Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek
So you are going to have to start using your brain for a change.”
While looking for a lost arrow in a forest in Britain during the Dark Ages, a young boy named Arthur (and nicknamed Wart) (Richie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman and Robert Reitherman) stumbles upon the cottage of the wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson) and his talking pet owl Archimides (Julius Matthews). Merlin decides he will be Wart’s tutor, accompanying him back to the castle of Wart’s foster father Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot). Using his magic, Merlin tries to teach Wart how to be a good person, transforming him into a fish, a squirrel and a bird, and occasionally having to rescue him from trouble, such as from the mischievous clutches of the wicked witch Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth). When a tournament is called in London to find the new King of England, Sir Ector makes Wart a squire for his son Sir Kay (Normal Alden), and furious with Wart’s enthusiasm for the job, Merlin leaves in a huff. As the tournament is about to begin, Wart realises he has forgotten Kay’s sword at the inn. He goes to retrieve it, finding the inn closed, but quickly takes a lone sword driven into a stone and anvil in a churchyard. What Wart doesn’t know is that whoever can pull that sword from the stone is the rightful King of England, and to his enormous surprise, he finds himself now crowned as monarch of the country. In this moment of loneliness and desperation, Merlin finally returns to continue educating and advising Wart as he becomes the legendary King Arthur of Camelot.
The story at the heart of 'The Sword in the Stone' has its roots in the beloved legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, stories retelling the exploits of a mythical English king during its dark mythical past. The earliest known writings on the Arthurian legends date as far back as the 1130s, but the most famous historical retelling of the legends is ‘Le Morte d'Arthur’, written by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1485.
The Disney film however was based on a more contemporary retelling of the story - the novel ‘The Sword and the Stone’, written by British novelist T. H. White in 1938. A work for children, the original novel focused on the life of young Arthur and the beginnings of his tutelage under Merlyn to prepare him for power and royal life. This passage had not been covered by Mallory, and White conceived of the book as a kind of preface to Mallory’s classic. The book was published to instant acclaim, many critics comparing it favourably to other great British works for children such as ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Over the following decades, White would continue the story with four further books, eventually published together as ‘The Once and Future King’, now considered a masterpiece of imaginative literature.
In 1939, 'The Sword in the Stone' was published in the United States, with end-paper illustrations by Robert Lawson, who had also illustrated Munro Leaf’s ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, made into an Oscar-winning short by Disney the year before. The book was included in the Book of the Month Club, and went on to sell 142,000 copies upon release. It’s little wonder that, very soon after, Walt Disney Productions purchased the rights to the book. White was delighted that he would be “the author of the next Walt Disney full-length (animated film).”
Walt Disney was unsure about the project though. While the book was a success, the Arthurian legends weren’t well-known in the U.S. and he was concerned that the film lacked sufficient brand recognition to make it a success. With the Second World War, the project was shelved, with very little work done to develop it for the screen. It would be many, many years before development would continue.
Around the same time, Disney was purchasing the rights to 'The Sword in the Stone', they also purchased the rights to another property, the 1910 satirical play ‘Chanticleer’ by Edmond Rostand. As production was ramping up on 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians', both ‘The Sword and the Stone’ and ‘Chanticleer’ were suggested as follow-up projects. Had things gone differently, ‘The Sword and the Stone’ may not have been the eighteenth Disney animated classic. How it came to be so was thanks to the persistence of one man, and influences from outside of the world of cinema altogether.
The rights to ‘Chanticleer’ were purchased during the studio’s spending spree following ‘Snow White’. In November 1937, Bianca Majolie submitted a synopsis of the play, and a few days later Ted Sears and Al Perkins weighed in with their views on whether the story would work as an animated film. They had serious reservations - production had already begun on ‘Bambi’, and it was proving incredibly difficult to crack visually. They were concerned that another all-animal production could present the same difficulties. Their suggestion was to move away from realism and properly humanise the animals, “go the whole hog in a cartoon way, put pants on them and lean heavily into the comedy side…”
They were also concerned about Chanticleer himself. “The main problem,” wrote Sears, “would be to create a likeable rooster in appearance and character that would draw sympathy from the audience and keep them interested in his troubles and triumphs.” With the studio now focused on ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’, and developing ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘Chanticleer’ was shelved.
Meanwhile, in February 1939, Disney bought the rights to 'The Sword in the Stone', but there doesn’t seem to have been any movement on it at that time. Following the war, Walt put a team to work to crack the story, along with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Cinderella’, but rather than rising to the top, 'The Sword in the Stone' became yet another project stuck in development. ‘Chanticleer’ reappeared for the first time in 1957 when legendary story man Dick Huemer delivered a story treatment refashioning it as a musical, but this treatment didn’t prompt any further enthusiasm.
By the beginning of the 1960s, ‘Dalmatians’ production designer and art director Ken Anderson had become one of the more influential artists at the studio, enough so that he could instigate development on projects that interested him. In 1960, he and Marc Davis decided to try their hand at ‘Chanticleer’, and began developing their own story and character designs. Their breakthrough came when they decided to combine the story with the character of Reynard the Fox, a mythical figure whose origins dated back as far as the Middle Ages. In the literary cycle of fables concerning Reynard, he is an anthropomorphic red fox who tricks and deceives other animals for his own personal gain. In a story that resembled Disney’s WW2 propaganda short ‘Chicken Little’, Reynard would use his skills as a trickster to supplant Chanticleer. “There was a con man fox named Reynard,” recalled Marc Davis in 1998, “who preyed on the hens so he has to get Chanticleer out of the way. He’s going to run for mayor and take over the place. He has his night people who are like his carnival performers, jugglers, strolling bands, but unsavoury types; and they seduce the townspeople into voting for him.”
Anderson and Davis brought their ideas to Walt, who was finally enthusiastic about the project. He was particularly drawn to the character of Reynard, and saw a lot of potential for developing him further. “We should really have a ball with this type of picture”, he remarked in May 1960. Anderson and Davis continued to develop the idea, producing a tremendous collection of visual material imagining a world of animals dressed as and behaving like humans. The possibilities were tantalising. At the same time, Walt Peregoy began to develop alternative ideas, including a ballet-inspired version.
In the meantime, with story work winding down on 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians', story artist Bill Peet turned his attention to 'The Sword in the Stone'. Little work had been done since the mid-1940s, so Peet began just as he had with ‘Dalmatians’, writing the screenplay before beginning on the storyboards. He found it an unexpectedly difficult task. White’s novel pulls off the hypnotic magic trick of weaving contemporary references into the medieval setting, one of its most memorable qualities, but this would be difficult to translate as smoothly for film. The novel also balanced fantasy with intelligent social commentary, but in a more melancholy and mysterious manner than in ‘Chanticleer’. And then there was the character of Merlyn, whose affliction of seeing time in reverse guided his education of Wart. All of this would be tricky to adapt for the screen, and Walt didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for the project. Regardless, Walt announced to the Los Angeles Times in June 1960 that both projects were in active development.
Meanwhile, work on ‘Chanticleer’ was hitting the same snag it had back in 1937. Just as Sears and Perkins had pointed out, Chanticleer and many of the other characters were unsympathetic, and it was hard to imagine audiences warming to them. “Chanticleer is a pompous character,” said Walt in August of 1960. “Reynard is a scoundrel, it’s always tough to make a story around a scoundrel... We have to get characters with sympathy and heart.” The rest of the animation staff also had reservations. Milt Kahl couldn’t see how you could make a hero out of a chicken, and many of the other animators agreed with him.
The other issue was that they needed to get a new film into production as soon as possible, now that ‘Dalmatians’ was nearing completion. Roy Disney was once again putting pressure on Walt to close down the animation department, arguing that they now had enough films in their catalogue for a successful re-releases schedule. Walt refused, but by this stage, plans were beginning to take shape for a companion park to Disneyland, possibly in Florida, a project that needed the focus of the studio’s finances. The work done so far on ‘Chanticleer’ was exciting, but it was mostly conceptual. They didn’t have a strong story to work from, certainly not to launch into production, while Peet at least had a stronger roadmap to work from with White’s novel.
The choice had to be made between ‘Chanticleer’, a film with a significant but unstable body of support, and ‘The Sword in the Stone', which was being developed and supported entirely by Bill Peet. Walt went back to Anderson and encouraged him to rethink the story with more of an emphasis on children rather than adult characters. Anderson worked furiously overnight and returned to Walt the next day with a new approach to ‘Chanticleer’, but by that point, Walt’s interests were turning towards 'The Sword in the Stone', and for reasons that had nothing to do with any of the work happening at the studio.
In 1958, T. H. White published his first four Arthurian novels in a single volume as ‘The Once and Future King’, and was met with instant acclaim. Fresh off the gargantuan success of their musical masterpiece ‘My Fair Lady’, songwriting team Alan Jay Learner and Frederick Lowe decided to adapt White’s book into a Broadway musical, focusing on the third and fourth books, ‘The Ill-Made Knight’ and ‘The Candle in the Wind’. Opening in December 1960, ‘Camelot’ became an enormous hit, with its cast album sitting at the top of the music charts for six weeks.
While it has never been confirmed, it seems likely that Walt’s decision to put 'The Sword in the Stone' into production rather than Chanticleer was to capitalise on the public affection for ‘Camelot’ and their increased awareness of the Arthurian legends. The fact that the two projects were also based on ‘The Once and Future King’ could have also offered an arbitrary connection between them for audiences.
And with that, the adaptation of ‘Chanticleer’ was shelved for the last time. Ken Anderson was bitterly disappointed, but during the 1970s, his dream of a film featuring animals in a human-like society would be realised with the 1973 Disney animated feature ‘Robin Hood’. For now though, the limited resources of Walt Disney Production’s animation department would be in service of Bill Peet’s adaptation of 'The Sword in the Stone'. And those limited resources were about to become even more so.
Wolfgang “Wollie” Reitherman was born in Munich, Germany on the 26th of June 1909, and moved with his family to the United States at a young age, settling in Sierra Madre, California. While attending Pasadena Junior College, he planned to study aircraft engineering, but after working as a draughtsman for Douglas Aircraft, he decided instead to study watercolour art at the Chouinard Art Institute. His work there caught the attention of watercolourist Philip L. Dyke, who recommended him to Walt Disney. On the 21st of May 1933, Reitherman joined Walt Disney Productions, beginning his training as an animator.
Reitherman began, as many of his contemporaries at Disney, on the Silly Symphony series, before being brought onto ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, where he worked on the Slave in the Magic Mirror. It was his work on ‘Pinocchio’ though that caught everyone’s attention. Reitherman was given the role of animation director on the chase with Monstro the Whale, and delivered a thrilling, nail-biting and incredibly dramatic scene that indicated a special aptitude with action sequences. These skills were further proven with the remarkable dinosaur battle in the Rite of Spring segment in ‘Fantasia’. With startling immediacy and specificity, Reitherman was able to render the chaos and movement of action better than any other artist at the studio.
When the U.S. entered the Second World War, Reitherman left the studio to join the United States Air Force. During his time with the Air Force, he flew missions in Africa, India, China and the South Pacific, rising to the rank of Major and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After his discharge from the Air Force in 1946, Reitherman married Janie Marie McMillan. Wollie and Janie were together until his death in 1985, and had three sons - Bruce, Richard and Robert. Also upon his discharge, Reitherman returned to Disney under Walt’s insistence, and became instrumental in bringing the studio back to animated feature film production.
During the late ’40s and the Silver Age, Reitherman continued to excel as an action director, taking charge of the Headless Horseman chase in ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’, the race to get the key to Cinderella and Tramp’s fight with the rat. With ‘Sleeping Beauty’ though, Reitherman delivered his masterpiece, the climatic dragon battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent that is still regarded as one of the greatest sequences in any animated film.
It was a romance from the start. The minute you know you can make a drawing move, the static drawing loses its appeal: movement is life.
Reitherman was one of the few members of staff who Walt trusted implicitly. He would often turn to Reitherman on whether a film would connect with audiences, believing his “All-American Boy” attitude would speak for them. He also enjoyed Reitherman’s genial and compatible approach to any project he was presented with, and it was likely for this reason that, as they moved into the 1960s, Reitherman’s role at Disney shifted dramatically. He was appointed as one of the supervising directors on 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians', directing the Twilight Bark sequence, but in order to cut costs on 'The Sword in the Stone', Reitherman became the first solo director on an animated feature in the studio’s history. It was a shaky start, but he would soon find his feet as a director with his 1967 masterpiece, ‘The Jungle Book’.
Over the next 15 years, and particularly following Walt’s death, Reitherman became a much-needed leader for the animation department, directing six feature films and two of the Oscar-winning ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ shorts. The most controversial aspect of his approach was to champion the reusing of old animation in new features. This practice is often thought to have been a cost-and-time-saving method, but was in fact a laborious and time-consuming process. Reitherman’s reasoning was that they had such an extraordinary catalogue of work, and it should be used as a resource to ensure the quality of new films.
As the ’70s came to an end, Reitherman was involved in a number of projects that never came to fruition. He was slated to direct ‘The Fox and the Hound’, but creative differences with co-director Art Stevens convinced him to step down from the project. In 1980, he finally retired from the studio, having been instrumental in keeping the animation department afloat artistically in the years after Walt’s death. Five years later, he was involved in a single-car accident, and on the 22nd of May 1985, Wolfgang Reitherman passed away at the age of 75.
Looking at Reitherman’s work today, both as an animator and as a director, you are constantly left in awe of it. There is a raw, magnetic power to his action sequences, a deep understanding not just of the power of animation, but of the power of cinema itself. His work in ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in particular are the standard by which all action sequences in an animated film are judged by, and that same skill with rhythm, tension and movement transitioned beautifully into his work as a director. Wolfgang Reitherman was a technically skilled animator, but also a deeply personal one, pouring his own life experience and passion for the world into some of the finest moments in Disney animation.
While Walt was charmed with the work Peet was doing on ‘Sword’, he was worried that the story needed more substance. Peet decided to further dig into the dramatic potential of the transformation sequences to give the film more energy, counteracting the melancholy tone of White’s book. “There was some criticism that we treated it too lightly,” he recalled. “But if we had gotten too heavily into it, it would have been a real drag. We decided to make it playful because almost everyone knows the story. There had already been too many Knights of the Round Table epics and that was not for us.” With the screenplay in stronger shape, Peet began on the 2,000 drawings it would take to storyboard the film, injecting new ideas of his own, such as Merlin packing up his house into one suitcase.
With Peet completing the storyboards and 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' soon due for release, the production team began to come together for 'The Sword in the Stone'. The staff at Disney animation were buzzing from the creative energy generated by ‘Dalmatians’ and the aesthetic possibilities that the Xerox process had presented. When ‘Dalmatians’ was released in January 1961, it became a critical and commercial hit, one of the biggest in the studio’s history, and it was assumed this would put them in a good position heading into ‘Sword’.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The budget for the film would be 40 percent smaller than that of ‘Dalmatians’, an attempt to further cut costs and protect a department still under threat. Walt also made the surprising decision of appointing Wolfgang Reitherman as the sole director of the film, something that had never happened before. While Reitherman was one of the strongest sequence directors at the studio, he hadn’t demonstrated the kind of subtlety that was required for this kind of story, and many of the staff (including Reitherman himself) suspected that his appointment was because he was least likely to cause any trouble. “I didn’t stir conflict,” he recalled. “I tried to cool it if I could... You had to respect and listen to everyone because we were all equals.”
The appointment of the compliant Reitherman may also have been a result of Walt’s response to ‘Dalmatians’. While the staff, critics and audiences adored the film, Walt openly hated it, and directed almost all of his anger over the film at Ken Anderson, who he saw as the chief architect of what he considered a desecration of Disney animation. “He wouldn’t speak to me for a year,” Anderson remembered, “he wouldn’t speak to me at all. I was cut out of meetings and the job of head of design and head instigator of how pictures would look was removed from me... I was crestfallen because Walt wouldn’t speak to me and might even fire me, but he didn’t.”
To ensure that what had happened on ‘Dalmatians’ would not be repeated on Sword, Walt also targeted Anderson’s strongest artistic ally, Walt Peregoy. He would lose the creative control he had on Dalmatians and be forced to tone down the strong graphic style he had perfected on the previous film with his extraordinary backgrounds. “... after Peregoy had been so criticised by Walt Disney on ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’,” recalled animator Floyd Norman in 2016, “I think Walt [Peregoy] purposely toned down his stylings on 'The Sword in the Stone'. In other words, he didn’t want to attract the old man’s attention. He didn’t want any more heat from Walt Disney, so he began to paint in a more conservative style.”
“When I went on to style 'The Sword in the Stone',” recalled Peregoy in 2007, “Walt did have something to say about the changing of style in the sense that he had Wollie Reitherman who was becoming more authoritarian and had more to say about what the style would be. There ceased to be a stylist after 'The Sword in the Stone'. I styled 'The Sword in the Stone' but as the film progressed, it started to drift backwards, back to what is now known as the classic Disney background style.”
Even though he was no longer assigned to the film, the artists working in ‘Sword’ still went to Ken Anderson for advice and suggestions, Anderson essentially fulfilling the role of production designer behind Walt’s back. In 1962, the mounting emotional stress on Anderson reached breaking point, and he suffered two strokes within one week, partially paralyzing the right side of his body for nearly three years. Anderson left the studio for a period to recover.
In the meantime, Bill Peet was tasked with casting the voices for the film, under Walt’s supervision. Around 70 actors auditioned for the part of Merlin, but as Reitherman recalled, “none evidenced that note of eccentricity that we were seeking. We wanted Merlin to be eccentric but not hokey.” Actor Karl Swenson had already been cast as Archimedes, Merlin’s talking pet owl, but reviewing his audition, it was decided that he would be a better fit for Merlin, and radio actor Junius Matthews was cast as Archimedes instead. Walt had been impressed by Matthews’ work after hearing him on radio as the voice of a potato.
For the part of Wart, young actor Rickie Sorenson was cast, returning to Disney animation after playing one of the puppies in ‘Dalmatians’. However, during the recording sessions, Sorenson’s voice began to break. Reitherman brought in his sons Richard and Robert to record the rest of Wart’s dialogue, resulting in the strangely inconsistent vocal performance of Wart in the film. Rather than try and have the voices match, even within a scene, Reitherman cut between the three voices without much regard for consistency.
The animation staff were also hard at work bringing the characters in Bill Peet’s storyboards to life. One particular triumph in the film is Milt Kahl’s gorgeous animation of Merlin, which Reitherman remarked was “so beautiful, you could hang in a museum”. Peet had modelled Merlin after Walt himself, and initially, Kahl had balked at Peet’s design. “He took all the illustrated King Arthur books out of the library,” recalled Peet, “to check out the Merlins—always tall, austere figures with long black beards and star-spangled robes. But Walt liked my Merlin, not knowing of course that it was my version of him.”
Reitherman was also pushing his idea of reusing animation from earlier films as a guide, and even reusing what they had already drawn for the film itself. "I detest the use of it,” recalled Milt Kahl. “It just breaks my heart to see animation from ‘Snow White’ used in ‘The Rescuers’. It kills me, and it just embarrasses me to tears."
When Ken Anderson had recovered enough to return to work at the studio, he found Walt completely disinterested in the project and decided to step in. “Those of us who were willing and interested to take hold did. And those… were Bill Peet and myself. We kind of filled the niche where once Walt had been, both pictorially and verbally… Either Bill or I would be on a new sequence and we’d be critical of each other’s work and it would lead to re-dos that were better than the original.”
The other issue was that the look of the Xerox process, while perfect for ‘Dalmatians’, didn’t entirely suit the medieval look of Sword, especially after the opulent gothic look of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. To make it work, and in order to adhere to Walt’s demands, Anderson and Peregoy adapted their background style to fit with the period setting, softening the strong graphic approach they had taken on the previous film. They were pleased with the work, but they knew that it lacked the dynamism of ‘Dalmatians’.
One last element that needed to fall into place was the music for the film. Though ‘Dalmatians’ was not a musically-driven film, it was decided that ‘Sword’ should return to the more traditional Disney animated musical form, either as a return to safety for Walt or under the influence of the popularity of ‘Camelot’. And Walt had just the team to do it.
The sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Richard and Robert Sherman had begun writing together after a challenge from their father, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman. In 1958, they had their first major success with ‘Tall Paul’, which was sung by Mouseketeer Judi Harriet. A few years later, they had another major international success with the hit song ‘You’re Sixteen’, sung by Johnny Burnett. This success caught the attention of Walt Disney, who brought them in to write songs for the studio.
At first, they provided songs for live-action films, including ‘The Parent Trap’ (1961), but very soon, they were given the assignment of writing songs for 'The Sword in the Stone'. Despite the strength of their collaboration and the energy of their work, this was uncharted territory for the brothers. They had never written a full suite of songs for a narrative film before. They were unsure how best to approach it, and turned to Bill Peet for guidance. “We worked on 'The Sword in the Stone' for two years”, recalled Richard Sherman in 2015, “but we never sat down and wrote a score. We would write a song for a particular sequence and then go away until Bill Peet called us back to look at the storyboard for another sequence that required a song.”
The songs they began to compose were full of charm and wit, especially the song for Merlin packing up his house, ‘Higitus Figitus’. It was an early demonstration of a very special ability with wordplay, something that would become paramount in their project following Sword. “For Merlin’s magic spell,” said Richard, “we started with a very English name, Higginbottom, then added the idea of Merlin knowing Latin, which gave us ‘Higitus Figitus’”. The work was still trial and error though - two songs that were written for the film never made it to the screen in their complete form. Before writing ‘Higitus Figitus’, they had written a song called ‘The Magic Key’, where Merlin imparts to Wart that education can be a key to a richer, more exciting life. They thought the sentiment of the song was vital to the heart of the film, but Peet wasn’t interested in its sentimentality, and ‘Higitus Figitus’ took its place. Another song, ‘The Blue Oak Tree’, would have been sung by the knights at the tournament as a mockery of their chivalry, but only survives as the song sung drunkenly by Sir Ector and Pellinore.
The orchestral score for the film would once again be composed by George Bruns, after his triumphs on ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Dalmatians’, but neither Bruns nor the Sherman Brothers had extensive experience crafting a full music-and-song score. Though they were allowed to attend Bruns’ scoring sessions, their standing at Disney was not yet strong enough to have any influence over how Bruns would use their songs. As a result, despite some tremendous orchestrations by Franklyn Marks and Water Sheets, there is very little integration of the songs within the score itself. His score for ‘Sword’ is not one of Bruns’ strongest, certainly by comparison to his previous work, and adds to the befuddling nature of the final film. Much like Reitherman, you can also hear Bruns reusing cues and ideas from his previous scores to fill in the gaps.
The most important and influential connection the Sherman Brothers would make during their work on 'The Sword in the Stone' would be with music editor Evelyn Kennedy. Sensing that the brothers lacked experience with the scoring process, she took them (and in particular Richard) under her wing. Kennedy had joined the studio in the mid-’50s, her first assignment as music editor on ‘Lady and the Tramp’. Almost instantly, she had become one of the most important members of the filmmaking team across animation, live-action and documentary, where her skill at syncing up picture and sound was so exemplary that it went unnoticed by the audience. “Evelyn made it work”, said Richard in 2015, “particularly with background scores; many times something had to be cut and she would make it look seamless when she was through with it. It would always sound beautiful, like the way it was supposed to have been.”
The Sherman Brothers found 'The Sword in the Stone' a frustrating production, but it was an important learning experience. In only a few years, they would apply everything they had learned on a now-legendary film that elevated them to amongst the most powerful artists at the studio.
'The Sword in the Stone' opened on Christmas Day 1963, and the critical response tended to be warm. The usually more critical Bosley Crowther praised the film in the New York Times, calling it "an eye-filling package of rollicking fun and thoughtful common sense. The humour sparkles with real, knowing sophistication — meaning for all ages — and some of the characters on the fifth-century landscape of Old England are Disney pips.” Others, including Philip K. Scheuer in the Los Angeles Times, considered it a more lively adaptation of White’s book than ‘Camelot’. Critics in the UK though were far less charmed by the film, one writing that “as Disney has concentrated more and more on nature films and on children’s live-action films, bringing the latter to a very high standard, his cartoons have denigrated almost beyond repair.”
During its initial box-office run, the film made $4.75 million at the domestic U.S. box office, a modest profit but nothing compared to that of ‘Dalmatians’. The film would return to cinemas again in 1972 and 1983.
Unlike so many of the animated films that had come before it, 'The Sword in the Stone' has not made a significant cultural impact, though it has built a strong and supportive audience through television and home video releases. Its treatment by Disney has been as one of their lesser films, often with perfunctory home video releases. For its 50th anniversary Blu-ray release, it was subjected to one of the most damaging digital restorations of any Disney animated film, with digital noise reduction stripping the Xerox animation of much of its detail and the image overmatted. Thankfully, a new and much more respectful restoration can now be found on Disney+ in the original aspect ratio and in 4K resolution, though this restoration is unlikely to be released on physical media in the future.
Despite its unfair dismissal as a lesser work, 'The Sword in the Stone' is a film of immense charm, bombastic energy and a moving echo of the melancholy of T.H. White’s book. Though the connective tissue isn’t always strong, each of the set-pieces is a marvel, particularly Merlin packing up his house and his battle with Madam Mim. At its heart, it’s a film of hope and optimism, of the immense importance of education and mentorship in making young boys into good men. It’s impossible not to see all the shortcuts made in its creation, but Bill Peet’s tremendous story, the gorgeous work of the animators and the genuine sentimentality, of this wizard and his owl trying to help a lost little boy be the great man he is destined to be, make this one of the quiet gems in the Disney canon, and a classic worthy of celebration.
By the time 'The Sword in the Stone' reached theatres, the antagonism Walt Disney felt towards his artists over 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' was starting to dissipate. He began speaking encouragingly again to Ken Anderson and bringing him back onto projects. Once more, Walt turned to Bill Peet for suggestions for what they could do next. Peet’s idea, to adapt a classic story by a literary great of a boy raised by animals in the jungles of India, seemed like a good fit, enough so that Walt even found himself unusually enthusiastic about the project. There were also plans in place for a series of shorts based on another beloved British work, of a little boy and his adventures with his soft toy animals, in particular, a rambunctious bear with an insatiable appetite for honey. Unbeknownst to everyone though, including Walt himself, 'The Sword in the Stone' would be the last Disney animated feature film released in his lifetime, and these two projects would be the last in which he would be directly involved.
However, while the boy in the jungle and the silly old bear were making their way to the screen, Walt Disney Productions were working on another film, one in which Walt was deeply, deeply invested. It was a dream project, decades in the making, and had until now proven difficult to get off the ground. This film though would be something special, more than anyone working on it could possibly imagine. It would combine live-action and animation in a remarkable way, be driven by an incredible musical score and represent the apotheosis of everything the studio and its creator had and would come to represent. Walt Disney had one more masterpiece to deliver, one more miracle, perhaps the greatest of his career as a storyteller.
So, we’re going to leave behind the story of the Disney Animated Classics for a moment and turn our eyes to the clouds, kite in hand. Wind’s in the east, you see. Mist coming in. Like something is brewing, about to begin. Can't put my finger on what lies in store…
But I fear what's to happen all happened before.
- 'The Sword in the Stone' made its home video debut in March 1986 on VHS, Laserdisc and Betamax as part of the Walt Disney Classics collection. It would return to VHS and Laserdisc formats again in 1991, still as part of the Walt Disney Classics line, and in 1994 as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection.
- The film made its DVD debut in 2001. Its bonus features included two classic Mickey shorts, a segment from the Disneyland episode, ‘All About Magic’, a short featurette on the Sherman Brothers and a number of galleries. The 1.33:1 transfer was not a pan-and-scan adjustment, but an open-matte presentation of the full Academy ratio image, the film often matted for 1.78:1 in theatrical presentations.
- In 2008, the film was re-released on DVD in a 45th Anniversary Edition, though with minimal difference from the 2001 release.
- 'The Sword in the Stone' had its controversial Blu-ray release for its 50th anniversary in August 2013. Though presented in its theatrical aspect ratio, the image suffered from extensive DNR enhancement which removed much of the fine detail in the Xerox animation.
- The film is available in Disney+ in a new 4K restoration that greatly improves on the sub-par Blu-ray presentation.
- Wikipedia on The Sword in the Stone (the film and the book), The Once and Future King, Le Morte d’Arthur, Chanticleer, Reynard the Fox, Camelot, Wolfgang Reitherman and the Sherman Brothers
- The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Films 1921 -1968, ed. Daniel Kothenschulte, 2016
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler, 2006
- Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Mindy Johnson, 2017
- The Disney Studio Story, Richard Hollis and Brian Sibley, 1988
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume IV - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Mid-Century Period (The 1950’s and 1960’s), Didier Ghez, 2016
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume V - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Early Renaissance (The 1970’s and 1980’s), Didier Ghez, 2019
- The Sword in the Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition, Blu-ray, 2013
- Seldom Re-Peeted: The Bill Peet Interview, interview with Bill Peet by John Province