Historians may never decide whether or not King Arthur was in any way real, but that hardly matters today. What matters is the legend of King Arthur and just how often movies, TV shows, cartoons, and video games can re-imagine and recycle Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Excalibur, Gawain, and every other ounce of the myth. It’s a story that never grows old, at least not when you can slap a new and potentially awful coat of paint on it.
Some Arthurian adaptations are dramatically faithful, and some put endearingly absurd spins on the story. But beyond Disney’s The Sword in the Stone or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a world of writers and directors who’ve taken the tale of King Arthur to absurd and embarrassing places. And now it’s time for us to visit those same places.
Alright, so Excalibur is hardly a bad movie. Like David Lynch’s Dune, John Boorman’s 1981 film is a boldly melodramatic fantasy crammed with grandeur and unexpected Patrick Stewart appearances. Everyone wears blinding, glittery armor and lavish costumes, and it’s handled with all the bombast that a Hollywood-born Arthurian retelling deserves. We’d expect no less from the man who directed Zardoz.
That said, Excalibur is still overblown and hilarious beyond anything that Camelot musical ever had. Watch this scene, in which Arthur’s dad keeps his political plans on track for all of three seconds before lust and stupidity get the better of him, and see if you can take the movie seriously after the 3:20 mark.
Really, the rest of Excalibur, fun as it is, seems a letdown after this. No matter what drama unfolds and no matter what lines the actors say, no one responds with a needlessly shouted “Are you mad? THE ALLIANCE!”
9) Fate/stay night
In the unconventionally capitalized Fate/stay night anime-manga-game universe, Saber is a magical warrior summoned by (and bound to) a dopey high school dude named Shiro. However, that’s only part of her story. Centuries before she was reincarnated in some elaborate supernatural tournament full of enough rules to fill several D&D books, Saber was a young noblewoman named Arturia Pendragon. She united Britain in a time of chaos and strife and…you can see where this is going. But at least she’s a fully clothed anime-girl King Arthur.
“Wait,” some of you might say. “What’s wrong with that? Why can’t a story have a female King Arthur to counteract the rampant sexism of Arthurian legend and bullshit chivalry?” Well, that idea would be fine on its own. Yet Saber and Fate/stay night were created for Japan’s anime-nerd sector, where pathetic man-children often like to imagine drawings of women as their proxy girlfriends. For evidence, consider that Fate/stay night started out as a “visual novel” PC game in which Saber’s magical energy levels are recharged when Shiro, as the player-insertion character, has blushing, awkwardly described sex with her. So she’s not just a female version of King Arthur. She’s a female version of King Arthur that putrid otaku can vicariously screw.
8) Mr. Merlin
As far as pop culture goes, King Arthur and Lancelot get by easy compared to Merlin, who’s been re-imagined in a much more humiliating breadth of fiction. One of the lazier offenders is Mr. Merlin, a CBS sitcom that wasn’t around long enough to do much damage. In this trite piece of 1981 TV comedy, the centuries-old Arthurian sorcerer squeaks by as a modern-day mechanic while getting into all sorts of wacky, tiresome trouble with his newly recruited assistant, Zac Rogers, and an eye-candy spirit named Alexandra, who was basically I Dream of Jeannie’s title character.
Mr. Merlin doesn’t seem quite so bad alongside other things that aired on CBS during those first few years of mourning for the 1970s, but it’s a bit cloying in all of its modern alterations. Zac becomes Merlin’s new apprentice by pulling a crowbar out of concrete? Merlin has a dog named Arthur? Half the episodes involve love potions? We’d say that early-1980s TV could do better, but it rarely could.
7) King Arthur
Countless movies emphasize the fairy-tale pageantry of King Arthur and a glorious age that never really existed, so it would seem a good idea to explore the origins of the whole legend in grimly realistic circumstances. If there had been a real King Arthur, perhaps he might have risen to power in the violent, rebellious century of Rome losing its grip on the isle of Britain. Sounds fascinating, right?
Here’s the second problem: it’s just a dreary, clich?d movie. Capitalizing on the mud-and-blood battles from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2004 King Arthur flick finds the ruler-to-be (Clive Owen) facing ugly political squabbles in a realistically wet and filthy Britain. Everything leads to equally ugly battles, with Guinevere recast as an amazon archer (Keira Knightley) in a medieval sports bra (filled out via Photoshop for the movie’s posters). The whole thing plops down in some unconvincing no-man’s-land of adaptations; too bowdlerized to teach easily bored middle-school kids anything, too bland and gray to be an unintended comedy.
In contrast to the 2004 King Arthur flick, most of the laughs in Knightriders were clearly intentional. An awesome specimen of late-1970s camp that leaked over into the next decade, George Romero’s film takes on the most dangerous of Ren Faire pursuits: knights who joust on motorcycles. It’s only loosely based on King Arthur, but there’s still a cycle-jouster leader, played by Ed Harris in top form, who’s trying to keep his troupe together despite a usurper’s challenge and a disintegrating relationship with his queen. There’s also a Stephen King cameo, a scene where Harris hurls pizza at a weasel-like talent agent, and movie-opening nudity that’s hard to forget.
Somewhere in there, you’ll see a depressing story of a man failing at something he loves, but we prefer to focus on the armored motorcycle jousting.
5) Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders
Some novels explore Arthurian myth from Guinevere’s perspective, but in most adaptations of the story, she’s a tragically unfaithful queen whose affair with Lancelot starts Arthur’s kingdom a-crumblin’. Because, y’know, dames ruin everything. Compared to that, it’s almost nicer to turn Guinevere into a She-Ra superheroine who rides a unicorn and shoots rainbows and throws horrible computer-rendered jewelry around.
There’s no Arthur or Lancelot to be found in Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, but like most perfunctory Arthurian take-offs, it’s got Merlin as a kindly mentor and Morgana as an evildoer. They’re not as marketable as a cast of animal friends with names like Wintermane and Sunstar, so Gwenevere gets plenty of those during her hideously animated battles against various non-threatening creatures. Shows like Princess Gwenevere were clearly made to take advantage of a small, low-aiming school of girl-oriented action cartoons, but it ultimately lost out to a slightly more tolerable Japanese import. In 1995, girls could watch this, Sky Dancers, or Sailor Moon. History and the frightening world of anime fandom show us which way most of them went.
4) A Kid in King Arthur’s Court
Few film genres are more insufferable than the one in which a plucky kid launches into some fanciful adventure, outwits numerous able adults, and survives life-threatening dangers. These movies all share one other trait: they become unwatchable the moment you turn 14. But those younger viewers might have endured A Kid in King Arthur’s Court. Fresh from the equally annoying Rookie of the Year and with the bright future of American Pie ahead of him, Thomas Ian Nicholas plays a SoCal baseball brat who’s sent via earthquake warp (seriously) to the sixth century, where he wins the respect of an aged King Arthur and explores a Camelot in decline. And then the whole thing writes itself, or rather fills itself with everything preadolescents in 1995 might superficially enjoy, including jokes about rollerblades, CD players, hamburgers, cutesy preteen love, and King Arthur learning how to say “chill out.”
The best part of A Kid in King Arthur’s Court? Appearances by Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig at a time before either could turn down movies like this. The worst part of A Kid in King Arthur’s Court? Most of it, really, but special disdain must be reserved for the soundtrack, which seems constantly on the verge of breaking into the Robocop theme but never actually does so. That’s some sort of crime.
3) Sword of the Valiant
So it’s 1983, and everyone’s making fantasy and science fiction movies. It would be the perfect time for a King Arthur adaptation, but Excalibur already did that two years ago. So what’s a B-list film company to do? Adapt Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the few Arthurian fables that Excalibur didn’t grab for itself. The original is a short tale about chivalrous piety and supernatural pranks, but you don’t need those as long as you’ve got Miles O’Keeffe, star of those classic Ator barbarian movies, in a wig.
The premise stays true to the original poem at first, as Sean Connery rides into King Arthur’s court, challenges the entire Round Table, gets decapitated by the foppishly haired Gawain, and then picks up his head and leaves. This sets off a quest full of vaguely Arthurian knights, ladies, and magicians, most of whom weren’t part of the original story. Then again, the original story was largely about Gawain avoiding sex with a noblewoman and her husband, so the writers had to fudge details somewhere. The results are hilarious: Keefe’s bouncing and behaving hair outacting him, Connery popping in to bookend the movie with greenish make-up, and Peter Cushing realizing that he’s appearing in a much stupider film than Star Wars.
2) Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders
After this unsettling turn of events, director Kenneth J. Burton runs out of money/time/patience and pads the rest of Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders with clips from an older movie he made about an evil toy monkey. Only this time it’s a monkey stolen from Merlin’s shop. This leads Merlin to wander around in search of his lost demonic toy while a clueless family, clearly hailing from a decade before all of Merlin’s scenes were filmed, narrowly evades death via cymbal-banging monkey toy. In his largely bloodless killing spree, the monkey offs some fish and a dog, but not the “ROCK AND ROLL MARTIAN” kid or any other humans. Burton’s shamelessly stitched-together film was later immortalized as an episode of MST3K, which summed up Merlin’s odd moral as “Remember to believe in magic…OR I’LL KILL YOU.”
1) King Arthur and the Knights of Justice
The quickest route to a mediocre King Arthur adaptation is to urinate on poor Mark Twain’s grave by sending an annoying hero back into a murky age of Arthurian wizardry. Well, King Arthur and the Knights of Justice goes beyond that by transporting an entire team of gratingly stereotyped football players back through the centuries. The cartoon begins with the real Arthur and his knights already captured off-camera by Morgana, so Merlin decides to recruit new defenders of the realm by reaching across time. Instead of gathering up soldiers or mercenaries or motorcycle jousters, this particularly ineffective version of Merlin gets the Knights, a high-school football squad led by quarterback Arthur King.
Of course, every part of King Arthur and the Knights of Justice was designed with toys in mind, and it got plenty of them. More surprising was the creation of a 1995 Super NES game published by Enix, which had apparently figured the show for a lasting pop-culture staple. A boring and awkward Legend of Zelda swipe, the game is perhaps even worse than the cartoon. That’s quite the accomplishment.