Reviewing John Boorman's "Excalibur"
Not a Once and Future Movie
There is something about John Boorman’s 1981 movie, Excalibur, that begs to be re-watched.
Sure, most children are introduced to King Arthur through Walt Disney’s 1963 animated The Sword and The Stone, where the once and future boy king “Wart” goes through his unconventional tutoring with the wizard, Merlin. It’s the training wheels we all need for the wild ride that would come with other stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Depending on your tastes, you could gravitate to films like The Mists of Avalon, First Knight, or a plethora of other stories or films that tackle Arthurian mythology. It’s hard not to enjoy any of them. However, when it comes to the true hardcore love of Le Mort d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, Excalibur stands on its own.
If this is your first viewing of Excalibur, you may be unimpressed by the set or the effects. Pay them no mind. Everything about this film is geared to bring you to where you need to go within the plot. The music, the mood, the acting, and the humor bring the viewer into a different state of consciousness.
This film is like an onion. On the surface, one might see it with the raw look and feel that could come with any 1980s fantasy film. It is complete with fights in armor accompanied by some Foley sound effects that might have come from a man banging aluminum kitchenware together as well as some really wonderful use of green lights against a shiny metal sword, but there is magic there.
I promise you.
The Top Layer of the Onion
Before I go any further, I need to acknowledge the performances of actors who became legendary later in their careers. Excalibur alumni such as Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Nicol Williamson, Patrick Stewart, Clive Swift, Corin Redgrave, Nigel Terry, Nicholas Clay, Paul Geoffrey, and Cherie Lunghi have gone on to great things.
However, in this film, each plays their part as a perfect element in an ensemble. On the surface, there is the wonderful fight choreography where we see men in armor fighting with sword, lance, and mace. The common love and camaraderie each character has in their role seem almost tangible. The knights’ original quest to unite England as they come to create a new golden age brings the viewer in to celebrate.
The acting is practically Shakespearean.
This movie can be split into five parts: King Uther Pendragon's time, Young Arthur and his ascension, Camelot and the love triangle, Morgana’s evil and Percival’s search for the Holy Grail, and The Death of Arthur. Each part is has a different feel to it—almost like the growth of a flower. It moves from seed to sprout to bloom to winter to decline.
It has all of the elements of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Through all of Arthur’s chronicles, Nigel Terry plays Arthur from young man to old with an eye for detail and the physical talent of a chameleon.
By the time the movie ends, we feel for the fallen king. We understand that he has lived his life and he is ready to shed his mortality like a snake shedding an old layer of skin. His presence is practically like that of an English messiah.
If the story of King Arthur was a simple adventure story, it could easily be dismissed and forgotten. However, the simple truth is that it is not.
This story underlines the importance of truth and destiny. Arthur is a messiah character and the reality is he isn’t a human being in the conventional sense. He is flesh and bone, but he is also England.
One of the first exchanges he has with Merlin says what he is quite plainly.
Arthur: “What does it mean to be king?”
Merlin: “You will be the land, and the land will be you. If you fail, the land will perish. As you thrive, the land will blossom.”
Merlin: “Because you are king.”
In essence, Arthur is the physical manifestation of what England is. He and the land are one. It is more than just a connection to the land. He is the land. In his quest to win over the people of England, he begins to thrive and grow stronger. The land is in bloom. With his sword, Excalibur, he forms his mystical marriage to the Earth via the Lady of the Lake. That bond came with his birthright when he pulled Excalibur from the stone.
The relationship he has with his sword is integral. It is proof of his kingship. It is, more than anything else, truth. No one but Arthur could pull the sword from the stone. Guenevere’s father, Leondegrance, who had won the right to try to pull the sword from the stone, couldn't. Why? Because the simple truth was he was not king. It wasn't his sword. So, when it came to understanding Arthur’s legitimacy as king, he knew, more than anyone else, that Arthur was the true king. For him to be a knight and be true to his king he had to go with Arthur and not with his fellow knights.
The same can be said about Sir Uryens. When the other knights are waging war against Leondegrance’s castle and Arthur aks Uryens to swear allegiance to him. He refuses because no knight would surrender to a squire. So Arthur has Uryens knight him with Excalibur. All around Uryens, his fellow knights are telling him to keep the sword and, at first, he considers killing Arthur with it. However, he felt Excalibur fight him against it. It is at that moment, he realizes the truth. Arthur really is king. With that, he swears loyalty to Arthur.
What needs to be firmly understood is that each character is subject to very strict parameters of truth. No character can act against who he actually is. The importance here is truth.
Each character must be true unto himself.
We see it later in the film when Arthur asks Merlin at Camelot.
Arthur: Which is the greatest quality of knighthood? Courage? Compassion? Loyalty? Humility? What do you say, Merlin?
Merlin: Hmm? Ah. Ah. Ah, the greatest. Uh, well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword.
Arthur: No poetry. Just a straight answer. Which is it?
Merlin: All right, then. Truth. That's it. Yes. It must be truth above all. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. You should know that.
“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”
Later on, we see that Lancelot, Arthur’s best friend, and best knight, has fallen in love with the Queen. This is rooted in the ancient story of Tristan und Isolde. It is the story of two doomed lovers that cannot deny their feelings toward each other. Once they do, it is their doom. In this love, Tristan betrays his best friend and king and Isolde betrays her husband and king.
It is the truth of these characters that they cannot go against their own nature. In Excalibur, Lancelot literally wages a war against himself—as an armed knight against himself as a man. The man wins but at a cost. There is a deep wound that runs through him for the rest of his life.
Here is where Boorman’s genius shines. As the story evolves, we find Sir Gawain under the enchantment of Morgana. She persuades him, while drunk, to accuse the queen of infidelity with Lancelot. Nothing has happened between the two star-crossed lovers, they are only guilty within their hearts.
Gawain is famous for his tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He resisted the three challenges of the Green Knight. These were the temptations against chivalry and loyalty. In this case, Gawain is the representative of truth and brings Lancelot’s fidelity to task.
The queen needs a champion.
Arthur cannot defend Guenevere’s honor because he must judge this as king. Lancelot is the queen’s champion who also stands accused. The law of chivalry declares that no knight who is false can win against one that is true. When Lancelot appears to accept the challenge, he is wounded with an almost symbolic injury to keep him from winning against Gawain. However, weakened as he is, Lancelot wins only because he is still a greatly skilled knight—however, the fight itself nearly kills him.
It is the price of going against truth.
Arthur’s Fall in Pride
The element of truth is underlined in chivalry.
When Arthur goes against Lancelot, the plain truth is that Lancelot is the better knight and fighter. In his quest to bring the entirety of England under his rule, there is one stand out—Lancelot of the Lake. Lancelot claims he has never found his equal in battle and has been cursed to never find someone who is better than him. Arthur says that his claim is a wild boast and challenges him to fight.
Arthur fights Lancelot, but Lancelot is clearly the better fighter. And all through the fight, Lancelot reminds Arthur that his rage has unbalanced him and that he would fight a man to the death who is not his enemy. In what would be a killing move, Arthur calls upon the power of Excalibur to change the odds so he could win. When Excalibur struck Lancelot’s armor it broke and fell into the water.
Merlin fell into despair because Excalibur could not be broken. Arthur realizes that his pride broke the sword and that he was a world-class ass. However, in what we can call a mulligan for Arthur, the Lady of the Lake mends the sword and gives it back to Arthur.
On the surface, all seems to be well, but that is definitely not the case. With the truth being the main element of this story, there is a penalty for Arthur’s changing of the rules. While Lancelot now joins with Arthur and his knights, in reality, the new element of Lancelot will bring tragedy into his life with Guenevere.
Think about this. Had Arthur not engaged Lancelot in battle and lost, he would have left the knight to his small bit of land and continued on his quest. Arthur would have won England without Lancelot. But Lancelot came with him to become the Queen’s Knight. When the queen meets Lancelot, she instantly fell in love with him and he with her.
According to Merlin, he did not have to marry. Arthur believed that. However, it was predestined that all of this happen. Merlin says it himself.
“Looking at the cake is like looking at the future, until you've tasted it what do you really know? And then, of course, it's too late.”
Merlin then tells him he will marry Guenevere and a dear friend will betray him. We know this to be the truth and with Arthur’s breaking Excalibur all of this was destined to be. His fall in pride and vanity was a lesson Arthur needed to learn to be a just king. At the same time, we can see this lesson and consequence were unavoidable.
The love triangle between Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot is one of the best known in literature. It is a tragedy. In Excalibur, this has some depth to it.
Arthur is not a man, but Lancelot and Guenevere are normal mortals. The two have fallen in love with each other, but are bound together with Arthur who is a messiah. While on the surface, their love seems to be a betrayal to Arthur, it really depends on how you look at it.
Both Guenevere and Lancelot love Arthur—who is England and a messiah. In Excalibur, when they finally consummate their love and are discovered by Arthur lying next to each other, the king plunges Excalibur into the Earth. He abandons his sword.
This symbolically leaves the land without a king.
All three members of the triangle are wounded by this. Both Guenevere and Lancelot run away in shame and terror because they’ve been discovered. Arthur’s wound is more serious because he has wounded himself with this blow as he has forgotten a critical secret about himself—he and the land are one. Putting Excalibur into the earth practically destroys everything he is.
The consequence of this action is that Arthur is made mortal. Guenevere and Lancelot in their shame and terror flee to God. She becomes a nun and he becomes a mad preacher amongst the destitute.
This sadness and grief in all parties lead to the horror of Morgana’s plans of revenge as well as Arthur’s own doom.
In the end, we discover Arthur understanding who he is as he pleads forgiveness to Guenevere. He said, “I have often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man, that we may meet, and you will come to me and claim me as yours, and know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have...”
Just a man.
In the final scene, we see Arthur’s body in a boat, claimed by three nuns to presumably bring him to the afterlife.
Morgana's Evil and Percival’s Quest for the Holy Grail
In the darkest chapter of the movie, Morgana has triumphed over Arthur and Merlin.
Boorman makes it clear from the very first chapter that Morgana has it in for the two of them. She has it in for Merlin because he made it possible for King Uther to lie with her mother. In this disguise, he fathers Arthur.
She is angry with Merlin. In addition to this, Morgana wants to learn more magic and use it to destroy Arthur’s kingdom. Throughout her time in Camelot, she practices her petty evils and creates problems within the court.
Merlin had discovered all of Morgana’s plots and planned on destroying her with the Charm of Making (Anál nathrach, orth' bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha), but all of that fell apart when Arthur plunged Excalibur into the Earth. With Merlin seemingly dead, she used the charm to disguise herself and seduce Arthur as she conceived their son, Mordred - much like Merlin did to Uther to seduce her mother.
All this chaos launched the quest for the Holy Grail. The true mission was to find what Arthur had lost.
Here the movie begins a true vision quest for the grail knights where, through their perseverance and faith, they needed to go to essentially the end of their own mortality to find the secret of life and what truth is.
Throughout the time the Grail Knights are on their quest, Arthur is going through his own darkness in almost a Campbellian story cycle of The Hero’s Journey to the underworld.
However, instead of Arthur making this spiritual journey, it is Percival. He must endure all of the horror, temptation, and suffering to discover the truth.
Along the way, we see that all the grail knights have perished through the machinations of Morgana and Mordred. When Percival encounters them, she suggests that there is more than one truth and that a sip from any of her false grails will bring salvation.
This is obviously not the truth.
Percival remains true to the quest and forsakes all of Morgana’s temptations.
As it stands, Percival must face a near-death experience to get to the Grail. When he hesitates to answer the questions and fails to get it on the first attempt, he tries again and finds redemption.
Mysterious voice: “What is the secret of the grail? Who does it serve?”
Percival: “You, my Lord.”
Mysterious voice: “Who am I?”
Percival: “You are Arthur, my king.”
Mysterious voice: “What is the secret that I have lost?”
Percival: “You and the land are one.”
The truth is Arthur is king and he and the land are one. Not only that, the grail is the cup of Christ, which made Arthur more than just a man. The cup of Christ serves him.
Something that is quite pervasive within some of the Arthurian legends is some of the stories are highly Christian.
Some are not.
Le Mort d’Arthur is. The Mists of Avalon have an entirely different take on the role of Arthur as well as the role of Morgana as being the God and Goddess in a very Pagan story. Excalibur has made Arthur the all-encompassing patriarchal Messiah of England as it would pertain to Christianity.
The grail serves to remind Arthur of who he is and what role he must play in the fate of his land. In Christian terms, Mordred is a product of incest and would thereby be an abomination. This is why Arthur tells his nephew/son, Mordred, “I cannot give you the land… only my love.”
It really isn’t Arthur’s to give. Arthur is the land. This is not something that will be inherited.
The succession of kingship, in this case, comes through rebirth, reincarnation, or possibly resurrection. This is shown in the final scenes. Arthur orders Percival to throw Excalibur into a calm pool of water to return it to the Earth when he passes. He tells Percival when he fails to throw the sword, “DO... as I command! One day, a King will come, and the Sword will rise... again.”
Whoever will be the next incarnation of the England messiah will wield Excalibur. This is death and resurrection.
I was lucky enough to see Excalibur when it first came to the box office. I was fifteen.
The one thing that stood out in my mind was Nicol Williamson’s performance as Merlin. His training in the Shakespearean theater was evident. He certainly had the comedic and dramatic chops to pull off the role. I don’t believe I’ve seen a better Merlin since. Even now, after seeing Easter Egg candy movies like Ready Player One, once I heard the password to the Level 99 artifact (Orb of Osuvox) in the form of the Charm of Making (Anál nathrach, orth' bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha) in my head, I could only hear it in his voice.
As I said, there is magic in this movie.
It’s even got a taste of Liam Neeson’s “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.” - except, he’s drunk and he’s wearing armor. But you know what I mean.
There are so many wonderful scenes and the performances are exceptional.
Hey, true story—Nicole Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana truly despised one another and did not want to work together. Apparently, they were in a production of Macbeth that had gone horribly wrong and were not on speaking terms. John Boorman knew this and used their natural animosity toward each other to make the film work better.
This film was also the movie debuts for Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Liam Neeson (Gawain), Ciarán Hinds (Lot), and Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere).
When I got a chance to re-watch the movie years later, I was also struck by the movie’s soundtrack. Viewers can remember much of this had a strange otherworld feeling which was medieval and haunting. What I discovered was much of the music came from Richard Wagner (I still pronounce it “Vog-ner”). The main theme comes from Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung WWV 86D. It’s one of five pieces from Wagner’s opera The Ring. It underlines the theme of the Norse myth of Ragnarok, which is an endless cycle of death and rebirth of those gods—the theme of the emergence of the sword Excalibur and its return to the lake to eventually rise again.
Another piece, which also comes from Wagner is the music from Guenevere and Lancelot’s love scenes. It comes from the opera Tristan und Isolde, which I spoke about earlier. It underscores that what these two lovers have is an impossible love that will come with horrible consequences.
This film, directed by Boorman, which came soon after his less than stellar Zardoz (starring Sean Connery and John Alderton) and The Exorcist II: The Heretic (starring Richard Burton and Linda Blair) is a triumph. It remains one of my favorite films of the Arthurian genre and until someone makes a really good version of The Once and Future King by T.H. White, it will stay that way.