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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Once and Future King (originally published 7/04)

As the November election draws near and we turn our thoughts to selecting our national leadership for the next four years, we hope, as always, for a leader of exceptional merit to emerge from the pack and lead us on to greatness. The paradigm for such leadership must surely be the legend of England's King Arthur, whose story is being told yet again on movie screens across the country. If you've been to see "King Arthur" and found that you didn't like its approach to the story, don't worry. This legend has been filmed so many times and in so many ways that there's bound to be a version that suits your taste. Here's just a sampling of the wide variety of Camelot cinema available on home video.

"Knights of the Round Table" (1953). In the 1950s, no studio was better at big, splashy, colorful spectacles than MGM. This opulent rendering of the Camelot story is a prime example. Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner star as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, whose forbidden romance behind the back of King Arthur (Mel Ferrer) takes center stage. It's a wide stage, however, with plenty of room for big battle scenes and a hefty sampling of the Arthurian legend's rich cast of characters. From Merlin to Morgan Le Fay to Gawain and the Green Knight, chances are good that your favorite character will turn up at least briefly. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer, which is as much a promotion for the new CinemaScope widescreen process as it is for the film itself. (Note that the trailer proudly proclaims that CinemaScope requires no "special glasses," a reference to the contemporaneous 3-D process, which did require the use of annoying plastic spectacles.)

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975). If you find that you just can't take the Arthurian legends very seriously, this is the movie for you. The Monty Python troupe, who can't quite take anything very seriously, have an absolute field day with Arthur and his cohorts as they search for the grail. But the real secret behind the lunacy of the Pythons is that there's solid erudition and talent behind all the foolishness. One of the co-directors, Terry Jones, is the author of a scholarly study on knighthood in medieval literature, while the other, Terry Gilliam, has gone on to become one of world cinema's most gifted fantasy film stylists.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949). Speaking of comedy versions of the Camelot story, there is also this adaptation of the Mark Twain classic. Admittedly, there's little of Twain's material remaining in the film beyond the basic premise of a modern-day man who is transported back to the days of chivalry. He's a fish out of water, but the matches that he has brought with him from the twentieth century prove to be more than sufficient to earn him a reputation as a sorcerer who is not to be trifled with among the astonished people of Arthur's court. Mostly, this entertaining musical is a vehicle for Bing Crosby, who sings his way through the title role with his usual easygoing charm.

"Camelot" (1967). And speaking of singing, we can't forget the definitive musical version of the romance of Lancelot (Franco Nero) and Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave). Lerner and Loewe's hit Broadway production was given the full Hollywood treatment, with Richard Harris in the role of Arthur.

"Knightriders" (1981). For a really unusual twist on the Camelot theme, try this fascinating George Romero picture. Set in contemporary times, it's about a traveling fair at which the tournaments of Arthur's court are recreated. These modern-day knights, however, joust on motorcycles rather than on horseback. The interesting part is that they actively try to live the chivalrous ideals of Camelot, creating their own society based on courtly ritual. The story line includes a rough parallel of the romantic triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur. Ed Harris, in an early role, stars as the leader of the traveling cyclists.

"The Sword in the Stone" (1963). Walt Disney's animated film draws heavily on T.H. White's tetralogy, "The Once and Future King," focusing on Arthur as a young boy. This allows Merlin to take center stage as we watch his amusing efforts to educate the future monarch. Inexplicably, this film seems to have fallen into disfavor among the Disney animated features and is often overlooked. For me, it has always been a favorite. The characterizations are solid, the gags are funny, and Merlin's lessons about the importance of being an ethical person as well as an educated person remain timely, even for youngsters who aren't going to grow up to be monarchs.

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