In my opinion, the finest cinematic renditions of the Arthurian legends have all been revisionist in nature – Robert Bresson’s ascetic LANCELOT DU LAC (1974), the uproarious MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1974) and John Boorman’s visceral Excalibur (1981) – but, for an entire generation of youngsters during the 1950s and 1960s (that to which my father belongs to be exact), the idealized, heroic Hollywood version of Camelot, its sovereign and inhabitants was the only one there was. In fact, they were spoilt for choice when it comes to depictions of pageantry in those days with Mel Ferrer, Brian Aherne (twice) and Richard Harris being among those who assuming on film the role of King Arthur.
In this modest, fairly routine but equally enjoyable British production, it is Anthony Bushell who gets to play the ruler of Camelot but the actor’s relative anonymity implies (correctly as it turns out) that his role in the narrative is merely a peripheral one. In fact, the leading man here is diminutive Hollywood star Alan Ladd: curiously cast as a taciturn English blacksmith with ideas above his station (generally directed towards aristocratic Patricia Medina), he is wrongly accused of both treason (by duplicitous Saracen knight Peter Cushing) and of cowardice (by Medina herself, after a Viking attack on her castle leaves her mother dead and father, played by Harry Andrews, half-crazed with grief)! However, with the help of a prescient knight (Andre' Morell) and after adopting the titular disguise, our commoner hero saves the day by routing the villains (who also include a dastardly Scottish royal – portrayed by yet another future Hammer horror stalwart Patrick Troughton, as well as Cushing’s laughing, would-be deaf-mute giant stooge), earning himself an official knighthood and, it goes without saying, Medina’s hand in marriage. Incidentally, the tale is set off by a ballad sung in a brief prologue by a minstrel (Elton Hayes) approaching a castle but, unexpectedly enough, rather than featuring in the upcoming narrative (as a singing squire or something), he quickly vanishes never to be seen or heard from again!
Apart from the film’s unsurprising reliance on cliché, it also contains elements of camp (particularly a Pagan rite being performed at Stonehenge and the cumbersome insignias worn on their helmets by the various knights) and leads up to a curiously clumsy climax (with an ostensibly unnoticed Ladd conspicuously overhearing the scheming Troughton and Cushing from a secret passage leading right behind the former’s throne; Ladd seemingly taken aback by the aforementioned giant falling to his death in spite of himself from the castle rooftop, not to mention Cushing apparently tripping in his own armor when turning up for the final showdown with the hero)! Actually, this only increases the film’s fun factor and, over fifty years later, one can still understand how this stuff was eagerly lapped up by thrill-seeking schoolboys during their weekly matinees. Incidentally, given Cushing’s reputation as a horror star, it may come as a surprise to some that he appeared in numerous costumers over the years – including THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939), Alexander THE GREAT (1956), JOHN PAUL JONES (1959), SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1960), THE HELLFIRE CLUB (1961), FURY AT SMUGGLER’S BAY (1961), CAPTAIN CLEGG (1963) and SWORD OF THE VALIANT (1984)!
For what it’s worth, the screenplay involves some notable names – Alec Coppel, future director Bryan Forbes and film noir star Dennis O’Keefe(!) – and its plot of King Arthur vs. The Vikings would come in handy once more that same year in the equally inauthentic but even more popular PRINCE VALIANT. Other distinguished crew members include composer John Addison, cinematographer John Wilcox, art director Vetchinsky and producers Irving Allen and Albert R. Broccoli(!) – this was actually the latter’s third and last picture with Ladd following THE RED BERET (1953) and HELL BELOW ZERO (1954). By the way, THE BLACK KNIGHT itself eventually got remade by Nathan Juran as SIEGE OF THE SAXONS (1963)!