Director Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table (1953) was MGM's first movie shot in Cinemascope. Ever cautious that ‘scope’ would be just another passing fade (like 3D that had come and gone the year before) the company hedged its bets with this sprawling spectacle by producing a 'flat' version too. On the surface, midieval England - with its varied visions of galliards, knights on horseback and round table discussions - must have seemed like good subject matter for the expanded width of the big screen. Yet as penned by Talbot Jennings, Jan Lustig and Noel Langley - all competant screenwriters - ‘Knights’ is a rather plodding, somber and unimaginative entertainment.
The legend of King Arthur has always been a perennial film favorite. But on this occasion, an aged Robert Taylor, usually so natural in period costume, is an uncomfortable and wooden Sir Lancelot. Riding through the forest in search of noble King Arthur (Mel Ferrer), Lancelot becomes embroiled in a plot to expose the evils of Morgan Le Fay (Anne Crawford) and Modred (Stanley Baker). But the two hold the key to Arthur’s downfall; the secret that Lancelot and Queen Gueneviere (Ava Gardner) are lovers.
In part, due to the production code’s stringent morality, but also because Lancelot is to be the hero of our story, the romance between Guen’ and Lance’ is antiseptic at best. Even after the king discovers the truth for himself, his lament is more magnanimous than tortured; his forgiveness less driven by angst than necessity for a happy round table discussion. In short, director Thorpe’s faux epic diffuses conflict at every opportunity and winds up with an undeniably glossy, though dull, spectacle.
Alfred Junge and Hans Peters art direction is impeccable but somehow distilled by the rather stiff cinematography by Stephen Dade and Freddie Young. Cinemascope is not their forte just yet and Knights of the Round Table illustrates their frustrations with the letterboxed proportions. We either get extreme long shots that attempt to encompass all of the action all at once, or extreme close ups that are meant to draw attention to one or two players in a scene by giving us absolutely nothing else except a pair of talking heads to look at. In a few years both Young and Dade would be masters at re-framing their action for the widescreen lens. But not just yet and unfortunately it shows.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is just above average. No attempt has been made to remove age related artifacts. At times the image seems somewhat digitally harsh. Exterior photography has a heavy patina of film grain and a less saturated color palette. Matte process shots are obvious and inconsistently rendered. Black levels are perhaps a bit weak and fine details are lost in darker scenes.
Close ups, however, look gorgeous. Several establishing shots suffer from a litany of pixelization that breaks apart fine details. Fades between scenes are hampered by a sudden grainy transition that is inherent in all early Cinemascope films. The audio is stereo surround and amply provides a satisfying acoustic spread. Extras include a very brief featurette with Mel Ferrer’s comments on the production, a movietone trailer and the film's original theatrical trailer. This is not a bad movie but it is an incredibly dated one.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)