The Scoop: 1963 G, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman and starring Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorenson, Richard Reitherman, Robert Reitherman, Junius Matthews, Martha Wentworth, Sebastian Cabot, Norman Alden and Alan Napier.
Tagline: Whiz-Bang Whizard of Whimsy!
Summary Capsule: Having a wizard for a teacher is effective, but exhausting.
Deneb’s Rating: 3.5 inconvenient beards out of five.
Deneb’s Review: From the very birth of the cinematic medium, filmmakers have been adapting books. Hence the ubiquitous question – ‘book or movie first’?
There’s no one right answer to this, of course. Some people like to see the movie first, that way the book seems better if the movie was bad. Others, including me, prefer to read the book first, so that they’ll understand the movie better and know if the adaptation was well-done.
Which leads us to another question: if the book is considerably better than the movie, but the movie is still good, does that make the latter inferior, or just different?
As far as it applies to the book/movie whose title graces the top of the page, I was torn on this for years. Make no mistake about it, The Sword in the Stone is a great book – great great great great. It’s not only, as the first volume of The Once and Future King series, been hugely influential on modern interpretations of the Arthurian mythos, it’s a darn good read. It’s funny, it’s engaging, it’s exciting, and there’s just generally a warm-heartedness to it that shines through the story.
Now, Disney movies are pretty cool, too, but they can’t touch that. There’s no question in my mind that the book version of Sword is miles better than their animated adaptation of it – but does that make it bad? I was never quite convinced of that.
So… yeah. No time like the present to find out, eh? Let’s dive into this Disneyfied delirium.
The story is set in that hazy period of medieval history that just precedes the Round Table. Not too long ago, as the story begins, Uther Pendragon, king of all England, went and kicked the bucket, ‘e did, leaving the country minus any obvious heir to the throne. This would be a pretty pickle indeed were it not for a miraculous occurrence – the appearance out of nowhere of a sword, embedded hilt-deep in an anvil mounted atop a hefty hunk of boulder. There’s an inscription on the blade – whoever can pull the sword from the stone will have proved himself to be the country’s rightful ruler.
The problem, of course, is that no one can pull it out. Everyone has tried, but no dice; the blasted thing is stuck. So eventually everybody says phooey to magic swords, and just starts squabbling over who should be king, plunging England into chaos.
So none of this is terribly lovely, but our attention is quickly drawn elsewhere, to the residents of the Castle of the Forest Sauvage. They are, in terms of hierarchy, Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), the castle’s owner, Kay (Norman Alden), his son, and young Arthur (Rickie Sorenson and Richard/Robert Reitherman), known to all and sundry as ‘Wart’.
Wart has it bad. He’s Ector’s adopted son, and Kay’s stepbrother. All well and good, except that means he’s doomed to a life of being second-best. He’s in training to become Kay’s squire, which is unlikely to prove a bundle of laughs, as Kay is a loutish oaf who finds Wart a nuisance at best.
So things have gone for as long as he can remember, and so things might have gone indeterminately, if he hadn’t stumbled across the dwelling place of the wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson) along with his grouchy owl familiar Archimedes (Junius Matthews).
As it turns out, this was exactly what he needed to start turning his life around. While Merlin is pretty darn good at magic in general, he specializes in seeing (and occasionally visiting) the future, which means he’s often a little frustrated with the way things are at the moment. He doesn’t always get all the details right, however – as such, while he was expecting Wart to drop by, he’s not quite sure who he is or what awaits him. He does know, however, that it’s something pretty important, so he quickly appoints himself the boy’s tutor and moves into the castle to take charge of his education.
While all of this is going on, the rest of the country is still kind of concerned about that whole ‘no king’ business. So, elections not having been invented yet, a grand tournament is declared, to take place next New Year’s Day. Whichever knight comes out on top will be the new king – and Kay, as a soon-to-be knight himself, is most definitely not going to be left out of the process. He’ll be going to London for that tournament, all right – London, where that pesky sword-stone-and-anvil combination is still wistfully waiting for someone to disassemble it.
Now, of course we all know where this is going; we’ve heard this part of the story a million times. Arthur/Wart is the future King Arthur, and it’s plain as the nose on your face that he’ll be pulling out that sword sooner or later. In the meantime, however, he’s got lessons to be taught, and since Merlin is, you know, Merlin, the odds are pretty good that they’ll involve plenty of magic. The only real question is what kind of shape he’ll be in come New Years – some of these lessons are pretty dangerous…
OK, let’s start this off by getting some of my old reservations about the film out of the way – most of which, I might add, still hold. The Sword in the Stone, theoretically, is focused on… well, the sword in the stone. However, the only bits of the film that are actually about said sword are the very beginning, the very end, and a few choice fragments of the middle.
Now, the book wasn’t really about the sword either – in fact, if I recall correctly, it’s only mentioned for the first time in the very last chapter. The difference there, though, is that it never really pretends to be; it’s much more of a slice-of-life sort of thing, focusing on Wart’s various lessons and adventures and conversations and experiences and whatnot. T.H White intended it as essentially a prequel to the classic Morte D’Arthur, showing us what came before Arthur became king and met Guinevere and established the Table Round and whatnot. As such, it’s not so much about a strong story as a prolonged and episodic character-building exercise; by the time Wart draws the sword and is hailed as king, we know him well enough to be certain that this, indeed, is what he deserves.
To some degree, all this is true in the movie as well, but only to a certain extent. It is also episodic, and also not really about the sword so much as it is Wart, and is therefore also essentially a character-building exercise – the difference is that… well, the last two elements don’t really make it past theoretical.
You see, it is about the sword. It’s announced point-blank that it’s about the sword, and we get hints and reminders about the upcoming tournament throughout the movie. This is good in that it drives things forward, but bad in that it mucks up rather completely what White was going for in the original. The whole slice-of-life thing gets a tad muddled if there’s a driving goal throughout the story; that’s not how slice-of-life stories work. Like real life, they are a take-things-as-they-happen affair. Driving a continuing plot is therefore not their strong suit.
‘Well, all right’, you might say, ‘but clearly it wasn’t intended as a slice-of-life story, now was it? It’s an adaptation; it’s allowed to do its own thing – this SitS is more about the journey Wart takes to becoming Arthur.’ Well, yes, except no and no.
First, it is a slice-of-life story – or the bulk of it is, anyway. Merlin decides it’s time to teach Wart a lesson, he does so, rinse, repeat. Yes, there is some plot connection between the respective bits, but essentially it’s trying to do the same thing the book was doing, except there’s all that driving plot business getting in the way. Second, remember how I was talking about it all being a character-building exercise? Toss that one right out the window. Sure, Wart learns things, but nothing about his basic character changes; he’s the same gangly, nervous, awkward kid when he becomes king as he is at the start of the movie. He hasn’t grown or changed, he hasn’t fought any battles or done anything, in fact, that would toughen him up or strengthen him up for kinghood, he’s gone through magic-educational-transformational playland a few times, that’s all.
Because of that, the ending – which, you may recall, is the entire point of everything – feels a tad weak. Yes, him pulling out the sword still packs a certain punch; we are, after all, talking about one of western civilization’s more enduring legends here, but after that? Well, I won’t give away the precise details of what happens after that, but suffice it to say that the movie just kind of fuddles about a bit for a couple of minutes, and then ends – on a joke, no less. It’s kind of the only way that it can end, of course (minus the joke), but that points to a central flaw of things. The original Sword has Morte D’Arthur (and, ultimately, its own sequels) to follow it; what does this one have? Nothing. No sequels from Disney at this point in their existence; they told a story and that was it. One more in the can, on to the next one. Hence, SitS ends on the very tentative note of ‘and he became King’. What then? Who knows? Read the darn books; Disney sure ain’t gonna tell ya.
Furthermore, there is little actual urgency in his becoming king. We are told that England is going through a “Dark Age” where “the strong prey upon the weak”, and that a king is needed to put an end to all this. All well and good, but we never actually see any of this Dark Age; the beginning and ending aside, the entirety of the movie is spent in and around the Forest Sauvage, where things seem pleasant enough. People might be battling and feuding and oppressing each other while Wart is getting king lessons, but we certainly never get a glimpse of it.
Now, again, there was none of this ‘Dark Age’ business in the book, either, but that was because it was never actually introduced as a plot point; there were some rumblings of ‘this could be bad’, but that was about it. The movie, on the other hand, informs us within the first five minutes that things are bad – and then it takes us straight to the Forest, from which we do not stray for over an hour.
This does not exactly cripple the plot, mind you, but it is one wowzer of a missed opportunity. If we’d actually seen some of this social degradation they’re talking about, that would have leant a certain driving force to the narrative – we’d be rooting for Merlin to hurry up and instill that kingly knowledge into Wart, because things are going from bad to worse and the country needs a good leader to put a stop to things, and when the kid finally did draw out the pig-sticker, there’d be a feeling of ‘phew, just in time. England is saved’. Instead, it’s more like ‘oh, Wart’s king now. That’s good… I guess… ‘cause he’s King Arthur, and that’s cool… Can we get back to Merlin doing funny stuff?’
So those are my main gripes about it all – I’ve a few more, but they can wait. Central question: does this make it bad?
Well, if you’ve been reading my reviews with any frequency up ‘til now you will not be surprised to learn that, in my opinion, no. No, it doesn’t.
There is no denying that Sword in the Stone is a flawed picture. You could legitimately call it ‘minor Disney’; it doesn’t have the great strengths that the best Disney pictures do. But once you’ve separated out what it isn’t, you’re stuck with what it is, and if you go into it knowing that it’s far from perfect, I think you’ll find yourself having a jolly good time.
Yes, story is not one of the movie’s strengths, but it does have strengths, and those are primarily in the humor and the characters. This is a funny damn movie at times – there are some excellent bits of cartoon slapstick and comic set-pieces, and the interplay between Wart, Merlin and Archimedes (and others) can be quite entertaining. It’s not all humor, either – there are some genuinely suspenseful bits, as well as one of the saddest moments I have ever seen in a Disney film. If I’m to be completely honest, this was a major contributing factor to my not re-watching the movie for as long as I did – I still find the moment in question pretty darn sad, but when I was a bit younger it was absolutely heartbreaking, and I wasn’t keen on going through that again. I won’t tell you what it is, but you’ll know it when you see it.
That does point to another of its strengths, though – this is a ‘moment film’. It may not come together as a cohesive whole as well as it might, but it is full of very effective moments, and they, not the story, are what you remember afterwards. You see Cinderella, you remember Cinderella and the stepsisters and the mice and ‘Bibbety-Bobbity-Boo’ and the rest of it; you see SitS, you remember Merlin being a goofball and that sad bit I mentioned and various jokes and song lyrics and such – at least, such was my experience. It could have been a classic if it possessed a strong narrative to tie all those things together, but it’s certainly enjoyable as it is.
Right, I suppose it’s time to talk about the characters now. We’ll save Wart for later; right now, let’s talk about Merlin.
Merlin – or rather, this version of him – is an interesting character. He is accident-prone and largely played for comedy, but he’s not a bungler, he’s a blunderer – there’s a difference. A bungler will step on a banana peel and go flying; a blunderer will carefully step around it, walk on a bit, remember something important and turn around, then step on it. In short, he’s an otherwise competent, if eccentric, individual with a tendency to get distracted and terrible luck.
That more or less informs his character traits as well. He is clearly a genuinely wise man, but his wisdom often gets tangled up in his own personal obsessions – for instance, he knows that Wart needs teaching, and has some good enough life lessons to instill (even if they’re occasionally delivered with all the subtlety of a brick to the head), but he gets so absorbed with blathering on about the wonders of things to come that he tends to forget the basic rudiments of education. Similarly, while he obviously knows his stuff when it comes to magic, he frequently finds himself stuck for a crucial spell word at the exact wrong time.
Overall, Karl Swenson is pretty darn good in the role, and makes him someone who you can connect with – he’s a bit grouchy, a bit short-tempered, but in general a friendly, likable old guy. I like Merlin; I’d definitely say he’s the movie’s best character.
Next we have Archimedes, as played by Junius Matthews, best known as the original Rabbit from Winnie-the-Pooh. Archimedes is, if you’ll excuse the term, a hoot. Far from the usual servile familiar, he’s a cranky, irritable fussbudget who is not afraid to tell his master that he’s being a fool if he thinks it’s true – and he often does. He’s a nice enough fellow at heart, but will go to any length to disguise this fact, growling on about his own personal comforts and insisting that for the last time, he did not just do a good deed; now why can’t he be left in peace? (He does warm up a bit as the film goes on, though.) He’s not exactly full of hidden depths, but as animal sidekicks go, he’s one of the better ones.
Finally on the heroic side of things, we have Wart. Wart is not a bad character, exactly; he’s all right, just not very memorable. Given that his vocal performance can be traced to no less than three voice actors (turns out casting boys just hitting puberty can occasionally lead to some unexpected changes in the ol’ vocal range, some of which are rather obvious in the finished product), it’s not surprising that none of them really had a chance to put their mark on him. As a result, he doesn’t possess the creative fire that Swenson and Matthews and the rest managed to instill in their characters – so it’s not surprising that in comparison, poor Wart can come off as a bit… uninspired.
That’s the performance, however. How the character is written is another story. Remember, Wart is the future King Arthur, and to the movie’s credit, we get that. It’s established early on that he does indeed possess that certain something that will someday lead him to greatness, but it’s never actually going to unless Merlin can manage to jump-start the situation. Throughout his life, he has been ‘the kid’ – the one who’s eternally second best, because Kay is the actual son-and-heir, whereas he’s just the adopted runt. As such, he’s never really shown much initiative, because what’s the point? The moments where he starts to break free of his timidity and actually show some gumption are genuinely effective – I would venture to state that we could have used a few more of them, and that he doesn’t so much show character growth as character…uh… swelling? – but hey, A for effort, and what works works. Wart will never be my favorite Disney protagonist, but I can’t argue with the basic treatment he was given.
Which brings us, at last, to the villains, where we’re on somewhat more shaky ground. The ‘main’ villains of the movie are arguably Kay and Sir Ector, but if you look a bit more closely, neither one is really all that villainous. Sir Ector is, in a certain sense, Warts oppressor, but it’s not because he’s evil or cruel – on the contrary, it’s shown that he does care for the boy; it’s just that he’s a stern disciplinarian and perhaps cares a bit more about his own view of the world than he ought to. He’s not a bad man, just not a very good father figure. Kay is certainly a good deal nastier than his dad, but again, he’s not evil; his nastiness is very much of the petty ‘older brother’ sort – he may relish it when Wart gets into trouble, but he never actually does anything to hurt or harm him short of a few attempted swipes and some dire ‘if I ever get my hands on you’ comments. He’s a bit of a bully and a lout, and certainly a dim-witted oaf, but that’s pretty much it.
No, the breakout star of this movie, so far as villains go, is undoubtedly Mad Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth) – and yes, I call her ‘mad’ as part of her title; why not? She does.
Mim is really only in SitS for maybe ten minutes tops, and has no effect on the plot at all, but there’s no denying the film would be much poorer without her. She’s an old rival of Merlin’s who is terribly jealous of his success, and bound and determined to prove that her decidedly darker magic is more effective than his – and if that includes obliterating his current student, so much the better.
Mim is a lot of fun, because she’s so thoroughly unapologetic about who and what she is. She’s an evil old witch, and she loves being an evil old witch – in fact, she is dedicated to it to the point of obsession. This is accentuated by the fact that she seems like a perfectly friendly, if eccentric, old lady until she starts trying to kill you. She’s something like if the granny from The Addams Family was cast as a villain – she is so compulsively, gleefully morbid that you can’t help but be on her side, at least a little. Furthermore, she makes for some awesome visuals – her battle with Merlin is one of the film’s major highlights. It’s a shame that more wasn’t done with her, but then not much was done in the book, either, so I can’t really blame the filmmakers for that.
So when all is said and done, do I think Sword in the Stone is a good movie, despite its inferiority to the source material? Well, yes, I suppose so. It does have its problems, and they keep me from enjoying the material quite as much as I otherwise might, but on the basic level, it’s still quality material. It’s funny, it has its touching moments, it’s well-animated and has good characters. If you like mid-period Disney, you’ll probably like it fine.
That being said, it really has been a long time since I’ve read the book. I should hunt up a copy – preferably that one with the really good illustrations; I always liked those…
- One of the character changes I’m not too wild about is that of Kay. In the book, he was only a few years older than Wart, and Merlin was technically tutoring both of them – he was kind of pushy and entitled at times, but not a jerk. It’s certainly a big jump from that to the film version.
- That laugh of Archimedes’ is hilarious.
- The story is set either in or just before what we would call ‘the Middle Ages’. And yet somehow Wart knows what tea is and shows no surprise at Merlin smoking a pipe.
- Head animator Bill Peet used Walt Disney himself as the model for Merlin –the beard aside, Merlin’s facial features are a caricature of Disney’s own.
- In the book, Wart and Kay have a brief adventure with Robin Hood – yes, that Robin Hood. This segment was excluded from the movie, but as you’re probably aware, Disney did do their own distinctive version of Robin Hood. Now, just imagine what SitS would have been like had it A: been made after Robin Hood instead of before, and B: included the aforementioned segment from the book – presumably done in the other movie’s anthropomorphic style. Interesting to think about, yes?
- Madame Mim is a relatively minor character in this movie, yet she is a breakout star in many European Disney comics. Retaining her uniquely bizarre personality, she’s a frequent friend and/or helper to Magica DeSpell, an occasional partner-in-crime with the Beagle Boys, and has a long-standing crush on the Phantom Blot (something which he is not at all in favor of). She has also featured in many solo stories, mainly (I think) in the Netherlands, where she sometimes is and sometimes is not a villain, often being portrayed as more of an eccentric antihero.
- This was the last full-length animated Disney feature that Walt himself saw the completion of before his death.
- One of the more influential aspects of Merlin’s character in the original Sword in the Stone and its sequels is his method of aging – he ages backwards in time, and, apparently, quite slowly, as he seems to have been alive for several hundred years. Hence, he has actually lived through at least a part of the 20th Century himself, which explains his frequent anachronistic references to it. In the movie, this has been changed to his simply having the ability to time travel.
Archimedes: (repeated line) Who? What-what?
Merlin: Higitus-Figitus-Bigitus Boom – Prestidigitonium!
Madame Mim: He must see something good in you.
Wart: Oh, I suppose so.
Madame Mim: Yes, and in my book, that’s bad!
Merlin: Don’t take gravity too lightly, or it’ll catch up with you.
Archimedes: Before you’re through, he’ll be so mixed up, he’ll… he’ll be wearing his shoes on his head!
Merlin: Snick Snack Snorum!
Wart: Oh, that’s terrible!
Madame Mim: Thank you, my boy.
Merlin: When he stays out all night, he’s always grumpy the next morning.
Wart: Then he must stay out every night.
Sir Ector: Gadzooks! Black magic of the worst kind!
Merlin: Can’t wait for the London Times; first edition won’t be out for at least, eh… (looks at watch) twelve hundred years.
Archimedes: Pinfeathers and Gullyfluff!
Merlin: (singing) There’s no logical explanation for
this discomboomeration –
It’s a most bemuddling, most befuddling thing!
Madame Mim: I hate sunshine! I hate horrible, wholesome sunshine! I hate it, I hate it!
Merlin: I’m an ugly, horrible, grouchy old man!
Madame Mim: Sounds like someone’s sick. How lovely! I do hope it’s serious – something dreadful!
Merlin: An education, lad!
Wart: What good will that do?
Merlin: Get it first, then who knows?
Merlin: Impudent piece of crockery!
(Archimedes is being stubborn)
Merlin: I’ll turn you into a human!
Archimedes: Hmmph! You wouldn’t dare!
Merlin: I will, s’help me I will!
Archimedes: Well, all right – all right – all right!
(He flies off)
Merlin: (chuckles) Works every time.
Wart: ‘Round Table’?
Merlin: Oh, uh – would you rather have a square one?
Wart: Oh, no, round’ll be fine.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Robin Hood
- The Rescuers
- Camelot (or any half-decent adaptation of the Arthurian mythos)