Thursday, March 17, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Though there have been worse Arthurian films than MERLIN AND THE SWORD, this 1985 telefilm remains near the bottom of the heap.

The film's most off-putting element is its jejune framing-device. Wide-eyed American tourist Katherine (Dyan Cannon) visits the site of Britain's famed Stonehenge, rumored to have been built by Merlin the Magician. She takes a tumble and seems to descend into a mystic cave. There Katherine meets Merlin himself and his paramour Niniane, both of whom have been magically confined to the cave since the fall of Camelot. After Katherine finishes ooh-ing and ahh-ing, Merlin and Niniane proceed to tell the tourist a handful of episodic Arthurian stories, very roughly based on genuine narratives from folklore and literature.

Despite the presence of several highly-regarded thespians-- with Malcolm McDowell as Arthur, Edward Woodward as Merlin, and Candice Bergen as Morgan LeFay-- the script is bland and disorganized, while Clive Donner's direction proves so listless as to make his THIEF OF BAGDAD seem a minor classic by comparison.

Of the episodes chosen, the oddest is the story of Sir Gawain's strange romance with a woman named "Dame Ragnell." Because Ragnell saves Gawain's life, he promises to wed her, despite the fact that she has the face of a pig, as well as snorting like one. The original story belongs to the subgroup called "loathly lady" stories, and in SWORD as in the original, Gawain's determination to marry a deserving if unappealing woman is rewarded in the end, when his honorable behavior cancels Ragnell's enchantment and returns her to her normal beautiful looks. Donner misses the potential in the story in that the Gawain-actor is never shown feeling any revulsion toward Ragnell's pig-face, so that nothing truly seems to be at stake. There is an amusing moment in which Lancelot and Guinevere see Ragnell for the first time, and are all but dumbstruck by her uncomeliness. It's been asserted that "loathly lady" stories were a comic riposte at the aristocratic image of courrtly romance, in which the participants are all "the beautiful people" of their time. But in SWORD it seems like nothing but a random tale that has nothing to do with the main story. I note in passing that the principal writer's main credit was working on a couple of FAERIE TALE THEATER episodes.

The other stories at least fit into the "fall of Camelot" theme, however uninspiring they may be. As in most such storylines, the sorceress Morgan LeFay and her ally Modred, bastard son of Arthur, conspire against the rightful monarch. However, this time Morgan is positioned as Modred's aunt, rather than his mother, of whom nothing is said, though one presumes that if she's Morgan's sister, then Arthur simply slept with another sibling.

Like Merlin, Morgan Le Fay is possessed by impressive magical powers. After she encourages a Viking warrior to abduct Guinevere, Morgan sets up a magical barrier to block the pursuing knights, though Lancelot still manages to reach the queen-- which, as in some traditional stories, begins their illicit romance. She also animates an undead knight to attack Arthur, and the King manages to win out even though his sword Excalibur seems distinctly non-magical.  However, for all her magic, Morgan doesn't seem to be able to find a good hair-stylist (see above). Candice Bergen fits her persona to her bad hair by making Morgan a spitting she-cat without an ounce of subtlety.

The Lancelot-Guinevere romance is rendered with no passion or suspense whatever. The one noteworthy psychological motif is, as far as I know, non-traditional. After nasty Modred exposes the liaison in order to unseat Arthur, Modred expresses a desire to have Guinevere for his own. A more skilled storyteller might have exploited the Oedipal parallel between the sins of Lancelot, a loyal but only figurative son, and those of Modred, the literal but disloyal son. Donner typically misses this boat as well.

As Merlin's tale draws to a close, he tells Katherine that he could do nothing to prevent the death of Arthur and the fall of Camelot. However, he suddenly gets the inspiration to send his astral body back to medieval times to prevent Morgan from enjoying her triumph. In this form he seizes the fallen Excalibur and stabs Morgan to death-- after which he returns to the cave with Niniane. Katherine then wakes up from having apparently dreamed her sojourn in the magical cave, though unlike another famous girl who took a tumble,    here it's strongly intimated that everything Katherine dreamed is the Real Thing.

This telefilm is sometimes given the title "Arthur the King," but it's really not about him, any more than it's about Gawain, Lancelot or Guinevere. MERLIN AND THE SWORD is the best title, in that all of the stories Merlin tells are the stories of his failure with Camelot, though the final combative act of using Excalibur to skewer Morgan gives the wizard a last heroic deed to conclude his career.

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