Knights of the Round Table
directed by Richard Thorpe
(MGM, 1953)

Someday, somewhere, somebody will catch a clue and film a straightforward version of the legend of King Arthur, and not try to take a fresh "angle" on it. Not another silly (though enjoyable) spoof like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). No more angst-ridden love triangles like First Knight (1995). Big musicals are dead, so another Camelot (1967) won't happen. And God save us from anything even remotely resembling the muddled, surreal quagmire of symbolism that came to be known as Excalibur (1981).

In its own way, MGM's epic Knights of the Round Table butchers the legends just as thoroughly as any of the aforementioned culprits, but there's an earnestness in this 1953 film that makes you almost want to forgive its flaws. Almost. At first glance, it appears to be a more-or-less faithful adaption of Mallory, as it claims to be. The main cast is there: Arthur Pendragon, Lancelot, Queen Guenevere, Merlin, Mordred, Morgan Le Fay ... but that's about where the similarities end. Morgan is Arthur's stepsister here, and Mordred is not Arthur's son, but Arthur's rival and Morgan's consort. Merlin is no wizard, but a pompous curmudgeon who raised Arthur as a foster son, and is poisoned -- killed off, no less, by Morgan and Mordred halfway through the movie. While kind-of, sort-of covering the major events of the legends, the deviations the film takes are maddening, illogical and at times downright preposterous.

For a major release, Knights of the Round Table has a shoddy air all through it. This was MGM's first Cinemascope feature, but the majority of scenes take place on what are obviously sound stages, with lots of green-screen backgrounds added later. Many scenes look like they were filmed in a single take -- or maybe a dress rehearsal that the director felt was "good enough." The acting is wooden and stilted, the performers reciting many of their lines like 10-year-olds in a church Christmas pageant. To be fair, though, many of the lines are stilted as written, sounding more like what a committee of hack screenwriters thought 5th-century Brits talked like than the real thing. Not that it matters, since real British accents are few and far between. To put things in perspective, Kevin Costner would be in high demand as a linguistics coach here. Ava Gardner is luminous as Guenevere, naturally, but has absolutely nothing to do except capture the affections of Arthur and Lancelot. Mel Fererr cuts an impressive figure as Arthur, but comes across as detached and distant on his throne, a naive, trusting king who reacts to events instead of being proactive, who stumbles blindly into any half-assed trap Mordred sets for him. Robert Taylor's Lancelot fares better than Arthur, but it quickly becomes evident that this is Lancelot's movie. Indeed, after Arthur falls at the Battle of Camlann, Mordred and his victorious army ride off in triumph, only to be confronted and defeated by Lancelot -- conveniently back from exile.

Maybe the only thing worth watching for is the impressive, colorful battle scenes which open the film and bring it to climax. The myriad mounted knights, each streaming different colors both on their armor and horses' barding are an impressive sight, charging into each other in the heat of battle. The great joust in the middle of the film fares well from this pageantry as well. It's also interesting to keep an eye out for a brief walk-on part by a young Desmond Llewelyn, better known as Q from the James Bond series.

Knights of the Round Table was supposed to be MGM's bold entry into the grand epic sweepstakes, but the effort, unfortunately, falls flat. Don't expect to see Ben Hur here -- heck, don't expect Ben & Jerry's either, unless you go out and get it yourself.

[ by Jayme Lynn Blaschke ]

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