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In the early '50s, before Paramount's release of the long-shelved Shane (1953) gave a boost to his flagging box-office clout, Alan Ladd was at a career crossroads, Desirous of the tax incentives, he moved abroad to take a three-picture deal with Britain's Warwick Productions. In the grand scheme of things, none of the films made under the pact are at the forefront of his resume. However, if you can give yourself over to seeing the unmistakably American Ladd as a defender of Merry Olde England against an all-British supporting cast, the Arthurian actioner The Black Knight (1954) remains an enjoyable lark.
Capably helmed by director Tay Garnett, the narrative casts Ladd as John, a humble swordsmith whose love for the beautiful Lady Linet (Patricia Medina) has served to spur her father, the Earl of Yeonil (Harry Andrews) to end the affair. John's strength of character however, has won him a backer in the person of the commoner-born noble Sir Ontzlake (Andre Morell), who encourages him to win a knighthood, and in succession, the lady fair. A subsequent raid upon the Earl's castle by mysterious brigands results in the death of Linet's mother; though John comes upon the raid and sets off in chase of the attackers, Linet mistakenly believes he is fleeing in cowardice.
John tracks the killers to Camelot, where they doff their Viking disguises and stand revealed as the Saracen Sir Palamides (Peter Cushing) and his servant Bernard (Bill Brandon). The attack on Yeonil was merely part of a grander conspiracy with King Mark (Patrick Troughton) to ensure the overthrow of Arthur (Anthony Bushell). Counseled by Ontzlake that the best means of uncovering the traitors is by covert action, John accepts his offer of private tutelage in the arts of combat. Soon, a helmeted, black-garbed warrior is making a name for himself before the court with derring-do that serves to undermine the schemes of Palamides and Mark.
In his memoir Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, Garnett offered fond reminiscences of Ladd, whom he had also directed in Wild Harvest (1947). "He was generous, gentle, considerate, possessed of both a fantastic screen personality and a delightful spontaneous wit," the director wrote. "He wasn't the tallest man ever to face a camera, but he was superbly built--an Atlas in miniature. Like many a talented man who feels Nature has shortchanged him, Alan had a hangup about his height. When he did a scene with a big guy, Bob Preston, for instance, we laid down planks three inches high for Alan to stand on. Those planks were the equalizer."
The exotic looking British actress Patricia Medina, who had been Ladd's leading lady a year earlier in Botany Bay (1953), heaped similar praise upon her virile if vertically challenged colleague in her autobiography, Laid Back in Hollywood. "They say certain actors made love to the camera. In Alan's case the camera made love to him," the actress recalled. "He was shy, introverted, almost ashamed of being a top-notch actor, but regardless of with whom Alan was playing a scene, the camera seemed to seek him out (without instructions or demand from Alan) and kiss him so that he jumped on the screen and all the elements seemed to be whispering, 'Star, star!'"
Producer: Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli, Phil C. Samuel
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Alec Coppel, Bryan Forbes, Dennis O'Keefe
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Film Editing: Gordon Pilkington
Art Direction: Alex Vetchinsky
Music: John Addison
Cast: Alan Ladd (John), Patricia Medina (Linet), Andre Morell (Sir Ontzlake), Harry Andrews (Earl of Yeonil), Peter Cushing (Sir Palamides), Anthony Bushell (King Arthur).
by Jay S. Steinberg