A time-travelling, Arthurian romance from the director of What’s New Pussycat? (1965)? Um… okay. Merlin and the Sword opens with American tourist, Katherine (Dyan Cannon) admiring Stonehenge when a mysterious force drags her underground into the magical cave where Merlin (Edward Woodward) and his lovely consort, Ninian (Lucy Gutteridge) have been imprisoned for centuries. Seemingly nonplussed about meeting a thousand year old wizard, Katherine babbles about her job making mortality predictions for an insurance company, which somehow convinces Merlin she’s a witch. Imploring her to help set them free, Merlin and Ninian recount the legend of Camelot - despite Katherine repeatedly whining: “I don’t care.” - using their handy mystic portal/television screen and heckling the onscreen action, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style.
The mystical twosome tell how they met and fell in love when Camelot was ruled happily by King Arthur (Malcolm McDowell) and his devoted Queen Guinevere (Rosalyn Landor). But Guinevere is kidnapped by a shaggy barbarian chief (Liam Neeson) secretly in league with Arthur’s scheming half-sister, Morgan Le Fey (Candice Bergen). The king rides to her rescue but is waylaid, first by a clunking, undead knight conjured by Morgan (“Arthur’s manliness will be his undoing!” she cackles), then by Merlin. Sensing Arthur’s illegitimate son, Mordred (Joseph Blatchley) is waiting to seize the throne, the wizard spirits Arthur back to Camelot and sends two brave knights instead. Sir Gawain (Patrick Ryecart) is distracted by three, comely fairy-princesses (shades of Michael Palin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)!), but saved by kindly, pig-faced Lady Ragnal (Ann Thornton). Sir Lancelot (Rupert Everett) finally rescues Guinevere, but their subsequent love affair causes the downfall of Camelot. This involves heartbreak, murder, invasion, a man marrying a pig, a rubber dragon chasing Rupert Everett around a poky room, and the once in a lifetime spectacle of Dyan Cannon and Edward Woodward spinning wildly in mid-air engulfed by dry ice and laser beams.
What the hell? This is seriously strange stuff made all the more bizarre by having Merlin, Ninian and Katherine squabble and wisecrack over unfolding events like spectators at a football game. Trippy and dreamlike, Merlin and the Sword races helter-skelter through the Arthurian legend with no room for niceties like logic or characterisation. Clive Donner previously helmed an enjoyable remake of The Thief of Baghdad (1978), but here shoots in a flat, TV-movie style that does no favours for the shoddy special effects. Performances range from the detached (Malcolm McDowell - dreaming of happier days?), unhinged (Liam Neeson growling in Gaelic, after this his complaints about The Phantom Menace (1999) seem overstated), and bloody awful (Rupert Everett as the wettest Lancelot in screen history - except for Richard Gere - and Candice Bergen as an unholy fusion of Jean Marsh and Toyah Willcox).
The starry cast struggle with surreal, nonsensical dialogue (the scene where Gawain tells Arthur he’s marrying Lady Ragnal drags through ten minutes of awkward pauses, conversational detours, and McDowell and Ryecart looking very confused), but the old-fashioned, Saturday matinee romance retains a certain charm and there are three, rather winning performances. Rosalyn Landor essays a very strong Guinevere, although given short shrift by the lacklustre script. Ann Thornton’s snorting, pig-maiden is the most endearing character in the film. Lucy Gutteridge admirably conveys Ninian’s journey from fresh-faced innocence to melancholy middle-age. None of this explains why Katherine holds the key to saving Camelot. Maybe, if Arthur had better insurance coverage…