The mythical King of England, Arthur from his earliest mentions in fiction has been a captivating figure. With the development of motion pictures at the beginning of the 20th Century, it’s only natural that King Arthur’s legend would find its way to the silver screen. More than a dozen adaptations have been made, ranging from Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone to 2004’s attempt at a historical retelling. Television programmes also got in on the act, with several mini-series and TV movies dedicated to retelling the story. Enjoy this look at ten actors who played Britain’s legendary king and let us know your favourites in the comments.
One of the first Arthurian films to have sound, 1949’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was an adaptation of the novel by Mark Twain. Featuring Bing Crosby as the hapless American who finds himself sent back in time, Sir Cedrick Hardwicke played Arthur, whom Crosby helps to realize the state of his kingdom. As was normal for the time, this adaptation was also a musical, which led to Hardwicke singing a number of tunes with Crosby and others.
1967’s Camelot features Richard Harris as Arthur preparing for a battle against former friend and Knight of the Round Table Lancelot (Francesco Nero). The film builds itself largely around the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, all the while Arthur is assembling his knights and building his kingdom. The film was an adaptation of the musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Lowe. Harris’s performance has proved particularly praiseworthy over the years and he even won a Golden Globe for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
Of the many mini-series based on King Arthur, one of the top-rated is The Mists of Avalon from 2001. Focusing on the perspectives of the women in Arthur’s life as Merlin trains the future king to protect England from the invading Saxons. Edward Atterton played the adult Arthur in a tale that follows Le Morte D’Arthur. While Atterton’s performance is perhaps not the most memorable part of the series, it was one of the highest-rated cable television programmes of the year in the United States.
1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the first proper film from one of Britain’s best comedy groups. Adapting the Holy Grail aspect of Arthurian legend for comedic effect, the Pythons parodied everything from the Black Death to medieval government. Leading the Knights of the Round Table was Graham Chapman as Arthur, one of the only Pythons not to play multiple characters in the story and constantly acting as the only sane man (as he often did in other Python films). Chapman had difficulty whilst filming due to his alcoholism, a habit he wouldn’t seek proper treatment for until three years after the film.
Another film that featured the Lancelot-Gweneviere-Arthur love triangle, 1953’s Knights of the Round Table featured American actor Mel Ferrer in the role of King Arthur. The film was an adaptation of Malory’s work, but more loosely based on Le Morte d’Arthur and focused on box office receipts more than being true to the original story. The film also heavily incorporates Christian elements into the story as well as the Grail legend. At any rate, despite the looseness of the adaptation, it still gains consistently positive reviews from critics then and now.
One more adaptation that focuses on the love triangle, 1995’s First Knight features Sean Connery as King Arthur, who is dealing both with the love triangle between himself, Lancelot (Richard Gere), and Genevieve (Julia Ormond) as well as one of his own knights who’s plotting an uprising. Most of the other Arthurian elements are left out, which critics felt caused the film to suffer. Connery is his usual self throughout much of the film, which helps or hurts the film depending on how much you love Connery.
Focusing on the quest of a young Merlin to become a great wizard, the 2008 television programme of the same name sees Merlin and Arthur (played by Bradley James) meet when they are still teenagers. The two don’t get on at first, as Merlin is more of a bookworm who sees Arthur as an athletic bully. When Merlin learns that his destiny is to protect the future King Arthur, the two slowly form a friendship that will become legendary. While the series doesn’t end quite the same way as most Arthurian legends, it is the friendship between the two that is the real heart of the programme.
The 2004 film King Arthur was an attempt at a historical explanation for the legend, though it was pretty thoroughly blasted by critics and historians alike. Clive Owen plays Arthur, or Artorious Castus, a Roman cavalry officer born of a Roman man and Celtic Woman. Everything from the sword Excalibur to Merlin gets some kind of plausible, grounded explanation for its presence in Arthurian lore, as well as featuring the end of the Roman occupation and coming of the Saxons to Britain. Critics loathed the film, but fans are a little more mixed in their reaction. As Arthur’s Roman soldiers band together with Merlin’s native Britons, culminating in Arthur’s marriage to Genevieve, he establishes himself as the historical basis for the legend, the man who defended his people from the invaders.
Set to play King Arthur in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur (due out next year), there is some trepidation given Ritchie’s previous, more action-oriented films such as Snatch and Sherlock Holmes. Early press on the film suggests that it’s similar to the Disney animated film in which Hunnam’s Arthur will discover his destiny to rule on finding Excalibur. Ritchie’s first choice to play Arthur, Hunnam is best known as the lead character from the biker programme Sons of Anarchy and the film Pacific Rim. It remains to be seen exactly what kind of performance the young actor will turn in.
One of the most well-known and best-liked adaptations of King Arthur (among fans anyway), 1981’s Excalibur was a grand attempt to reclaim the epic status of films such as Knights of the Round Table with its mixture of literature and sorcery. Boasting a grand cast that included Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Helen Mirren, it featured Nigel Terry as King Arthur. Terry’s career is largely known for his work in classical theatre and Excalibur is perhaps his best-known film. Despite being 35 when the film was made, Terry plays Arthur both as a teenager and an adult Arthur.