Written tales of King Arthur date back as early as the eighth century. While scholars debate the validity of Arthur as a true historical figure, his importance to literature and mythology cannot be understated. Stories of the great king have persisted for centuries, inspiring creatives of all stripes.
Several films have attempted to bring this medieval figure to life, but some are better representations than others. The following ten films focus on different aspects of the Arthurian legend. Each perfectly captures the mythological impact of Britain’s greatest king and the grand cast of characters that surrounded him, bringing their daring quests to brilliant life.
10 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim) plays the titular king in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, though the Arthurian legend has never quite looked like this. After his Uncle Vortigern wrests control of Camelot, a young Arthur is sent to Londinium for protection. Raised in a brothel, Arthur becomes a street-smart outlaw, controlling the streets. However, his father’s sword has revealed itself, buried in a stone, and Vortigern is obsessively searching for the one to whom it now belongs. With the sword in hand, Arthur has to decide between returning to his old life or embracing his destiny and leading the revolution against his uncle.
How the Power of Excalibur Earns King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a Spot on This List
The primary flaw of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is its branding as a King Arthur retelling. Though it has an interesting story, It loses some of its impact due to its many inaccuracies to the Arthurian legend, and the choppy CGI work in some battle sequences doesn’t do the film any favors. The reason this film makes this list despite these flaws, though, is its focus on Excalibur. The magical sword is truly legendary here, fueling Arthur with incredible power. While the sword in the stone is a key part of the legend, few movies truly capture its majesty, but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword does an incredible job bringing this integral weapon to life.
9 Merlin (2008)
- Release Date
- September 20, 2008
Starting in 2008, Merlin ran for five seasons on British television. The series follows Merlin as he arrives in Camelot. A young warlock, Merlin, is shocked to discover that King Uther Pendragon has outlawed all magic. After meeting the imprisoned dragon Kilgharrah, Merlin discovers that he is destined to protect and guide Uther’s only son, Arthur, but the prince’s arrogance drives a wedge between them. After saving the prince’s life, the pair quickly grow close, adventuring across the land and gaining allies. These connections will be key, as Uther’s ward, Morgana, disillusioned by the king’s actions, turns her dark magic against the kingdom.
Why Merlin’s Fresh Perspective on the Legendary Wizard Makes It a Must-Watch
Merlin takes a number of liberties with the Arthurian legend, aging down the leads to aim toward a different audience. While there are plenty of references to the myths, it is far from the most accurate adaptation. The reason this series makes the list is its portrayal of the title character. Merlin is a mysterious, larger-than-life figure in most Arthurian tales. Merlin does a fantastic job humanizing this character, and the spotlight on his growing friendship with Arthur is a fascinating twist. Colin Morgan does a fantastic job bringing the great wizard to life, and the focus on Merlin’s growth into that great wizard provides a great new perspective.
8 King Arthur (2004)
2004’s King Arthur brings a touch of historical fiction to the fantastical tale. Artorias Castus, otherwise known as Arthur, is the half-Roman, half-British commander of a group of Sarmatian soldiers. Due to constant attacks from the local Woad population and the coming invasion of the Saxons, Rome has planned a retreat from the British Isles. After a mission to recover an important Roman family, Arthur becomes disillusioned with Rome after witnessing the injustices enacted on the Woads. With Lancelot and his fellow soldiers at his side, Arthur plans to join the British people and fend off the Saxon attack.
How King Arthur’s Flawed Historical Perspective Helps It Stand Out From Other Arthurian Adaptations
To be completely frank, King Arthur isn’t great. It has a number of issues, chief among them being the many historical and mythological inaccuracies in the film. That said, it is still a decent starting place for those looking to learn more about Arthurian legend. It is a decently told story with some thrilling action sequences, and many of the main players of the myths are represented here in new and interesting ways. The film is far from perfect, but it at least attempts to bring fresh eyes to the popular stories. It also makes Guinevere, an often overlooked damsel in distress, into an integral part of the narrative, a great step forward for the character.
7 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Largely considered one of the greatest comedies of all time, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the Monty Python comedy troupe’s take on King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. After traveling the countryside to bolster the ranks of the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur receives a mission from God to find the mystical chalice. The group sets off on their own personal quests to find it alone, they encounter such deadly trials as the beautiful young women of Castle Anthrax, a wedding, and the Knights of Ni, before regrouping to seek aid from the great wizard Tim to defeat the Rabbit of Caerbannog in this brilliant piece of metafiction.
How Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s Exceptional Sense of Humor Utilizes the Arthurian Legend
If you’re looking for mythological accuracy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail seems a strange choice. It is a bizarre, hilarious parody of the tales’ tropes and characters, but in this lies the film’s genius. The troupe does an incredible job satirizing every major element of the Arthurian legend, especially in the context of the main cast of knights, while injecting plenty of puns and over-the-top hijinks to bolster the tale. It’s a brilliant piece of outlandish comedy that still holds up today. While it is hardly a primer on the inspiring myths, those interested in the Arthurian story would do well to watch this hilarious comedic masterpiece.
6 Cursed (2020)
Based on the young adult novel by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler, Cursed is the story of Nimue, a young Fey woman with an incredible and tragic destiny. After the religious zealots known as the Red Paladins slaughter her village and kill her mother, Nimue is given a mission to deliver the Sword of Power to the wizard Merlin. With the mercenary Arthur at her side, she sets off on her quest. Along the way, she will find the secret source of her incredible magical ability, struggle with the corrupting influence of the sword, and gather allies in hopes of stopping Uther Pendragon’s tyrannical rule.
How Cursed’s Unique Focus on an Overlooked Character Makes It a Worthy Arthurian Adaptation
While Cursed suffers slightly from its adherence to YA tropes, its focus on Nimue is a unique twist. The Lady of the Lake is rarely discussed in nearly all versions of the King Arthur tale, so this new, tragic depiction of the character is sorely needed. Also, the depiction of Excalibur as a weapon of darkness attempting to corrupt its wielder is interesting. It may differ from the original stories, but it challenges those preconceptions in fascinating ways, transforming the divine weapon into a beacon of evil. It helps reinforce this fun reinterpretation, adding new layers to the dark fantasy romance, themes of political corruption, and action-packed swordplay.
5 The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Disney’s The Sword in the Stone opens just after the death of King Uther Pendragon. A mysterious sword has appeared, embedded in an anvil, and prophecies state that the true king of England will be the one to pull the sword free. Years later, Arthur is living with his foster father, Sir Ector. While searching for a lost arrow, Arthur finds and befriends Merlin, a mysterious old man who offers to tutor the young boy through magical means. After several lessons and an encounter with Merlin’s nemesis, Madam Mim, Ector accuses Merlin of “Dark Magic,” forcing Arthur to decide between his education and his role as a squire.
How The Sword in the Stone’s Young Lead Sets the Tale Apart from Other Adaptations
As is the case with the majority of Disney films, The Sword in the Stone is a whimsical, beautifully animated take on the source material. While it deviates from the Arthurian legend in a number of regards, it does take heavy inspiration from T.H. White’s Once and Future King tetralogy. The film is unique in that Arthur doesn’t become king until the end. He’s just a simple kid, pulled to adventure through Merlin’s tutoring. Arthur never seems destined for greatness. He’s a fully rounded character, attempting to live up to the expectations of the adults in his life, and only as he overcomes his flaws does he finally pull the sword from the stone.
4 Knights of the Round Table (1953)
Britain is in the midst of civil war at the opening of Knights of the Round Table. Arthur Pendragon and his half-sister Morgan LeFay battle for control of Britain. Arthur seeks advice from the sorcerer Merlin, who leads him to a mysterious blade embedded in an anvil. After successfully freeing Excalibur and leading his forces to victory against LeFay and Modred, Arthur is crowned King of England. His peaceful rule is interrupted after his fiancée Guinevere is kidnapped, but a French knight named Lancelot arrives and saves the day. An unexpected affection blooms between Lancelot and Guinevere, one that Modred and LeFay hope to exploit.
Why Knights of the Round Table is a Definitive Adaptation of King Arthur’s Quests
Knights of the Round Table received mixed reviews upon its release, but this classic marvel acts as a fairly accurate adaptation of the Arthurian legend. This is one of the first films to truly focus on Lancelot and Guinevere, adding a touch of romance, and while it lacks some of the more magical elements, it does reference all the key story beats, from Excalibur to the Grail. The film has aged fairly well, and it is still an enjoyable adventure for modern viewers, especially with some of its more expansive battle sequences. The true draw, though, is its breakdown of the Arthurian myths, acting as a definitive interpretation of much of the source material.
3 The Green Knight (2021)
Dev Patel plays Gawain in The Green Knight, an adaptation of a 14th-century epic poem. The nephew of King Arthur, Gawain, is young and impulsive, spending as much time at the brothel as he does at his uncle’s court. During Christmas, Gawain’s mother casts a spell to summon a mysterious Green Knight. He promises that anyone who wounds him will earn his axe, but the wound will be repaid in kind. Gawain, seeking a story of his own, accepts, cutting off the knight’s head and sealing his fate. Now, in a year’s time, Sir Gawain will have to venture to the Green Chapel, where he will encounter the Green Knight again and lose his head.
Why The Green Knight’s Focus on an Overlooked Character Makes It Onto This List
The Green Knight carries the A24 pedigree, signaling its bizarrely symbolic and thrillingly inquisitive story. This isn’t an action movie wherein you can switch your brain off at the door, but a brilliantly imaginative adaptation of Arthur. In terms of this list, though, The Green Knight serves as a fascinating examination of an old Arthur, one who is on the verge of his death. We follow Arthur’s nephew, a character that other stories have relegated to the background, and that new perspective provides a fascinating look at this medieval world. It isn’t for every viewer, but for those looking to dive into a heady, artistic adventure, this film might just be for you.
2 Excalibur (1981)
Excalibur takes place during the Dark Ages. The sorcerer Merlin has retrieved the magical sword Excalibur for his king, Uther Pendragon. After helping Uther seduce the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, he takes the child conceived by this twisted union into his care. After growing into a young man, Arthur pulls Excalibur from a stone, into which his father thrust the blade before his death. Now earning the title of king of England, Arthur gathers a group of allied knights to help him in unifying the land. However, his half-sister Morgana has machinations of her own, and with Merlin’s tutelage, her magic will prove a bane on Arthur’s reign.
Why Excalibur’s Incorporation of the Entire Arthurian Legend Earns It a Spot On This List
Excalibur is an expansive film, covering nearly every major aspect of the Arthurian tales in just over two hours. It is a dense film, full of intertwining plot threads that detail the many characters and quests that define the legendary king. With so much story to tell, though, Excalibur has faced criticism for being rushed. It is a visually stunning film in every regard, but the story loses some of its impact with the never ending stream of plot points. It is far from a bad film, and in terms of adapting the Arthurian tales, there are few better adaptations for sheer volume of content alone.
1 Merlin (1998)
Merlin is told by the elderly wizard, long after his adventures with Arthur. He recounts the days of his youth, fostered by the magic of fairy queen Mab, and how his rivalry with her influenced his life. After Mab tricks King Vortigern, the wizard goes to King Uther Pendragon with the sword Excalibur, helping the Red Dragon to defeat his enemy. After Uther succumbs to lust and madness, conceiving Arthur with the married wife of an enemy, Merlin takes the newborn into his care, raising him to be the next king. However, Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, has machinations against the throne, and with the aid of Mab, she seeks to end her brother’s reign.
Why Merlin is the Definitive Adaptation of the King Arthur Myths
The Merlin miniseries has all the epic pageantry of Excalibur, but with more time given to the storytelling. It isn’t nearly as rushed as the film, giving it more time to build on the complex relationships and political intrigue of the story. Much of this runtime is given to Merlin, focusing on his rise from a simple magician to the greatest wizard who ever lived. It also puts the focus on a more human Arthur, one capable of making myriad mistakes. More importantly, it touches on nearly every major piece of Arthurian legend, and while it takes liberties in several areas, it is the definitive cinematic adaptation of King Arthur’s story.
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