The once and future king – has the failure of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur killed any hope for a good Arthurian movie?

By ·August 28, 2017 10:30 am

My disappointment with the recent big budget King Arthur movie from director Guy Ritchie led me, a longtime mark for King Arthur stories, to a decision to read all the extant Arthurian literature, as I’d never actually done so; I mean, I know the story. Who doesn’t? I’ve seen The Sword in the Stone. I’ve seen Excalibur and The Fisher King. I’ve seen – God help me – First Knight. That covered all the bases, right?

Plus I’m an English major, so I’ve studied Thomas Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur. That one fully encapsulated all the materials, right? I know all about Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. With all that taken into consideration, I figured my revisiting of the source material would amount to little more than a brush-up for me. Holy hell, was I wrong!

Tennyson and Malory covered most of the major bases, but there’s a whole world’s worth of secondary material I’d never read before and, in most cases, had never even heard of before. More than that, I didn’t know the history behind the stories, their authors (when identified), or the circumstances in which they were written.

I bet that water was cold. A scene from Boorman’s 1981 masterpiece Excalibur.

I knew of historian Geoffrey Ashe and his researches into the existence of an historical Arthur thanks to my college professor, who was a big proponent of his, and I knew that several of the knights were re-imaginings of preexisting characters from folklore or mythology (several of the stories of Sir Gawain, for example, most prominently his encounter with the Green Knight, come straight out of the annals of the Irish hero Cuchulainn).

Anybody see Sword of the Valiant with Sean Connery as the Green Knight and Miles Ator the Fighting Eagle O’Keeffe as Gawain? I saw it when I was a kid, so I have an affection for it, but is it a great movie? Nuh-uh.

Aside number one: I loved Ator for its over-the-top cheesiness, its blatant – and I do mean blatant – ripping-off of Conan the Barbarian – and its cheapie production values. I love me a good bad movie. But please, I beg you, never bring up the fact that O’Keeffe got his start playing Tarzan.

Disney got in on the act with it’s 1963 feature The Sword in the Stone.

It wasn’t his fault; the abomination that 1981’s Tarzan the Ape Man turned out to be – well, mostly it wasn’t – but there’s a permanent bruise on my psyche because of that one, a stain that even seeing Bo Derek’s boobs at ten years old – I was ten, not her – could not remove. There are no wild orangutans in Africa! But I digress.

Aside number two: Hollywood really needs to look into the Cuchulainn stories as fodder for a movie. There’s some epic drama in there.

So I’ve learned a lot during my recent Arthurian researches. I’ve learned about the adulterous English king and queen (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) who inspired the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, and about the P.T. Barnum-worthy hoax that led to the identification of Glastonbury Abbey with Avalon.

The Lady of the Lake hands Arthur his legendary sword. From the film Excalibur.

The one question that has sprung to my mind again and again is this: how hard would it have been for them to make a decent King Arthur movie, given all the material they had to choose from? Did Guy Ritchie deliberately set out to make a boring, one-dimensional picture? There’s so much that all the movies have barely touched upon, if at all, so much that is worthy of a movie and that, unfortunately now, after the dismal failure of the recent “King Arthur”, we will likely never get to see.

Critics and so-called experts will say the movie’s failure is due to a public lack of interest in the subject matter. Today’s movie-going audience is merely bored with King Arthur, they will say, as they said after the failure of the recent The Lone Ranger. Never will they take into account that those two films were both really bad movies – and not bad in the good, Ator kind of way. They were just bad.

That’s why audiences ignored them. If a good King Arthur movie or a good Lone Ranger movie were to be made, people would go see them. Ah, but that’s a pipe dream at this point, isn’t it?

Image credits: Bob Peak, Orion Pictures, Disney

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