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Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Knight at the Movies (originally published 5/01)

It’s not so hard to understand why we remain fascinated with knighthood as it existed in the Middle Ages. What could be more seductive, after all, than the ideals of chivalry, the lure of adventure on a grand scale, the challenge of holding oneself to a higher standard, and, of course, the fun of knocking other people off their horses with long poles. The latest screen manifestation of this fascination is “A Knight’s Tale,” in which a young squire attempts to joust his way into the 14th Century aristocracy. For a sampling of how earlier films have presented knights of old, look for these titles on home video.

“Don Quichotte” (1935). The classic Cervantes tale of Don Quixote hearkens back to medieval chivalry rather than portraying it directly. Its hero is a latter day admirer of knight-errantry who sets out to live the life he has so often read about. One of the earliest film adaptations of this venerable novel is a French-British production directed by German filmmaker G.W. Pabst. The title role, played by Russian opera star Feodor Chaliapin, calls for four songs from Quixote, making this the first musical film adaptation of the novel, long before “Man of La Mancha” (1972). The songs were written by famed French opera and ballet composer Jacques Ibert. [2009 NOTE: This one takes some finding these days, but it is around. Look for it here:]

"When Knights Were Bold” (1936). This British production also pokes fun at knightly chivalry; somewhat less elegantly than Cervantes, to be sure, but all in good fun nonetheless. Taking its cue from Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” it tells the story of an Englishman who has inherited a castle. Aristocratic ways do not come naturally to him, however, putting him at odds with his rather snooty family. When he is accidentally knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor, he awakes to find himself in medieval times, where he learns what chivalry is really all about.

“Ivanhoe” (1952). Sir Walter Scott’s epic tale requires a big canvas, and in the 1950s no studio was turning out more lavish fare than MGM. This picture was made at MGM’s British production facility. Mounting big budget productions there made sense owing to the fact that British law at the time required most of the profits earned by American films in the U.K. to be spent there, rather than taking the money out of the British economy. This adaptation of “Ivanhoe” is a prime example of MGM at its international zenith. No expense is spared. The stellar cast features Robert Taylor in the title role, supported by George Sanders, Joan Fontaine, and Elizabeth Taylor. Like many medieval romances, this one is built around the intrigues of Prince John the usurper, scheming to take the throne that rightfully belongs to King Richard the Lionhearted. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe valiantly fights for Richard while jousting his way into the hearts of two fair ladies. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Knights of the Round Table” (1953). Following up on the success of “Ivanhoe,” MGM next turned to the most famous tale of courtly romance ever told. The story of King Arthur remains a perennial favorite, and this, being an MGM production, is one of the most opulent screen renderings of the tale of Camelot. 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 legends’ rich cast of characters. From Merlin to Morgan Le Fay to Gawain, chances are good that your favorite character will turn up at least briefly.

Next week we'll look at some additional movie knights -- knights bold, knights errant, and even a few chivalric knights who somehow wandered into the twentieth century.

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