The Adventures of William Tell: Medieval storytelling done right

Comics on the Brain, as an institution, is interested in comics in all their forms and all their genres.

In the late 1990s, we remember that Gemstone put out a series of reprint comics that offered, once again, the output of the famed EC comics company.

“Tales from the Crypt” and “Weird Science” were among the first titles trotted out, but as those wells ran dry, the series turned to lesser known titles.

CotB was particularly interested in the title called “Valor.” This is because, to our surprise, there has never been a whole lot of comics about knights in armor and their contemporaries. The notable exception is, of course, the “Prince Valiant” comic strip. That’s a truly great series  — if you can get past the Page-Boy haircut.

What sets the long-running “Valiant” and the short-lifed “Valor” apart from practically any other series that features knights, armor, jousts and royalty, is that both tell their stories with extremely limited use of magic as a story-telling tool. Most of the time, in fact, magic simply isn’t part of the story.

When the strange arts of wizardry are is available for stories, an author has a lot more flexibility. There can be explosions, flying demons, spell-slinging dragons and magic rings of invisibility.

But when those literary devices are out of the picture, the story-telling might seem too mundane. It might lack appeal.

And, for the most part, the publishing history of medieval novels, movies, comics and TV shows bears that out. Show us a non-magic-using story from one of those media forms, and you’ll find 100  magic-featuring stories that sold better.

The simple fact is that an ancient world without magic is quite boring. People die of disease. Peasants are dumb as rocks. Traveling between cities takes weeks. Food takes hours to prepare. Crops take a whole seasons to ripen.

Those same problems are made interesting when magic gets added. Ancient elixirs cure disease. Peasants can rise up and become kings. Magic carpets taxi people around the world. A snap of the finger creates a hero’s feast. And crops? Well, we don’t even really think about getting the harvest in when magic is around.

A magic-filled world is all well and good — if you have the budget to pull it off.

But sometimes, that wasn’t the case. In the 1950s, just as TV was beginning to wedge its way into our collective minds, production companies didn’t have a lot of money for special effects, and even when they did, those effects were downright horrible.

That’s one of the reasons that the Western became so popular. They were inexpensive to make. To look authentic, the sets were supposed to look shoddy.

And if you were making Western TV shows and movies, America was the place to do it.

But what about the studios of Europe. What where they supposed to do? Make a western featuring people that spoke with cockney accents? And could they make a western when there wasn’t a single cactus or desert on the whole continent?

No, they had to figure out something else to do.

One production company decided to make their own type of western — The medieval western. One that didn’t have that hard-to-create magic. One that used the available scenery. One that let people have any sort of English, French, Polish or Italian accent they needed.

And this medieval western was called “The Adventures of William Tell.”

Just like “The Adventures of Sir Lancelot” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” this 39 episode series beginning in 1958 offered a dose of adventure for British viewers.

Starring Conrad Phillips, the show centered around the mythical William Tell and his battle against Austrian oppression.

Each half-hour episode would usually pit Tell against Landburgher Gessler or one of his cronies and from the simple “rebellion” plot, a good-many stories were built and cleverly executed.

There are tales of arms smuggling, secret weapons, lost plans, kidnappings, robberies and so on. Often inventive, it’s important to note that each of those could easily be transformed into the plot of a western.

While the sophistication of the plots might be questionable, the action therein isn’t. Fists fly, swords clash and the centerpiece weapon of the series — the crossbow — always gets a moment to shine.

Likewise, the actors offer some amazing performances. Even though Phillips is ridiculously heroic in every episode, there’s a certain boldness that you love. His prime nemesis is played by Willoughby Goddard, and he really shines as the despicable Gessler. Likewise, Gessler’s henchmen go from amusingly stupid to ruthless at a moments notice.

The costumes also benefited from a European filming stage. All the bag guys are dressed in matching chainmail while the peasants wear rags. Even the quite-obese Goddard gets a fine suit of plate to wear. A 1950s TV show from America could have never afforded such authenticity — they would have spent all their money on horses.

The one thing CotB didn’t like was the “look” assigned to Tell himself. Phillips has a head of curly out of control hair that looked clownish at times. His costume, that of a thick wool vest also made the athletic actor look terribly scrawny. But everyone else? They look great.

As mentioned, the production takes advantage of its settings too, often using the same tavern and castle pieces again and again. Even with this reuse, it’s creatively done so a viewer has to keep an eye out for it.

Most importantly, the series shows that you can make an exciting story set in medieval times without magic. It’s just that you have to take a Western  — and subtract the six-shooters.


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