People have been fascinated by stories about wizards for centuries, dating back to a time when that constant glow in the living room came not from a television set but from an open fire. That, apparently, was good enough for the folks at the NBC network, because their recent mini-series "Merlin" represented a significant investment. Taking no chances, they based their program not on just any old wizard, but rather on the most potent single name in the annals of sorcery.
Last week I recommended a few films featuring wizards as major characters, and yet I didn't mention a single film in which Merlin himself appears. Is that because the producers of the NBC show were the first ever to think of using Merlin as a character? Not on your magic wand. Just the reverse, in fact. With so many Merlin movies to choose from, it seemed worthwhile to devote an entire column to the old boy's various screen incarnations.
Many of the most prominent Camelot films, incredibly enough, relegate Merlin to a minor role or leave him out altogether. Lerner and Loewe's famous musical disposes of Merlin virtually as the first order of business, leaving Arthur to mope about on his own, wistfully wondering what advice Merlin would have given him about this or that. In MGM's 1953 big budget epic, "Knights of the Round Table," Merlin seems more like Arthur's attorney than anything else, stepping forward to plead the case for installing Arthur as King of England before an assembly of rival lords and then receding to the background. The same is true of the ineffectual Merlin of Cornel Wilde's "Sword of Lancelot" (1963). For a more interesting sampling of Merlin interpretations, look for these titles on home video.
"The Sword in the Stone" (1963). Walt Disney's animators offered their take on the legend of King Arthur with this unfairly neglected little film. Since their target audience consisted of kids, the Disney crew decided to focus on Arthur's childhood, especially his education at the hands of Merlin. Played by the voice of Karl Swenson, this Merlin is a proper wizard. When he wants to teach young Arthur what it's like to be a fish or a bird, he simply changes him into one for a time. At the same time, this Merlin draws a bit on the stereotype of the university greybeard, his wisdom tempered by endearingly dotty forgetfulness.
"7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964). One of my favorite Merlins is to be found in this delightful fantasy from producer/director George Pal. The languid monotony of a small western town is broken when a marvelous carnival comes to town. Operated by an engaging old chinaman named Dr. Lao (played by Tony Randall), the circus features genuine wonders such as Medusa, Pan, the Abominable Snowman, and Merlin (each of which is also played by the versatile Randall). Merlin, naturally, is the magician of the show, but the cruel irony is that his genuine magic is hooted down by the crowd of small town yokels, who only want to see card tricks.
"Knightriders" (1981). George Romero's fascinating take on Camelot transposes the story's courtly trappings into the 20th Century. Romero's knights hold jousts and strive to live by the ideals of Camelot, only they joust on motorcycles rather than on horseback. Their Merlin is a former medical doctor, who has dropped out of society to join their way of life. Played by storyteller Brother Blue, this Merlin is a hip and imperturbable counselor to the group's "king."
"Excalibur" (1981). Of all the movie Merlins to be placed squarely within the traditional King Arthur story, the most interesting is probably this one, ably played by Nicol Williamson. He is a true sorcerer, a weaver of spells and foreseer of the future, and a living repository of vast stores of arcane knowledge. It is clear from the beginning that the miracle of Camelot is Merlin's doing. Arthur and his knights are merely the tools he employs to realize his dream.
Let's not forget, by the way, that a character can partake of the Merlin tradition without necessarily going by that name. The next time you see "Star Wars," take another look at Obi-wan Kenobi and see if you don't see an ancient wizard peeking out from behind the science fictional mask of the old Jedi master.