The Arthurian cycle of legends has been favored movie fodder for decades. Arthurian movies became popular in the 50s because the settings and costumes looked great in Technicolor, but tended to emphasise the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot with young, handsome male stars like Robert Taylor being cast as Lancelot, overshadowing the actor cast as King Arthur.
All that changed drastically in 1967 when the film version of Camelot was released, and Richard Harris brought his definitive version of Arthur to the screen. Even against Franco Nero’s ridiculously good looking Lancelot, Harris’s Arthur shone out as a luminously sympathetic and intensely human portrayal, as well as a very attractive man who could charm Guinevere in his own right.
Harris’ reign as the best screen Arthur continued unchallenged even with the release of John Boorman’s Excalibur 15 years later. Boorman chose Nigel Terry, a plainer and less charismatic man, to play Arthur alongside the completely forgettable Nicolas Clay as Lancelot and Cherie Lunghi as Guinevere. But all eyes were on the stunning Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fey.
It seemed that once again the role of King Arthur was secondary to the romantic hero Lancelot. But then the 90s turned things around again, and Sean Connery took on the role of Arthur opposite Richard Gere’s Lancelot in First Knight. Here was an Arthur who could seriously challenge Richard Harris. Although much older than any one screen portrayal of Arthur to date, Connery’s marvellous male charisma made Gere’s Lancelot look decidedly second best. He reprised his turn as King Arthur in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.
Some very forgettable Arthurs followed, such as Edward Fox in the 1997 movie Prince Valiant, Paul Curran in the mini-series Merlin (battling to be noticed against Sam Neill as Merlin), and Edward Atterton in the mini series Mists of Avalon, which concentrated on the women of Camelot anyway.
In the new century, the time was ripe for a new actor to lay claim to this elusive cinematic crown. The contender was Clive Owen in a decidedly different version of the legend in the 2004 movie King Arthur. It wasn’t the first time the attempt was made to strip the myth of its magical components and slot it into factual history, but Arthur as a Roman Briton was intriguing. Writer David Franzoni dispensed with the Lancelot/Guinevere subplot as well, and it would have worked if there had been some chemistry between Owen and his feisty Guinevere (Keira Knightley). But he did make an impressive Arthur.
To sum up, the definitive, iconic movie King Arthur probably hasn’t appeared yet. Richard Harris is the closest thing to the perfect screen King Arthur, but the fact that Camelot is a musical puts many people off of enjoying his portrayal. Sean Connery is a strong runner up, but let’s face it, it is unlikely that Arthur, if he ever did exist, lived that long. That leaves Clive Owen as the strongest modern contender as an Arthur who is hunky and intriguing - but who just doesn't have that vital spark with Guinevere.