The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Arthur, you had one job!
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Hi there, and welcome back to Oof! Right in the Childhood. A podcast where I explore the history and social commentary of the Disney animated feature films. This is the first main feed episode of 2021 and the first episode back from my December hiatus, so before we dive into the actual podcast, there are a few housekeeping things to address.
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All right, on with the show! Today, I’ll be talking about The Sword in the Stone — Arthur, you had one job. This is one of those movies that I never really know the name of. Half of my brain knows it’s The Sword in the Stone, and the other believes it’s The Sword and the Stone. Regardless, I’m pretty sure it’s almost everyone’s first exposure to the King Arthur myth, unless their parents are theatre nerds and start them off with Camelot.
The original book, by T.H. White was written in 1938, and pretty much focuses exclusively on Arthur’s childhood which is mostly ignored by Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur written in 1485. Le Morte D’Arthur is a massive work, comprising seven books and about 800 pages in which Mallory recorded ancient Arthurian legends that he’d translated from 13th century France and compiled with English legends of the same time period.
But, most of Arthur’s legends ignore his boyhood. Basically, we hear about Arthur being born in Chapter 3 of Book 1, and then he pulls a sword out of a stone in Chapter 5, and then he’s the king. Ta-Da!
So T.H. White wanted to fill in the gaps. The thing is, that Le Morte D’Arthur is historical folklore, and The Sword in the Stone is simply a historical fantasy. White knew a bit about medieval culture and history, but just thought it’d be fun to write some stories about King Arthur as a kid because we know nothing about that time.
He also, eventually, wrote three more books which have been compiled into a single volume called the Once and Future King, which was published after White’s death.
Anyway, Walt Disney acquired the rights to The Sword in the Stone in 1938. And every time I see that he acquired something within a couple years of its publishing, I wonder if this man had spies in every publishing house in the world. Like, how did he just happen to find and buy the rights to this book the year it was released? Was he actually magic?
Anyway, I’m sure you can recite it by now, but Walt Disney Productions started working on the movie and then World War II and package films and the Disney reboot, and finally, following the release of 101 Dalmatians, they announced that there were going to be two films in production, The Sword in the Stone and Chanticleer.
The thing was, that Roy and the board of directors weren’t feeling animation any more. They felt, after the abysmal failure of Sleeping Beauty, that it was too high a risk without being able to predict success. Walt never believed that any of his films wouldn’t succeed, so when they lost a ton of money, it was a surprise.
So the board told Walt that, instead of making new animated movies, they should just re-release the ones they had on a regular schedule and turn those profits toward Disneyland and Disney World. Though Walt was starting to lose faith in his beloved animation, he couldn’t bear to stop it altogether. So he decided that only one of the movies would be produced. Chanticleer had less work done on it, so the Sword in the Stone moved forward.
But hey, if you want to see the story of Chanticleer, just watch the Don Bluth film Rock-a-doodle. It was one of my favourites as a kid, and it tells the story pretty well. Maybe, if I can find a copy, I’ll do that for a Patreon bonus episode. Anyone know where I can stream that in Canada? Let me know. I’ll totally bonus episode that up.
Despite Disney saying he’d never use it again, they used the Xerography technique for animation again. I’m pretty sure Roy was standing in the back screaming something about half the price. This time, though, they added a touch-up process that made the animation look less like a story board and more like the traditional animation fans had come to know and love.
The team went through 70 auditions for Merlin before eventually casting someone they already had on the lot. Karl Swenson had been cast for Archimedes, Merlin’s sidekick, but ended up getting recast into the wizard role.
They cast a young actor for Arthur, but as production got delayed, he went through puberty and had to be let go. Instead, they cast the director’s sons, Richard and Robert. I’m going to do some assuming by looking at the only family picture I can find for the Reithermans and the fact that Richard and Robert are only ever mentioned together, I think they were probably twins.
Anyway, that’s like all of the information there is about the production of this movie. Seriously, that’s it.
The film was completed for $3 million or the equivalent of $25.5 million today.
It was released to mixed reviews. Some critics found the storyline too meager, which is a quote from a book published in 1988, but doesn’t say which critics said that. On the other hand, Variety said it really showcased Disney’s ability to create characters and inject imagination and magic into them.
However, box offices were not thrilled with the movie. On its first release in 1963, the film only brought in $4.75 million in domestic box offices which is about $40.4 million today. And though it wasn’t a loss like Sleeping Beauty, it kind of cemented the Disney execs' feelings toward animation. They had poured their heart and soul into this movie, and it didn’t quite flop, but it definitely didn’t make the Olympic team.
Just like all the others, The Sword in the Stone was rereleased into theatres, but we’re getting closer and closer to VHS times, so it only got two rereleases in 1972 and 1983. The total profits made from all those box offices is only $22.2 million which is about $80.4 million today. I guess this is one of those movies that never really took off. I don’t think it’s even included in the Disney Vault. You can just buy the Sword in the Stone anytime you want. The question is, why isn’t it popular?
Well, after this short break, I’ll dive into my reactions watching this movie and we’ll see what I find.
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I feel like this sucker is ripe for the picking because I can remember absolutely nothing bad about this movie. That’s what happens when you don’t watch a movie in 20 years. All the bad things get automatically deleted from your memory. So, I’m ready to ruin my childhood with something I don't remember!
As I watch the credits, I suddenly remembered there are songs in this movie, and I know all the words to “That's What Makes the World Go Round.” I’m starting to think that more of my teachers should have taught me songs for everything I ever needed to know.
As with practically every other movie before it, this starts with a book, but this is a physical book, not an animated one. We got the illuminated manuscripts from Sleeping Beauty again, though.
I do like how this song I forgot existed explains the whole concept of The Sword in the Stone. Like really great exposition within just a couple of minutes.
The start of this movie is a hawk almost killing a squirrel. Because that’s how happy children’s movies start — with the death of a furry animal. See also: 101 Dalmatians before the winter break.
Merlin is getting water from a well and griping about it in exactly the same way I would. Everything’s so complicated. Stupid medieval period!
Archimedes the owl is the grumpiest owl. And that’s saying something. You’d think that, by now, Archimedes would be used to Merlin knowing the future, given the concept of the story, but he's not.
Merlin proceeds to storytell through smoke.
In this version of the story, Kay is a complete jerk to Arthur. In the Arthurian legends, he’s one of Arthur’s most trusted knights who doesn’t sleep with his wife. Slight changes have been made.
Wart proceeds into a dark forest to find a single arrow that would be super simple to replace, but not for Kay the Jerk. He’s stalked by a starving wolf who gets thwarted by happenstance repeatedly then falls from a tree, through Merlin’s roof and into the prepared chair.
He tells Merlin his name is Arthur but everyone calls him Wart. For reasons, I’m sure.
Archimedes is really upset that Arthur thought he was stuffed more than more upset that Arthur’s surprised he talks.
Merlin reveals he’s a magician and prognosticator — he sees the future, but not 100% of the future. He proceeds to just show Arthur a ton of future tech and magic without even worrying about the implications of such while the sugar holder fills his cup with sugar, like he’s taught it to. Then it gets in trouble because that’s how life works.
For my entire life, I’ve wanted to be able to pack like Merlin does in this scene. Hockey, pockety, wockety, wack. Do you know how nicely my storage room would look?
Of course, as with most sorcerers in Disney, it gets a little out of his control at the end, but it’s so cool.
Wart thinks he has no problems. This is why you just keep people uneducated. If they don’t know what being treated well is like, they think this is just how life works.
Ector’s upset at Kay for losing his ward. I think this is probably because Ector knows that Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon and he can’t imagine losing Uther’s kid. Note from future Jen: I explain why this thought was wrong later, but didn’t know what I know now when I wrote this.
He proceeds to make fun of Merlin while constantly calling him the wrong name. Because that’s the right response to having a magician in your hall in the Middle Ages — insult them. Good call, Ector.
“I hope you don’t go in for any of that black magic.” Whelp, I didn’t until you insulted me.
Merlin’s like, “I’m here to provide a free education for your ward,” and Ector’s not having any of it. He won’t be interfering with his packed schedule of doing absolutely nothing.
He puts Merlin into a crumbling tower, and Merlin’s like, “Yep, that looks great,” until it rains. I mean, even to the untrained child’s eye, that tower looks like a terrible idea.
Pellinore rides up with big news from London. Why doesn’t Merlin use his magic to fix this tower? It feels like an easy fix. When Archimedes refuses to fly down in the rain, Merlin threatens to turn him into a human, which seems to be a terrible threat.
They’re having a tournament on New Year’s Day to determine the King of England! I mean, there’s a magical sword that has declared the only way to be King of England is to pull it out of a stone, but what’s wrong with going against the decree of a magical sword? What could go wrong?
Ector and Pellinore decide that the lazy, grumpy Kay will be perfect to win this tournament. Yep, sounds perfect. And Wart can be his squire if he does all his chores perfectly. Kay whines about this, but I mean, who was gonna be his squire otherwise? In a complete separation from real life, this castle seems to be inhabited by exactly 3 people and a wizard.
Merlin’s going to teach Wart by tricking him with magic. As you do.
The next day, walking next to the moat, Arthur is afraid he’s unable to be a knight because he isn’t “of proper birth,” but being born of a king he couldn’t get any more proper. After consulting Archimedes to remember his own spell, Merlin turns Arthur into a fish who doesn’t know he needs to be in the water to, um, live.
Arthur is popped into the water and doesn’t know how to use his fins or swim bladder properly. He looks a lot like me when I try to swim in a video game. Merlin tries to help by suggesting he pretend he’s in a helicopter which is the opposite of helpful.
“Left and right that’s what the world go round.”
This song is a lot about Newtonian physics, but is interrupted by Arthur swallowing a bug. Merlin is as clear about Arthur’s instincts as he is about anything in the real legends. “Oh, yeah, I said you don’t have instinct, but I mean, you have instincts.”
But the song has a good message, though, about not just letting the world define you. You have a choice in how you proceed. And immediately after saying that fish have a lot more to worry about than frogs, they’re set on by a barracuda that is in this moat for reasons.
Merlin won’t help Arthur. He wants him to trick the barracuda into not eating him. You know, since barracuda are salt water fish, this might be a gar. Or it could be, if this were set anywhere in North America instead of England.
While Merlin tries to remember how magic works, Archimedes saves Arthur’s life.
Arthur proceeds to tell Ector and Kay that he was late because a pike almost ate him. Oh, okay, that was a pike. And looking at pictures, those suckers would be scary.
Merlin comes into the kitchens and interrupts Arthur’s work by asking if he’s ever wanted to be a squirrel. Arthur says exactly what I assume almost anyone would, “Um, no? Why would I do that?”
Arthur has all the pots and pans in this region to wash. I mean, there are 3 people in this castle and this room is literally filled with dishes. Where did they all come from? If this is Arthur’s punishment, who normally washes all this? Why haven’t they done it like ever?
Never you mind, Merlin creates a magic dishwasher. If there’s anything we know from Fantasia/the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it’s that nothing could possibly go wrong with leaving magic to clean something unsupervised.
Some time later, they’re already squirrels jumping through the trees, and a girl squirrel is hitting on Arthur hard.
“That’s a girl squirrel, lad, and a redhead at that.” What exactly are you trying to say about redheads, Merlin?
Merlin then informs Arthur that a female squirrel picks a mate for life, and he gets no say in this situation. I mean this would be really sad if true, but a female squirrel will mate with several males during mating season.
A scene proceeds where this female squirrel will not take no for an answer and chases Arthur through the trees repeatedly grabbing him and stopping his progress, and if this was a man and Arthur was a woman it would be disgusting.
And as Merlin is making fun of Arthur for this, another female takes an interest in him and starts to do the same. It seems Merlin does not like being treated as an object. Who knew?
While Merlin’s distracted, Arthur falls from the tree and is put into grasp of the starving wolf again. The lady squirrel proceeds to save his life multiple times before Merlin turns them both into humans again which upsets and scars the two squirrels, and makes them cry. Oof! Right in the childhood.
As they walk away, Merlin says that love is very powerful. Arthur asks if it’s stronger than gravity, and really, yeah, it is.
Meanwhile back at the castle, the cook whom we’ve never seen is screaming out of the kitchen about magic. And okay, if you’re supposed to be in charge of the kitchen, why are there so many dishes? Are you only supposed to wash the ones you absolutely need so Arthur has punishment?
Merlin walks in the chaos that he caused and is really pissy that they’re not super grateful for terrifying them then disappears without helping Arthur. Arthur speaks up for himself for the first time ever, and Kay proposes child abuse to quiet him.
Young Hobbs will be Kay’s squire! Who the crap is Young Hobbs?
After this, Arthur sits in the kitchen alone because his mentor literally abandoned him. Merlin comes back and is like, “I’m going to teach you about everything that you shouldn’t know.” They make a big deal about the world being round, but despite the fact that we’ve been trying to convince the fringe that this is true in 2021, humans have literally known the world is round since the 5th century BCE. The people who thought it was flat in the medieval era were of the same fringe.
Archimedes is going to teach him by pointing at a mountain of textbooks and saying, “Read all those then ask questions.” It’s then we find out that Arthur doesn’t know how to read. I don’t know why this was surprising. I mean, not too many people did know how to read then.
“You don’t know how to read? Do you know how to write?” Do you know that one is predicated on the other?
In the middle of his writing lesson, Merlin interrupts Archimedes by destroying a model airplane. For a great and powerful wizard, Merlin doesn’t pay much attention to his surroundings.
Arthur wishes he could fly, and Merlin surreptitiously turns him into a sparrow. He proceeds to try to teach Arthur to fly which offends Archimedes. Like, stay in your lane Merlin. You non-wings can’t tell wings how to do stuff. But offending the owl might have been the point from the beginning as he decides to teach Arthur how to fly.
As they fly through the countryside, a hawk comes after Arthur, as they do, and he falls down a chimney and emerges into a fireplace.
In this house, a woman with purple hair is playing solitaire. Arthur immediately reveals himself as a magically transformed boy because he doesn’t know how to keep his beak shut.
The woman introduces herself as the quote “Mad Madam Mim,” and sings a very bizarre song about all the cool things she can do with her magic. I really don’t know who Mim is supposed to be. She’s in the original novel by T.H. White, but he removed her when he made the compilation of The Once and Future King. Like, is this supposed to be Morgana before Morgana was a thing? Is her name from Nimue, the Lady of the Lake? It’s kind of like T.H. and Walt Disney said, “You know, Ector’s not nearly terrible to Arthur by himself, we should just throw an evil witch in the mix.”
Her song is interrupted by her saying, “I can make myself even more ugly,” and Arthur’s just rude. “That would be quite the trick.”
She finishes her magic show by asking Arthur who’s better, and he’s like, “Well, Merlin’s magic is like useful,” so she transforms herself into a cat and proceeds to try to eat him. Just in the nick of time, Merlin shows up in a whirlwind of magic and challenges Mim to a duel.
Archimedes explains that they’ll try to outsmart each other to kill each other. Mim sets the rules. Only animals, no imaginary animals such as pink dragons, and no disappearing. Merlin adds, no cheating, which Mim immediately does. They proceed to turn from animal to animal where Mim tries to eat Merlin and Merlin tries to run away. This culminates with goat Merlin butting rhino Mim off a cliff and her turning into a purple dragon which circumvents the no pink dragons rule.
As she is about to eat Merlin, he appears to have disappeared. But he hasn’t. He’s turned into a bacteria called Malagalee Telopterosis (which doesn’t exist). He’s given her a disease and explained germ theory to a child who lives in a world of miasma theory.
Cut to a winter scene of the castle. It seems to be the Christmas feast as they’re preparing to head off to London for the tournament. The cook runs up the stairs and announces that Young Hobbs has the mumps. Note: We’ve mentioned Young Hobbs twice and never seen him.
Despite the fact that if one person had mumps in this crappy, drafty castle, they’d all have the mumps, they just squire Arthur.
Arthur’s so proud and goes and tells Merlin who completely overreacts by yelling at the boy who has no other prospects that he knows of, then becoming a rocket to Bermuda. Archimedes explains he’s gone to an island that hasn’t been discovered yet, but he means an island that hasn’t been discovered by white dudes yet.
They cut to the tournament, and all of a sudden Arthur realizes he forgotten Kay’s sword. Arthur, you had one job. Do you know how expensive a sword was in the middle ages? Having a sword was a huge thing. In the modern world, this would be like Arthur forgetting Kay’s laptop in the hotel room when he’s supposed to be in a gaming convention. Seriously kid.
He runs back to the inn and it’s all locked, so Archimedes the Helpful Owl points out the super conspicuous sword in the middle of the churchyard and Arthur’s like, yeah, good enough for me! As Arthur goes to pull the sword, he gets a choir of angels and light beams shooting from the sky. Archimedes is like, “Um, this is a terrible idea.”
Arthur pulls it out and just hands it to Kay who immediately goes, “Wait this isn't mine.” If he’d just kept his mouth shut, he could’ve claimed he pulled it out.
Arthur tells them his story, and everyone laughs at the little weakling. They put the sword back in the stone, and Kay does the watcher a favour by claiming that, “Wart loosened it” like a pickle jar. The whole group tries to pull the sword to no avail.
Then Arthur stands up and gets his angel choir thing and pulls it from the stone. They all hail him as king, ordained by heaven, and now Ector and Kay are like, “Hey we were kind of jerks to you. Supes sorry. Please don’t kill us.”
As a kid, I didn’t quite understand how Ector was surprised by this whole “Arthur is the true king of England,” because I must have missed when they explained that Merlin brought Arthur to Ector and didn’t reveal his identity. Y’know, because it’s not in the dang movie? It’s all “Ector adopted Arthur” not “Ector was given an infant and told to care for it, so instead he treated it like crap because he didn’t know how important the infant was.”
They crown Arthur who is smart enough to know that he’s not smart enough to be king. Archimedes is all about helping him run away which they should know never works. They wish Merlin was back, and like a Bermudan genie, Merlin shows back up. He says the 20th century is a mess, and he is not wrong. Not that the Dark Ages were any better, but aren’t they all messes?
Then Merlin gets very meta by saying people will be writing books about Arthur and they might make a motion picture about him. Then he explains what a motion picture is, poorly.
The end, and time to go back to real Arthurian legend.
Okay, Sword in the Stone is pretty much how I remember it, but wow is there a lot more depth involved once you see it as an adult! Like the whole, “Ector is abusive” but wouldn’t have been seen that way in the Dark Ages. And creepy ass lady squirrels who don’t take no for an answer. And Merlin potentially upsetting the timeline by introducing a kid that doesn’t even know baths are good to steam engines and germ theory. Oh, and let’s not forget making mental illness into a negative character trait. Mad Madam Mim wasn’t mentally ill. She was evil. But those are the same thing, right?
But it did feel good to watch this movie. I really got the warm nostalgia fuzzies from it. And that was something I really needed. Why don’t you tell me about your memories of The Sword in the Stone? Do you have fond memories, or just cringing? Let me know on my social media. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter by searching for oofmychildhood.
This episode's cover art was created by Francesco Ventrice. He does amazing art, which you should check out on his Instagram, which I've linked to that in the show notes.
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My theme music was composed and played by Shawn Rudolph of Let Music Be. For more information on that studio, you can visit their website at letmusic.be or check the show notes for an easy link
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Thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you come back each week to discuss Disney through modern eyes. And while you’re at it, if you’re enjoying yourself, please let your friends know about me. I’d also appreciate a rating and review wherever you’re listening to the show. This podcast is written and recorded me. This episode was edited by Anastasia Saff. I release a new episode every Monday through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and many, many other podcatchers.
So, until next time, keep the magic alive.