Growing up, I was never the big kid in the school yard. I was never on sports teams in high school and spent most of my younger years solidly at the “geek” level of the public school hierarchy. As such, The Sword in the Stone was always one of my favourite films since Disney, it seemed, empathized with my position.
The Sword in the Stone, after all, is more than a morality tale. It’s about how to grow up well and be a good person. It’s about recognizing those powers that are greater than you, and those which are not. Merlin, the greatest wizard on the planet, turns young Arthur into three animals to demonstrate these lessons. The second lesson, which he spends as a squirrel scampering about the trees, teaches him that love is a power greater than anyone can control. “[Love], I’d say it’s the greatest force on Earth,” Merlin says at the end of the lesson.
The other two, spent as a fish and a bird, result in the exact same lesson: brains will always triumph over pure muscle. At the conclusion of the bird lesson:
Arthur: You were really great, Merlin. But you could have been killed.
Merlin: It was worth it, lad, if you learned something from it.
Arthur: Knowledge and wisdom are the real power.
Merlin: Right you are, Wart. So stick to your schooling, boy.
Arthur: Oh, don’t worry, I will, sir. I will. I really will.
And while being chased by a giant fish in the first lesson, Merlin asks the boy “But did you get the point?” and Arthur replies “Yes, yes! Brain over brawn!”
To a kid busy editing the student newspaper and running the A/V club, I couldn’t help but smile whenever I saw this film.
Indeed, in his book The Best of Disney, Neil Sinyard suggests that Walt may have seen something of himself in Merlin, the teacher who would raise his pupils above common sin and introduce them to a more philosophical view of life. As high as he might have thought of himself, though, The Sword in the Stone is one of the more thoughtful films in the Disney repertoire, focusing entirely on making sure that a young squire sees value in knowledge as fate prepares to crown him king.
Coming off the commercial success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone was released just in time for Christmas in 1963 and was equally well received, raking in $12-million at the box office. The New York Times said: “Adapting T. H. White’s beloved novel of King Arthur’s boyhood, the Disney unit has shaped a warm, wise and amusing film version.” The newspaper also noted that the wizard’s duel between Merlin and Mad Madame Mim was a highlight of the film, the “screamingly funny bit of nonsense, is pure Disney gold.” Critics agreed and the film was also nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted score.
As he had the habit of doing, Walt turned to trusted voice actors to lend personality to his creations. In a unique case, Disney Studios formed a longstanding working relationship with a woman who never uttered a word yet lent personality to several key characters: Ginny Tyler voiced the non-words of the girl squirrel who falls in love with Arthur during the second lesson, and went on to work with Disney as the lambs in Mary Poppins and the bees in Winnie the Pooh. Junius Matthews voiced the petulant owl Archimedes and then became Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh. And Martha Wentworth ended her film career with The Sword in the Stone, her second Disney endeavour after voicing the nanny in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
The Sword in the Stone was the first film to be created under the supervision of a single director, Wolfgang Reitherman. One of the famed Nine Old Men who were the go-to artists of Disney animation during this era, Wolfgang proceeded to direct every single one of Disney’s animated features until 1981’s The Fox and the Hound when he retired at the age of 72. Wolfgang was born in Germany, but emigrated to the United States when he was only a child. He began working at Disney as an animator in 1934 on Pinocchio and Fantasia. He then joined the United States Air Force during the Second World War and flew missions in Africa, China, India and the South Pacific, collectively for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On his return, he served as an animator on a total of 13 Disney films, producer on five and director on nine. He was killed in 1985 in a single-car accident near his home in California and four years later was named a Disney Legend.
In many ways, Wolfgang was Walt’s Arthur. Animator and writer Bill Peet even admitted in his autobiography to modelling Merlin off of Walt himself, noting the nose in particular, but also encompassing elements of his personality: a cantankerous man, but a loyal teacher and dedicated craftsman. The Sword in the Stone represents Walt’s personal ambition as much as it represents his trust in his successors to lead a ship that he could not have built alone. As Merlin was preparing Arthur to be king, Walt was handing Wolfgang his crown.