TBT: Knights of the Round Table (1953)


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.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

Robert Taylor as Lancelot.

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 Knights of the Round Table (1953)

White weddings weren’t totally a thing pre-Queen Victoria in the 19th century, though there’s some reports of royal brides wearing cloth of silver.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953) The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

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.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

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.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

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.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)
The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

Once you see it, you won’t unsee it.

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:

Early 15th-c. - Bible Historiale

Early 15th-c. – Bible Historiale

The Knights of the Round Table (1953). Photo by Almay.

Photo by Almay.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

Someone online cropped a larger pic, which helps show the princess seams, bullet bra, & sewn-in surcote.

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.

1405-09 - The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, at the Met Museum

1405-09 – The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, at the Met Museum

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.

1474-79 - Detail from the St. John Altarpiece by Hans Memling

1474-79 – Detail from the St. John Altarpiece by Hans Memling

Screwy surcotes aside, most of Guinevere’s gowns are pretty.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953). Photo by Almay.

Photo by Almay.

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.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

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!

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

I spy bullet bras.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

But I can’t get over how nice all those dagged sleeves are.

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.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)

This movie does sometimes put wimples on the ladies, at least.

But I’m impressed that they had a repro of the Lewis chess set!

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)
Lewis chess pieces. Photo by Trystan L. Bass.

Photo I took of some of the chess pieces on display at the British Museum.

Also, the music and dancing throughout the movie is a decent approximation of medieval styles. Not perfect, but better than I’d expected.

The Knights of the Round Table (1953)



Have you seen Knights of the Round Table? What do you think about 1950s medieval movies?

15 Responses

        • Karena333

          I have to admit that I love most of the costumes in this film. It seems relatively accurate for 1950s medieval.
          But I can’t locate the first film review in this medieval trilogy (was it on Ivanhoe or on Quentin Dunward?) Help on finding it is appreciated!

  1. damnitz

    I have to admit that I love all the colour of that classic. Mr. Taylor just is the perfect Lancelot and Mel Ferrer a somehow not really clever king Artus which maybe reflects his character quiet well. I prefer this film over more recent productions like “The outlaw king” or “The last duel” with all those knights with dirty armour and hairstyles which are not really more historical then in the good old times… ;-)

    • Aino

      Hehe, it’s always a bit difficult to adapt the Arthurian mythos into visual media, as the legends are originally from the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages but the most famous versions of it are from the 15th century, meaning that people always connect king Arthur with late Medieval longswords, heavy armors and stone castles. I have seen only two, and I repeat only two adaptations that had a general idea of the original time period. And those two were a Donald Duck comic and a Finnish children’s book with antropomorphic animals (God bless Mauri Kunnas and his historical research).

      That being said, it is funny how Hollywood manages to find new ways of failing historical costumes and looks. In the older movies it is the blatantly 50s and 60s make up that irks me most. However, at least those movies had COLORS. I don’t know who decided to start telling costume designers that everyone wore ugly grey and brown robes. Not to mention that darned “medieval filter” that makes everyone and everything look more or less grey and miserable.

  2. Monabel

    In defense of the striped surcote, I think it probably is properly aligned, but it is full enough that the fold makes it look wrong?

  3. Sharon in Scotland

    I’m sure they used the Lewis chess set in “Ivanhoe” as well

  4. Janet

    At least, back in the day, Hollywood “knew”/showed the Medieval period to be much more Historical colourful, than they do these days. Especially the high & mighty were extremely fond of showing off their wealth and their allegiance in a riot of colours. Which most of us today would call “garish”. I wish Hollywood would stop with making history look much more “dull” than it really was.
    Plus they seem to have been far more capable, then these days, at arming their knights & horses in the proper “kit” 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻.

  5. Kathleen Norvell

    I saw this film as a child, but now I’m pretty impressed with the costumes. When I was starting out as an historical costumer, back in the early 1970s, one of the most available medieval costuming books, whose title thankfully escapes me, did show sideless surcotes as one-piece, bicolored dresses! Luckily, I found Herbert Norris’s series shortly afterward. At the time, the best reference around.

    • ED

      This film is such a classic “Olde Englishe Fantasye” film that my only serious reservation with the various costumes is that they didn’t bother to use any of the ‘Attributed Arms’ of the diverse kings, nobles and knights.


      In all fairness, neither does anyone else.

      On a more serious note, I’m reasonably sure that Ms. Ava Gardner spent much of this film thinking “I’m a Morgan, not a Guinevere dagnabit!” (Fun Fact: Ms. Gardner was apparently a personal friend of Mr Robert Graves – I’ve been wondering what a Livia Drusilla as-played-by-Ava Gardner might have looked like ever since).

  6. ED

    I have a definite soft spot for this film – with it’s very decent, but painfully adequate Arthur, delightfully scheming Morgan & Merlin, immense sense of Chivalry and (By far the best thing about the film) a score from the Mighty Miklos Rosza so memorable I started chanting “DAN-dan-DAN-da-da!” in delight the moment I saw the title for this article.

    But then I have a weakness for FIRST KNIGHT as well, so my taste in Arthuriana may be suspect.

    • Lily Lotus Rose

      ED, I join you in your weakness for First Knight. I readily admit that I will at least pay attention to all Arthurian tales, even if they turn out to be dumb ones!


Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.