The legend is knotty. On the one hand it’s the most chivalric period in history. Excalibur, The Holy Grail, the feudal-tyranny-busting power-sharing democracy of The Round Table, and before Harry Potter came into view the most celebrated wizard of all time in the shape of Merlin. On the other hand, love was a pawn. Women were traded to cement relationships between rival kingdoms. And humans were all too fallible.
For a start, you had a king, Arthur, who couldn’t keep it in his pants and had already sired a bastard son Mordred who had his own ideas about inheritance. Then you had the king’s champion, Lancelot, who had a similar problem, except in his case he couldn’t keep his hands off the king’s new wife, Guinevere.
To pull off this love story, and keep the audience onside, you needed actors of a high caliber otherwise it sinks to a tawdry tale of adultery and betrayal. Unfortunately, there’s no Robert Taylor-Elizabeth Taylor (Knights of the Round Table, 1951) to hand and the combination of Cornel Wilde and his wife Jean Wallace doesn’t have the same ring or impact.
So, wisely, Cornel Wilde who doubles – make that quadruples – as director, co-writer and co-producer as well as star, concentrates on action, far more than in other swashbucklers of the decade such as Pirates of Tortuga (1961) and King’s Pirate (1967). Wilde has genre credentials, outside of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, with At Sword’s Point (1952) to his credit.
And you can’t help taking a liking to a swashbuckler which begins with a joke about soap, and then carries the same riff through to the obligatory bathing scene, where the act of physical washing, rather than merely splashing about in the nude for audience titillation purposes, sparks the relationship between the doomed couple.
This version of the story begins with the French king reneging on the deal to marry his daughter to King Arthur and demanding the matter be settled in the traditional manner, one-to-one combat. Lancelot is elected the English champion. By the time he returns home, complication lies in his wake. It’s not long before suspicions are aroused, Guinevere unable to keep emotions in check when she imagines Lancelot wounded in battle. Indiscretion gets the better of them and when Lancelot is discovered leaving her bedchamber, it’s all lovelorn systems go. Condemned to death for adultery, she needs rescued from a burning pyre.
Guilt ruins exile. Lancelot is now a reluctant rebel. And sex is off the agenda. Matters are only settled in the most drastic fashion, one that ensures an ending to rival Casablanca (1942). Action compensates for acting – Wilde runs the gamut of emotions from grimace to grin while Wallace over-acts – with a number of well-managed battle scenes.
The pick is Lancelot leading an army against raping pillaging Vikings. Apparently impregnable behind a lake that prevents attack on three sides, the Vikings don’t expect the English to block off their escape by setting the forest on fire, forcing them to charge through the water to Lancelot’s waiting troops. Another pitched battle is equally well-handled with thundering horses, each side trading volleys of arrows, and a clever flanking movement.
Although a relative novice behind the camera, Wilde is not afraid to experiment. Tracking cameras are extensively used as is limited point-of-view (opponent viewed through a vizor) although he does resort on occasion to older tricks like speeding up film so foot soldiers resemble Olympic sprinters.
And there is a sprinkling of other jokes and observations. A courtier mangles a visitor’s name in Court Jester fashion. Church bells ring because someone is battering the hell out of the iron casing. A rhymer is on hand to mock. A trumpeter is killed before he can sound the retreat. An old crone chomping on an apple settles in to watch a burning at the stake.
Obviously, in my search for a 1960s swashbuckler, I take the blame for bringing this to your attention. While lacking the charisma of Doug McClure and Jill St John in King’s Pirate and the acting not rising much above the levels of Pirates of Tortuga, this outshines both in the action department.
4 thoughts on “Sword of Lancelot / Lancelot and Guinevere (1963) ***”
Brian re your search of a swashbuckler, wonder why you have overlooked that Italian production of Swordsman of Sienna starring Stewart Granger and Sylva Koscina . This would be more entertaining and fun. After having seen, enjoyed and entertained by Knights Of The Round Table, Sword of Lancelot is feeble.
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Thanks, I’m going to check this out.
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Yikes! That bottom poster. Struggling to think of any cinematic action that was helped by speeded up film…
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It worked for the silents but not since.