There are literally hundreds of films and TV shows about or featuring King Arthur going back well over a century – there are silent films, musicals, animated films, comedies, dramas. You name it, there is a King-Arthur-themed version of it. There are not a small number of “Best of…” lists floating around the internet as well. But how do you know which of the recommendations is really going to scratch your King Arthur-shaped itch?
MGM+’s new series about King Arthur, The Winter King, is a combination of gritty historical fiction and “low” fantasy (that is, a mostly realistic setting with some fantasy elements). It is also fairly grim and violent. But there are lots of different ways to tell a story about King Arthur and his knights, with or without round table, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake and so on. Here, we’ve rounded up a few of our favourite films and TV shows about or featuring King Arthur, sorted depending on what sort of mood you’re in. Do you fancy a comedy? A musical? Adventure? Romance? Whatever particular type of Arthurian legend you enjoy the most, we’ve got you covered!
If You’re Looking for… Adventure
Merlin (BBC, 2008-2012)
Following the success of Russell T Davies’ relaunched Doctor Who, Merlin was developed to fill a similar space in the BBC schedules, intended to be “three generation TV”, which could be watched by children, parents and grandparents all together. It follows Arthur (Bradley James) and Merlin (Colin Morgan) as young men during the reign of Arthur’s father Uther (Anthony Head), with one unique twist. In this series, magic exists, but it has been outlawed. Merlin saves Arthur’s life and becomes his manservant, and spends the next five seasons repeatedly saving Arthur’s life and trying to pretend he did it without using magic.
Merlin is true family TV, with enough character drama to interest adults, and plenty of fun and action to entertain older kids. It is also high fantasy, and features John Hurt as the voice of a dragon, which is quite something. But the invention of a law against magic keeps the fantastical elements constrained, since all the magical characters have to hide their powers, and for the first four seasons Anthony Head’s somewhat grim Uther makes sure everyone is constantly on their toes.
See also: The 1998 Hallmark mini-series Merlin features classic 1990s high fantasy and adventure, Miranda Richardson as a fairy queen, and Sam Neill as Merlin. If you enjoy a good bit of 90s cheese, this is a solid choice.
Merlin is available to stream on the BBC iPlayer in the UK
If You’re Looking for… High Fantasy
You’ll know you are looking at a shot from John Boorman’s Excalibur as soon as you see one because everything in this film is incredibly, ludicrously, shiny. The swords shine, the armour shines, the dresses sparkle and, of course, the magic spells involve sparkles. There is blood, but the armour still manages to gleam underneath it. It’s like JJ Abrams filmed the whole thing under a disco ball.
Rather than coming up with a story that combines elements of various Arthurian traditions, Boorman and co-writer Rospo Pallenburg’s script was based mainly on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which is one of the best known versions of the story. They had been working on an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that never went ahead, and their commitment to an epic tone, as well as some of the imagery and set designs, was carried over from that project. We can only imagine what their Lord of the Rings might have looked like – Lothlórien would have been positively blinding…
See also: Netflix’s Cursed was cancelled after one season, which is a shame, because with a female lead, a rich fantasy setting, and Vikings’s Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) as Merlin, it has a lot going for it.
Excalibur is available to rent or buy from several streaming services.
If You’re Looking for… Blood ‘n’ Guts
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
This French film directed by Robert Bresson is one of several adaptations of the legend with little or no fantastical elements. The story is based on French romances, but don’t be fooled by the literary genre, as this is not so much “romantic” as “extremely miserable”, though it does of course centre around a doomed love affair. But in between the extra-marital sex, there are jousts, battles, and murders to rival Game of Thrones easily. If you thought the spurting blood on Monty Python’s Black Knight was a ludicrous exaggeration, check out a knight in this movie getting his throat cut.
Most of the films on this list are stuffed to the brim with incredibly talented and very famous actors, like Helen Mirren as Morgana le Fay (Excalibur), Ben Kingsley as Merlin (The Last Legion) or Richard Harris as a singing Arthur (Camelot). Lancelot du Lac, however, features a cast of unknowns, most of whom were not professional actors and did not appear in anything else. While that does mean their acting is more raw and less accomplished than others, it also gets rid of the slightly distracting process of saying things like, “Oh look, it’s Captain Picard!” (Excalibur and The Kid Who Would Be King) every five minutes throughout and helps viewers to focus on the story.
See also: If you haven’t yet watched The Winter King and you like your legend with a healthy dose of blood, guts and gore, you should definitely check out the series as soon as you can.
Lancelot du Lac is available to rent or buy from various streaming services.
If You’re Looking for… Romans
King Arthur (2004)
“Artorius” is a Roman name, and the earliest historical records of Arthur are connected to stories of Aurelius Ambrosianus, supposedly the last Roman in Britain. So there are a few stories about Arthur that draw on that Roman heritage, especially the more historical, less fantastical ones – it is fantastical legends like Malory’s that give us the much later medieval setting of some versions, all plate armour and chivalrous knights.
Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur imagines Arthur and his knights as a group of Roman soldiers, fighting off Saxon invaders. The film suffers a bit from going for a gritty historical fiction approach but absolutely mangling the history by somehow putting Saxons in Scotland, and it is a bit over-long. But the basic idea of showing Arthur and his men as soldiers, rather than the type of medieval knights that only existed in the imagination of poets, is rather fun, and somehow the London accents of Clive Owen as Arthur, Ray Winstone as Bors, and Ray Stevenson as Dagonet make a lot of sense in that context.
See also: The Last Legion is a very silly film, but it is fun in its own way, with Uther this time reimagined as the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus. And it features Colin Firth in a short skirt and Aishwarya Rai kicking ass with a sword, so there’s that.
King Arthur is available to stream on Disney+
If You’re Looking for… Weird
The Green Knight (2021)
Like Excalibur, David Lowery’s The Green Knight benefits from adapting a specific text, rather than mashing up various bits and pieces of Arthurian lore. This gives it a solid historical setting that matches the text, not the “history” – so, like later medieval romances, the story is packed full of extra-marital sex (all those arranged marriages produced an entire genre of literature about finding love elsewhere) and references to Christianity and Mass, as it is placed in a late medieval Catholic setting.
But don’t be fooled by the historical accuracy – this film is gloriously weird. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the more bizarre legends surrounding Arthur and his knights, involving as it does mysterious giant strangers whose heads keep talking after they have been cut off. Lowery really leans into the weird vibe with his film, adding several increasingly strange misadventures during Gawain’s wanderings that are pulled from other sources, all with the same creepy, surreal vibe set by the opening scenes. Held together by an award-winning performance from Dev Patel as Gawain, this film is a visually stunning, eerie delight.
See also: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword combines Guy Ritchie’s style, Charlie Hunnam’s backstreet Cockney Arthur, and fantastical elements like some absolutely gigantic elephants that look like they’ve wandered over from The Return of the King. It’s fun, bombastic, and really quite odd.
The Green Knight is available to stream on Amazon Prime
If You’re Looking for… Romance
First Knight (1995)
First Knight is a romantic drama that leaves out any fantastical elements from the story to focus on the disastrous combination of romance and politics. Director Jerry Zucker is known for two very different types of film –outrageous comedies like Airplane!, and Ghost, which although it has some very funny scenes in it, is primarily an epic paranormal romance. Despite the lack of magic in First Knight, it very leans more towards the Ghost end of the spectrum, taking its story entirely seriously and focusing on the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.
Sean Connery had already played an ageing Robin Hood in a romantic story set at the end of the legend’s life in 1976’s Robin and Marian, and here he repeats the gig twenty years later, this time playing Arthur. Richard Gere as Lancelot was at the height of his romantic lead heyday after 1990’s Pretty Woman, and triangle was completed by Julia Ormond as Guinevere, who was hot off Legends of the Fall. The film is a great example of 1990s romantic drama and looks gorgeous as well.
See also: Tristan and Isolde also leaves out the fantasy for a visually luscious romance. Everything looks gorgeous here, from the sets and costumes to, of course, the actors, led by James Franco and Sophia Myles as the doomed couple.
First Knight is available to stream on Netflix
If You’re Looking for… Animated Classics
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Disney’s classic adaptation of TH White’s children’s novel The Sword in the Stone (the first of his tetralogy The Once and Future King) was the last Disney animated classic to be released during Walt Disney’s lifetime (he worked as a producer on The Jungle Book but died before it was released). The book was an especially good choice for an animated adaptation because so much of the story involved Merlin turning himself and Arthur (or Wart, as he is known here) into animals, a unique quirk of White’s version of the story.
The focus on Wart as a very young boy makes this an ideal choice for very young children, and his status as a younger foster brother who is looked down on by his foster family makes him a likeable underdog hero. Meanwhile another of White’s unique ideas, that Merlin ages backwards and remembers the future, which is what gives him his gift of prophecy, provides lots of amusing moments for parents as Merlin tries to explain stream trains and teapots to young medieval Arthur. And Archimedes the grumpy owl is adorable.
See also: The Legend of Prince Valiant is a great bit of early 1990s animation nostalgia, featuring a rock ballad opening, lots of cheaply animated action, and Tim Curry as the voice of Sir Gawain.
The Sword in the Stone is available to stream on Disney+
If You’re Looking for… Something for the Kids
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
All of that sex and violence that is such a big part of Arthurian legend means that a lot of the films and shows that tell stories about King Arthur are not suitable for young children. There are, of course, exceptions, including Merlin and the various animated takes on the tale. But if you’re looking for something that will engage younger kids in live action, this film is a good place to start.
The Kid Who Would Be King follows the adventures of Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a schoolboy who pulls Excalibur out of a block of concrete. Hi-jinks, naturally, ensue and both Merlin and Morgana turn up to help or fight Alex, respectively. It’s a fun romp for school-aged children that puts them front and centre and wonders how King Arthur might have copied if he had to deal with detentions and modern technology.
See also: Merlin of the Crystal Cave is a trickier sell for modern kids because of its 1991 BBC production values. But if you can get them past that, it is an enchanting adaptation of Mary Stewart’s novel The Crystal Cave.
If You’re Looking for… a Musical
Camelot, by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, originally ran on Broadway in 1960. The 1967 film version was directed by Joshua Logan and starred Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero as Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Being a musical, it is focused especially on romance, and being from the 1960s, it embraces the sexuality of medieval legend, including an entire song all about how everybody feels horny in May (‘The Lusty Month of May’).
Camelot is in many ways a typical 1960s musical. Most of the songs are upbeat, and the tone is colourful and joyous despite the serious subject matter. The story is based on the later books from TH White’s The Once and Future King, so it makes a rather nice sequel to The Sword in the Stone – having, understandably, avoided the turning-into-animals early part in developing a stage musical. And according to Jackie Kennedy, the original Broadway cast recording was one of her husband JFK’s favourite records, so it comes pretty highly recommended.
See also: Technically, the brilliant and sadly short-lived Galavant is not about King Arthur, but it is clearly heavily influenced by Arthurian legend – as well as the legends of Robin Hood – and by the musical Camelot in particular.
If You’re Looking for… Comedy
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
You knew this one would be on the list. This is not just the best comedy about King Arthur, it is probably one of the best comedy films of all time. Surreal, hilarious, and endlessly quotable – if you have not yet seen it, watch it now before all the jokes are ruined by their endless repetition from everyone around you.
The biggest problem with this film is that it does make it quite hard to take anything else on this list seriously. Films that came out before it, like Camelot or Lancelot du Lac, are directly parodied, and even films that came out after it, like Excalibur, play into tropes that were already mercilessly mocked by the Pythons – you know a man in super shiny armour must be a king because he hasn’t got shit all over him…
See also: Sam Raimi’s third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness, is a time travel horror comedy which brings Ash to a medieval England ruled by King Arthur in one of the most fun entries in Raimi’s Evil Dead series (depending on which version you’re watching).