A central story element of many King Arthur movies would be the tragic love triangle between Arthur, his wife Guinevere and his noble champion Lancelot, but in this 1963 British production, the doomed love story is the bulk of the film’s narrative. Mostly based on French chivalric romances, with some borrowing from Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, the movie Sword of Lancelot — known as Lancelot and Guinevere in Britain — gives us an in-depth look at the infidelity and betrayal that brought down a kingdom. Love may conquer all, but it also destroys.
In this version of the Arthurian tale, we find an older King Arthur (Brian Aherne) trying to unite Britain with an arranged marriage to Guinevere, King Leodogran’s daughter. Unfortunately, Leodogran also lays claim to Arthur’s throne and will only bend the knee if his champion is defeated in single combat. Sir Lancelot (Cornel Wilde), being Arthur’s greatest knight, volunteers his services and rides off to do battle, and not only does he win the combat — against a cheating knight — he also wins the heart of the fair Guinevere (Jean Wallace) and thus the love story begins as does the downfall of Camelot.
With this particular Arthur and Guinevere we’re talking a serious May-December romance, as the actors sported a twenty-year age difference, but this worked well for the telling of the tragic love triangle as Guinevere in this movie only has eyes for Lancelot and only marries Arthur out of a sense of duty.
Arthur himself is portrayed as a smitten schoolboy who doesn’t realize that when his much younger wife says, “I love you,” she actually means, “I’d love to ride your best friend up and down the castle halls.” Actor Brian Aherne does an excellent job taking his version of Arthur from naïve bridegroom to saddened cuckold without losing our sympathies, well, except possibly when he orders Guinevere burned at the stake “For the sake of the kingdom,” our sympathy gets a bit shaky.
The standout in this film is, of course, Cornel Wilde as Lancelot; his tortured knight goes from loyal friend to killing his fellow Knights of the Roundtable as he escapes Camelot when his affair is uncovered — a side of Lancelot I hadn’t seen depicted before — but as in the case of Arthur, his actions are understandable even though the motivations are a little suspect. Wilde’s passion for the project is clear throughout every element of the film’s production — helped by the fact that not only does he star as Lancelot, but he also wrote, produced and directed the film. In this film you will see stuff not found in its Hollywood contemporaries; the love scenes are steamier, the violence is more graphic, and the battle scenes actually take into account medieval tactics and formations. There is none of that flourishing swordplay found in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood because as cool as that stuff is to watch, it just wasn’t done at the time, and certainly not possible with something as heavy as a broadsword. In the Sword of Lancelot, we get men brutally hacking at each other with the finesse of a local butcher.
The film doesn’t solely rely on the conflict between our three lovers, as we also have Sir Mordred (Michael Meacham), Arthur’s illegitimate son, plotting the death of Guinevere as any child of hers would be heir to the throne and supplant whatever claim he has. His skullduggery revolves around hiring a band of mercenaries to ambush Lancelot and Guinevere while they travel to Camelot, or having his main squeeze Lady Vivian (Adrienne Corri) spy on the young lovers so as to expose their betrayal to the King. But as this film is more about Lancelot and Guinevere, and not the usurper of Arthur’s throne, this is given very little screen-time — the murder of Arthur even happens off-screen — but Meacham is one of those actors that can do a lot with a little and his Mordred is more than a suitable villain for this story — he certainly seemed to be having fun with the part.
• This is a rare version of Lancelot where he is correctly portrayed as being from France, his full name being Lancelot du Lac, meaning Lancelot of the Lake.
• Hungarian actor Cornel Wilde does his best with a French accent. Points for trying.
• While en route to Camelot, Lancelot bathes in a small pond with Guinevere. Not the brightest thing to do with your King’s betrothed.
• Merlin is a key advisor to the King, but no actual magic is on display here.
• Considering the film’s age, the battle scenes on display here are on par with anything seen in films like Braveheart or Gladiator.
• We get the villainous Mordred but no sign of the enchantress Morgan le Fay.
Note: Actor Brian Aherne also played King Arthur in the 1954 movie Prince Valiant.
As Arthurian films go, Cornel Wilde’s Sword of Lancelot is easily one of the best depictions of the tragic love story that brought down the fabled Camelot, and though the likes of Morgan le Fay, Excalibur and the Holy Grail are missing, this is still one of the best adaptations of Arthurian myth. If you are a fan of the genre and enjoy a good love story, portrayed by two fantastic actors, then the Sword of Lancelot is a must-see.
Sword of Lancelot (1963)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Cornel Wilde’s Sword of Lancelot is a rousing epic that beautifully unfolds the tragic love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, along with the great battles and fun villains it all makes for an entertaining ride.