Let’s take a step back in time to 1975, where gaudy fashion was all the rage and racial segregation still in vogue. Across the channel, you would find a television show called Arthur of the Britons playing on the BBC. Unfortunately, it was only on air for a couple of seasons before its cancellation. A couple of years after its untimely demise, however, the show would be released as a condensed, straight-to-video film dubbed King Arthur: The Young Warlord. It is this version which we will be examined tonight.
Directed by Sidney Hayers, Pat Jackson, and Peter Sasdy, this early-seventies Arthurian outing followed a Celtic King Arthur as he tries to forge peace throughout the land. Taking place after the Romans withdraw from Britain, the Arthur we find is the young Arthur and so if far from the legendary king whom some of us may only know from Disney adaptations and the countless takes on the pulling of the sword. This young Arthur is a warlord; deft in battle and keener to forge allies to unite the land, the Arthur-figure depicted here is closer to the historical Arthur than I am used to seeing in adaptations these days.
A television show depicting the tribulations of a young, quasi-historical Arthur is a rare feat. These days, representations of the Arthurian legend are focused on the wild fantastical; texts which use dragons, magic, and heavily stylized atmosphere to convey a postmodern feel that homes in exclusively on the mythological for purposes of nationalistic jingoism or late capitalistic irrelevancy. In this spirit, the show, I feel, tries its best to honor historical accuracy with attempts made to render a plausible early medieval Briton. Naturally, it only succeeds in part, but it at least puts its best foot forward and so is something seldom tried in contemporary Arthuriana.
Considering the text itself, I am hard-pressed to say how high or low a quality it is. Because the series ran for twenty-four episodes, but the condensed version includes only the most relevant of bits from the series, the narrative proceeds by leaps and bounds. In this short rendition, we see Arthur route a Saxon war-chief, train a lad how to fight and ween him off revenge, foil a bad marriage, rescue a couple of friends from certain death, and attempt to forge peace between assorted tribes as a last-ditch effort to stave-off foreign invasion. I am not opposed to cutting the fat, but as a cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals, it looks as though whole episodes were cut. Such violent editing makes getting a hold on the series as a whole difficult.
In any case, I found little objectionable. Being a television program from the seventies, the production values were never going to be high, much less after being transferred to VHS and then to DVD. And though the music is bland, the acting is fine and seldom overly-hammy. Young Warlord’s strongest suit is in the writing; while one may just chalk this up to the condensed nature of this edition, I found the program to be concise with recurrent characters and motifs interspaced alongside pertinent story threads that, though seem disconnected a times, and is not helped by the breakneck pace of the film, events from one episode are referenced in another and by the end, there is a decent nano-universe built. Written with one-part humor and another part seriousness representing the tact diplomacy at the heart of the show, Young Warlord straddles that middle ground between overly serious pseudo-documentary and bad gallows comedy. Characters breathe, are differentiated, and interact within the universe of the show in believable a fashion as can be expected.
I will likely never see the full series, the actual episodes. This is fine. Because this mashed uptake on the legend slated my taste for the series, I have no need to go to the actual episodes and see how much better (or perhaps worse), the full experience would be. In truth, there is not a whole lot more to say about Arthur of the Britons: an ably produced program with equal parts action and intrigue, it was a low-budget production quickly canceled despite its endearing elements. Though entertaining, it lacked much in the way of above-average content and simply exists as one Arthurian text out of literally millions. Watch if you must but do not expect an earth-shattering iteration on the Arthur-figure. Refreshing, yes, but not much more beyond.