When King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens May 12, it will join a long line of films retelling the story of the legendary king of Camelot. Many of the films offer sweeping stories of chivalry, swordplay, and heroism. Others Arthurian adaptations are — well, read the title of this list. These stories can be mystical, swashbuckling, gritty, and comical, but they can also be absolutely nuts.
A few WTF adaptations are inevitable if a legend is repeatedly retold, and the story of Arthur has been retold a lot. Everyone knows Camelot, so writing Lancelot or Galahad as a hero makes a movie more interesting than Sir Generic Knightly Protagonist. Make Excalibur or the Holy Grail the treasure everyone's seeking, and the audience knows at once that it's important. Write Merlin into a cartoon episode and nobody's surprised when he pulls off the impossible.
Stephen King worked Arthurian legend into the history of his Gunslinger series. Novelists have set Grail quests in Las Vegas and Alabama. On screen, Arthurian legend has been tied to Bugs Bunny, the Thundercats, and even your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Read on for 15 WTF adaptations of the story of Camelot.
Remember all the debate about Doctor Strange (2016) having a white hero learn Eastern mysticism from a white woman? The 1978 TV movie Dr. Strange avoided all that by making Strange's mentor Arthurian. The wizard is "Lindmer" (did they think adding the D would make the switched syllables less obvious?) and the villain is the Arthurian sorceress Morgan Le Fay.
The issue for director/writer Philip DeGuere in making the change wasn’t cultural appropriation. He simply thought the groovy Eastern mysticism of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics was a sixties kind of thing, something that would date the story. He also eliminated Strange’s selfish streak — this Sorceror Supreme is a compassionate psychiatric resident who genuinely cares about his patients. That, plus an innate talent for magic, is what makes him the right person to become Lindmer’s successor in the fight against Morgan and her dark masters.
What did carry over from the comics was Ditko’s psychedelic visuals, or as close as the f/x budget could come to it. The movie stood head and shoulders above Marvel’s other 1970s pilot films, but airing against the blockbuster miniseries Roots, it inevitably tanked in the ratings. Too bad.
Bugs Bunny had a brief visit to Camelot in the cartoon Knight-Mare Hare (1955) but the TV special Bugs Bunny in King Arthur’s Court was longer and funnier. The Mark Twain takeoff opens with Bugs tunneling to Georgia but arriving in Camelot (“That’s the last time I get directions from Ray Bradbury!”). Elmer of Fudde turns him over to Arthur (Daffy Duck), but like Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Bugs bluffs everyone by claiming he magically caused a convenient solar eclipse. He then sets up a factory to build armor for animals, protecting them from hunters.
Egged on by Yosemite Sam’s Merlin, Sir Elmer challenges Bugs to a joust. Things go over the top as only a Bugs Bunny cartoon can, but the joust ends with Elmer ready to finish off the wascally wabbit. Fortunately, Bugs draws Excalibur from the stone and thereby becomes King Art-Hare. Daffy cheerfully yields the throne, conceding that it’s silly for King Arthur to be a duck (as if everything else in cartoon Camelot had been sober and serious).
Trivia note: the legendary Mel Blanc voiced every single character.
If you were an immortal 1600-year-old magician, what would you be doing in the 1980s? If your answer is “probably open a garage in San Francisco,” then you’re on the same wavelength as CBS’ 1981-82 sitcom Mr. Merlin.
In the first episode, Merlin’s spirit guide Alexandria informs the crotchety wizard that he needs to take on an apprentice ASAP. Merlin sticks a crowbar in a block of concrete, teenage slacker Zach pulls it out (it briefly turns into a sword), and presto, Zach and Merlin are stuck with each other. The plots typically hinged on Zach getting into trouble using magic for selfish reasons, Zach getting into trouble miscasting spells, and Zach getting into trouble because he and his mentor just didn't see eye to eye. That wasn’t enough to get the show renewed, but it remains the only American live-action Arthurian series to date.
British TV, by contrast, has created a number of Arthurian shows: The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, King Arthur the Young Warlord, and recently, the five-season Merlin, which wrapped up in 2012. Still, for live-action TV goofiness, Mr. Merlin has England beat.
Films made by Nazis or under Nazi rule draw a lot of critical scrutiny: are they pro-fascist? Is there a subtle anti-fascist message? With the 1943 French film The Eternal Return (named for a theory of Nietzche that patterns in life recur endlessly), both views have their advocates.
Written by the great French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, the movie retells the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isolde in the present. Wealthy Marc sends his nephew Patrice to arrange Marc’s marriage to beautiful Nathalie. Marc’s sister Gertrude and her dwarf son Achille prevent the marriage — they hope to inherit Marc’s wealth — by spiking Patrice and Nathalie’s drinks with a love potion. Tragedy ensues.
Cocteau was cool with the Nazi occupation of Paris, so it’s easy to see the film as pro-fascist: Patrice and Nathalie are Aryan blondes dragged to destruction by the "genetically inferior" Gertrude and Achille. A counter-argument proposes that the couple is an allegory for the soul of France, torn apart by the cruel invaders. There’s no way to know for sure, so feel free to check it out for yourself and decide.
In the earliest legends, Modred/Mordred was just an Arthurian warrior. Over the centuries, he mutated into Arthur’s treacherous bastard son, sired by incest through Arthur’s sister Morgan Le Fay. Not the sort of villain you’d expect to find battling Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends on a Saturday morning in 1981 (in case you’re wondering, nobody mentioned the incest).
In “Knights and Demons,” Modred is a sorcerer imprisoned in a demon world by Camelot’s champion, the Black Knight. When Modred’s demon steals the knight’s magic sword, the Black Knight materializes from the past and joins forces with the Spider-Friends (Spidey, Iceman, Firestar) to set things right. The mage’s final defeat, though, is at the hands of his demon followers, who believed in his promise of freedom (“Even demons can dream!”).
“Black Knight” is a name multiple movies have used for an Arthurian hero or villain who conceals his identity in black armor. Likewise, the Marvel Universe's original Black Knight was a disguised nobleman fighting to protect Camelot. His magic sword later passed to his modern successor.
Doctor Who has tied the Doctor into many historical events, from WWII to the French Revolution, but he usually plays a small role. 1989’s “Battlefield” revealed that he had a large role in Arthurian history — the Seventh Doctor was destined to become Merlin. Although technically it wasn’t our Camelot, but one of those sci-fi parallel worlds resembling an alt.version of our own history.
“Battlefield" kicked off the show's 26th season when the Doctor and his companion Ace arrive in England and discover a submerged rocket from the other dimension. Arthur lies sleeping in suspended animation inside it, along with Excalibur. Mordred and Morgaine cross from their world to claim Excalibur and have a final throwdown with Arthur, though they’re not above stealing a nuke from UNIT as well. Both villains and the good knight Ancelyn recognize the Doctor as Merlin. Later, Ace finds a note in the spaceship from the future Doctor providing instructions for what to do next.
Tragically, it turns out Arthur isn’t in suspended animation -- he’s just dead. That breaks Morgaine’s spirit in the final showdown and she surrenders to UNIT.
One of the things that make Arthurian literature so infinitely adaptable is the option to reinvent the mythology and characters for a different setting — baseball, a San Francisco auto shop, or, in George Romero’s Knightriders, as bikers. Not a bike gang: the characters are a vagabond group of cosplayers who joust on motorcycles instead of horses. Billy, the “king,” wants his crew to follow a knightly code of honor, while his best friend Morgan is eager to sell out to a promoter to perform their jousts for big bucks. The rest of the troupe picks sides.
After dealing with assorted subplots and relationship issues, the two sides resolve things with a tournament. Morgan wins, but Billy has opened his eyes to the responsibilities of kingship. Morgan turns down the promoter. Billy gives up his queen, knowing she loves his friend Alan, heads off and winds up dying alone.
For something that could have turned out incredibly stupid, Knightriders is surprisingly good. Some critics have seen the knights’ debate over selling out as mirroring Romero’s own mixed feelings about rising from low-budget filmmaking to commercial success.
John Boorman’s Excalibur is a strange, mystical film, constantly hitting viewers with a mix of bizarre and wild visuals. Lovers of the film take the weirdness in stride, except for the WTF moment when Uther Pendragon sires Arthur with Igrayne of Cornwall.
Uther becomes obsessed with Igrayne as soon as he sees her, even though she’s the wife of one of his allies. Merlin helps Uther seduce Igrayne while her husband’s away — like much of the movie, this draws on actual Arthurian legend — and Uther makes wild stallion love to her. He’s so randy, he doesn’t even remove his plate mail (poor Igrayne!) … which is a really neat trick, seeing as his armor covers his groin. And plate armor doesn't come with zippers last we checked.
So how did Uther put the bun in Igraine’s oven? Did his groin armor have a custom-made hinged flap? Uther seems like a guy who’d go for that. Presumably, Boorman thought the visuals worked better with Uther in armor. But still, in the real world, Arthur wouldn’t have been born at all.
As Merlin is an immortal wizard, he can, and frequently does, pop up anywhere doing just about anything. Even in the far-distant future of the animated Thundercats series. In the episode, “Excalibur,” the Thundercats’ enemy Mumm-Ra uses Excalibur to defeat the Sword of Omens wielded by Lion-O. Fortunately, Merlin shows up, kicks Mumm-Ra’s butt and reclaims the sword.
In the G.I. Joe episode "Excalibur," it's the ninja Stormshadow who steals Excalibur to give him an edge. The Lady of the Lake responds by flooding England until the Joes return the sword.
More recently, King Arthur has been announced as a character in Transformers: The Last Knight, set to open June 23. How exactly the king ties into the Transformers’ world is unknown, but it’s not the first time they've crossed paths. In the TV Transformers episode “A Deceptacon [sic] Raider in King Arthur’s Court,” several Transformers are pulled back through time to the Arthurian era. The Camelot influence is obvious, even though the story doesn’t use Arthurian names for the characters. Most of the buzz about Last Knight assumes it will take the story in a different direction.
Sir Galahad was Arthur’s most noble knight, spiritually pure and physically virgin, back when people assumed the two were connected. Who better to play such a noble soul than George Reeves, the actor who would later find immortality as TV’s first Superman?
In the 1949 movie serial Adventures of Sir Galahad, Reeves shows up as knight-wannabe Galahad during a tournament at Camelot and jousts the pants off the warriors of the Round Table. To confirm his fitness for knighthood, Arthur has Galahad stand vigil over Excalibur for a night. Wouldn’t you know, that’s the night the Black Knight (evil this time) chooses to drug Galahad and steal the sword. No knighthood for Galahad next morning! Undeterred, Galahad spends the remaining fourteen chapters struggling to reclaim the sword, clear his name, and unmask the Black Knight.
Reeves’ Galahad is more mortal than his Superman. The actor nevertheless does the same good job playing a matchless hero while making him seem human and likable. For extra Kryptonian goodness, Nelson Leigh, who plays Arthur, also played Jor-El in the 1948 Superman movie serial.
Even without Bugs Bunny, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is kind of WTF worthy. It asks us to believe that a modern engineer (well, modern to Twain) thrown back in time can not only single-handedly jump-start the industrial revolution, but introduce the trappings of a modern social order (literacy, schools, journalism, a stock market). There’s apparently nothing Yankee ingenuity can’t accomplish.
Unlikely as that is, the book’s been adapted for film almost a dozen times. It has the advantages of literary classic status, broad anachronistic humor, and knights swashbuckling in armor. The adaptations take a rosier view of medieval life than Twain, who saw the age of chivalry as a boil to be lanced by modernity.
Boris Karloff, who played Arthur in a TV adaptation, is probably the biggest name attached to any of the screen versions. Whoopi Goldberg is a close second, playing a physicist turned time traveler in 1998’s A Knight in Camelot. Goldberg’s monologue when she realizes she’s fallen into the past is a joy to listen to. Other cinematic Connecticut Yankees include singer Bing Crosby (1949) and humorist Will Rogers (1931).
Based on the medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Sword of the Valiant (1984) starts with Sean Connery’s Green Knight getting beheaded. The uncanny knight shows up at Camelot and triple dog dares the Round Table to cut off his head; if he survives, he gets to return the favor. Suspecting this will not work out well for them, the knights decline. Gawain, a mere squire, volunteers. His blow lops the Green Knight’s head off, only for the Knight to calmly restore it. He rattles off a mystic riddle, promising to spare Gawain if the youth unravels it within a year.
What follows is the usual stuff of Arthurian movies: battles, fair maidens, and more battles, with answers to the riddle mixed in along the way. Gawain, however, doesn’t solve the whole thing, submits to the Green Knight’s blow, but survives. The two warriors battle, with Gawain triumphing.
It’s not a great movie, but Sean Connery delivers his usual screen presence as the Green Knight, elevating the film above director Stephen Weeks’ previous adaptation of the poem, 1973’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s also better than 1995's First Knight, in which Connery played King Arthur opposite Richard Gere's Lancelot.
It’s hard to see anything about the Arthurian legend that screams “set this to music! It’ll be awesome!” Nevertheless, “Arthurian musical,” while not exactly a genre, is definitely a thing.
Bing Crosby being a popular singer, it’s no surprise his version of Connecticut Yankee went musical. None of the songs turned out to be classics, but viewers did get to watch Crosby teach the court musicians to swing, so there's that.
By contrast, Camelot (1967) boasts a fabulous score, courtesy of Broadway’s Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Unfortunately, like a lot of 1960s Broadway to film adaptations, the movie buried the stage play’s charm under the weight of its massive budget and the shortage of singing talent among the leads.
Spamalot, the 2005 musical inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail hasn’t made it to the big screen yet, but film rumors continue to circulate. Despite a couple of musical numbers in the original movie, it seems another unlikely candidate for a stage musical. But non-musical movies have been turning into stage musicals since Little Shop of Horrors, the 1960 film that went off-Broadway in 1984. So Spamalot’s in good company.
Twelfth-century French writer Chretien de Troyes introduced the Holy Grail to the world in his Arthurian romances. Chretien’s Grail was a platter; later writers transformed it into the very cup Jesus used at the last supper. The Grail quest has been part of Arthur’s legend ever since, but movies and TV have expanded the quest way beyond Camelot.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indie and his father (hey, there's Sean Connery again!) rush to find the Grail before the Nazis can exploit its powers. Richard Dean Anderson’s MacGyver uncovered the Grail in a 1989 episode, in an ancient storehouse of relics from "peace-loving, Earth-nurturing cultures." It doesn't exhibit any special powers, though.
The Grail in 1991’s The Fisher King probably doesn’t exist, except in the mind of mentally disturbed quester Robin Williams. Jeff Bridges co-stars in that one a man in search of redemption who helps Williams in his search. Ultimately, the two men’s mutual affection saves them both.
Probably the weirdest Grail quest on film is the 2006 adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in which the Grail is a metaphor for the bloodline of Jesus’ descendants. That's about as WTF as it gets, folks.
The premise of King Arthur and the Knights of Justice was off the wall even for a 1990s syndicated cartoon with a tie-in toy line. The animated series' creators didn’t simply create a story about Arthurian knights. Instead, they have Arthur and his Knights of Justice (what’s normally known as the Round Table) captured by Queen Morgana and her Warlords of Doom, then replaced by their future reincarnations...who happened to be quarterback "Arthur King" and his teammates on the New York Knights.
Dragged back in time by Merlin, the jocks stepped into the shoes and armor of the Knights of Justice, not to mention wielding their special weapons (it was a toyline, so naturally, the Knights and Warlords had special weapons). Throughout the series' 26 episode run, the jocks thwarted Morgana’s schemes while seeking out the magic that would free the real knights, so that the New York Knights could return home and get back to their pursuit of gridiron glory before someone tore an ACL.
Do you know of any other bizarre incarnations of Arthurian legend that deserved a mention on our list? Let us know in the comments.