ARTHUR THE KING (1985)
aka Merlin and the Sword
Article 4639 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Clive Donner
Featuring Malcolm McDowell, Candice Bergen, Edward Woodward
Country: USA / Yugoslavia
What it is: Arthurian epic
Arthur’s rule at Camelot is threatened by the plottings of Morgan Le Fay and his own illegitimate son Mordred, who hatch a plot to have Guinevere kidnapped by the king of the Picts and taken to an enchanted land.
I was given the choice of watching either the shortened version of this TV-Movie (which goes under the title MERLIN AND THE SWORD) or the full length version, which, according to IMDB, ran 180 minutes. I have to admit that I was somewhat reluctant to choose the latter (though I did), because I really didn’t want to spend three hours with what would no doubt be an overly familiar story. Fortunately, the longer version I found ran only two hours and twenty minutes (perhaps the time on IMDB included the commercials), and the story at least deals with certain aspects of the Arthurian legend that I wasn’t familiar with (though, truth be told, I suspect a lot of liberties were taken here with the story). Unfortunately, I found most of the movie pretty bad. There’s a jarring framing story involving a modern day visitor to Stonehenge falling down a hole and ending up in the cavern where Merlin and Niniane were prisoners; Dyan Cannon’s performance as the modern day visitor is so jarringly at odds with the rest of the movie that I winced every time the movie switched to these scenes. Malcolm McDowell is not really given much to do in the title role, and Candice Bergen’s campy take on Morgan Le Fay rubbed me the wrong way; fortunately, Edward Woodward hits the right notes as Merlin and gives the best performance here. I didn’t find Lancelot to be particularly valiant or charismatic, and Mordred is portrayed as an ineffectual fool. My favorite touch to the movie was the odd “Beauty and the Beast” subplot involving Gawaine and the Lady Ragnell; I don’t know if this was part of the original legends, but it made for an interesting distraction. The fight scenes are pretty weak, and much of the dialogue is hackneyed. Overall, I think it tries to be a light-hearted take on the legend, but it ends up lacking both grandeur and humor. All in all, this one was quite bad. The cast also features Liam Neeson and Michael Gough, the latter in a rather embarrassing cameo in which he utters the tackiest joke in the movie.