KING ARTHUR ON FILM.

LEGEND, MYTH, MAGIC AND MYSTICAL.

There have been many films that have at their epicenter the tale of the Legendary King Arthur Pendragon, it is to be honest a fascinating story, of knights in amour that band together under the leadership of Arthur and sit around a round table protecting the vulnerable and fighting tyranny and evil everywhere, with certain individuals embarking on quests and pilgrimages. However, some films do not always get things right when it comes to Arthur, or at least the stories that revolve around this character, who may not have even existed.

Apparently, Arthur was based in Wales or Cornwall and ruled England in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, he was credited with being the monarch who brought the English together to fight against Saxon invaders or so the Legend goes, and from the description in many of the books and poems that have been written on this formidable leader, the location of the Welsh and Cornish areas could be correct. The figure of Arthur is shrouded in mystery with tales of Swords in a stone, witches, warlocks, and Merlin, plus the mystical lady of the lake and the famed sword known as Excalibur.

FIRST ENCOUNTER.

I think the first time I encountered King Arthur on the big screen was in Knights of the Round Table, a fantastic colourful romp that although was filmed in England was a production that had its fair share of Hollywood-isms. The film was and still is a compulsive watch and much of this attraction is because of the way in which it was filmed, with rich technicolor images and atmospheric settings both inside and out, giving it the right to be referred to as a classic piece of cinematic storytelling, the cinematography by F.A. (Freddie) Young was stunning, with a musical score by one of the giants of film music Miklos Rozsa who had already placed an indelible mark on both British and American movies.

Released in 1953, Knights of the Round Table was filmed in England and Ireland, with most of the interiors being photographed in Borehamwood studios near London where MGM also filmed scenes for Ivanhoe (1952) and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955) (the latter scored by Bronislau Kaper). All three movies are looked upon as an unofficial trilogy that the MGM studio produced in the early to mid-1950’s  all of which were directed by Richard Thorpe and produced by Pandro S. Berman. Based on the Caxton published tale from 1485 Le Mort d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. Knights of the Round Table had a screen play that was the work of Talbot Jennings, and Noel Langley.

The already popular actor Robert Taylor starred as Sir Lancelot with the beautiful Ava Gardner as Guinevere, and talented actor Mel Ferrer as King Arthur, a young Stanley Baker as Mordred or as he is called in the film “Modred” which is the Welsh spelling for the characters name.  The movie also featured Anne Crawford as Morgan Le Fay and Felix Aylmer as Merlin. The costumes for the movie were eye arresting with much attention to detail from costume designer Roger Furse.

The musical score by Rozsa, is one of the composers finest, and was essential a pre cursor to his work on movies such as Ben Hur (1959) and El Cid (1961). It contained the drama and the romance that one associates with King Arthur and the times in which he was said to have ruled. Rozsa’s exciting and lush sounding music underlined, punctuated, and enhanced the many action scenes and ingratiated the romantic and at times melancholy moments within the unfolding storyline. The score was recorded in the United States and performed by the MGM Studio orchestra.

There have been various releases of the soundtrack, both on LP record and CD with a double CD set of the score being released by Film Score Monthly in 2005 which boasted twenty-seven cues from the movie that included source music and tracks from the original LP release, the CD also included the score from The Kings Thief (18-cues) another Rozsa score. Some recordings of Knights of the Round Table credit British composer and conductor Muir Mathieson as conductor, with others saying that Rozsa himself directed the orchestra.

But I am informed that Mathieson conducted the recordings of the English release of the soundtrack, with the composer Rozsa conducting the American recordings. His score is imposing, powerful, commanding, and melodic. His central theme being a perfect opener and setting the scene for the dramatics and swordplay that would follow. The soundtrack is available on digital platforms.

I WONDER WHAT THE KING IS DOING TONIGHT?

From the 1950’s to 1967 and a very different take on the Arthurian legend, Camelot is a musical, with music and lyrics by Lerner and Lowe, and the film was directed by Joshua Logan. It starred Richard Harris as Arthur, with Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and Franco Nero as Lancelot.  It is the story of the marriage of England’s King Arthur to Guinevere and is played out amid the pageantry of Arthur’s Camelot. The plot is like most King Arthur films, with the illegitimate Modred (David Hemmings) attempting to gain the throne and Guinevere’s growing attachment to Sir Lancelot, whom she at first abhors, threatening to topple Arthur and destroy his “Round Table” of knights who use their might and skills for right, fighting evil and protecting the weak.

The film was not as successful as it was thought it would be, although has in recent years become a favourite with many. The cast also featured Lionel Jefferies as King Pellinore, and Laurence Naismith as Merlyn (note the spelling). Its soundtrack featured instrumental music by Alfred Newman who also arranged and conducted the score with songs such as How to Handle a Woman, I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight, The Simple Joys of Maidenhood, If Ever I would Leave You, and the title song Camelot.

I have always liked the movie and enjoyed the songs and music, Richard Harris I thought was a brilliant King Arthur, with Franco Nero believable as Lancelot, and Vanessa Redgrave being an English rose perfect for the part of Arthur’s Queen. The show had been a success on Broadway before being committed to celluloid, and many believed maybe it was a show that should have stayed on Broadway. But that as they say is a matter of opinion, maybe check it out again and either revisit it or see it for first time and make up your own mind.

The soundtrack was originally available on LP in 1967 on Warner Bros records, and later received a compact disc re-issue as so many shows and soundtracks did when the CD revolution took hold. It is also available on digital platforms.

SHAKEN and STIRRED.

From the late 1960’s to 1995, and King Arthur played convincingly by Sean Connery in First Knight. The movie was directed by Jerry Zucker, who produced an exciting and adventure filled tale of knights in armour and the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. It was a little different from other King Arthur tales, and to be honest did contain some sequences and dialogue that one stopped and thought about as in Really? Supporting Sean Connery there was Julia Ormond as Guinevere, a long-haired Richard Gere as Lancelot and the excellent Ben Cross as Prince Malagant. Although it was an acceptable romp Zucker’s take on the legend of Camelot and Arthur and his Knights of the round table was a little cheesy and dare I say it Hollywood had its evil way with the story. Music was by the great Jerry Goldsmith, who composed a score that is arguably better than the movie it was intended to support. Filled with fanfares, proud anthem like pieces and full-on action cues plus a romanticism that Goldsmith rarely displayed. The score evoked Goldsmith’s past triumphs such as Masada (1981) and Lionheart which he composed in 1987.

It even contained choral work that was not unlike The Omen in the cue Arthurs Farewell. First Knight was a far grander affair than Lionheart being generously and consistently thematic, containing sounds and styles that were not unlike the music from the Golden age of cinema.

Listen to the cue Arthur’s Fanfare to see what I mean.  I felt the storyline of the movie was to modern and clean looking, and Gere was a little too much like John Travolta with a long wig. This was supposedly the sixth century in England, not a pristine and new looking setting which is what it came across as. But Goldsmith’s thunderous and epic score made up for the short falls on screen.

THIS IS DIFFERENT.

Music for the next film that has an Arthurian storyline is by British composer Daniel Pemberton, King Arthur Legend of the Sword, I think had great potential, but it failed to ignite much interest at the box office, and soon found its way onto Sky Cinema and the like. I thought this was a missed opportunity by director Guy Ritchie, but there again he does like to be different and approach things from different angles, the score too was odd in places, the composer utilising upbeat dance beats to score some sections of the movie, the music was out of place, and I have to say one of the least King Arthur soundtracks that I would listen to, maybe I am a traditionalist? But. King Arthur to a hip hop, style does not gel. The music I felt took one’s attention away from the action on screen, because it was so out of place. With the score only really showing any signs of the dramatic in cues such as The Legend of Excalibur, and The Story of Mordred and these were not that good either. It was a disappointing score from Pemberton.

And the movie too did not cause any great ripples. So, Mordred the Warlock, gathers his armies and attacks Camelot. Uther Pendragon who is King of the Britons, during the battle manages to enter the lair of the Warlock and beheads the Warlock with a sword that has been forged by Merlin. Thus, he saves Camelot from being overrun. After which Mordred’s brother Vortigern decides he would very much like the throne. He sacrifices his own wife to take on the guise of a Demon Knight, and then kills Uther’s wife and also defeats Uther, the son of Uther, Arthur escapes and this is when the story begins in earnest.  

It tells of the life of Arthur in Londinium being cared for by prostitutes, he becomes a crime boss but is haunted by images and nightmares of his parents being murdered but he can never see who the killer is. Vortigern rules Briton cruelly and dedicates resources to building a tower near the castle. When the water surrounding the castle recedes, revealing a sword in a stone, he has all the men in the city taken to it to remove it. Arthur manages to evade capture with the help of the prostitutes but is eventually caught.

He removes the sword from the stone but is overwhelmed by its power and passes out. In captivity, Vortigern explains Arthur’s lineage and that the sword’s significance to him before planning his execution. That’s a basic outline, of course Arthur returns to become King and all’s well that ends well, sort of at least.  

SMALL SCREEN ARTHUR.

Between 1972 and 1973 Harlech TV in the UK produced 24 thirty-minute episodes for a series entitled Arthur of the Britons. It starred Oliver Tobias as Arthur who is the chief of a small Celt tribe in Dark Ages Britain, a century or two after the withdrawal of the Romans. Arthur struggles to weave the scattered tribes of Celts, Jutes and others into a union that can effectively oppose the Saxon invaders who are arriving in Britain in growing numbers. He is aided by his adoptive father, Llud (Jack Watson) and his foster brother, Kai (Michael Gothard) who is himself a Saxon foundling. The series used to go out on a Sunday lunchtime on the independent TV network and would also be aired on a Saturday in certain regions.

The series also featured actors Brian Blessed, and Rupert Davies, the series was a popular one and in 1975 a movie was released, but it was not a re-working of the series, instead the producer’s used parts of the series and edited them together to make up a feature film which ran for 90 mins. The scores for each episode was the work of British composer Paul Lewis, who provided a wonderful soundtrack to the many stories and scenarios that we were treated to each week. But the outstanding piece from was the opening and closing theme which was composed by Elmer Bernstein. It’s a rousing composition, short and straight to the point, get people out of the kitchen, garden or wherever and get them in front of the TV.

The soundtrack was not available at the time of the series being aired but an album was released by composer Paul Lewis and Silva Screen, and is available on digital platforms, and the Bernstein penned theme is included as the closing track but credited to Lewis. It’s hard to believe that it has taken some forty years or so for Bernstein’s driving theme to be released and for that I say a big thank you to Silva Screen and Paul Lewis, the incidental music as some may refer to it as has been issued before or at least a suite of it was made available on a compilation album of the music of Paul Lewis.

BERNSTEIN’S THEME ARRANGED BY PAUL LEWIS.

But this I am sure is the first full release of music from the series. The music that Lewis produced for the series is some of the best I have heard from this period in television, in fact it is overflowing with dramatic and romantic interludes, contains tense and strong thematic material and serves the series effectively. The varied and inventively creative elements of the score combine to generate an exciting and overly attractive and entertaining work, which at times conjure up several feelings of de ja vu for this listener at least. Lewis’s music sounds more like a full blown film score as opposed to a television soundtrack, the composer orchestrating and arranging the music to a high standard that is quite honestly on a par with The Vikings and The Long Ships soundtracks by Mario Nascimbene and Dusan Radic respectively, this sound I think can be heard more prominently in track number three, Celtic Horns and the Longship, two rather subdued horns play in unison at the offset of the composition, creating for want of a better word a near restful atmosphere.

This mood soon alters as the horns become louder and more threatening in their sound but after a brief period they revert back, again to a softer ambience before more brass is added and usher in strings which then introduce another level of uneasiness, all of the time the horns remain in the background punctuating and supporting, the composer adding wood wind and subdued percussion gradually, thus building the tension and atmosphere of unease and uncertainness‘. Horns are used again as the mainstay instrumentation in track number four, Sentinels, which although brief is highly effective. Track number five, To Battle is full to brimming with martial sounding instrumentation, woodwind, snare drums driving strings and jagged brass stabs and growls open the cue but are halted to be replaced by a more aggressive sound that is created by swirling strings and booming timpani which towards the end of the composition overwhelms all other instruments.

This is an album that should be in your collection, it was such a long time coming it would be re-miss of any self-respecting soundtrack collector, old or new to not purchase it. The score has a sound to it that could be Walton or even has certain affiliations to the style adopted by composer Frank Cordell on Cromwell and maybe a gentle nod in the direction of James Bernard.  

INTO THE FUTURE.

In 1991 we were treated to The Fisher King, which starred Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, it had links to the story of King Arthur although it was set in contemporary times. Jack Lucas (Bridges) was once a famous, arrogant, and egotistical New York City call-in radio talk show host. Jack goes on a quick downward spiral, both personally and professionally, after a shallow comment he makes to one of his regular caller’s, which results in that caller going on a murder spree. Three years later, the only emotional and financial support a despondent Jack receives is from his current video store owning girlfriend. When Jack hits rock bottom, he meets a seemingly crazy and homeless man calling himself Parry (Williams). Parry does have mental health issues, namely hallucinations cantered around the story of the Fisher King, which is why he is obsessed with obtaining the Holy Grail. When Jack learns of Parry’s own background and the reason he got to where he is, Jack feels he needs to be part of Parry’s salvation.

Robin Williams shouting in the street as Jeff Bridges watches in a scene from the film ‘The Fisher King’, 1991.

He figures the way to do so is to connect Parry with Lydia Sinclair, a shy and uncoordinated woman who Parry loves from afar. In doing so, Jack may himself be able to recapture his old life back. But if he does, he may not realize that he was no saint in that former life.

Directed by Terry Gilliam who also was responsible for co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Fisher King, did not really attain the success it deserved at the time of its release but has since become something of a cult movie famed for its magnificent waltz scene at grand central station. Music for the movie was by George Fenton.

GEORGE FENTON

A recent reworking of the Arthurian legend or at least a movie that has affiliations with it arrived in the form of The Kid Who Would be King. Which was released in 2019, where we see old school magic colliding with the modern world in an epic and frantic adventure. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) thinks he’s just a nobody, until he stumbles upon the mythical sword in the stone, Excalibur.

Now, he must unite his friends and enemies into a band of knights and, together with the legendary wizard Merlin (Sir Patrick Stewart), take on the wicked enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader a King Arthur figure he never dreamed he could be.

The music for the movie is by Electric Wave Bureau (EWB) who are a London-based collaborative artist collective dedicated to composing and sourcing music for film, television, radio and online projects. Named after the North Korean government agency that monitors and stops residents receiving western entertainment on electronic devices, founder members include musician Michael Smith, artist Suzi Winstanley, Nelson De Freitas and musician Damon Albarn.


Their Recent projects have included compositions for, Paddington, Paddington 2 and Broken. The Kid who Would be King contains an effective score, that supports and elevates the action, it is a fusion of traditional scoring methods and a more contemporary style with electronics coming into play often but effectively. In many ways I think it is a much better score than Daniel Pemberton’s King Arthur the Legend of the Sword, I say this because I am comparing two contemporary takes on scoring a King Arthur movie.

The Kid Who Would Be King contains themes that are far more developed, and the composers allow these themes to breathe and interact more freely with the storyline and the action on screen. It’s a refreshing and infectious work, as in you don’t want it to end but you also want to hear the next track because the one you are listening to is so good.  Check it out on digital platforms such as Spotify.

The Green Knight, is one of the more recent movies that delves into the legends and tales that surround Arthur Pendragon, director David Lowrey serves up an epic tale filled with adventure and fantasy. The movie tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to locate and confront the gigantic emerald-skinned stranger. Gawain encounters ghosts, giants, thieves, and conspirators in what becomes a deeper journey to define his own character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenge.

 It is a fresh, unflinching spin on a classic tale that revolves around Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Music is by composer Daniel Hart, who’s score I must admit I did not like, but many others thought it to be a superb soundtrack, but I can only say what I think, and I have not changed my mind on it since first hearing the work.

WODE IS ME.

Back to 2004 for the next Arthurian tale, and to King Arthur, which was an ill-fated movie, and after watching it rightly so. It had an impressive cast list, that included Clive Owen (sorry did I say impressive) maybe I meant well we have heard of them. Ray Winstone, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, and Stellan Skarsgard. But none of these made it a more bearable watch, even the composer Hans Zimmer made no difference, it was not a good movie, containing wooden and lack lustre performances with Owen definitely out of place, and that’s the end of it. Would be remiss to waste any more time on it.

EARLY DAYS.

English scholar T.H. White brought the writings of Malory to life for a new generation with the publication of four novels The Once and Future King (1958), which chronicled the whole Arthurian saga for a modern audience. The first book, 1938’s The Sword in the Stone, creatively imagined Arthur’s boyhood education under Merlin, which would stand him in later stead when he was crowned King. 

Disney spotted the potential of this storyline with its family-friendly combination of magic and life-lessons, and while not the best-known among the studio’s classic animated features, the results are a delight. With many in recent years marking it as one of Disney’s better animated features of the late 1960’s.  

Highlights include Merlin turning the boy into furry, feathered, and fishy creatures so he can gain a broader perspective on his place in the world, all leading up to a fantastic shape-shifting face-off between Merlin and Madame Mim. We get to the sword-pulling eventually, but the point of all this is an enterprising prequel to the familiar Arthurian legend. In that it succeeds wonderfully. The film contained a handful of songs, but not as many as other classics such as Snow White or Cinderella, but enough to hold the kid’s of all ages attention, it is a colourful and funny tale, that still to this day keeps audiences entertained.

NO MORTAL COULD POSSESS IT, NO KINGDOM COULD COMMAND IT!

The only film to date that attempts to bring Le Morte d’Arthur to the screen in one ambitious but brilliant fell swoop, is the magnificent Excalibur directed by John Boorman.  It is a valiant effort to blend visionary accomplishment, butchered storytelling, and full-on sincerity leaving no choice but to go with the veering chronicles route as we see the boy Arthur grow and become a King and a fearsome warrior, who eventually turns into a benevolent bringer of peace. 

Who then loses control of his Kingdom and allows it to slip into disarray and chaos because of his Queen Guinevere’s presumed affair with his most trusted Knight Lancelot. The tale is a bloody one, filled with axe wielding and broadsword slicing moments. It is an affecting film, and to think this was all before the now common place CGI that makes so many filmmakers look like they are geniuses.

Looking at the cast list it seems that most of the up-and-coming Irish acting fraternity such as Liam Neeson were allowed to cut their teeth as it were by being involved on Excalibur, with the wonderful Nicol Williamson standing out as Merlin.

The original score was by South African born composer Trevor Jones, but the movie will probably be remembered best for its utilization of the music of Carl Orff and Richard Wagner. (see interview with the composer here- TREVOR JONES | MOVIE MUSIC INTERNATIONAL. (MMI) . (wordpress.com) ) Composer Jones would return to the Arthurian tale in 1998 when he scored the TV miniseries Merlin which starred Sam Neil.

A FRENCH TAKE ON ENGLISH HISTORY.

Then we have Lancelot of the Lake, which was released in 1974, directed by Robert Bresson, it is a slightly different take on the legend of Arthur and his Knights of the round table. In fact it is miles away from the stories of Excalibur and the notions about Camelot being a utopia. The movie unashamedly and ruthlessly strips back the legend and exposes it portraying the Knights of the round table as brigands and liars, who are out for their own gain. Arthur’s knights being depicted as far from being heroic individuals who are greed driven and scheming. The film opens with news of the Knights failing in a quest to find the Holy grail. The knights return demoralized to the kingdom. Their leader, Percival, is lost, and Lancelot berates himself and his adultery with Guinevere as the reason that the Grail was not found- the search for it was, for him, also a search for God. Aimlessly resentful at first, the developing relationship between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is seen as a resentful one and is more focused upon their anger rather than the infidelity that is predominant in other stories. This as we know leads to tragedy, as any love triangle inevitably does.  The film had no real stars in its cast, with the directors natural and non-conforming style making the movies images extremely powerful and memorable.

The musical score is the work of Phillipe Sarde, which itself breaks the mould of what is conceived to be music for medieval times, the score at times containing an easy listening style, whilst the opening theme is martial sounding with timpani and instrumentation that is not unlike bagpipes but is in fact the sound of the Loure which is basically the same instrument but one that was native to France specifically Normandy and was used widely in the 17th and 18th century.

Sarde’s opening and closing themes were available at the time of the movie’s release on a 45rpm single. There was also a TV series produced in France in 1970 under the same title, the score for this is excellent and penned by Georges Delerue. The Delerue score has been made available recently by French Soundtrack label Music Box and is certainly one to check out.

THE LIGHTER SIDE OF PENDRAGON.

There are many films that have within their storyline’s references to King Arthur, The Spaceman and King Arthur for example, which was Disney movie from 1979, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court which was released in 1949 and starred Bing Crosby, Rhonda Fleming, Sir Cecil Hardwicke and William Bendix amongst others, the movie which was based on the 1889 novel by Mark Twain was a musical comedy drama.

And what about, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, from 1975. In which the Pythons take history and turn it inside out and upside down, we see King Arthur travel the countryside to find knights who will join him at the Round Table in Camelot. Gathering up the men is a tale all of it own but after a party at Camelot, many decide to leave only to be stopped by God, who sends them on a quest: to find the Holy Grail. After a series of individual adventures, the knights are reunited but must face a wizard named Tim the Enchanter, killer rabbits, and lessons in the use of holy hand grenades.

Their quest is brought to an abrupt end when the good British Police intervene and stop everything, well yes what else would you expect from this group of madcap genius’s? Satire and swordplay on the menu its an entertaining romp if not a slightly confusing one, but that’s the brilliance of Python.

And then there was Monty Python and the Holy Grail set to music as in Spamalot which came in 2004. There have been so many movies made about King Arthur, and TV series as well, it would take forever to go through them, the titles I have mentioned are the tip of a very big iceberg. And maybe there will be a part two on this subject?