Tuesday 28 August 2007

The Black Knight (1954) Tay Garnett

One year after Shane, Alan Ladd went from mysterious stranger in a western to mysterious stranger in a mediaeval vigilante film, for want of a better description. I don't know what he was thinking, especially as his accent would have been entirely inappropriate even if everyone else in the cast wasn't actually English, but that fact really makes it obvious. I'll grant that it may not have seemed really weird to hire Fred Williamson as a make up artist because it's 1954 and blaxploitation hadn't come along yet, but Ladd was horrendously miscast and a complete and embarrassing waste of space.

We're in the age of Arthur, but we don't start out at Camelot. We're at the Earl of Yeonil's castle and the wildly melodramatic music highlights the sort of melodramatic story we're in for. The Earl is a fair man, so won't punish swordmaker John for happening to be in love with his daughter and she with him. Instead he sends him away, as a friend, and Sir Ontzlake allows him the prize sword he had been fashioning. Sir Ontzlake's concept is that while some men are born knights, others become them by virtue of fighting for what they believe.

Naturally the moment he heads out, fake Viking raiders with rubber swords, led by the villainous Saracen Sir Palamides, wipe out the castle and the half dozen people who seem to live there, and he's not soon enough back to help. However he can follow them to Camelot and attack them in open court, to find that the man he heard laugh is apparently a mute, and it's only the feast of Pentecost that allows him a three month chance to prove his case or die for the insult. Naturally he becomes the mysterious Black Knight of the title, even though he couldn't swash a buckle in Errol Flynn's company, let alone that of Douglas Fairbanks.

This is a bad film, make no mistake, and Alan Ladd is far from the only reason for it. Even such luminaries as Andre Morell, Patrick Troughton and Peter Cushing can't save the ludicrous material, and with a few notable exceptions I see more authentic costumes every time I go to a Renaissance Festival. I've seen worse fighting scenes, but I've also seen a heck of a lot better, and it's rather obvious that Alan Ladd wasn't involved in any of them. Even in the training scenes, it's unmistakeable that he's only there against rear projection shots with his helmet off, while it's someone else fighting with the helmet down.

The biggest problem is that the film takes forty minutes to set up and there's only as much left to get on with it and come to some sort of conclusion. Ladd is awful, obviously suffering from his own personal demons, but to be fair he has nothing to work with. He has half a film to build up the case for revenge, but then only five minutes to change from nothing but a swordmaker to a skilled warrior, literally one scene building up a reputation and then the last half waiting around for his moment. He also has to be the Black Knight, man of mystery who nobody can identify, even though he's the only man in the kingdom with an American accent. It's all completely ludicrous, and that's before the whole Stonehenge thing, which is beyond painful.

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