The Death of the Arthur: Knights of the Two Semi-Circular Tables

Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT (1963) is on YouTube, so I had a look.

Wilde’s THE NAKED RUNNER PREY has a decent reputation, I feel. Criterion released it, though that was in the early days and possibly it was cheap. His NO BLADE OF GRASS is an ugly mess, botching a compelling John Christopher apocalypse novel. It’s possible that he only found the right kind of material once, because LANCELOT ain’t it.

There’s a lovely brutish insensitivity to his directorial choices which may be instructive. The opening credits play out over still photographs by the great Karsh. The idea of getting a world-class photographer to shoot your stills is a fine one — Kubrick was about to do the same by getting Weegee to shoot the set of STRANGELOVE. Showcasing the results in the movie itself proves to be a very silly idea: there’s a reason why period movies often use archaic fonts or calligraphy, old-fashioned illustrations, scrolls and stuff. Photos (and photomontages, as here) feel modern. Karsh’s images make me feel like I’m looking at either set photography, in which views of the camera crew, boom operator or script supervisor would not be out of place, or at news pictures of a historical reenactment society on manoeuvres. The film might as well begin with a caption in some Gothic text saying AD 1963.

Wilde, leading man as well as director, has, however, come up with a plan that aims to keep him from sticking out like fellow Americans Robert Taylor in KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE or Alan Ladd in THE BLACK KNIGHT. Lancelot is French. Wilde will play him weese un out-rah-jos Franche ack-sont. It’s a bold effort and probably not the worst French accent ever. (Lancelot is never played by an actual Frenchman, except in Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC where everyone else is French also. But if Franco Nero can play French — STOP PRESS he can’t — Wilde is entitled to have a go.)

The rest of the casting is erratic and unstellar, though Wilde has noticed that the lovely Reginald Beckwith (above, far right) — the comedy medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON — is at heart a medieval man, so he’s positioned him as a court jester. It’s never been recorded that Arthur had one, but after all why shouldn’t he?

Good big set for CAMELOT, but Wilde’s attempts to explore it with camera moves are hesitant, wobbly and un-epic. The round table is two C-shaped bits, which is just nuts.

Disguising Wilde’s accent leaves the only other American, Wilde’s wife irl, Jean Wallace, awfully exposed as Guinevere. She’s introduced as mute witness at a joust, which Wilde stages better than the dialogue scenes, with decent build-up, ritualistic presentation of the weaponry, etc. I’m waiting for her to sound like Lina Lamont.

To prepare us for this jarring moment, Wilde carefully seeds the trial by combat with shots of extras wearing ludicrous nylon wigs.

He does get away with quickly including a rear projection shot of himself charging on horseback — filmed tight enough and cut quick enough that it’s not too distracting, and we don’t see the stuffed horse he’s being bounced around on. It’s effective enough that it MIGHT actually be a location shot with Wilde seated on a dolly (which would have made a great behind-the-scenes snap for the opening titles).

And then, the duel ends with a surprisingly graphic sword chop down through the opposing champion’s helmet, anticipating the gore effects of Bresson and Gilliam. Wilde seems to be most at home with violence — the most facile form of cinematic drama. Still, I enjoy a good head-cleaving as much as the next sedentary pacifist. It’s also fun to imagine the effects team lovingly packing the helmet with meat and bags of finest Kensington Gore. The out-takes would be amusing to see also.

Finally JW gets a line, as Lancelot escorts Guinevere to be married to Arthur. It’s decently worked out as a story — better than CAMELOT. The young knight gets a chance to make an impression on the Queen-to-be BEFORE she meets her much older spouse (Arthur is Brian Aherne). Wilde’s co-writer is Richard Schayer, who had a hand in FRANKENSTEIN back in ’31, and wrote the story for THE MUMMY the following year, which would be more impressive if that story weren’t a straight rip of the Lugosi DRACULA.

And Wallace copes well — she’s discernibly American but is talking as far back in the throat as possible, and managing to interpolate some vaguely English vowels. Pretty creditable and not as distracting as Wilde’s ‘Allo ‘Allo! performance.

Delivered into a studio pond for a sexy swimming scene with Lancelot (who has been established as the first man in England to use soap, giving him another erotic advantage over smelly old Arthur), Wallace is required to shout instructions to her maidservant, at which point her attempts at an accent falter and her inner Lamont emerges a little.

The costuming department has done some interesting and innovative work to enable Wallace to appear in a wet and clinging shift without offending, or poking, the censor’s eye with verboten mammary papilla. It’s quite hard to figure out what’s going on here — the bosom seems to have support, and be covered with more than the filmy fabric seen on the upper slopes. It looks to be a somewhat concealed cantilever bra. This of course would be an anachronism, but the attempt at boundary-pushing sexiness suggests to me that Wilde may have been more actively involved than previously suspected in the celebrated moment in THE BIG COMBO where co-star Richard Conte descends out of frame while kissing Wallace. Director Joseph E. Lewis claimed credit for the innovation and said Wilde, producer as well as star, wasn’t in on it. But now I wonder. Sex and violence seem to be Cornel’s bag.

Against my better judgement, I’m going to finish watching this. Which means this piece is now —


Maybe I can do some kind of crazy joint review with the last hour of ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD?


17 Responses to “The Death of the Arthur: Knights of the Two Semi-Circular Tables”

  1. It’s “The Naked Prey.” Hence this exchange in “Where’s Poppa”:
    Q: Did you ever see that Cornell Wilde movie, “The Naked Prey”?
    A: Ummmm…
    Q: Well, you better PRAY, cuz you’re gonna be NAKED.

  2. Wilde also directed a wonderful movie about Guadalcanal called beach red

    I think the death of grass is my favorite John Christopher novel

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    A stimulating review. Have you seen BEACH RED? At the time of its release and THE NAKED PREY Wilde was hailed as a new auteur. But time does not seem to have judged him favorably – as your comments and review so far shows. Also, you’re right about Franco who made the correct decision to remain in Italy and appear in Art and genre films aiming him a well-deserved reputation. I hope his autobiography gets an English translation.

    Also, hope you are fully recovered now – from your cold, not Lancelot!

  4. Mark Dignam, who plays Merlin also played an older King Arthur the same year in the rather ropey Charles Schneer produced Siege of the Saxons, where Ronald Lewis plays an Arthurian era Robin Hood and John Laurie is Merlin.

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    Great piece! In fairness to Schayer, I’d say Coppola’s DRACULA is guiltier of ripping off THE MUMMY than THE MUMMY is of ripping off DRACULA (there’s no reincarnation or rejuvenation in the original, is there?)

  6. Jeff: thanks!

    Simon: you are correct!

    George: I knew I’d seen Dignam’s name somewhere relevant. And then I forgot. Well spotted!

    Bruce and Tony: haven’t seen Beach Red and I feel I owe it a watch along with Naked Prey, to give Wilde his due. He’s not without imagination, even if it’s a somewhat aberrant imagination on this evidence.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    I trust you’re going to visit or revisit “Prince Valiant” at some point. A tad silly with its emphatically American cast, but an enjoyable 1950s popcorn movie.

    Early in the comic strip’s run there were plot lines that involved Lance and Gwen and hinted at the eventual fall of Camelot, but at some point Hal Foster realized this was a long-term project and largely ignored those tales. By the time the movie was made Arthur’s personal issues were all but forgotten, his function to be Wise and Good and worthy of Valiant’s service.

    Somewhere in the post-Foster years elderly Arthur elected to retire to hermitdom; don’t know what happened to Gwen. Arthur’s chosen heir is Ingrid, granddaughter of half-brother Mordred. Ingrid’s father is Arn, Valiant’s son and now regent of Camelot.

  8. I assume Henry Hathaway’s swooping camera will bring some entertainment value to Prince Valiant, but Robert Wagner will be sucking it away as fast as HH can bring it.

    I do kind of want to see Sword of the Valiant, partly out of Cannon Films completism, partly because it’s the middle Green Knight film. And it has Ronald Lacey! HAS to be fun, right?

  9. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    You pull me into your way of thinking… weirdly and, on my end, grudgingly… Even when I remain as ideological in my opposition to your axioms (“violence = facile”) as you seem to be in your commitment , you succeed — inasmuch as I end with a definite sense of your personality, personal preferences, ethics.

  10. Randy Cook Says:

    Yes, A DEATH OF GRASS is compelling and worth a read. John Christopher (a very lovely man, as well as a prolific author) told me he was not fond of the adaptation.

  11. The first section of BEACH RED is impressive enough, including the masterful use of a still image, and it’s easy to imagine a young Spielberg studying the landing scene. More fodder for the argument that Wilde was most at home with violence.

    THE NAKED PREY gives its natives full-blooded characterizations, and they seem to have picked up on Wilde’s character being the least detestable of the lot of colonialists which may be why they at least give him a fighting–well, a running chance. I’m rather fond of Wilde’s hooting and hollering over an early triumph over his pursuers.

    His late film SHARK’S TREASURE is pretty dire, although Wilde was still pretty buff and wants to make sure you know it.

  12. A mini-Cornel Wilde season beckons.

  13. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    In all his good movies, he’s the least memorable element.

  14. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I found this Cornel Wilde quotation: Anarchy opposes chaos, in particular the systematized chaos that America and its allies vaunt as order: soaring unemployment, wild incarceration rates, global pandemics, forever wars, homelessness that keeps breaking previous record highs, depression, anxiety, suicide, the death penalty. Tell THAT to anyone who scoffs at you for cheering against “free enterprise”. Yes, we do want “chaos” if that word means “the pancake collapse of this risibly hideous and multi-layered tyranny, parading under the guise of ‘freedom’.” The biosphere is in free fall now. Capitalists prefer that collapse to losing a nickel.

  15. Seems an odd thing for a fellow to say who’s been dead since 1989

  16. John Seal Says:

    I’m keener on SHARK’S TREASURE than rsbrandt44. Hard to go wrong with Yaphet Kotto, and there’s some dandy underwater photography.

  17. Maybe double-bill it with Sam Fuller’s disowned Shark, starring Burt Reynolds and Isela Vega.

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