THE SWORD IN THE STONE
Directed By: Wolfgang Reitherman
Produced By: Walt Disney
Based On: T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Premiered On: December 25, 1963
Distribution By: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
The last of his animated films to be released prior to his death, Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone is something of a diamond in the rough. While not as easily recognizable as say Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, The Sword in the Stone is nonetheless one of the greater films to have been made during the Golden Age of Disney Animation and is easily one of the most recognized adaptations of Arthurian legends to date.
Our story begins with the film’s opening song, or rather a small poem as I like to think of it.
A legend is sung of when England was young,
And Knight were brave and bold.
The good King had died, and no one could decide
Who was rightful heir to the Throne.
It seemed that the land would be torn by war,
Or saved by a miracle alone –
And what miracle appeared in London town:
The Sword in the Stone…
And there, just beneath the hilt of this fine, miraculous blade, were letters etched in gold: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.”
Unfortunately for England, though many had tried from all walks of life to lift the sword free, none could pull it loose from its place. So it was decided that the miracle was a failure, that the land was well and truly without a king to rule it, and the sword was forgotten as the dark ages continued on.
There was one however, who knew that the Dark Ages would soon come to an end. He knew it as sure as knew of such scientific wonders, nay miracles, would soon come to be though they were far, far ahead of his time. The Dark Ages would end with the arrival of a boy, stumbling head over heels into his abode. A boy whom he was destined to teach and to guide so that this young lad of little strength and equally lesser wit, would grow up to become the most famous king in all of history bar none.
Who was this barmy old man who knew of such devices as electricity, indoor plumbing, flying machines, and motion pictures? A man, nay, a wizard who lived not forwards into time but backwards, aging not was know to age and knowing far more than any ought to know not just of sorcery and fantasy, but of science and fact.
As for the boy, why, his guardians knew him by his real name though rare was the instance they used it. Instead, they called him a name they felt befitting of him and his place in their household, a jeer if not an outright insult.
They named him Wart but it is not the name that the people of England, nay, the entire world would come to know him by. His name is Arthur Pendragon, King of Knights, Lord of Camelot, and wielder of a sword unlike any other to come before or since in the legends of mankind.
The film is one of Disney’s most philosophical of stories, with Merlin turning himself and Arthur into animals to try and install in the boy an education, to try and curb the violent tendencies of this darker era and to guide him to leading his country into an era of peace and prosperity. Of course, he only utilizes magic simply for the fact that he knows that while there is a great spark in Arthur’s heart, the lad is as idolized of the fantasies of violence as most of his people are.
Of course, despite the best of his lessons, involving such things as physics and to rely upon intellect when facing dangerous situations by way of being a fish, gravity and looking before one leaps by way of squirrel, and flight by way of bird. No moral lesson there for the last one, just the sheer joy of flight. Anyway, despite this, Arthur ends up becoming his adopted brother Kay’s squire, much to Merlin’s disappointment. The two have a brief quarrel that results in Merlin accidentally casting himself off to the 20th Century, Bermuda to be precise.
Unfortunately, at the New Year’s Day tournament to decide who shall be the rightful king of England, Arthur accidentally leaves Kay’s sword behind at the inn and desperate for a sword, easily removes the one buried in the stone. There’s a bit of hubbub following this, with none believing that Arthur could so easily pull the sword free and trying themselves a second time thinking the sword can be easily removed now that it had once been freed but no luck. The miracle has been made, decreed as such by heavenly light.
Hail King Arthur, Long Live the King.
Arthur is made King and just in time for Merlin to arrive back from the modern world, now at last recognizing the boy for whom he is intended to be and his place in history. He promises that Arthur will become a great legend that will be featured in books for centuries to come and even a motion picture of two, which he explains is a lot like television but without any commercials.
The Sword in the Stone is one my personal favorites amongst the Golden Age of Disney Animated Films not just for its fantastical retelling of Arthurian legend but for one of the best qualities of animation to come out of the studio at its time. However, despite this fact, The Sword in the Stone is one of the first of the few animated films to come that featured the use of “recycled animation,” which is exactly as it sounds, in a way that is. It is basically the process of using a previous animated segment and recycling it for another scene, in this film’s case Bambi’s mother fleeing in the opening and Kay’s reaction when getting clobbered over the head being a near mirror duplication to when Jasper got his in 101 Dalmatians.
Still, I love this movie and it is to my great regret that I have little to say in comparing it to the original novel simply for the fact that I have yet to read it. All that I can say can be found easily on the Wikipedia article for the original novel so instead I shall play my hand at some interesting Arthurian trivia.
Contrary to popular belief, the Sword in the Stone, as in the actual sword, is not ever once named as Excalibur in the film itself and rightfully so too. It is a common concept in Arthurian legend that Excalibur was given to King Arthur following the loss of the Sword in the Stone that named him as king in the first place. This sword, named Caliburn, is a sword of… decoration rather than an actual weapon insomuch that it, much like King Arthur’s other blade Clarent, was a symbol of authority rather than to be used as a weapon. Caliburn was lost, broken beyond repair, supposedly when King Arthur broke a rule of chivalry.
In the case of Clarent, she was a symbol of peace and primarily utilized as the sword King Arthur used to place upon the shoulders of the righteous, to give unto them their knighthoods. Never meant to match the splendor nor the magnificence of Excalibur, Clarent was nevertheless loved by the people for representing the ideals of peace and equality amongst the people. She was intended as an ornament and never a weapon but a weapon she became in the hands of Mordred the Knight of Treachery, whom stole her as his own and used her to slay his father.
In kind, Arthur used his legendary spear, Rhongomyniad, to lay low his son and herald the end of an Age. It and the dagger Carnwennan, are two of Arthur’s lesser known weapons but no less fantastical in their renown with the dagger having supposedly slew the Black Witch in half with a single toss of its silver blade. Heck, even the scabbard for Excalibur was said to have miraculous powers of its own, able to heal King Arthur to such a degree that even when cut he would not bleed. It would later be stolen by Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgan le Fay, and lost to all of time.
Moving back to the film itself, much like Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone has plenty of momentous songs and only a few true songs of actual length. Regardless, my choice is the song “Higitus Figitus” as sung by Merlin while he packs up his house.
Aside from a fantastic display of magic and visuals, the song is quite similar to the one sung by the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella insomuch that while it is conceived almost entirely of nonsensical words, it is nonetheless quite fun to sing along. I confess, there is often a moment or two where I hum a lyric of two from this song when trying to inspire myself into completing a chore or three.
Overall, I give The Sword in the Stone a solid five out of five. It is solidly a film suitable for all ages with just the right balance of action, comedy, drama, and romance in fair proportions. A child will be wondered by the magic, adults might learn a thing or two with the subtle science lessons, and the fight between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim is one of the best magical duels I’ve ever seen.
Speaking of romance, and in light of the recent celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, there is never been a more heartbreaking romance in a Disney production than what occurs between a squirrel-bodied Arthur and a young female squirrel. In point of fact, the feels for this have been so great that there has been something of a great upset by fans and as many an Internet savvy can relate, when the fanbase gets upset, some serious things start to occur…