Saturday Matinee #90, Animated Sequence Analysis: The Sword in the Stone - Arthur Pulls the Sword from the Stone (December 25, 1963) - published September 22, 2012
by Albert Gutierrez
The Many Faces of Arthurian Legend
A couple nights ago, I decided to have an Arthurian Legend marathon, and ended up watching three adaptations of the well-known tale. First up was 1953's Knights of the Round Table, an MGM epic filmed in CinemaScope (the studio's first), featuring some of its most popular stars: Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot, Ava Gardner as Queen Guinevere, and Mel Ferrer as King Arthur. It's a predictable spectacle focused more on visuals rather than character and story, although it does a good job with the action sequences. Some of the studio sets seem laughable today - at one point, Robert Taylor pushes over a Stonehenge-like rock that should normally weigh ten times more than him - but it's still an enjoyable and exciting adventure, with the quality and polish expected of an MGM film from the era.
After that film, I decided to check out an episode of "Merlin," which re-tells the legend from the wizard's point of view. Instead of a wise, old man, the character of Merlin is young and clumsy, as played by Irish actor Colin Morgan. The series is one of my favorites, with a young cast whose talents have grown considerably in the past four series. The episode I watched, "The Once and Future Queen," was from the second season. It is one of the more lighthearted episodes, in which young Arthur wants to prove his worth by hiring a farmer to pose as a knight in a tournament, while he's the one actually jousting and fighting (masked, of course). Merlin and Guinevere (here, a servant girl named Gwen) help with the charade, as Arthur learns a lesson about the importance of humility over glory.
Of course, I couldn't have a King Arthur marathon without visiting Disney's turn at the legend. The studio has made their fair share of adaptations, although their best-known is the 1963 animated film, The Sword in the Stone. Growing up, I was more familiar the film's final ten minutes than with its first seventy. Since we never had the film on VHS, our main exposure was through "A Disney Christmas Gift," a television special that featured The Sword in the Stone as one of its segments. Seeing that same scene over the years has made me enjoy the ending more than the rest of the film. Rather than focus on that entire scene, this week's Saturday Matinee will take a look at one vitally important moment: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.
Wart runs through the empty streets back to the inn. He pulls desperately at the handle. Archimedes wipes at a window, peering inside.
Wart: Let me in, let me in! Somebody, please, please, let me in!
Archimedes: It's no use, boy. They've all gone to the tournament.
Wart: Oh, what'll I do? Kay's got to have a sword.
Archimedes looks around, then points off into the distance.
Archimedes: Look, boy, look! There, in the churchyard.
Wart: A sword! Oh, Archimedes, a sword!
Wart runs over, hopping the fence.
He folds back his squire's uniform, and reaches for the sword.
Archimedes: You're gonna have a time pulling it out.
Wart crouches around the sword, and begins pulling. Light emanates from the heavens above, as a choir begins to harmonize.
Archimedes: Watch it, boy!
Strangely aware of the light, Wart jumps back in surprise, then looks around. Nobody else is there. He reaches over, touching only the tip of the handle. The light shines down once again.
Archimedes: Better leave it alone!
Wart pulls his hand back again. He looks to Archimedes, then shakes his head, reaching for the sword once more. Now, he is Arthur.
Arthur: But Kay's got to have a sword!
He succeeds in pulling the sword out, falling back against a tree.
Archimedes: Now, come on, quick! Let's get out of here!
Archimedes flies off, with Arthur struggling to follow behind.
Most adaptations treat the "sword in the stone" moment as showcase. We often have a large group watching, Merlin is at hand to encourage Arthur, and it becomes the spectacular climax within the film. Disney, on the other hand, decided to treat the moment as a small and lonely scene. Personally, I think it works better this way. It better reflects who Arthur still is, sword or not. He's slightly bewildered by it all, and has no idea just how much his life will change. The Disney version, based partly on T.H. White's first part of The Once and Future King, had spent the past seventy minutes of the film showing Wart always as a weakling, someone who learns through intelligence rather than through physicality. It wouldn't do for his life-changing moment to thrust him into the spotlight. He's spent much more time avoiding it, preferring to build up his life in support of others.
This is why he's so scared when he forgets Kay's sword. Wart respects Kay, brute he is, and looks up to him as a big brother. Forgetting the sword means disappointing Kay, which Wart doesn't want. He's a young boy always in search of approval. Look to his face when he cries out "Oh, what'll I do?" It's featured in the three screen captures above. The shot goes by pretty quickly, but I managed to capture the three emotions that I felt Wart was conveying. The first is a tired and almost relieved sadness. He failed, and it seems to remind him of his other shortcomings. But then that face turns to sheer mortification. He's realized once more that he's bungled something up, and fears for the punishment. The last shot, mere frames later, suddenly relaxes that mortification, as he willingly accepts it was his fault. This is Wart, the scrawny boy who never seemed to fit in. The animators did a masterful job of making Wart go through so much in so little time.
Later, when he's reaching for the sword, the transformation begins. It's important for the scene to establish that Wart is getting the sword because he needs one for Kay. He's got an earnest look on his face as he's reaching, pulling and tugging at the handle. The light emanating around him is a signal to the audience that this selfless act is truly what makes him king. All the others who pulled the sword did so for the glory, they wanted to become King by showing their might. For Wart, he's not doing this for himself. Thus, what happens ends up confusing him. He doesn't know the legend, and so this ethereal choir and heavenly light has no real meaning to him. It's still about getting Kay his sword. Even after Archimedes warns to leave it alone, he continues to try.
Eventually in the film, the sword is returned to the stone, merely to prove once again that Arthur pulled it out. Story-wise, it is the more important scene. However, character-wise, Arthur's quiet moments alone is what truly makes the film. This even continues when Arthur formally becomes king. He'd rather have the quiet moments than the spectacle.
Arthur's expression above can best be conveyed through final lyrics from the Kander & Ebb song, "A Quiet Thing" (from Flora, the Red Menace):
Happiness comes in on tiptoe
Well, what do you know
It's a quiet thing
A very quiet thing...
Sitting alone in that great hall, that's the peace that Arthur knows and prefers. He needs no glory, he needs no fame. Making this scene and the sword-pulling earlier play out among only Wart and Archimedes also better serves to show why he is meant to be king. Pulling the sword is not about the spectacle, as the beginning of the film established, when many would come to try. It's about making such landmark moments a "quiet thing" in the grand scheme of history. Arthur is not a great king because he pulled the sword from the stone. His greatness comes afterwards. Having him alone shows that Arthur is still Arthur. He's still the lonely little boy who's only trying to help. Even when he runs back to the tournament, his head is tucked down low. Even when he opens doors, he closes them just as quickly in fright from the cheers. He's a very humble young man, the quiet thing that deserves the celebration, but doesn't need it.
The Sword in the Stone was first released to DVD in 2001 as the final (official) entry in the "Gold Classic Collection" line. This edition was later replaced by a "45th Anniversary Edition" in 2008, which included all-new games and ported over all the previous bonus features, although it shortened the bonus "Disneyland: All About Magic" episode to a 7-minute excerpt. Disney Movie Club later released the 2008 DVD in a special Collector's Box set, which included some non-disc extras. The film is not yet on Blu-Ray, though could very well appear on the format next year to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.
If you're interested in Knights of the Round Table or "Merlin," both are available on DVD from Warner Bros. Knights first came to DVD in 2003, but that disc went out of print, and is now only available through Warner's burn-on-demand "Archive Collection." The first three seasons of "Merlin" are on DVD, with the fourth likely to see release in January, shortly before the fifth season begins on SyFy.