Though credited as being based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table bares but a passing resemblance to Malory’s collection of Arthurian tales. Instead of covering the numerous exploits of Arthur and his knights, this movie focuses almost solely on the forbidden love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere.
Knights of the Round Table begins at the Chapel of the Sword where two parties claim right to rule all of England. On one side we have Arthur Pendragon (Mel Ferrer), son of the late King Uther, and on the other is his half-sister Morgan le Fay (Anne Crawford) and her knight champion Mordred (Stanley Baker), who is neither Arthur’s incestuous son or even his nephew as he’s been depicted in different versions of the Arthurian tale. Morgan maintains that as she is the only legitimate offspring of the late king, the throne belongs to Mordred, and I’m not exactly sure how that argument works. If this version of Mordred is just Morgan Le Fay’s champion and boy toy, then how in the hell is he the rightful king?
Setting aside the issue of bloodlines and rightful succession to the throne, Merlin (Felix Aylmer) moves on to the classic “Sword in the Stone” test to determine England’s rightful ruler. Mordred fails to pull Excalibur free and when Arthur easily wrests the blade from the stone, Mordred accuses Merlin of witchcraft and demands a meeting at the Council of the Ring of Stones, where all the other tribal kings will decide if “One man shall rule them all.” Then, in a bizarre twist, Merlin orders Arthur to return Excalibur to the stone, telling him that he must prove himself worthy of the throne by his deeds.
So what was the bloody point of the whole “Sword in the Stone” test? Like many movies based on the Arthurian myth, magic is pretty much absent here (Merlin mostly fills the role of royal advisor), Morgan Le Fay is not an evil enchantress, and the magical sword Excalibur is mostly forgotten.
As Arthurian movies go, Knights of the Round Table works mostly as an episodic soap opera, one that is occasionally punctuated with sword fighting. We are introduced to those who will become Arthur’s faithful knights: the French Knight Lancelot (Robert Taylor) — minus any semblance of a French accent — Gawain (Robert Urquhart) and Percival (Gabriel Woolf) who support Arthur against Mordred, and an assembly of rival kings and general asshats to help fill out the cast. Once all of Mordred’s forces are defeated, Arthur calls for a truce and allows all “enemy” knights to join the court of Camelot, which pisses off Lancelot who wants to gut the vile Mordred where he stands. Lancelot storms off telling Arthur, “While that man lives, I will not pay you homage,” but this tiff among friends is rather brief and only serves to separate them long enough for Lancelot to run into Guinevere (Ava Gardner) on his own, this so that he can become her champion.
It’s at this point that the melodramatic aspects of the film kick into high gear with Morgan and Mordred figuring out that Guinevere and Lancelot are in love, a perfect tool to divide Arthur’s knights. However, when Merlin learns of this, he advises Guinevere to break it off and convince Lancelot to marry the fair lady Elaine (Maureen Swanson) and ride off to guard the northern border from the murderous Picts. While there, Lancelot mostly broods over his lost love, but Elaine eventually dies in childbirth. This frees up Lancelot for more evil manipulations by Morgan le Fay and company, who have murdered poor Merlin to stop his pesky meddling.
What follows hits a few of the Arthurian highpoints; the affair is discovered, Lancelot and Guinevere are condemned to death but their sentence commuted by Arthur, and Lancelot is banished from England while Guinevere is sent off to a nunnery. This all gives Modred grounds to lead a civil war against Arthur and his faithful knights.
Knights of the Round Table does have a good sense of pageantry, not to mention being the first MGM film to be shot in CinemaScope, but most of the acting in this film comes across as either quite pompous and stilted or laughably overdramatic. We do get a fair amount of medieval action in this film, but the battles are rather clumsy affairs and most examples of swordplay found here look about as convincing as eight-year-olds hacking at each other with sticks.
• Both Merlin and Morgan le Fay are barely characters in this film; neither one shows any magical abilities and once Merlin is poisoned out of the picture, Morgan le Fay is basically window dressing for Mordred’s villainy.
• Elaine in Arthurian mythology tricks Lancelot into believing that she is Guinevere, and he sleeps with her. The ensuing pregnancy results in the birth of his son, Galahad. This movie’s version of Elaine is closer to that of Elayne of Ascolat, who dies of her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot.
• Though we do get the birth of Galahad in this movie, he’s never seen beyond being a baby, and it’s Percival who is the chosen finder of the Holy Grail rather than Galahad as in the Arthurian mythology.
• The hero of this film is clearly Lancelot’s horse Berrick, who is constantly saving his master’s life by either bringing him a much needed weapon or pulling his sorry ass out of some predicament or other.
The only real standout performance in this film is that of Stanley Baker as Mordred; he seems to really relish the part of the villain, but everyone else in the cast seems rather disconnected, and when you’re dealing with one of the most famous love triangles in history, having three lead actors looking about as engaged as if they were in a queue at the DMV is a bit of a problem. Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table is far from the worst adaptations of the Arthurian myth, but with all its splendour and pageantry, it still couldn’t make this entry more than a mildly interesting affair.
Knights of the Round Table (1953)
Movie Rank - 6/10
Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table is a splendid looking movie but its tepid depiction of the Arthurian legend may find many viewers nodding off.