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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Knights of the Round Table” (1953)

Since I’ve been in a medieval frame of mind recently, I’ve found myself watching and reading lots of things set in that period, including the focus of today’s post Knights of the Round Table, an MGM film released in 1953.  While it is not my favourite Arthurian adaptation (that particular genre is one of the easiest to do horridly), it is a serviceable interpretation of one of England’s most enduring myths.

Part of this may have to do with the casting.  Robert Taylor, steadfast as always, plays Lancelot to Ava Gardner’s Guinevere, while a number of other rather forgettable persons play the other key players (though Felix Aylmer does a nice turn as Merlin).  The other players, including the film’s main villains Morgan and Mordred (as well as sundry others), do not leave much of an impression.  Even King Arthur, ably portrayed by Mel Ferrer, does not really seem like the kind of king that would cast a spell over generations of Englishfolk to follow.

The core drama of the film is, of course, the tragic love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, a drama egged on and manipulated by the covetous Morgan and her paramour/co-conspirator Mordred.  Neither of these characters really emerges as a person in their own right, though as a viewer I felt a little bit of sympathy for Morgan, a woman clearly desirous of more political power than she has been accorded in this world in which men possess rights of inheritance (she briefly notes that she should be the one to inherit the kingdom, not Arthur).

Unfortunately, however, the love plot never completely gels, mostly, I suspect because I just don’t quite buy Robert Taylor as Lancelot.  In my view, he would been a much better fit for the character of Arthur than Lancelot (but maybe that’s just my own personal bias against Tayl0r).  Further, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Taylor and Gardner; they seem like two people simply reading their lines to one another rather than the most famous of doomed couples to appear in English literature.

I am and have always been one of Ava Gardner’s biggest fans.  There was always that something about her that exuded not just sexuality, but also a richness and depth of personality that was truly the definition of female stardom.  While we are accustomed to seeing Guinevere as blond haired and blue-eyed, Gardner brings to the role something of the sensual and the sumptuous.  While this might be read as a bit of miscasting (she would have made a wonderful Morgan if they had gone the route of the incest angle present in Mallory’s original books), it does add a bit of depth and nuance to the character of Guinevere.  Again, however, the script doesn’t really give her a lot to do, so that it really seems as if Gardner is being wasted on a role that is not nearly as juicy as she deserved.

As with Ivanhoe, it goes without saying that the production design in this film is flawless, and we can but imagine the intense feeling of immersion the viewer must have experienced seeing it in its original CinemaScope presentation.  As always, the Technicolor seems to speak in its own language, the vibrant reds forging connections among Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere that speak to the triumph of desire and its dark twin of violence and death (for when are sex and death not intimately intertwined in the cinematic and cultural imagination?)  And of course the score by Miklos Rozsa is tremendous and moving, but that’s a given when talking about his work.

So, what’s my verdict?  As I said at the outset, this isn’t the finest Arthurian adaptation (though it is not as bad as, say, First Knight, about which the less said the better).  However, it lacks the certain something that made Camelot such a compelling and ultimately heartbreaking film.  Perhaps it’s because it was made in the 1950s, when this particular genre was not in its highest form (see, for example, King Richard and the Crusaders), and while there were a few nice touches (such as the troubling and sad murder of Merlin by Morgan), or perhaps it’s the limited time.  Whatever the case, this is not the finest articulation of the King Arthur myth, and would have benefited, I think, from hewing more closely to Malory’s tale (upon which it is, ostensibly at least) based.

Score:  6/10