At the end of 1963’s The Sword in the Stone, a Disney animated movie about King Arthur as a boy, the wizard Merlin returns from the future to tell the young man what awaits him. “You’ll become a great legend,” Merlin assures Arthur. “They’ll be writing books about you for centuries to come.” Then, he adds mischievously, “Why, they might even make a motion picture about you.”
Merlin’s being modest: There have been dozens of movies and TV shows made about the fabled king, his mystical sword Excalibur, his romance with Guinevere and his loyal minions known as the Knights of the Round Table — not to mention his friend-turned-romantic-rival Lancelot.
On Friday, another chapter in the legend hits the screen with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, in which Charlie Hunnam’s rugged, mopey Arthur must face off against his evil uncle King Vortigern (Jude Law) in a Gladiator-meets-Lord of the Rings adventure.
But that’s only the latest interpretation of the myth. Which King Arthur movie will work best for you? Use our handy user’s guide to the most popular iterations over the years.
The Kid-Friendly Origin Story: The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Meet Your Arthur: Richard Reitherman, Robert Reitherman and Rickie Sorensen all voiced the preteen Arthur.
What Does This Arthur Have Going for Him? While most Arthurian legends focus on his time as king — and his courtship of Guinevere — The Sword in the Stone chronicles the early years, when he’s an orphan named Wart who befriends a zany Merlin. Years before Star Wars, this film gave us another tale of an impressionable young outcast who’s taken under the wing of a magical mentor, learning valuable life lessons along the way.
And decades before it became a Hollywood fad, The Sword in the Stone was structured like an origin story, detailing how a little-loved orphan ends up being the chosen one. But the movie barely seems to care about Wart’s quest — Merlin’s goofy antics are the real focus, kinda the way nobody remembers the guy in Aladdin but just talks about Robin Williams’ genie.
Recommended to: Grade-schoolers, though they may get bored after having ingested years of Pixar and DreamWorks movies.
The Sappy, Tragic Romance: Camelot (1967)
Meet Your Arthur: Richard Harris, taking the role from Richard Burton, who won a Tony playing the king on Broadway
What Does This Arthur Have Going for Him? Based on the beloved 1960 musical, Camelot was a platonic ideal of the Arthurian legend for a couple of different generations. The Broadway show had been a favorite of JFK, and after his assassination, the two were forever linked in the culture’s mind — in part because his widow Jackie encouraged it. As played by Harris, this Arthur is an idealist who watches his dream of an enlightened society collapse and his cherished Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) fall for the rascally scoundrel Lancelot (Franco Nero). Camelot is a big, melodramatic soap opera, and in Arthur, we have a tragic, noble martyr laid low by the failings of those around him.
Recommended to: Your parents
The Hilarious Takedown: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Meet Your Arthur: Graham Chapman, a founding member of Monty Python
What Does This Arthur Have Going for Him? Chapman, who died in 1989 at the age of just 48, battled alcoholism, and his addiction was so bad during the filming of Holy Grail that he had trouble playing the conceited, dimwitted King Arthur. But you’d never know from watching the movie.
The best of Monty Python’s four films, Holy Grail is full of the irreverent, surreal humor that was the group’s specialty. This Arthur, like many of Python’s authority figures, is so pleased with himself that he’s ripe for frequent, hilarious mocking. The peasants he comes across in his quest to capture the Holy Grail either haven’t heard of him or aren’t impressed with his tales of gallantry.
When he tells one commoner about how he became king thanks to the Lady of the Lake giving him the all-mighty sword Excalibur, the guy responds angrily, “You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ‘cuz some watery tart threw a sword at you!” With one fell swoop, the majesty and nobility of King Arthur had been taken out at the knees.
Recommended to: Comedy nerds the world over
The Big Fantasy Spectacle: Excalibur (1981)
Meet Your Arthur: Stage and screen actor Nigel Terry
What Does This Arthur Have Going for Him? Star Wars scholars have drawn comparisons between Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and King Arthur’s mythic, mighty sword Excalibur. So it was a bit of a role reversal when, after Star Wars became a phenomenon, filmmakers hoping to mount Arthurian dramas had to take a page from George Lucas. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby sniffed, “At its earnest best, Excalibur is Star Wars without the redeeming humor of its comic-book style and eye-popping special effects.”
That’s an accurate description of a movie that tries to be a towering, swashbuckling spectacle in the Lucas/Spielberg mode, but ends up feeling tedious instead. A decorated actor who died in 2015 at the age of 69, Terry plays Arthur with plenty of theatrical gravitas as Excalibur gives us a cradle-to-grave-style hero’s journey that very much feels akin to what happens in Star Wars. It’s an Arthur for the age of the blockbuster — but not a very memorable one.
Recommended to: Hardcore 1980s nostalgists
The “Realistic” Legend: First Knight (1995)
Meet Your Arthur: Sean Connery
What Does This Arthur Have Going for Him? Eventually, all fantasy stories get their non-fantasy Hollywood remake. Arthur’s came with this 1995 drama, which took out Merlin and the magic to offer a straightforward tale of palace intrigue and romantic triangles, as Richard Gere’s hunky bad boy Lancelot wins the heart of Guinevere (Julia Ormond) away from wise King Arthur (Connery). The problem with First Knight is that nobody really wanted a “realistic” version of this fable — part of the fun is the magic and other fantasy hooey — and so we’re stuck with a pretty ordinary king. Connery lends a lion-in-winter majesty to the character, but it’s Ormond and Gere who generate all the sparks, leaving poor old Arthur feeling like a third wheel in his own movie.
Recommended to: Sean Connery completists
The “Reimagined” Legend: King Arthur (2004)
Meet Your Arthur: Clive Owen
What Does This Arthur Have Going for Him? Like First Knight, King Arthur sought to “freshen up” the Arthurian legend by trying a little realism. This action-drama, directed by Training Day filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, claimed to be inspired by recent archaeological research that suggested that the Arthur fable was based on actual events. So rather than medieval times, this film is set a few centuries after Christ — and, because Jerry Bruckheimer produced it, King Arthur has a blockbuster swagger to it. But the attempts to give Arthur the Gladiator treatment reduces the king to just an average, brooding action hero. Where’s the magic?
Recommended to: Clive Owen apologists