The Spaceman and King Arthur

Walt Disney Productions, 1979

Screenplay by Don Tait
Directed by Russ Mayberry


reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

I vaguely remembered this film from its original release. Not that I saw it at the time. Copies of the comic Mickey Mouse made their way into the classroom when it rained during morning break, and some of these included an adaptation of the film. I was never really impressed by Disney when I was a child and I suspect that the visit of a miniature space shuttle to Arthur's Britain would have struck me as heretical. Nevertheless, when I saw that The Spaceman and King Arthur was being shown on television, my interest was kindled, and when the credit "Based upon A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain" appeared upon the screen, I realized that in order to maintain my track record (having surveyed the 1949 Bing Crosby film musical in Hilary 1991, and the stage musical last Michaelmas) I had to review it for Ceridwen's Cauldron...

This is an adaptation at several removes and it is probably better to view the film as a Disneyfication of the Arthurian legend, coated in saccharin "period" detail, which borrows some of its characters and its Arthurian setting from earlier interpretations of Mark Twain's book. Hank Morgan, the original protagonist, is here replaced by NASA scientist Tom Trimble, transferred in the pre-credits sequence from transcendental meditation to robotics. The studio's perception of the legacy of Star Wars is clear - the 'family movie' must now include spaceships and robots, the automaton in the film being a double of the hero for what must have been assumed to be good measure. Unfortunately, the special effects are not up to the job: Tom (played by Dennis Dugan) is supposedly under threat of incineration at one point from what looks like a garden fire lit on a rainy day.

The court of King Arthur would appear to be a modest one, with very few voices heard. Of the knights only Sir Gawain and Sir Mordred appear, save for a Churchillian character whose appearance leads one to suspect that the makers of the film had trouble differentiating between the modern Britain in which they made the picture, and the mediaeval setting. Regarding the knights, Sir Gawain is played in a Sergeant Wilson-like way by John le Mesurier: the last representative of Camelot's Home Guard, perhaps. Mordred - never described in the film as Arthur's son, for this is a Disney film and awkward questions just do not exist - is Jim Dale, an amiable enough manifestation of evil, clad in black with unkempt hair. Dale's slapstick performances in the fight scenes make me speculate about a hypothetical Carry On Camelot - perhaps Kenneth Williams could have been as definitive a King Arthur as he was a Julius Caesar. As it is, Kenneth More represents Arthur as a standard stiff-upper-lip English figure, with occasional glimpses of wry humour.

If there is any satirical content in the film, it is painted with a soft-bristled brush. As is usual with other Twain-inspired productions, Merlin is a confidence trickster whose 'magic' is no match for the expertise of the newcomer. However, that is that, and while in Twain's version it is eventually Merlin who outwits the American 'Boss' who presumptuously dismissed the capabilities and virtues of the sixth century, Merlin and Mordred are foiled in their coup attempt and Arthur's kingdom is saved. There are poor jibes against British unfamiliarity with American ways, of the "It's from his Uncle Sam" variety, and however stupid the all-American hero might seem, his schemes work and he is eventually awarded a seat at the Round Table, even though his precursor in the book "couldn't have enjoyed such a thing with (his) notions".

How does The Spaceman and King Arthur fare as a contribution to the Arthurian legend as a whole? Its depiction of Camelot fails to compete with either Excalibur or Mark Twain's decadent splendour; instead, we have a dreary outer bailey and ruined walls from what I assumed to be the Department of the Environment's 'B' list of locations, although it was apparently the sturdy Alnwick Castle that was used. These are scarcely rivalled by the cheap sets. It is difficult to imagine any child who saw the fim becoming inspired to explore the realms of Arthur further. Admittedly, this was hardly the point. Disney probably had the option to make a film in Britain, needed a safe subject and wished to inclued the space age trappings they thought would appeal to youngsters. Nevertheless, as with so many attempts to adapt A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, an opportunity was missed. As childish fun, its connection with Twain probably inhibits it; as an interpretation of the book, it has barely any claim to recognition at all.

Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 29, Michaelmas 1994.