Original Release: December 1963
Runtime: 79 Minutes
Directed By: Wolfgang Reitherman
While The Sword in the Stone might make my top list of Disney films as a child, it is often forgotten as one of the classics. It comes at an odd time, pigeon holed in between 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, two huge classics. It has an odd story, sifting through the ideas of knowledge and magic and just what makes the world go round at a time when it was thought to be flat. It deals with a character whom we know more for his adult life as King Arthur, and its ending is somewhat disjointed, seeming more like the end of a first act, rather than a whole film. Even its songs are odd and not quite catchy, but also highly unique. However, hidden in this movie is a fantastical journey which preaches the importance of education more than any other Disney film so far. If you can take The Sword in the Stone as a film about a boy learning everything he needs to grow up, precisely before he is forced to do so, than you might just be willing to find something quite special here.
After Walt’s first reading of T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone,” he purchased the rights, but that was in 1939 and several years would pass before he allowed production on the project. The first storyboards date back to 1949 but at this point, Walt still wasn’t ready to give it the go ahead. By the time 101 Dalmatians was completed in 1960, two projects were on the table to come next, The Sword in the Stone and another film known as Chanticleer. The story goes that Chanticleer, a story about a rooster, was shown to the animators on a variety of different storyboards by Ken Anderson, an art director at Walt Disney Studios. Upon completing his presentation, someone called from the back of the room, denouncing the project in a rather rude way that I won’t repeat here. That someone just so happened to be the writer of The Sword in the Stone, Bill Peet.
When the decision was finally made on which film would go into production, Walt told Anderson that Chanticleer was a piece of–, well, you get the idea, and decided to move forward with The Sword. Unique to this film was the fact that Bill Peet actually wrote the screenplay first. Up until this film, all the stories coming out of Disney had been storyboarded first and then a script was drafted, yet this time it was the opposite. Walt liked the initial draft but felt that it needed more story and less gags. Walt approved the second draft though, which had a more dramatic flair.
It seems that Walt and Bill didn’t always see eye to eye and many people have said that the grouchy, stubborn ways of Merlin in the film are actually based on Walt. Others believe that Walt asked for Merlin to be based on himself, where all the other characters who are telling him he’s crazy and wrong are to represent the critics of the time. Either way, Walt’s ways and the fact that he was set in them are meant to be in this film.
Something else curious about this film is that Arthur, or Wart as he is lovingly called throughout the film was actually played by three different young boys, two of which were brothers. All three of them were going through puberty at the time and you can often hear their voices cracking as they speak.
This was also the first film to feature songs by the Sherman Brothers, who would go on to become a Disney staple, creating the songs for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and more. The song ‘Higitus Figitus’, which proved that they were song writers keen on making up words, was meant to be a song about magic, which didn’t use words that we already associated with magic. Abbra, Kadabra and Alakazam. They came up with words that had a British sound to them and then added a hint of Latin and came up with something pretty special as it is the only really memorable song from the film and is also quite hilarious to sing along to.
I can’t quite tell you why I like this movie so much. At a glance, there isn’t a whole lot of story here. It really feels more like a philosophical look at what makes someone strong. Is it pure muscle power? Is it training hard? Or is it something else? Perhaps strength comes from the ability to out-think one’s opponents. That’s the question The Sword in the Stone tries to address and it certainly spends more time on this than actually defining any real story.
The gravitas of this story is presented by Merlin, a grumpy old wizard who lives in the woods and knows a good deal about what is going to happen to the world. He presents himself as a time traveler, someone who has seen trains and planes and the world years and years from when our story takes place. This is counter-balanced by Wart who knows only the here and now and his day consists more of whether or not he will be able to complete his squire duties or not. To him, being a squire is the end all be all and the only thing he can truly hope to accomplish in his life. Like so many young men, he can’t really see the big picture yet.
Merlin is joined by the comic relief talking owl, Archimedes, who, unlike many comic relief characters, I don’t really get sick of. I think I see a little bit of myself in this character. He’s a little bitter and even though he knows there’s a lot more out there, he really just wants to be left to his own devices. I get that. Meanwhile, Merlin can’t seem to understand why everyone doesn’t want to strive for greatness and know everything about everything. You can see what I mean by this being a much more mentally stimulating Disney tale than so many we’ve seen before.
We see Merlin and Wart go on three particular adventures. First they turn into a pair of fish in which they get to see that every cause has an equal effect by fine tuning the way that a fish’s body must move in order to swim. They are quickly attacked by a barracuda and in a half hilarious, half terrifying chase sequence, they just barely manage to escape with their lives.
Next up, they become squirrels in order to understand the power of gravity, but more importantly love. I think the idea here is that Wart gets to see that their are forces in the world beyond his control, ideas that he can’t fight regardless of how hard he tries. Like gravity, love is a force to be reckoned with and you can either spend a life time fighting it or you can learn to accept it for what it is and move on.
Finally, Wart learns to fly with the help of Archimedes as he is transformed into a bird. I want to take a moment to express how truly happy I was to see the acknowledgment of the importance of education in this film. I love seeing both Merlin and Archimedes telling Wart that he needs to learn to read and I think there is something truly special about watching Wart learn to write. The corner stone of this film is really that a good brain can accomplish anything and its one of the strongest morals of any of the films we’ve watched so far.
While a bird, Wart runs into one of the best parts of this movie. The evil and fun-hating Madame Mim, voiced by Martha Wentworth is delightful. She loves being scary and cheating the rules to the games which she makes up in the first place and it’s great to see what the opposite of Merlin looks like. I really like the scene were Madam Mim asks Wart if her magic is in fact more powerful than Merlin’s and Wart makes the realization that Merlin’s magic is special because it always has a point or a purpose. Merlin’s magic is special because of what it accomplishes and it’s a great point to be made.
Mim and Merlin have a battle of wits, transforming into different animals to try and get the better of the other, culminating in Mim cheating, of course, and becoming a dragon while Merlin becomes a microscopic disease to make her sick, once again proving that brains beat brawn. It’s an idea that really forces you to think a little bit and it resonated with me long after the credits rolled.
Of course, Wart still wants to be a Squire and he goes off to the tournament with Kay and Sir Ector, which causes Merlin to explode with anger and send himself to Bermuda. While at the tournament, Wart realizes he’s forgotten to bring Kay’s sword and in an effort to not be a screw up, he pulls the sword from the stone, henceforth making him into King Arthur. This ending feels more like a beginning and left me wanting more. I felt that Arthur had so much left to learn and I wanted so badly to watch Merlin teach it to him. Yet, I think that there is something unique in ending with Arthur understanding that he is going to be great and that his name will be sung throughout history. We know that he is going to be okay because he has a great teacher by his side.
On the surface, this film has a lot to love for kids. There’s a ridiculous wolf who constantly get the slapstick end of the rock on his head and a wizard who sings gibberish and a grumpy old owl and a crazy old witch in the woods. Yet, deep down, this is a philosophical tale about the importance of education that both adults and kids can enjoy. And enjoy it they did. The film marked another big win for Disney at the box office.
Sadly, this would be the last animated film to be released before Walt’s passing in 1966. The studio still had so much to give and so many classics yet to come. It’s a little bit crazy to think that only 18 films into this project, Walt is ready to leave us. As I write this, it gives me goosebumps and sadness to think that this great man who started this powerhouse of entertainment will be gone by our next film. But more on that in our next article. For now, curl up with your kids or your spouse or your dog or cat or goldfish and watch The Sword in the Stone, taking comfort in the fact that Walt, like Arthur, will live far beyond his years within a legacy bigger than any man can hope to leave on this Earth.
Next Up: The Jungle Book
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!