With each new technological innovation—from the printing press to the pen to the word processor—the Arthurian legend has always benefitted and so it was with films. From the earliest days of silent movies, the Arthurian legend has been very popular to today; one can expect a big budget Arthurian movie to hit the screen once every decade, at least, and the same is true of television series. As such, the output is massive and only some highlights can be mentioned.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is perhaps the best known modern Arthurian film. Written, performed, and directed by the comedy troupe known as Monty Python, the film satirized the Arthurian legend and mocked the super-serious documentaries about Arthur which had been common-place at the time. Filled with mocking undertones which pull the rug out from underneath the legend and effectively problematize the many medieval tropes, the film is widely considered a masterpiece by many, both academics and non-academics alike.
Joh Boorman’s film Excalibur is another important Arthurian film. Taking all of the major elements of the Arthurian legend and combining them into a single story, Boorman focuses on the big ideas of the Arthurian legend which transcend mere entertainment and become stand-ins for Western culture and heavy-handed symbolism. The director is not going for authenticity but rather anti-realist drama.
The 1991 movie The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, is set in modern day New York. Following an up and coming radio star who mocks a seemingly mentally ill caller who later commits a mass-shooting, the DJ character is close to suicide. Following an attack by a gang where he is rescued by Robin Williams character, who saw his wife get killed in that restaurant shooting, and says that he was a university professor who specialized on the Fisher King part of the Arthurian legend, which causes a mental break. This is Perry and he is haunted by a red knight throughout the city. Eventually, Perry is beaten by the same gang members who attacked the DJ where he is put into a coma; so, believing that he is presented with a chance to do penance, the former DJ seeks out the New York Holy Grail which so fascinated Perry (which is merely an elaborate trophy). Eventually, the trophy is obtained and Perry is given the trophy which, incidentally, also brings him out of his coma. The theme? The wounded man who cannot die; Perceval and the Fisher King’s roles constantly being switched by each of the protagonists.
Between 1991 and 2014 there was several other additional Arthurian films worth noting, such as First Gear (which was notable for its treatment of Queen Guinevere’s abduction), at least three different variations of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and a re-imaging of the Tristan and Isolde story starring James Franco. Some non-Arthurian movies did make use of Arthurian themes, however: Heath Ledger’s A Knights Tale is one such example and takes inspiration directly from the Lancelot story “The Knight in the Cart” with the jousting tournament.
But, the most important contemporary showing of King Arthur on the modern screen is probably King Arthur, starring Clive Owen. Upon its announcement, scholars were originally excited since they believed that, for once, the story was going to be set in its proper historical period, the late fifth or early sixth century, as would the Anglo-Saxon invasion and Arthur’s mixed identity be taken seriously; alas, it was not to be as the director used the so-called ‘Sarmation Theory’ as a premise which stated that there was no actual Arthur and that much of the legend was merely reworked mythology intermixed with historical facts. Many of the film’s core ideas are wrong, from the travel papers to the usage of the word ‘knight,’ the film fails.
While the relative failure and historical inaccuracy of the Clive Owen piece caused some Arthurian scholars to dread the possible end of the filmic Arthur, this proved to be inaccurate, as, as of 2014, as prof. Armstrong noted Guy Richie is in pre-production for a series of six movies based on King Arthur’s life and legend.