There are a fair amount of King Arthur movies, and most of them are absolutely terrible. The main reason for that is there’s just too much story for any one movie (the legend spans 60 years and has hundreds of characters), but the stories are so interconnected, if you pull one out, you lose the greatness of the whole.
One of the few (relatively) successful films is John Boorman’s Excalibur, which I adore while acknowledging that it, to be polite, has its issues.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. That could be because it is trying to pack the entire Arthurian legend into 2 hours and 20 minutes, which simply can’t be done.
I’m 4 novels into a 25-novel adaptation of the Arthurian legend, taking it as a challenge that I’m not allowed to change anything about the story, just add character, psychology and connecting material. As such, I’ve spent the past 10 years reading the various versions of the legend and its sources, and I’m going to break down how the film Excalibur truncates, combines, switches and generally crams all that story into its crazy, magical, virtually nonsensical running time. So let’s go!
The movie: We open in the middle of a fiery nighttime battle. The next morning (I guess?) Nicol Williamson as Merlin goes to a lake and zoom, up comes the sword Excalibur, like from some giant watery vending machine!
The legend: This is not bad for the way it is used in the film, in order to speed up the story, but in the legend, Arthur receives the sword himself, much later on. The image of the arm holding the sword above the lake is a classic one. This movie moves it to the beginning and offers the sword to Merlin in order to create some continuity between father and son.
The movie: Uther and his knights are invited to dinner at his bud’s castle, when his 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 hands over the child he will create. Merlin lets the king take on the appearance of the other king, go into the queen’s chamber and have sex with her while still wearing his armor (which warped my 14-year-old mind back in the basic cable days), 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, over Uther’s objections. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail 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, after following the Holy Grail from Christ’s side to Britain, the story proper begins with Merlin’s birth (fathered by a demon but baptized by his mother), and goes through Uther’s big brother Pendragon (and Merlin creating Stonehenge!) before finally coming to this story.
In the legend, Uther never has a moment where he wants the child for himself. That said, the legend — which cannot be considered exactly feminist — is quite nasty to Arthur’s mother, so it’s a relief that part is gone. As for Morgana, she was alive but not in the room. This movie is combining her with her older sister Margause, who becomes the mother of Sir Gawain and also Mordred. Oh, and since Uther did not have Excalibur, he did not put the sword into the stone for it to be found later by his son. The sword in the stone is actually another sword entirely, and came (for lack of further evidence) from God himself.
The movie: Now suddenly it’s years later and there is a small town where knights joust for the right to try the sword, knowing whoever can draw it will be king. In wanders some fellow with 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.
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, so he 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 scenes 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 because 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 breaks 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 15 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 connection to 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!
The movie: Another sudden battle. At the end of this one Merlin holds up a lighter and makes a speech, and all they 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. 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.
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 (making his knights the first generation Knights of the Round Table, which we don’t usually hear about). After Uther dies, the table goes to Guinevere’s dad, and Arthur gets it when he marries her, as part of her dowry. We’ll cover Lancelot in the next segment, but you should know that he doesn’t join the court until Arthur has been married to Guinevere long enough for them both to be a bit bored.
The movie: It would seem Lancelot’s absence has been noted at the shiny new round table. Liam as Gawain is tempted by Morgana to come out with the news that there’s hot, steamy infidelity 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 humungous presence in the legend, but is barely mentioned in the movie. He is actually Arthur’s best friend. Lancelot is never shown to be all that close to Arthur personally, despite most depictions portraying them as best friends. Lancelot, in the legends, is actually quite a strange and (I think) damaged person. One thing we never hear about is that Lancelot was raised by the Lady of the Lake in a matriarchal society. 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! Arthur and Lancelot go to war, allowing Arthur’s bastard son Mordred to mount a takeover. 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.
The movie: Surely you perked your ears up to the name Morgana. 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 of our wise old king, huh? Which may be why that detail is often conveniently dropped. 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…” but he never actually 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. And all of this has nothing to do with the need to find the Holy Grail (which comes up next in the film). 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 if he’s really just thick. This question is one of the enduring mysteries of the legend.
Much earlier on in the legend (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 you may also have heard of). All of this, late in the legend, 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 you simply can’t tell what’s 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, it does not shoot lasers), 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 it will mean the end of the Round Table). And then… the knights get their asses kicked! All but three are killed or sent back in failure, and the reward the successful one gets is to be allowed to die. Not that cinematic! But the real shock to most people is that in the legend, the quest for the Holy Grail is, all told, a total bust.
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 as Arthur’s big mistake come back to haunt him, without which the whole thing lacks the devastating power and resonance it has in the legend.
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 yet later reported alive… and his headstone that says “he was king… and will be king again.” This is what led to the belief that Arthur is still out there, and will return when Britain needs him again.
And that’s it! After all I’ve said, I still adore this movie. It has way too much material to fit into two hours and twenty 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 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, this film is 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 New Yorker critic Pauline 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. I’m not sure I can remember such an outrageously bad movie that is quite so legitimately good.
As you can tell, there is a great deal of deviance from the legend — and a great deal about the legend that most people don’t know, despite how most of us may feel we know the King Arthur story inside and out. This is a textbook case of a very ingenious adaptation that takes a lot of poetic license, but in the end, makes it work.