Nothing says “medieval cliches” like a 1950s take on Arthurian legend, and the second of this medieval-themed trilogy starring Robert Taylor and directed by Richard Thorpe hits all the marks (the other films being Ivanhoe and Quentin Dunward). Knights of the Round Table (1953) opens with about 30 minutes of battle on horseback, which must have seemed pretty amazing at the time, all in glorious CinemaScope. After that, the flick goes to the standard Arthur / Guinevere / Lancelot doomed love triangle.
I rather enjoy going back to the sources of movie cliches like this, just to see how far film has or has not come. In terms of “medieval” costume (that is, anything before about 1500), only middling progress has been made in terms of historical accuracy. Movies and TV still want pretty pretty princess elf gowns for the medieval maidens, just like Ava Gardner‘s Guinevere wears here. Occasionally, more recent productions will use less-obvious princess seams and slightly more historical construction, but the main concession to “accuracy” these days is to make everything dark, dirty, and dingy (which isn’t all that “accurate” either; people loved bright colors and knew how to bathe in ye olden times!).
Ah well, let’s enjoy the spectacle because Knights of the Round Table delivers on that account. Arthur (Mel Ferrer) and Guinevere’s wedding is quite lovely. This flick gets an A+ on all those dagged sleeves, they’re gorgeous, and there are quite a variety of designs!
The ladies of the court are all wearing the same type of princess-seamed gown with a 1950s bra, but the sleeves are gorgeous, and I appreciate that some have their hair up and many wear veils.
This guy’s surcote is reminiscent of ones in the Codex Manesse c. 1340, although it bugs me that the stripes don’t line up perfectly in the front.
One big fail is Guinevere’s fake sideless surcotes. The sideless part should be a separate gown worn over the sleeved gown, but in this movie, they’re sewn together. It’s like those cheap sweaters-with-shirt-collars-sewn-in.
I know it’s a theatrical cheat, but I gotta point this out. In full-length period illustrations, the two-piece garment is clear. Look how the blue skirt of the undergown peeks out from beneath the red sideless surcote here:
For comparison, here’s some period images that more clearly show the two garments. In this first one, Empress Faustina is about to be beheaded, so she leans over, showing through her surcote.
St Catherine of Alexandria wears a surcote made of two fabrics with an attached drape, but as unusual as the style is, the wrinkles at the side and a glimpse of her back show it’s a separate overgarment.
Screwy surcotes aside, most of Guinevere’s gowns are pretty.
This one hennin is a little clunky. That red thing on the front makes me think someone couldn’t figure out how she was supposed to wear this style of hat.
Morgan Le Fay (Anne Crawford) is the baddie, as always, and she’s supposed to be Arthur’s half-sister. She gets this bright yellow gown and a pinky-lavender one I couldn’t get a decent screencap of, so you have to deal with the black-and-white pic. She always has a wimple though!
Poor Elaine (Maureen Swanson), not only is she in love with Lancelot, who only marries her as a cover because he’s in love with the queen, but she only gets this one dress for the whole movie.
But I’m impressed that they had a repro of the Lewis chess set!
Also, the music and dancing throughout the movie is a decent approximation of medieval styles. Not perfect, but better than I’d expected.
Have you seen Knights of the Round Table? What do you think about 1950s medieval movies?