The legend of King Arthur is filled with sex, swords, weird magic, betrayal, weird magical traitorous sex that leads to swordplay, and lengthy meditations on the political implications of absolute monarchy. So it’s unsurprising that the tale of Camelot has found its way into movies and TV shows fairly frequently. Tonight, Starz debuts Camelot, which stars Jamie Campbell Bower as a youthful Arthur navigating a power struggle for the throne. It’s a bit different from the typical portrayal of Arthur as a virile, bearded King, but it’s certainly not the most out-there incarnation of the legend. My question for you is: Who’s your favorite onscreen Arthur?
Playing the legendary British King is actually a difficult task. In most onscreen versions of the tale, he has to play the straight man to a court of noble knights and devious villains. I’m a big fan of John Boorman’s Excalibur, but Nigel Terry’s Arthur takes a backseat to more interesting characters like Nicol Williamson’s Merlin or Helen Mirren’s Morgana. Likewise, Clive Owen is pretty much the least interesting part of 2004’s already-not-very-interesting King Arthur (which was the record-holder for Muddiest Film Ever Made until last summer). Sean Connery’s older Arthur in First Knight certainly has majestic presence, but the character mostly plays second fiddle to Richard Gere’s Lancelot.
Part of the problem might just be the character’s complexity: He’s an orphan, a great king, a guy with a dangerous taste in women, and finally a semi-messianic figure. Some projects have gotten around this by imagining Arthur in his infancy. Disney’s The Sword in the Stone presents Arthur as a gung-ho kid learning the Kingly ropes from a goofy Merlin. It’s a fun movie — kind of a proto-Aladdin in some ways — and it’s based on the first part of T. H. White’s majestic The Once and Future King. And if you can get by the Camelot, 90210 set-up of the BBC’s Merlin, Bradley James actually makes a pretty compelling future-King.
Still, when I see King Arthur in my mind, there’s only one performer I imagine. A performer who captured all sides of Arthur — his epic nobility, his moral frailty, his emotional naivete, his swordplay badassity, and his beard. I’m talking about Graham Chapman, who played Arthur, King of the Britons in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Who can forget his thrilling battle with the Black Knight? His bravery on the battlefield? His canny diplomatic negotiations with the French? Hey, let’s face it, it’s probably the most painfully realistic portrayal of the legendary monarch.
PopWatchers, what’s your favorite onscreen King Arthur? Richard Harris in the musical Camelot? The resurrected Pendragon on Gargoyles? The lead protagonist of the button-mash classic Knights of the Round? (I preferred Perceval, but only because I’m an axe guy.)
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