The stupidity and glory of Excalibur (1981)
This movie is hailed as an 80s cult classic, and I think Excalibur (1981) has a lot of great and awesome idiocy. It is a beautiful film, but has a lot of filtering and mist, which obscures most things, although it has great landscapes thanks to the on-site locations the crew selected. However, the characters are a mixed bag and it never feels like they are really in medieval times. Maybe Medieval Times, as in the restaurant. And that’s where the great part comes in.
I love that restaurant. Medieval Times is a spectacle for the kids. And the kid in all of us adults too. If you’ve never been there, everyone sits around a dirt-filled arena to have dinner and guys in armor fake fight for entertainment. My reason for bringing this up is that Excalibur reminded me of what goes on there. All the movie characters clink around awkwardly and wear hugely adorned suits of armor. They yell and behave like over-the-top fighters. Even at the beginning of the movie, some knights fight like they are in the restaurant arena. Thankfully, the editing helps, as there is never a straight shot for any more than a few seconds, which is good, because the whole beginning of the movie is poorly done.
The morals of this film are so ambiguous, they are nonexistent. It’s actually kinda humorous. Merlin seems aligned with some of the most greedy and despicable people in the whole country, but he doesn’t actually do anything about it. Later on, Lancelot actually fights people who have insulted his honor by accusing him of being Guenevere’s lover, but then he sleeps with her anyway. Honor, ha! Bordering on incest, Arthur sleeps with Guenevere, who is Morgana in disguise, Arthur’s half-sister. Holy cow, talk about depravity overboard.
We get a history lesson amongst the sex and violence, as Arthur’s father seals a truce with Cornwall, a powerful Duke. At the celebration, men cut themselves to make a blood pact. Gross. Half naked women dance to music and apparently, it is Cornwall’s wife who leads the dancing. Everyone pounds on tables, yelling like barbarians. Arthur lusts after Cornwall’s wife and they cancel the truce immediately. It is a spectacle. I half expected John Cleese to run out Monty Python style and yell, “And NOW, more DANCING!”. It is pretty awesomely funny.
I’m not sure if this tale was revisionist on purpose or not, but it must be. Everything about it is done for fantasy effect, which really sells the glory and spectacle, like an adult fairy tale told in a modern style. It is like the opposite of a history book. The locations are really amazing. At one such site, Cornwall holds up at his castle and yells at Uther’s invading forces, “You’ll NEVER get the GRAIL!” I mean, err…”You’ll NEVER sleep with my WIFE! OR her dancing TROOP!”
Uther can’t break into the castle to force himself on the woman, so he forces Merlin to cast a spell in order to give him sexy time with Cornwall’s wife. Merlin changes Uther’s likeness into Cornwall and he crosses the large rocky cliff on some magic mist to reach the castle. It’s hilariously good. Merlin yells, “Yes! Become the sexual Cornwall and RIDE!”. LOL.
Later, Cornwall’s wife gives birth to Arthur. Yeah, that King Arthur: the great and majestic leader of the Knights of the Round Table, the greatest mythical fighter in England, a bastard son. It is funny how the Arthur legend changes from tale to tale. In 2004’s King Arthur, Clive Owen portrays him as little more than an adventurer, but the Arthur in this film is a strange one. He is set up for failure right from the start, being born of a lustful affair. He grows up with Merlin, not his father and not his mother, because the magician tricked Uther into giving him up.
Uther is killed by some bandits, but plunges Excalibur into the “stone” before he dies. Merlin looks pretty impressed Uther can curse the sword to the stone, but knows that Arthur is the only one who can retrieve it. He’s special, you see. Merlin smiles as the bandits slaughter the King’s troops. Pretty funny. He carries the baby off and goes on his merry way.
Patrick Stewart is in this movie and carries it with his awesome cameo. He is fighting hard at a tournament to see who will get a chance to pull the sword from the stone, you see. It is so rough and bloodthirsty, the men use broken lances and bash themselves over the head until they fall off their horses. Pretty awesome. Patrick Stewart can’t knock his opponent down, so he hits them in the face until they fall. Hilarious. He rides to Excalibur in tournament victory, but fails to pull the sword free. He yells like a sissy and cries.
Arthur steps up like a badass and pulls the sword free, but ends up dividing the whole country. Patrick Stewart is on his side, but nobody else wants to follow a bastard. This must be the most famous gossip in the whole country, because everyone, even the nobody priest, knows Arthur is a bastard jerk. Poor guy. The whole crowd yells and argues on like high schoolers.
We then move from the pagan king story to the Christian tale of Arthur, and we get a lot of symbolism. One of his knights is Percival, who seeks the Holy Grail to restore the land, which has fallen into depravity, much like this movie. The people spurn him like they did to Christ and he flops into a river. He has to shed his armor to rise again and when he does, he is in a different place, a place of illusion, where he claims the Holy Grail. I suppose this symbolizes his quest for personal growth or enlightenment or something. It is pretty strange.
There’s nothing holy or catholic about this movie though, because the last part of the movie plays with dreams, symbolism, and other weird junk. It is interesting to watch though, as Liam Neesen is punked out and killed, ending his short cameo. Paul Geoffery plays Sir Percival, the common man knight, the only one left after so many years searching for the Grail. He takes it to Arthur and the man drinks from the Grail, soaring to life like Superman. The whole last part of the movie is strangely hypnotic, and the finale rings with Carmina Burana, trying to hail in some glory.
All in all, despite some rough spots, this movie does bring its best. It has an objective to put to film a literal myth, a fantastic story lured in romantic notions, written down in hundreds of pages. Clearly, this is nearly impossible, but this movie doesn’t care, and I respect it for its ballsy attitude. It would have been safe to take a realistic approach, like it was some frickin Ridley Scott film or some crap. It isn’t. It seems like some of the characters already know their destiny though, like they have read the legend of King Arthur, the same as the audience, and that’s its one major flaw. However, it is filled with wonderful visuals, tons of depravity, and buckets of unintentionally hilarious moments, making it one unique vision.