Five Films That Creatively Adapt Arthurian Legend

Arthurian legend is made up of a nebulous web of stories, making it ripe for creative adaptations. Retellings can sometimes struggle to find a balance between honoring the original story and doing something new, but that problem doesn’t weigh as heavily on Arthurian legend thanks to its lack of one definitive source. 

Sure, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s medieval-era History of the Kings of Britain is the text that popularized much of the lore that we still tell today. But Geoffrey didn’t create all of the mythology surrounding Arthur and and a few iconic aspects of the legends—such as the quest for the Holy Grail—were added later. With that in mind, let’s explore five films in which Arthurian legend has been creatively retold and reimagined…

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail holds a pretty special place in my heart because not only did I grow up watching it, but some of its scenes were filmed close to where I live. The film follows Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his knights are they attempt to find the titular Grail, but they meet many hilarious obstacles along the way. Admittedly, some of the humor went over my head as a kid—I’m thinking specifically of the politically-minded peasant and his totally fair deconstruction of Arthur’s monarchical power (“You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”).

But the script is just as silly as it is smart and the jokes that made me laugh when I was younger make me laugh just as much now. Arthur’s fight with the Black Knight, the Killer Rabbit, the taunting French solider, the questions at the Bridge of Death… all of it makes me giggle no matter how many times I see it. Of course, much of film’s comedic strength lies in the Pythons’ writing and performances, but I also have to give a shout out to the special effects, the cheapness of which just add to the hilarity.

The Green Knight (2021)

David Lowery’s The Green Knight feels like a distinctly dreamlike take on its source, the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dev Patel stars as Gawain, Arthur’s roguish, fun-loving nephew. While celebrating at the Round Table on Christmas Day, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) barges in and offers a challenge: whoever lands a blow on him will win his axe, but they’ll also receive an equal blow in a year’s time. 

Gawain—looking to prove himself as a knight—accepts the challenge, but instead of just giving the stranger a little scratch, he decides to show off and ruin Christmas by beheading him. Instead of dying, as Gawain surely expected, the Knight simply picks up his head and rides off, forcing Gawain to go on a journey nearly a year later that’ll end with a blade at his neck.

The film looks and sounds utterly gorgeous, making me want while away the day in a sun-dappled forest. Many of the adventures Gawain has on his journey are merely alluded to in the original poem and I love that the film takes the time to bring us along on the many weird, dark encounters and strange experiences he has (Gawain’s fox friend! The giants! The lake dive!).  

Army of Darkness (1992)

In the third installment of the Evil Dead series, Ash (Bruce Campbell) winds up being transported back to the Middle Ages. He’s captured by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), an obvious stand-in for King Arthur, and taken to Castle Kandar (we all know this is Camelot!). If you still aren’t convinced that Army of Darkness is Arthurian, I present to you the bearded and cloaked wizard who may be known as the Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) in the film, but goes by Merlin in the comics.

Ash obviously isn’t thrilled to be trapped in the past, but the Wise Man tells him he can get back to his own time with the aid of the Necronomicon. Despite knowing the danger that this book poses, Ash remains an overconfident idiot and doesn’t take the time to properly learn the very important incantation needed to safely remove the book from its podium in the graveyard. His garbled attempt at the phrase raises an army of Deadites, which attack Kandar (in a scene that walked so that the Battle of Helm’s Deep in LOTR: The Two Towers could run).

Army of Darkness is a brilliant blend of goofy comedy, sword-wielding action, and blood-soaked horror.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

I’m aware that The Sword in the Stone isn’t one of Disney’s best animations, but I can’t deny that I have a soft spot for it. Sure, the plot kind of meanders and the fact that Arthur, a.k.a Wart, was voiced by three different boys (Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman) is painfully obvious in some scenes, but there are some great moments sprinkled throughout its runtime.

The highlight of the film has to be Merlin’s (Karl Swenson) magic duel with his nemesis, Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth). Mim’s chaotic energy is hilarious and it’s so fun to see the two of them try to outfox each other by transforming into different animals. I’m also fond of the earlier animal transformation scenes, with Merlin turning himself and Arthur into fish, squirrels, and birds in the name of education. Plus, grumpy owl Archimedes’ (Junius Matthews) over-the-top laughter when Merlin’s little plane crashes is delightfully infectious.  

The Fisher King (1991)

In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King guards the Holy Grail, but he’s wounded and stricken and must wait for a hero to heal him. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King takes this legend and sets it in New York in the 1990s, but the heroic knight figure—Jack (Jeff Bridges), a former radio DJ who is haunted and depressed by past mistakes—is a self-centered jerk. Jack meets a delusional and traumatized homeless man called Parry (Robin Williams), who insists that they need to find the Grail. Although initially resistant, Jack finds himself drawn into Parry’s world.

Gilliam’s take on the tale is just as much about the hero going on a healing journey as it is about the Fisher King being healed. Although Bridges is playing an asshole, his dynamic with Williams—who, true to form, gives a performance that is both hilarious and heart-wrenching—is charmingly compelling.

The Fisher King manages to seamlessly mix together legend, comedy, tragedy, romance, and social commentary. And, to my delight, it even dips into horror whenever the brilliantly designed, hallucinatory Red Knight shows up to terrorize poor Parry.

There are, of course, far more Arthurian films than just these five examples, so feel free to recommend your own favorites in the comments below! icon-paragraph-end

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