Critical Essays A Guide to Arthurian Films


Excalibur (1981)

Directed by John Boorman; Screenplay by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg; Featuring Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Nicol Williamson (Merlyn), Nigel Terry (King Arthur), Cherie Lunghi (Guenever), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Robert Addie (Mordred), Liam Neeson (Gawaine), Paul Geoffrey (Perceval), and Patrick Stewart (Leondegrance).

Before the action of Excalibur begins, the viewer sees a title reading, "The Dark Ages. The land was divided, without a king. Out of these lost centuries rose a legend . . . Of the sorcerer, Merlin . . . Of the coming of a king . . . And of the sword of power . . . Excalibur." The sword of power being given prominence here (as well as the title of the film) reflects Boorman's overall vision of the legend: His film is a dark, somber, and often violent one, where passions run unrestrained and where power is sought and bargained for at great costs. Unlike White, who often opts for gentle irony and domestic touches, Boorman tells the story as a full epic, replete with dazzling costumes, operatic music, and battle scenes reminiscent of the Biblical films of the 1950s. If his version of the Arthurian legend sometimes lacks the sense that its characters are humans with feet of clay, it compensates for this by making them archetypes of lust (Uther), beauty (Guenever), evil (Morgana), temptation (Lancelot), saintliness (Perceval), wisdom (Merlin), avarice (Mordred), and nobility (Arthur). Boorman's arranging of scenes in which these characters interact and clash continually reinforces his theme of the human lust for power.

While The Sword in the Stone begins with Arthur as a boy, Excalibur first tells the story of Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father who conceives him during a night of deceptive love with Igraine, Cornwall's wife. (This is where Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur begins.) Boorman stresses the strength of Uther's lust: After making peace with Cornwall and uniting the land under his kingship, he is ready to forsake all he has won for a single night with his new ally's wife. He calls upon Merlin to transform him into the likeness of her husband so that she will not know she is being tricked — a proposition to which Merlyn agrees, provided that "the issue" of Uther's lust shall be his. After Arthur is born, however, Uther attempts to renege on his promise and love his infant son, but Merlin rips the baby from Igraine's arms. As in White, Merlin knows the future and has made this particular bargain to restore peace to the land; he attempted to do this with Uther, but the king's passions made him rekindle the very fires that Excalibur (the sword given to him by Merlin) helped him extinguish. Only Merlin, who proves himself a humanitarian concerned with the restoration of order, can help undo the damage caused by Arthur's father.

Boorman's Arthur shares many of the qualities of White's protagonist. As a boy, he is naive and nervous; after he discovers his destiny as king he is embarrassed by Ector's and Kay's falling prostrate before him. When warned by Merlin of Guenever's future treachery, Arthur refuses to heed his tutor's words, provoking the magician to remark, "Love is deaf as well as blind." As a king forced to face the adultery of Lancelot and Guenever, he must (as he is in The Candle in the Wind) let his own law be tested on whom he calls, "The two people I love most." When Guenever asks him to champion her and he refuses on the grounds that he must act as judge, he explains, "My laws must bind everyone, high and low, or they are not laws at all." When she counters this with, "You are my husband," he replies, "I must be King, first." Like his novelistic counterpart, Arthur is pained yet trapped in the snares of his own law, and Lancelot's rescue of Guenever from shame relieves the king as it does in White's novel.

As Lancelot, Nicholas Clay strikes a handsome figure, unlike the less-than-perfect Lancelot of The Ill-Made Knight. Both Boorman and White, however, stress Lancelot's absence from the Round Table as a means for him to avoid his own desires; as White remarks in The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot's quests "were his struggles to save his honor, not to establish it." Lancelot's longing for Guenever is repeatedly shown to the viewer through many shots of his pining away in the forest, looking out at the castle where his true love dwells; Guenever eventually meets Lancelot in the forest to consummate their affair. This pastoral paradise is toppled, however, by Arthur's discovery of them, naked and asleep in a grove. He raises Excalibur — but rather than sinking it into Lancelot's heart, he plunges the sword into the earth. When the lovers awake they know exactly Arthur's message: "The king without a sword," Lancelot exclaims. "The land without a king!" Boorman implies that Lancelot and Guenever's betrayal of Arthur has opened wide the door for evil to enter Camelot — and it is at this point in the film that Morgana seduces her brother by transforming herself into the likeness of Guenever. Her using the same spell as Uther used to lie with her mother suggests the truth of what Merlin remarks early in the film: "It is the doom of men that they forget." Deception, like history, repeats itself.

Mordred is as sarcastic and spoiled in Excalibur as he is in The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. Born during a thunderstorm while his mother labors under the pain of her own evil, he is next shown as a giggling and malicious boy who leads Perceval to a tree where Arthur's other knights hang from nooses, with birds pecking at their faces. As a young man, he threatens his father, who is weakened from the collapse of his kingdom and the inability of his knights to find the Grail, with revolution. His father's plea, "I cannot give you the land — only my love" is met with, "That's the one thing of yours I don't want!" In White's novels, Mordred's evil is somewhat explained by the novelist's portrayal of Morgause, whose demanding yet distant nature makes her sons go to terrible extremes to win her approval; Boorman's Mordred is motivated by his quest for power. One of the only things the viewer hears him say to his mother is, "When will I be king?"

Ultimately, Boorman's film, like The Candle in the Wind, ends in triumph. As White's Arthur reviews his life the night before his death, Boorman's Arthur regains his strength (through the help of the Grail) and realizes that for much of his life, he has "been living through other people." He reconciles with Guenever (who has taken holy orders) and tells her, "I was not born to live a man's life, but to be the stuff of future memory." Guenever then restores Excalibur (which she has kept for many years) to Arthur's hand. Like White's Arthur, who hopes for a day "when he would come back to Graymarre with a new Round Table," Boorman's Arthur explains, "The fellowship was a brief beginning — a fair time that cannot be forgotten. And because it will not be forgotten, that fair time may come again." Although he meets his death soon after this pronouncement (in a graphic duel with Mordred), this cinematic Arthur remains more like a superhero than White's simple "man who meant well." His final voyage to Avalon, in the hands of the three queens, is inspiring, as the mist rises and the viewer (like Perceval, the only living witness) wonders when the glory of the Round Table will return to the "modern," Mordred-stricken world.

Camelot (1967)

Directed by Joshua Logan; Based on the stage play by Lana Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe; Featuring Richard Harris (King Arthur), Vanessa Redgrave (Guenever), Franco Nero (Lancelot), David Hemmings (Mordred), and Lionel Jeffries (King Pellinore).

1960 marked the year of Camelot's premiere on the Broadway stage; Lerner and Lowe's lavish musical proved to be as much of a success as their other works, My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. Starring Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenever, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot, the play ran for over 900 performances and earned two Tony awards. The play's title also came to be associated with the Kennedy White House and many people who had not even seen the play knew the refrain, "Cam-e-lot! Cam-e-lot!" In 1967, Joshua Logan directed the film version, an equally spectacular production starring Richard Harris as Arthur, Vanessa Redgrave as Guenever, and Franco Nero as Lancelot. Unlike Excalibur, with its violent battle scenes, dark tone, and largely pessimistic slant on the legend, Camelot often takes comic turns and ends long before Arthur's death. As Excalibur is named for the sword symbolizing the power that all of the characters struggle to possess, Camelot is named for the place that, although doomed to fall, remains an example of what men can accomplish when they strive for perfection.

Camelot is directly based on White's version of the Arthurian saga and a reader of The Once and Future King will recognize many of the elements of White's novels throughout the film. (Even minor characters such as King Pellinore and Uncle Dap make appearances.) However, Lerner and Lowe trimmed the scope of White's four novels in order to make the love triangle the center of the plot: The action of the film begins with Arthur meeting Guenever and ends the night before his attack on Joyous Gard (Lancelot's castle in France). Merlyn only appears in a few short flashbacks and Mordred, although still a major figure in the second half of the film, does not bring his armies and thrashers to England. The emphasis on Lancelot and Guenever's betrayal heightens the main issue raised in the film (and in the latter volumes of White's series): the struggle of a man to follow his ideals despite the overwhelming threats to them — threats that have originated in his own family and from his own actions.

The king and queen of Camelot are very much like their counterparts in White's novels. Logan and Harris repeatedly stress Arthur's "ordinary" qualities to make him more likable and sympathetic. His first song, "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight," reveals his fear of meeting Guenever and his larger fear of women in general: "You mean the appalling clamoring / That sounds like a blacksmith hammering / Is merely the banging of his royal knees? Please!" Even the world's most famous monarch shakes at the thought of being embarrassed in front of a beautiful woman. When Arthur meets Guenever (on the road to Camelot), he is able to speak with her only because she does not know that he is the King; like Shakespeare's King Henry V, Arthur enjoys momentary anonymity and escaping the burden of his crown. Guenever is introduced as a soon-to-be medieval "trophy wife," protesting that she "won't be bid and bargained for like beads at a bazaar" and asking, in song, "Where Are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?" Her song, however, proves ironic when she asks in it, "Shall two knights never tilt for me / And let their blood be spilt for me?" and "Shall a feud not begin for me?" Like Arthur, she proves endearing to the audience, who already knows the story and is therefore touched by the irony of her naiveté.

An interesting departure from White's version of the myth is Guenever's initial reaction to Lancelot. Unlike many Hollywood love stories, Camelot does not include a scene where the lovers' eyes first meet and lock. Instead, the queen finds Lancelot's pride "overbearing" and his boasting "pretentious": When he brags of his having achieved physical perfection, she remarks, "Tell me, have you jousted with humility lately? Or is humilitie not in fashion in France this year?" When Arthur defends Lancelot on the grounds that "He's a stranger! He's not even English! He's French!" Guenever quips, "Well, he suffers in translation." (Pellinore also shares Guenever's suspicion of Lancelot's high morals when he asks Arthur, "Are you sure he's French?") Her distaste for Lancelot is made into a comic subplot in which she convinces three different knights to defeat Lancelot at an upcoming tournament. When Lancelot predictably defeats the first two, kills the third, and then performs a miracle by resurrecting him, she no longer doubts his holiness and instead becomes fascinated (and enamored) of him.

In both The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, Arthur remains willfully (and consciously) ignorant of Guenever's adultery for as long as he can sustain his own fantasy. White offers the reader a number of scenes in which Arthur hopes to "weather the trouble by refusing to become conscious of it." Camelot's Arthur shares a similar attitude, expressed after he knights Lancelot without any joy and sees his best knight looking nervously at the queen. Like Hamlet, Arthur wanders the castle in a state of melancholy — and again like that Danish prince, he engages in a soliloquy, which begins in one emotional state — "I love them, and they answer me with pain and torment. Be it sin or not sin, they have betrayed me in their hearts and that's far sin enough . . . They must pay for it" — but concludes in quite another: "I'm a king, not a man, and a very civilized king. Could it possibly be civilized to destroy the thing I love? Could it possibly be civilized to love myself above all?"

What Arthur has done here is move from a wicked desire for revenge (which he later calls "the most worthless of causes") to a state of godliness. Arthur's God (of the Old Testament) proclaimed, "Vengeance is mine," and by forsaking the desire for vengeance and replacing it with a resolution to bring civilization to a people very much like himself, Arthur has proven himself better than his troubles.

After Arthur formulates this resolution, Camelot continues with the arrival of Mordred (who prompts Arthur to state, "The adage that 'blood is thicker than water' was invented by undeserving relatives"). Arthur's son accuses Guenever, and the queen is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. As he does in The Candle in the Wind, Mordred mocks his father's ideas of "justice" and raises the thorny legal issues that are such a large part of that novel: "Why not pardon her? But you can't do that, can you? Let her die — your life is over. Let her live — your life's a fraud. Kill the queen or kill the law." As in The Candle in the Wind, Guenever's rescue by Lancelot provokes Arthur into war but simultaneously spares him the pain of having to watch his wife burned at the stake.

Camelot concludes with a final meeting of the three main characters before Arthur's attack on Joyous Gard. Lancelot and Guenever beg Arthur to take them back, but he refuses on the grounds that "the Table is dead." Arthur knows that his idea "exists no more" now that Lancelot and Guenever have begun a chain of events that have resulted in Arthur's knights "cheerful to be at war" and "those old uncivilized ways" that they "tried to put asleep forever" come back again. Arthur does not scorn them, however, but accepts the collapse of his dream as inevitable: He clasps Lancelot's hand firmly before he leaves and says "Goodbye, my love" to Guenever as she returns to her life as a Holy Sister. Arthur is at his lowest point — until, as in The Candle in the Wind, a young page named Tom Malory approaches Arthur and tells him that he wants to be a knight. The mood of the king — and of the film — changes, as Arthur realizes that his attempt to use "Might for Right" need not have been in vain, as long as someone records what he has done to inspire future generations. Like himself, Tom Malory is "one of what we all are: Less than a drop in the great blue motion of sunlit sea, but it seems that some of the drops sparkle."

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman; Screenplay by Bill Peet, based on T.H. White's novel; Featuring the voices of Rickie Sorensen (the Wart), Norman Alden (Kay), Sebastian Cabot (Sir Ector), Junius Matthews (Archimedes), and Karl Swenson (Merlyn).

The combination of Wolfgang Reitherman (who served as animation director for Disney's Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan) and Bill Peet (who wrote the screenplays of 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, and Cinderella) give their animated version of The Sword in the Stone the unmistakable Disney stamp. The film features songs, adventures in the woods, and a doe-eyed hero who (like Cinderella and Dumbo) overcomes adversity to prove triumphant at the film's end. While White's novel is presented in a much-simplified form, the film ultimately serves as a good introduction to its central issue — the value of education.

The familiar characters from White's novel all appear in this film, albeit in simplified versions in which their primary traits are exaggerated. The Wart is a feckless and scrawny twelve-year-old boy who maintains the same innocence that marked him in White's novel. Merlin, although still the Wart's tutor, is more bumbling and close to the cliched version of a wizard, casting spells that sound like gibberish ("Hockety Pockety Wockety Wack, / Abara Dabara Cabara Dack!") and getting his beard caught wherever it lands. Archimedes (Merlyn's owl) is a caricature of a know-it-all schoolmaster, constantly annoyed at his master and saying things like, "Pinfeathers!" The greatest departure in character lies in Sir Ector and Kay, who in this version resemble Cinderella's wicked stepsisters more than the two gruff (but ultimately good) figures that comprise Wart's adopted family in the novel. (The fact that they both have red hair while the Wart's is blonde stresses their difference in character from the kindhearted boy.) Much of what motivates the Wart, in fact, is proving his worth to these two overbearing figures. (The entire Robin Wood episode does not appear in the film, most likely so that Reitherman could keep its plot simple enough to grab young viewers.)

As in White's novel, Merlyn does transform the Wart into different animals; while these political science lessons-in-disguise make up a large part of the novel, however, the film only treats the Wart's transformation into three animals. The first is (as in the novel) a perch and although the Wart does not meet an animated version of Mr. P., he does get chased by a gigantic pike. As he swims in and out of weeds, trying to avoid being eaten, Merlyn sings a song about using your intellect. Merlyn's point here is that the Wart must use his brains instead of his brawn (which does not amount to much in the first place); after hearing the song, the Wart jams the pike's mouth open with a stick and swims to safety. Thus, his lesson was not an overtly political one, but rather one about the overall value of thinking.

The film then departs from White's novel by having Merlin transform the Wart into a squirrel. The wizard's logic in doing so is that the squirrel is "a tiny creature with enormous problems" and can therefore demonstrate to the boy how an alert mind (and agile feet) can help one stay alive. This sequence, however, soon becomes one played almost wholly for laughs when a female squirrel approaches the Wart and begins flirting with him in her chattering squirrel-talk. As the Wart runs from her advances, Merlin sings about the incomprehensibility of love.

After they change back into people, Merlin tells the Wart that love is stronger than gravity and "the greatest force on earth." No mention, however, is made of Guenever (or even marriage in general), again probably to keep the plot as simple as possible for a young audience.

The final transformation shown in the film is one in which the Wart becomes not a hawk or wild goose, but a sparrow. Archimedes teaches the boy to fly, which he does very well until he wanders into the cottage of Madam Mim, a mad and hideous sorceress appearing in the first version of The Sword in the Stone (before he revised it as part of The Once and Future King). Merlyn attempts to rescue the Wart, but is instead challenged by Madam Mim to a wizard's duel in which (in true cartoon fashion) she and Merlyn transform into a number of creatures. Merlyn finally wins the contest when he turns himself into a germ and gives Madam Mim an unpronounceable (yet not deadly) disease. Merlyn tells the Wart that the duel "was worth it if you learned something from it," and its lesson was clear: Merlyn played only defensivelyfor example, turning himself into a mouse after Madam Mim turned herself into an elephant. The fact that Merlyn won the duel as a creature no bigger than a germ again presses home the idea (central to White's entire series) that might is not always right.

The film ends in the same way as the novel: The Wart forgets Kay's sword at the London tournament and pulls the sword from the stone in order to cover his mistake. One difference is that the novel spans approximately seven years (making the Wart become King Arthur at 17 or 18 years of age), while the film spans less than a year — the Wart is still the Wart at the end of the film, sitting on a throne with his feet dangling in the air and his crown too large for his head. (Reitherman's reason for keeping the Wart a boy at the film's end may have to do with his wanting a younger audience to still identify with the Wart when he becomes King Arthur.) Regardless of these minor changes, the film presents a distilled version of the novels' main theme in a very palatable and direct manner.

First Knight (1995)

Directed by Jerry Zucker; Screenplay by Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, and William Nicholson; Featuring Richard Gere (Lancelot), Sean Connery (King Arthur), Julia Ormond (Guenever), and Ben Cross (Prince Malagant).

While other film versions of the Arthurian saga attempt to reshape parts of the myth to further the issues explored by their directors, First Knight is different in its drastic alteration of several main parts of the plot. Mordred, for example, never appears (or even exists) and his father is killed in a battle with Prince Malagant (the film's land-grabbing villain) instead by his evil son. Arthur is an old, lonely man when he meets and weds Guenever — who herself has a degree of political power as the Lady of Lionesse. First Knight's greatest departure from the myth, however, is its portrayal of Lancelot — instead of the conscience-stricken and suffering "ill-made knight" of both Malory and White's books, he behaves like a very cynical and modern man, pursuing Guenever without any initial cares about breaking his allegiances to Arthur or the Round Table. (He is not even French.) This is not to say that First Knight is a bad film, but simply that Jerry Zucker (its director) was interested in presenting a new, modern "spin" on the Arthurian love triangle.

Richard Gere plays Lancelot as a wisecracking and medieval version of a contemporary action-hero. In his first scene, he challenges anyone in a town square to duel with him for money; he defeats all comers by literally making their swords leap out of their hands. When a defeated opponent asks him his secret, Lancelot says, "You have to not care whether you live or die." Dueling for money is a most unchivalrous act, but Lancelot cares nothing for chivalry or status: After he saves Guenever from an ambush by Prince Malagant, he tells her that he would have rescued her as fast as if she were a dairymaid. When he meets her again, at a festival at Camelot, he runs the gauntlet (a deadly obstacle course with flying medicine balls, axes, and swords) in order to win a kiss from her — which he then refuses on the grounds that he "dare not kiss so lovely a lady." Like a leading man from any number of Hollywood romances, this Lancelot knows exactly what to say in order to convince even a queen that she wants to be with him. He brags that he has no master and does as he pleases — which is completely unlike his suffering and guilt-ridden counterpart in The Ill-Made Knight. Even King Arthur only receives the slightest of nods from Lancelot when the two are first introduced.

Guenever originally approaches her marriage as a political solution: Her village of Lionesse will soon be invaded by the marauding Prince Malagant and she thinks that marrying King Arthur will help her people gain the military protection they will need. Thus, she is not a helpless or confused young girl but is, like Lancelot, a very modern person with a clear idea of how politics work.

The fact that Sean Connery plays King Arthur lends an amount of gravity and charm to the part. He is older than one would expect King Arthur to be at the time of his wedding to Guenever, but what he lacks in youth he makes up for in stateliness and dignity: He tells Guenever that Camelot will still protect Lionesse even if she does not marry him. When Guenever responds that she does, in fact, want to be his wife, he asks her to honor the king, but love the man. His desire to marry is grounded partly in the loneliness that any King must feel as he is surrounded by people, few of which can speak freely to him.

Thus the three points of the love triangle are established, although how they begin to intersect is First Knight's chief novelty. When Lancelot is invited by King Arthur to join the Round Table, Guenever speaks for him, saying that Lancelot is a free spirit and should be allowed to leave Camelot and "be free, with our love." However, Lancelot knows that she is saying this in order to keep him away from her (and thus removed as a temptation) — so he accepts King Arthur's offer, only as a means to get closer to Guenever. His knighting and pledges to his fellow knights ("Brother to brother, yours in life and death") therefore ring hollow, because Lancelot is speaking them to deceive everyone except Guenever, who knows exactly what he is doing.

Lancelot is not, however, only a wolf. The viewer learns that his cynicism and lack of genuine respect for the Round Table (or any institution other than himself) is the result of his childhood, during which he saw his family burned to death by attacking warlords as they hid in a church. As a result, Lancelot has nothing to lose and no set of beliefs. He lives according to chance and pursues Guenever simply because he wants her — and knows that she wants him. Luckily (for all involved), he and Guenever never physically consummate their love — they are caught in an embrace, by Arthur, who (through his behavior when threatened by Malagant) eventually inspires Lancelot to examine his own mercenary heart and recognize the value of defending a set of beliefs. The film therefore becomes the story of how this hard-edged and politically neutral man begins to believe in the ideals of the man that he originally wanted to betray. The Ill-Made Knight repeatedly stresses the fact that all three members of the love triangle love the other two equally; here, there is no great love between Arthur and Lancelot until the film's conclusion, at which time Lancelot is named "first knight" by the dying king. Watching Arthur's casket as it floats away, Lancelot raises his sword in a gesture of salute. Arthur has taught him, through his example, the credo that he has painted on the Round Table: "In serving each other, we become free." Lancelot is finally free of a life of detachment because Arthur has taught him about the value of service, sacrifice, and fighting for something higher than oneself — or one's own desires. Lancelot will become King after the film ends, making First Knight, like The Sword in the Stone, a story of transformation — in this case, from a cynic to a hero.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; Screenplay by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; Featuring Graham Chapman (King Arthur), John Cleese (Lancelot), Eric Idle (Robin), Terry Jones (Bedevere), and Michael Palin (Galahad)

Parody is the art of imitating an existing literary (or other artistic) form. Notable literary parodies include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Film is an art form that has greatly lent itself to parodists: Some famous examples of film parody are' Young Frankenstein,' Airplane!, Austin Powers, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which stands as one of the most popular parodies of all time. Part of the film's appeal lies in its skewering the clichés of knighthood and chivalry that are familiar to many viewers through their reading of Malory and White. While a student of Arthurian legend will not learn any of "the official story" from this film, he or she will definitely learn about the conventions of knighthood through they ways in which they are parodied by the Python troupe.

The world of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one that looks vaguely medieval (there are knights, kings, battles, lots of mud) but also surreal. Arthur and his knights do not ride horses, but instead skip while their servants bang two coconut halves in rhythm. God appears in the sky as a purposefully cheap-looking piece of animation and tells the knights to stop groveling ("Every time I try to talk to someone it's sorry this and forgive me that and I'm not worthy") before he tells them to search for the Grail. The film stops, rather than concludes, when a team of twentieth-century policemen finally catches up with Lancelot, who earlier in the film kills a "noted historian" as he explains Arthur's predicament to the audience. This combination of earnest, questing knights and an illogical and silly world is what gives the film much of its comedy.

Other laughs occur as a result of the Python troupe's ability to parody Arthurian legends. For example, the bravery knights are supposed to possess is constantly used as the basis for jokes. When the Black Knight fights Arthur for the right to cross a bridge, Arthur hacks off the Black Knight's arm — but the Black Knight keeps fighting, claiming his injury "'tis but a scratch." Arthur then proceeds to cut off the Black Knight's remaining arm — and both of his legs — while his adversary constantly says things like, "I've had worse!" and "Come on, you pansy!" The Black Knight's opposite is found in Sir Robin, a knight who (throughout the film) flees from danger, causing his minstrels to sing of his cowardice. King Arthur's most often-heard charge in the film is not, "Attack!" or "Defend the Round Table," but "Run away! Run away!"

Another source of parody is the knights' actual discovery of the Grail. To find it, they must first receive directions from a wizard named Tim — who tells them that they will have to enter the Cave of Caerbannog — a cave guarded by "a creature so foul" that the bones of "full fifty men lie strewn about its lair." When the knights arrive at the cave and learn that the creature described by Tim is a white rabbit, they are as surprised as the viewer. However, in the world of Monty Python, jokes come unexpectedly, and the rabbit leaps from knight to knight, ripping their heads off in a bloodbath so excessive and gory that it parodies both the traditional battles against dragons as well as other films which attempt to portray the violence of the Middle Ages in a "realistic" fashion. (The rabbit is killed not by Excalibur or a similarly "noble" weapon, but instead by the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.) When the knights finally see the Grail, on the other side of a bridge, they must answer the riddles of the bridgekeeper — a parody of Perceval's test in Malory. However, instead of being asked, "What is the secret of the Grail?" the knights are asked, "What is your favorite color?" — and some even manage to answer incorrectly.

Fans of the television show Monty Python's Flying Circus will recognize the fast and argumentative dialogue — over a presumably gruesome topic — as a Python trademark. More black humor occurs when Lancelot attempts to save a "maiden in distress" from a forced marriage: arriving at the reception, he kills so many of the guests in such a short amount of time that they effect is humorous instead of shocking. The violence found in Le Morte D'Arthur, The Once and Future King, and other works of Arthurian literature is exaggerated, making it more ridiculous than noble.

Throughout their film, the Python troupe obviously has no intention to offer its viewers any sort of moral instruction or debate about the rigors of knighthood. However, their enthusiasm for Arthurian legends is apparent in every scene, because only people who intensely loved the stories in the first place can know them well enough to parody them so effectively.