Sunday, February 11, 2024

Knights of the Round Table

The story of King Arthur is one that's relatively well known. I was, however, a bit surprised to see that I had never done a post on the 1953 MGM movie Knights of the Round Table, which, as you can guess, is about Arthurian legend. It was on TCM not too long ago, so I recorded it. It's going to be on TCM again, tomorrow (Feb. 12) at 6:00 PM. So I made certain to watch it in order to be able to do a review on it here.

An opening voiceover tells us that the action is set in Britain not long after the Romans abandoned the island, which would make it the 5th century or so. Britain was in turmoil with rival warlords waging war against one another, until the king Uther Pendragon died. He left behind a pair of issue: Morgan Le Fay (Anne Crawford) was a legitimate daughter, but of course a woman. Then there's Arthur (Mel Ferrer), who was of questionable provenance. The sorcerer Merlin (Felix Aylmer) leads them to Excalibur, the "Sword in the Stone", and declares that whoever can get it out of the stone shall be King. Morgan's son Modred (Stanley Baker) tries and fails; Arthur succeeds.

Meanwhile, the French knight Lancelot (Robert Taylor) comes looking for Arthur. Along the way, he runs into a lone woman, Elaine (Maureen Swanson), who falls in love with him, and the two eventually marry, but much later in the movie. The two are waylaid by a bunch of Modred's men, but Lancelot is able to see them off, before Arthur shows up. Lancelot, not realizing who it is, challenges him to a fight which ends in a long draw, earning mutual respect. Then Elaine's brother Percival arrives, and declares that he wants to be a knight too. He's eventually going to be given the task of finding the Holy Grail.

It's going to take until the following spring for Arthur to defeat Modred and Morgan. Having done so, he can become the rightful king with all of the knights sitting around that round table. And they'll all live happily ever after. Well, of course that's not going to happen, since all of this happens with only one third of the film's running time having elapse. And we haven't even met Guinevere (Ava Gardner) yet.

Lancelot is back out on the road and comes to a castle where Guinevere is being held captive, Lancelot not realizing that Guinevere is already betrothed to Arthur. Still, he frees her and brings her back to Arrhur, thereby cementing his trust with the king. The king, however, has been fairly foolish in that after defeating Modred and Morgan and having united the island, he pardons them. They're looking for any way they can to get back at the king, and they think they've found one.

Lancelot, despite being set to marry Elaine, also pines for Guinevere, although in this movie he's utterly chaste about it because the Production Code would never let this Lancelot and Guinevere have an adulterous relationship. Still, when Modred's men find the two of them alone together, it doesn't take much for them to start gossiping and get enough people to believe that Lancelot and Guinevere have committed high treason with their relationship. It threatens to destroy all of Camelot.

Knights of the Round Table was the sort of movie that MGM was quite good at making. Here, they have the added advantage of Cinemascope, this being the studio's first movie in the wide-screen process. However, the movie feels like it's missing something. I think that's partly because the film's star, Robert Taylor, didn't particularly like making this sort of movie. Mel Ferrer is also decidedly not the right actor to be playing King Arthur.

For me, however, the bigger issue is that the movie really feels like multiple movies, or maybe an anthology story, in that the initial defeat of Modred and Morgan doesn't feel like it's at all connected with the love triangle of the second section. And then the final conflict is wrapped up rather too neatly and again in a way that doesn't feel so connected to the other two parts. At the same time, though, it's also easy to see why audiences of the early 1950s would have gone for a costume drama like this, especially one shot partly on location in vibrant color and that wide screen they couldn't get at home.

So watch Knights of the Round Table and judge for yourself.

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