“When I suggested that we do a feature based on T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, a fanciful version of the boyhood of King Arthur, Walt was all for it. But once again, he insisted I write a screenplay before starting the storyboard work. Walt the wizard never knew that I patterned Merlin the magician after him when I wrote the script.”
So wrote story artist Bill Peet in his book, aptly titled Bill Peet An Autobiography, in a passage that reveals just how unique and full of the Disney spirit the Studio’s 1963 animated feature, The Sword in the Stone, was.
Based on the first book in author T.H. White’s tetralogy of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, the film The Sword in the Stone first surfaced as a project at Disney in 1939, when the Studio purchased the rights to White’s books.
For the next twenty years, as the book went through various attempts to be adapted as a film, The Sword in the Stone would emerge as something distinctive for Disney. In his book The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin noted, “… few could resist commenting how different the film seemed from the earlier animated endeavors, not only in drawing style but in the whole atmosphere of the film, which was telling a medieval tale with a bit too much of its head in the 1960s.”
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, The Sword in the Stone tells the tale of King Arthur when he was young and before he was crowned. In Jerry Beck’s book, The Animated Movie Guide, contributor Martin Goodman notes how the film was one of two projects in consideration as an animated feature at one time:
“According to some accounts, none of the animators really wanted to make this film. Several of the ‘Nine Old Men’ of Disney’s brain trust wanted to revive the long dormant Chanticleer the Rooster project, but storyman/concept artist Bill Pete was able to convince Walt to go with The Sword and the Stone instead. Having greatly enjoyed the 1960 Broadway production of Camelot, Walt was easily sold.”
The Sword in the Stone opens with a prologue, complete with the traditional Disney storybook opening to the pages within, that explains that the King of England had died and no one could decide who would take over the throne. A miracle happened when a sword appeared in a stone in London. Written on the sword was “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise King born of England.”
Many try but are unsuccessful, and England is left without a King, leading into a dark age. And it is during this time that we meet 11-year-old Wart (voiced by Rickie Sorenson, along with Richard and Robert Reitherman, sons of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman).
Wart is an orphan adopted by Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), who lives with his dull hulk of a son, Sir Kay (Norman Alden). Neither treats Wart very well, but the young lad’s life changes when he accidentally meets Merlin the wizard (Karl Swenson) and his talking owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews) while retrieving Kay’s arrow in the woods during a hunting excursion.
Merlin decides to be Wart’s tutor and mentor, preparing him for life through an education. This is where the creativity of Disney animation comes alive in The Sword in the Stone. Merlin is a marvel of character animation, brought to the screen in many scenes with humorous eccentricities thanks to Disney Legend and master artist Milt Kahl, a member of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” of animators.
As Merlin educates, he uses magic to transform Wart into a fish, a bird, and a squirrel to expand the young man’s horizons. While transformed into a bird, Wart runs into the film’s villainous, Mad Madame Mim (Martha Wentworth), a cunning witch trained in black magic, who challenges Merlin to a “Wizard’s Duel,” a true tour-de-force of Disney animation, where the two can transform themselves into different creatures – snake, mouse, rhino, crab, and fire breathing dragon – as they do battle. Merlin and Mim change into each animal in creative, dizzying ways that happen at a breakneck pace.
The sequence was storyboarded by Peet, with color model drawings by Kahl. The result is not just a brilliant highlight of The Sword in the Stone, but of Disney animation itself.
When Merlin transforms Wart into a squirrel, he transforms himself, and the two meet two female squirrels. The scene, animated by Disney Legend Frank Thomas, another member of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” teaches Wart and audiences an affecting lesson about the power of love through beautiful personality animation.
Author John Canemaker, in his book Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation, says of the sequence: “Thomas created a perfectly structured, emotional rollercoaster and made his cast perform brilliantly. In the bargain, he broke our hearts.”
It is Wart, real name Arthur, who inadvertently pulls the sword from the stone on New Year’s Day while searching for a replacement sword for Kay, who is competing in a tournament. This makes Wart King Arthur, to which Merlin says, in the film’s last line, “They might even make a motion picture about you,” to which Arthur asks, “A motion picture?” And Merlin answers, “Well… that’s something like television, without commercials.”
These contemporary nods in The Sword in the Stone and others where Merlin references airplanes, newspapers and even wears Bermuda shorts, were part of the film having its “head in the 1960s” that Mr. Maltin referred to.
It’s one of the film’s unique aspects, as is the look of The Sword in the Stone. The film used the same Xerox process used in Disney’s previous feature, 101 Dalmatians, which employed an electronic process for adapting animators’ pencil drawings to cels.
One aspect of the film that did seem more familiar were the songs, written by Disney Legends Richard and Robert Sherman, in their first animated film collaboration with Disney, after which they would provide songs in Disney movies that would prove to be the soundtrack for generations. For more on the Sherman Brothers and the music of The Sword in the Stone, check out Greg Erhbar’s 2022 article.
Released on Christmas Day of 1963 in the United States, The Sword in the Stone may not have been the hit that previous Disney features had been, but sixty years after its release, with multiple theatrical re-issues, releases on home video, airings on The Disney Channel, and now streaming on Disney+ (in the best film transfer this writer has seen to date), the film continues to connect with warmth and nostalgia for many.
The reason for this could be best summed up by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who, upon the film’s initial release said of The Sword in the Stone: “The humor sparkles with real, knowing sophistication – meaning for all ages – and some of the characters of the fifth-century landscape of Old England are Disney pips.”