is earnest and leonine as King Arthur, Stanley Baker sneers convincingly as Modred, and Gabriel Woolf as Sir Percival looks like he stepped right out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. There are two large pitched battles that are surprisingly effective—clearly director Richard Thorpe had studied his Eisenstein. And over and over the composition and staging of scenes and individual shots is impeccable: sharp, painterly, and memorable.

Finally, as dumb as the script is—and it’s real dumb—the basic plot of the rise and fall of Camelot as embodied in the love triangle of the three principles is such a strong story that it works anyway, despite the crappy dialogue. There’s real emotion in this timeless tragedy, and Gardner and Taylor manage to wring it out by heroically underplaying their rôles while everyone around them is hamming it up. Surprising, but there it is: go figure.

King Richard and the Crusaders (USA) / The Talisman (UK)

King Richard and the Crusaders (USA) / The Talisman (UK)
Rating: *
Origin: USA
Director: David Butler
Source: Amazon streaming video

King Richard and the Crusaders (USA) : The Talisman (UK)

This movie has the reputation of being one of the worst Hollywood epics of all time, and I’m here to tell you its reputation is well deserved: this one’s a real stinker, folks. Oh, on paper it sounds like a good idea: adapt The Talisman (1825), Walter Scott’s classic novel of the Crusades, cast George Sanders as King Richard the Lion-Hearted and Rex Harrison as Saladin, throw in Laurence Harvey and Virginia Mayo as the romantic leads, get Max Steiner to do the music, and the rest is cake! However, as soon as we’re past the opening titles it all starts to go wrong: a faceless narrator (ugh!) explains the historical situation of the Third Crusade, but the writing is just awful—and then people start to talk, and it gets worse. The script’s pompous blowhardery (yes, that’s a word now) is just unbelievable—oh, lordy, the stuff these poor actors have to say! The romance plot goes on the rocks in record time, not just because Harvey and Mayo can barely stand to look each other in the eye, but also because they clearly can’t believe how crappy their lines are.

Top-billed Rex Harrison made a career out of playing smugly superior characters so self-satisfied you want to punch them (a lot), and his rôle here, as the too-clever Saracen who’s always the smartest guy in the room, constantly putting one over on the doofus Christians, is made for him … though to be fair the Christians, to the last man and woman, are complete doofuses. The boring villains’ plots are ham-handed and obvious, but the putative good guys are so dense they barely know which end of the sword to hold, and spend all their time wrathfully blaming each other instead of the clumsy bad guys. The villains try to help identify themselves by wearing matching black uniforms, but nope!

As for poor George Sanders, he gets poisoned in the first few minutes and then spends half the movie on his back, grumpily making snarky remarks from the horizontal. His King Richard is nominally in charge of this Crusade, but there’s hokey political conflict with his rivals Ludwig of Austria and Philip of France, both ridiculous national caricatures—Ludwig is always drunk, while Philip limp-wristedly waves a fan of lavender feathers, fer chrissake. There are brief spasms of combat in which everyone flails around with heavy weaponry as if there were no such things as skill or finesse. There’s a contrived trial by combat, an absurd abduction of Mayo, and then everyone stops pretending they’re telling a coherent story and the film is reduced to the Hollywood lowest-common-denominator of frantic galloping through the California hills. It ends in the Worst Final Duel Ever, with Harvey and the boring chief villain atop a three-quarters-closed drawbridge, hanging by their arms and kicking at each other ineffectually. Come on! Screenwriter John Twist inexplicably continued to get work after this fiasco, thought it was mostly on tripe like “Helen of Troy” (1955). But it was the end of David Butler’s career as a director of feature films—he had to flee to television, where he directed 58 episodes of “Leave It to Beaver.” So maybe there is a God after all—or even an Allah.