It’s common knowledge that Cannon films are done on the cheap, and as a result, most of their output is of a less-than notable quality — they basically killed the Superman franchise with their installment — but with Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we get a film that brilliantly utilized beautiful locations across Wales, Ireland and France which gave the film immense production value. Sadly, this didn’t stop it from being another one of their low budget disasters. Despite its star-studded cast and fantastic locales, Sword of the Valiant can be quite painful to watch.
Though based loosely on the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the story of Sword of the Valiant barely comes across as an Arthurian tale and aside from the two title characters, there isn’t much to connect this movie to popular myths about King Arthur. In fact, King Arthur, Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table and even Camelot are not even referenced in this movie. The film does take place in a clearly medieval world; we are at first introduced to an angry monarch berating his knights for going soft in these times of peace. “We’ve drowned our knighthood in too much wine,” states the King (Trevor Howard). “Not one drop more, not a morsel of bread until even one of you proves he is worthy of his spurs.” This is the cue for the Green Knight’s (Sean Connery) arrival, who offers the assembled knights a very simple game. He will calmly stand still while any man is allowed to swing an axe at his neck, but with one small caveat: “Afterwards, if the power is left to me, I have the right to return the blow in like manner.”
None of the knights present have the courage, or stupidity, to take such a challenge, so it’s left to a young squire named Gawain (Miles O’Keeffe ) to step up and prove bravery is not foreign in these parts. The King is forced to grant Gawain knighthood — squires not being allowed to participate in such idiotic games — and Sir Gawain proceeds to lop off the Green Knight’s head. Unfortunately, the knight’s torso then walks up, grabs the head and puts it back on his body. The Green Knight seems sympathetic to Gawain’s plight, stating, “You shall not die yet, to defend their lack of courage. I came to challenge a man, not a beardless boy.” Gawain is then given a year’s grace to grow a beard: “But when the seasons come full circle, we shall meet again and you will pay your debt to me.”
The Green Knight ever the magnanimous soul, also gives Gawain a chance to solve a riddle to save his life, and thus, the movie proceeds into quest mode as our hero is next scene toddling off to explore the world with his faithful squire Humphrey (Leigh Lawson) at his side. Right out of the gate, we come to the quick realization that this particular Gawain is a right and total prat. Bemoaning his hunger, he is told by his squire that when it comes to acquiring food, “Noble knights hunt for it or requisition it.” So what does our noble knight do? He proceeds to try to hunt and kill a fucking unicorn! Thank God he fails (it being magical it just vanishes out of reach), but this is what one expects from a noble hero? Then these two idiots notice the sudden appearance of a large pavilion and think nothing of entering it and eating the food that magically appears before them.
That this magical construct is the work of the evil sorceress Morgan La Fay (Emma Burdon-Sutton) should be a surprise to no one, yet these two dolts take her advice in how to best solve the riddle, which involves them blowing a horn and inadvertently summoning the Black Knight (Douglas Wilmer) and being challenged to a fight to the death. Who knew you couldn’t trust an evil sorceress? Turns out the Black Knight is the guardian of the hidden city of Lyonesse, and when Gawain defeats him, the dying knight asks to be returned to Lyonesse where he can be properly buried. When these two idiots arrive, after somehow losing Humphrey in some out-of-nowhere fog, the Black Knight lies about his wounds and calls the victorious Sir Gawain a murderer, setting the city and her guards upon him. Gullible thy name is Gawain.
This adventurous detour does introduce us to the film’s love interest in the form of the beautiful Linet (Cyrielle Clair), a Lady in Waiting who was apparently waiting around for the prophesied arrival of Gawain. She bequeaths a ring of invisibility to Gawain so that he can elude the city’s guards, but this just results in dragging things on longer than they needed to be. From this point on, the movie is basically Gawain trying to rescue Linet and then failing because he’s an idiot, rinse and repeat as necessary to reach an hour and forty-two-minute run-time.
He tries to rescue her from the Lyonesse guards, but she activates the invisibility ring, which somehow now is a ring of teleportation, so he then seeks aid from a great sage (David Rappaport) who magically sends him back to Lyonesse only to discover that the city has turned into a tomb of corpses and that Linet herself is a cobwebbed shrouded crone — but, judicious use of the ring, and she is restored. Who knew invisibility rings could be so versatile? Sadly, a happily ever after has to be postponed again as not mere minutes after rescuing her, she is captured by the lustful Prince Oswald (Ronald Lacey) — Gawain is just shit at his job — and the only reason Linet isn’t raped on the spot is that Gaspar (Peter Cushing), the Seneschal of Oswald’s father Baron Fortinbras (John Rhys-Davies), states that it’s up to the Baron to decide who pops her cherry.
Teamed-up with a bunch of press-ganged peasants and an ex-pickpocket-turned-friar (Brian Coburn), our hero tries to rescue Linet from the Fortinbras castle, but fails miserably — he leaves her behind in a room engulfed in flames — yet somehow she survived the inferno and was rescued by a rival baron by the name Sir Bertilak (Bruce Lidington). A despondent Gawain disbands his merry group of morons, without it, Linet’s life is not worth living, but two minutes later, he finds himself at Sir Bertilak’s castle where he is reunited with the very much alive Linet. We are then treated to a tedious meeting between Gawain’s men, who have somehow returned to him, and those of the still lustful Prince Oswald. The good guys prevail and Oswald dies at the point of Gawain’s sword, but only in time for the Green Knight to show up and demand that his debt be paid.
Unfortunately, the movie does not end with Gawain being decapitated. Instead, it’s revealed that a scarf that Linet had given Gawain was magical and it makes the Green Knight’s axe pass harmlessly through Gawain’s neck. This leads to a brief fight between Gawain and the Green Knight only to have the Green Knight become mortally wounded and whither away like the seasons as Gawain finally understands the nature of the riddle, “Where life is lost, wisdom.” Sure, why not? Then because this film hasn’t done enough to piss off even the hardiest of bad movie viewers, we get Sir Gawain returning to Linet where she tells him, “I, too, live a borrowed year. It began with your act of valour before the Green Knight and now is at an end.” And as he touches her on the cheek she turns into a dove and flies away.
• Sean Connery was barely in this film most likely due to him shooting the Bond film Never Say Never Again during the same time period.
• In the original poem, Gawain was not a squire but a full-fledged knight when he met the Green Knight.
• The lost city of Lyonesse is part of the Tristan and Iseult story and not that of Sir Gawain.
• Ronald Lacey plays John Rhys-Davies’s son, yet Lacey is only nine years younger.
• The actual castles used in this production were fantastic, though they maybe should have removed the lightning rods from the towers during filming.
• It’s clear that not one actor was given more than a ten-second tutorial on swordplay.
• Morgan Le Fay makes a too brief appearance in this film only to be turned into a frog by the Green Knight.
To say that Sword of the Valiant was always going to be a bad movie is a fair bet because with Golan and Globus producing, failure is as sure as the setting sun, but the level of talented actors on hand here is really quite impressive — Miles O’Keeffe notwithstanding — and the production value on display is equally remarkable, but all that couldn’t stop this film from being an inescapable bog of dreary storytelling. This wasn’t even the first time director Stephen Weeks had attempted to adapt the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he should’ve stopped after the first go-round. Now, I’d normally say that bad movie lovers should skip this one as it’s not really of the “So bad it’s good” variety, but to see Sean Connery in the Green Knight outfit is almost worth it.
Sword of the Valiant (1984) – Review
Movie Rank - 3.5/10
There have been many films based on the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but Cannon’s Sword of the Valiant will easily go down in history one of the more bizarre entries.