Excalibur: Movie Vs. Legend

One of the only single movies to attempt to take on the entire Arthurian legend, John Boorman’s Excalibur was a justified hit when it came out and has been beloved ever since. It is a lovely and very atmospheric movie that succeeds in capturing the look and feel of the legends, even if it’s a bit less successful on story. Watching it again, one is struck how the story as told in the film is, to be as kind as possible, a muddle, while the images have what famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called a “crazy integrity.” 

Excalibur lists itself as an adaptation of Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory. That work is about 1,000 printed pages, and is itself a condensation and compilation of several existing tales, the longest telling of which is about 3,000 printed pages. The main issue that Excalibur has is simply too much story. It’s trying to fit all those 1,000 pages into its 2 hour 20 minute running time, so of course, it has to compress and elide over many things. 

As a novelist engaged in creating a 25-novel telling of the actual legend as written pre-1485 (most books and movies change the story to make it more exciting and palatable for modern readers) I have been doing a great deal of study of the Medieval source literature, and here we’re going to pick apart what’s in the film and how it does or doesn’t relate to what’s in the actual Arthurian legend. So let’s go!

The movie: We open in the middle of a fiery nighttime battle in which knights in armor are chopping at each others’ limbs. We never really find out who’s fighting who and why, but it does display what will become this movie’s strength; suddenly knights in armor are real and dirty and visceral, and their battles are vicious and bloody. The next morning (I guess?) Nicol Williamson as Merlin goes to a lake and zoom, here comes the sword Excalibur out of the water, like out of a giant watery vending machine. Nevertheless, the sword looks amazing coming up out of the water, and that’s all you need to know. 

The legend: This is not bad for the way it is used in the film, in order to speed up the opening story, but in the legend, Arthur actually receives the sword himself toward the beginning of his reign, much later in the story. The image of the arm holding the sword above the lake is well known. This movie moves it to the beginning and offers the sword to Merlin in order to get the story going. 

The movie: Uther and his knights are invited to dinner at their new bud’s castle, when their new allies’ wife dances for them, and Uther gets all lusty, saying “I must have her.” He makes a deal with Merlin to get her, if he makes a promise to Merlin, who has his own ends. Merlin lets the king ride across the water, take on the appearance of the other king, go into the queen’s chamber and have sex with her while still wearing his armor, witnessed by her daughter, Morgana. Next thing you know, she’s given birth to his male child, and Merlin shows up to claim the boy. Here’s the first time you might think; “Boy, this movie just isn’t taking enough time for its own good,” because we are to understand that Uther started having fantasies of giving up all that fighting and becoming a family man, and is devastated when Merlin shows up and demands the newborn. This could have been incredibly powerful, but it’s going to take more than just a line or two to get it across. Before you know it, some other knights, whoever they are, chase Uther through a forest and kill him, but not before he shoves Excalibur into a stone.

The legend: Not bad as a way to compress a ton of extraneous story into the beginning, but let me just say that it takes the first three novels of my series to get to this point. In the Medieval material, the story begins just after the crucifixion of Christ and follows the Holy Grail to Britain. I start my series at the beginning of the story proper, which is the birth of Merlin, fathered by a demon but baptized by his crafty mother, allowing him to keep his powers. My second novel covers the story of Uther’s older brother Pendragon (including Merlin creating Stonehenge) and then the story of Uther’s lust for Igraine takes up the whole third novel. That’s one yardstick of how this movie is compressing HUGE amounts of material to get it all in one two-hour movie. By the way, though, this very movie did inspire me to start with that long, three-novel intro to the Arthur story, because I like the idea having this whole story-before-the-story thing, and as the series goes on, we’ll see how the events of one generation influence Arthur’s generation. 

In the legend, there’s nothing about “the dragon’s breath” and Uther never has a moment where he wants the child for himself. All of that is made up for the movie. As for Morgana, she is alive but not in the room, and she has an older sister, Margause, who becomes the mother of Sir Gawain and also Mordred. Oh, and Uther did not put the sword into the stone for it to be found later by his son, the sword in the stone came (for lack of further evidence) from God himself.

The movie: Now suddenly it’s years later and we see there is a small town where knights joust for the right to try to withdraw the sword, knowing whoever can draw it will be king. As only seems inevitable, Patrick Stewart is on hand. In wanders some fellow with two sons in tow, and one of them is bumbling squire Arthur. His sword gets stolen, so he grabs the nearest one, and pulls it out of the stone. In Kael’s review, she finds it emblematic of the entire film that this, one of the most satisfying dramatic climaxes in all literature, is quickly run through with a minimum of fanfare. I can see that, but the casual, straightforward way it happens here also has its own effect.

The legend: Interestingly, the pulling of the sword in actual legend is not the dramatic climax we’ve come to expect. In the legend, Arthur and his family have traveled to Logres (aka London) for a tournament. Arthur forgets his brother’s sword, and when he can’t get it, he just grabs the one from the stone, not seen by anyone and thinking no more of it. It’s a nice way of signaling that unlike almost all others who have tried the sword, Arthur is only trying to help his brother, not seeking fame or power of his own. 

The movie: We now have a few moments of Arthur wandering after Merlin, asking questions and amazed at suddenly being thrust into the role of king, then he’s storming some castle, catching the eye of Guinevere, refusing to slay this guy, which causes the guy, and all the knights, to swear allegiance to him. 

The legend: We tend to think that Merlin trained Arthur, or at least instructed him, but there is no basis for that in the legend. Most of us are thinking of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which portrayed a young Arthur being taught by an aged Merlin. In the legend at this point Arthur has some major battles with others who dispute the reign of a teenage king, and one of these is for King Leodegrance, who is Guinevere’s father. She does see Arthur fighting from above, as in this film. The thing with Arthur refusing to slay someone is not in the legend, but it stands in for how his men come to respect his prowess as a warrior and the way he fights right alongside them. 

The movie: Next thing you know, Arthur wants to cross a bridge, but Lancelot is there. No backstory on Lancelot and why he is there. Arthur wants to cross. Lancelot won’t let him. So they battle, and we are to understand that Lancelot is undefeatable, because of some reason or such. But Arthur calls on the power of Excalibur, and he defeats Lancelot! In the process, he broke Excalibur. Whoops! Then Arthur has a MORAL CRISIS. He gave it all away for his pride! He is weak as a MAN! Then poof, the Lady of the Lake pops by to hand it back to him, all superglued back together. So there you go, the serious, life-changing moral crisis that takes all of fifteen seconds. 

The legend: One of the intriguing things about the legend is that Lancelot doesn’t just come out of nowhere, there is a fascinating tie into a mistake Arthur made that ties him intimately into Arthur’s history, but you’ll have to wait for the books for that one! It is, however, such a big connection, with such a huge effect on the overall story, it’s surprising it is not even in Le Morte D’Arthur. This scene is trying to introduce Lancelot while also inserting a substitute scene for Arthur receiving Excalibur from the lady of the lake, and… it fairly successfully captures the magic of both without being true to either, so… nice job!

Courtesy Warner Brothers

The movie: Another sudden battle. These things just creep up on you. Repeatedly. At the end of this one Merlin holds up a lighter and makes a speech, and all the knights are standing in a circle, and Arthur says “What hey! I’ll build a round table!” And while you’re still saying “Damn right! Round table!” BOOM, Arthur is marrying Guinevere, whom he has only exchanged passing glances with, as far as I can tell. And right the at the altar she gets a look at Lancelot and you can tell she’s attracted to him and he’s feeling the same, so he leaves and goes to repose in the wood. Soon he is confronted by a knight, and they fight, and holy Empire Strikes Back the knight is HIM. Lancelot gets run through in his abdomen, shredding just a few organs, you know, nothing important, and he’s a trifle bloody a bit later. 

The legend: What’s going on in those battles is that Arthur is putting down the invading Saxons and uniting all the kingdoms of Britain, although nothing in the movie would tell you that. By this time he has also assembled the Knights of the Round Table, and what’s happening in this scene is an analog to the Pentacostal Oath that they take every year, in which they promise to help women, the poor, the elderly and the church. What’s surprising in the legend is that Merlin actually creates the Round Table for Uther, Arthur’s father. Arthur inherits it when he marries Guinevere, as part of her dowry. Uther’s knights are then the first Knights of the Round Table, and some of them linger through the generations to serve Arthur as well. I cover that in the second book of my series, in which Merlin also creates Stonehenge! We’ll cover Lancelot in the next segment, but you should know that he doesn’t join Arthur’s court until long after he is married to Guinevere.

The movie: It would seem Lancelot’s absence has been noted at the shiny new round table, where he would have to sit right next to Guinevere. Liam Neeson — come now, we KNEW Liam Neeson MUST be here, right? — as Gawain is tempted by Morgana to come out with the news that there’s hot steamy infedelious lust going down in Camelot (Oh, there’s a Camelot now too, by the way), which causes Guinevere to dispute the charge. Then, because of some inexplicable code, Gawain has to battle Lancelot, as though this will prove anything.

The legend: The movie glosses over a lot here. Sir Gawain is a huge presence in the legend that is just mentioned here. He is actually Arthur’s best friend. Lancelot is never shown to be all that close to Arthur personally, although many depictions portray them as best friends. Camelot appears just as quickly and inexplicably in the legends as it does here.  

What the movie is really rushing is Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere, which simmers for a long time before anything happens, and when it does — it brings the whole mess down! It spells the end of Camelot. This movie doesn’t really have the time for that, so we’ll swing back later and look at how it tried to get it across. But what it has done here, I have to say, is not all that bad. By the way, the reason the knights fight to resolve their dispute is called Trial by Combat. It was believed that God would not let the wrong person win, so whoever was victorious was the honest party. 

Courtesy Warner Brothers

The movie: Surely you perked your ears up to the name Morgana. That name sounds familiar, right? Well, she was the little girl that was there as Uther did the deed with her mom right in front of her back in the day, conceiving Arthur, and it would hap that she has some lingering resentments. She has somehow convinced Merlin to make her his apprentice, and after a while gets annoyed and traps Merlin downstairs in his melted-candle room, while she gets Arthur to make the beast with two backs with her, conceiving Mordred. 

The legend: Alrighty, all over the place here, and the movie is just going to continue to grow even more loose until the end. In the legend, way back toward the beginning of his reign, teenage Arthur sleeps with his half-sister Margause (Morgan’s sister), conceiving Mordred. Merlin tells him this was a bad mistake, because Mordred will eventually kill him. Arthur then, shades of the Old Testament, orders all the babies born on that day to be killed. Not very nice, huh? Which may be why that detail is often conveniently dropped, as it is here. Morgana here is Morgan le Fay in the legend.

Now, in some versions of the legend Merlin does teach Morgan his magic, but what they’re alluding to here is Merlin teaching Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, his magic, and her using it to trap him. Obviously too complicated to get into, so they made the wise choice to merge her with Morgana. Merlin’s disappearance, which occurs earlier in the legend, can be quite a shock to those familiar only with books and movies, in which he is at Arthur’s side his entire life. You keep reading like “Okay, Merlin’s coming back now… all right, Merlin must be coming back soon…” but he never does. 

The movie: Here’s where things really start flying apart. After Lancelot defeats Gawain, he and Guinevere run off to the wood to have sex. Arthur rides out and finds them, and we see him slam his sword downward, as if he’s planting it in one of them, but we soon find he actually just put it between them. Lancelot shouts “King without a sword!” which is your only clue that this infidelity is supposed to have led directly to the awful blight upon the land that occurs just after. If you hadn’t read some other source, you’d be forgiven for thinking “Okay, suddenly the land is thrown into chaos for no reason. Alright — makes about as much sense as anything else.”

The legend: Now, as for Lancelot and Guinevere, this scene never actually happens in the legend, although another knight does find his adulterous maiden with a man, and lays his sword across both their necks. And all of this has nothing to do with the need to find the Holy Grail (which comes up next in the movie). In fact, Arthur doesn’t come to grips with the affair until after the quest for the Grail is over (which raises the question of why he tolerated it so long, whether he is in denial or whether he’s really just thick). 

The movie: Well, I have to say that after checking Wikipedia to refresh myself on what happens at the end, I had (if their summary is accurate) no idea whatsoever what was going on in the film, and this is after having seen it several times! Apparently in the film it is Mordred’s incestuous birth that causes the land to go to waste, and Percival goes out in quest (not specifically after the Grail) and encounters Lancelot (!) who throws him in a river, but Percival gets the Grail and Arthur drinks from it, and he and the land are healed.

The legend: Much earlier on (in fact before Arthur’s wedding) there is an offense against God, and God blights part of the land (the Waste Land… yep, the same one from T.S. Eliot’s poem. This offense also injures the Fisher King, whom surely you have heard of) which causes the knights to go seek the Holy Grail. This part… doesn’t really work in the movie because it just doesn’t make sense, not to mention that—as in my experience—you simply can’t tell what is even going on. 

In the legend, Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot has not yet been exposed, but the knights may have become a bit full of themselves. After Galahad, Lancelot’s son, comes to court, they receive a vision of the Holy Grail and decide they’re going to go out and see it (that’s the sole goal, they aren’t going to get it, they aren’t going to drink from it), because merely seeing it would mean attaining oneness with God. To my surprise, in the legend, Arthur actually begs the knights not to go (because he knows it will mean the end of the Round Table). Basically, all of the knights save for three are either killed or sent back in failure, and the reward the successful one gets is to be allowed to die (not that cinematic!). Oh, and Percival, who has his own quite extensive backstory, is actually second to Galahad, who really gets to be one with the Grail. 

The movie: Arthur finds Guinevere at a convent, and she gives him Excalibur. Arthur fights Mordred with the help of Merlin, who’s still out there kickin’, and Lancelot swings in at the last moment to help out, too, but soon dies, having reconciled with Arthur. Mordred and Arthur kill each other simultaneously, but Arthur lives a little bit longer.

The legend: The movie is way off on its own now, but it is still re-arranging parts of the legend. Guinevere doesn’t go into the convent until after Arthur dies. Lancelot is on his way to help, but hasn’t yet arrived. Arthur and Mordred do indeed kill each other simultaneously, but what’s mostly missing is Mordred’s history, without which the whole thing lacks the incredible power and resonance it has in the legend.

Courtesy Warner Brothers

Remember I told you that Arthur conceived Mordred way back when he was a youth, and killed all the babies born on that day? Well, in the legend, the story ends with a powerful statement of the mistakes we make in our youth coming back to haunt us. Also, both Arthur and Mordred were born through quite questionable methods, so when they kill each other simultaneously, it bears a sense that they cancel each other out. That this sin could not exist, and they both had to be destroyed. In the legend we have also had Mordred with us as an adult knight since before the quest, so we know him a little bit, whereas in the film this creature just appears—looking amazing, I admit—and takes Arthur down. 

The movie: Arthur tells Percival to go throw the sword into the lake. When he does, a hand reaches up and catches it. Percival returns to see Arthur sailing away on a barge with three women. The end!

The legend: In Le Morte D’Arthur,at least, ever-present but little-known knight Bedivere throws the sword in the lake, and he has to be ordered to do it three times before he can be made to part with it. Until he hears that a hand caught it, Arthur knows that Bedivere didn’t actually do it. There is then a fascinating little contradiction that has Arthur seen dead and later reported alive… and his headstone that says “he was king… and will be king again.” You’ll be surprised that one of the women on the barge taking Arthur to Avalon is Morgan le Fay (aka Morgana)! But in the legend she has been absent for quite a while, she is not at all as present and vengeful as she is in this film, and the implication (to me) is that now that Arthur has been weakened, they can be brother and sister. 

The movie: After all I’ve said, I still adore this movie. It has way too much material to fit into 2 hours and 20 minutes—even too much for a good series. As I said, I’m taking 25 novels to tell the whole thing, because what occurred to me—and what this movie helped me to see—is that this story needs to be slowed way down in order for it to have the impact it needs. 

Still, that makes this film ambitious and insane in a way you just have to love. And while it may miss a lot of the details of the legend, it really does capture the mood and the feeling of it, mostly through its delicious and evocative images. This is because, as Kael said, Boorman’s images have a “crazy integrity.” The movie succeeds in creating a totally immersive virtual world that contains one’s romantic ideas of what knights and ladies on horseback are supposed to look like, but also contains really grim and gruesome men-in-armor warfare. It also gains immeasurably by being shot primarily outdoors in all these primeval forest locations with tons of moss and unspoiled landscapes. Because these stories operate on a mythic level and contain so much magic, the loaded images here have to fill in for so many story details, and so we in the audience are invited to load them all with meaning — and it works. In doing so they become more exciting and evocative than they are. And to Boorman’s credit, he is able to create images that stand up to it. From the mere setting of these tales in wet, mossy forests, the storybook images of women in medieval dresses riding horses through the landscape, literal knights in shining armor… it all brings images from childhood interest to castles and knights to life, and successfully overcomes the limitations of the storytelling. I’m not sure I can remember such an outrageously BAD movie that is quite so legitimately good.

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