With the recent release of Guy Richie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the subsequent reviews (let's just say they have not been kind), I decided to revisit what is generally considered the best filmic adaptation of Arthurian legend.
To say "best" is relative. The truth is that Hollywood has never managed to get a handle on the stories of King Arthur – perhaps because the mythology is so sprawling; perhaps because Arthur himself isn't anything like the typical anti-hero that modern filmmakers love, perhaps because he's quintessentially British in a way an American industry can't quite grasp (as opposed to Robin Hood, whose devil-may-care, stick-it-to-the-man attitude translates much better to Hollywood sensibilities).
If Arthur has a flaw, it was his inability to condemn his wife and best friend out of love for them (at least not until it was too late), or how his commitment to law and justice alienated allies looking for special favours. Or, you know, that one time he slept with his half-sister who then gave birth to an incestuous bastard who eventually killed him on the battlefield.
In any case, none of it translates well into the "flawed hero" archetype. In fact, a lot can be read into Guy Ritchie's interview in which he says:
I think where the pitfall has often been is trying to make King Arthur bland and nice, and nice and bland. The two qualities make rather compatible bed companions. Unfortunately, they’re not interesting to watch. Luke Skywalker was always the most uninteresting character in Star Wars because he’s the good guy. Good guys are boring.
With that attitude, is it any wonder that no one has ever done King Arthur justice? But John Boorman certainly made the attempt, and though the result is a rather strange affair, with composite characters, shifting perspectives, massive time-skips, and hefty symbolism to get across some of the finer details, it has a hypnotic quality that makes it worth at least one watch...
Hoo boy is it 1981.
I'm sure John Boorman's ambition to streamline the Arthurian legends into a single cinematic spectacle did not deliberately set out to capture the full-blown glory of the Eighties in all its clonking, cheesy, big-haired, hideously-coloured glory...but it totally did. This isn't just a glimpse into the Middle Ages, but also the decade of mullets, shoulder pads, blue eye shadow, the colour orange, and dubious fashion choices.
Excalibur is certainly ambitious enough, stretching from the whole Igraine/Uther/Gorlois fiasco to Arthur’s death and voyage to Avalon upon a barge helmed by three maidens. Divided into five distinct parts, the first deals with Uther’s pursuit of Igraine, the second the Sword in the Stone and Arthur’s attempts to prove himself as king, the third Lancelot and Guenevere's love affair, the fourth Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail, and the fifth Arthur's rejuvenation and the battle of Camlann.
Strewn throughout are the staple parts of Arthurian legend: Merlin fostering Arthur to Sir Ector, the Lady of the Lake granting Excalibur to Arthur, the formation of the Knights of the Round Table, Morgana and Arthur's incest, Guinevere and Lancelot's infidelity, shiny armour, mysterious castles, douchey bridge-keepers, and knights that go crazy at the drop of a hat.
It covers about sixty years in total, yet despite the huge swathes of material it has to cover, it manages to remain surprisingly coherent. Indeed, some of the choices in merging characters and relying on potent imagery to get the point across are pretty damn clever. At the same time the Duke of Cornwall is being graphically impaled by a spear, Uther is raping Igraine in her bedchamber, and the state of Arthur’s kingdom is signified by how shiny the armour of his knights are – and trust me, that armour can get pretty damn shiny. We’re talking a blinding mirror-quality level sheen here.
As far as I know, this is the first time that Morgause and Morgana are combined into a single character; and she's also given Nimue's usual role of seducing Merlin and trapping him inside the crystal cave. All the Grail Knights are embodied in Perceval, as well as the story of the Kitchen Knight.
The price is that any degree of character nuance has to be obliterated in favour of plot, something the film tries to compensate for by casting plenty of familiar (albeit youthful) faces: Helen Mirren as Morgana, Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Gawaine, Gabriel Byrne as Uther and Robert Addie as Mordred (okay, you may not be entirely familiar with that last one, but he’s the man who played Guy of Gisborne in Robin of Sherwood).
In regards to the performances, it’s largely Nicol Williamson as Merlin who’s the standout, managing to emerge as the Largest Ham in a World of Hams, but Helen Mirren is also a lot of fun as Morgana. It’s a rare example of Morgana being portrayed as a blonde (instead of raven-haired), and they transfer some of the Merlin/Nimue relationship to her as well, making her the one responsible for trapping Merlin in the crystal cave after learning what she can from him. The time restraints make it impossible to properly explore her motivations in turning on Arthur, but there’s a nice indication that her animosity toward Merlin is born out of her awareness of his role to play in Uther’s rape of her mother.
As for Nigel Terry, I’m beginning to think that the role of King Arthur is to actors what the Princess Classic trope is to actresses: an impossible task. It’s not that he’s bad, but much like Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Clive Owen, Paul Curran, Edward Atterton and (oy) Jamie Campbell Bower, he just seems completely overwhelmed by the material. King Arthur needs to dominate. But dominate effortlessly.
If I may digress, Bradley James's take on Arthur in Merlin actually managed this extremely well. Granted, the character was a complete failure by the end of the series, but in the first two-and-a-bit seasons, I honestly believe that Bradley managed to capture the spirit of Arthur in a way that no other actor ever has. Seriously. He nailed the threefold qualities of charisma, idealism and physique that are completely missing from other portrayals of this character, making me believe that this was a man who could bring about a Utopia on Earth through sheer force of will, even if it was only for a little while.
(Unfortunately, the writers squandered this by making his character increasingly stupid and ineffectual as the series went on, but the only other depictions of Arthur that came close to capturing my ideal of the character would be the animated ones in Gargoyles and Prince Valiant).
As it stands, Nigel Terry is convincingly aged from a teenager to an old man over the course of the film, and gets some nice line readings here and there, but I never really felt within myself that this was a man and king who could change the world.
So now I’m going to hang a left to talk tangentially about Arthurian legend in general, and how this eventually informs the direction Excalibur takes.
I’m not a purist by any means, BUT I also think that if you’re going to try and write the definitive King Arthur story with all its themes of human fallibility (which Excalibur seemingly intends to), then there are several key points that have to be met. Namely, that Arthur has to commit incest with his half-sister to beget Mordred, which ultimately leads to the ruination of Camelot. The fall of the kingdom has to be traceddirectly back to Arthur’s sin (or mistake, whichever term you prefer).
Granted, the very oldest sources don’t identify Mordred (or Medraut) as Arthur’s son, but by now the idea has been thoroughly integrated into the themes of the overall story. This is why it's Mordred who always kills Arthur: it's all part of the message that we are the authors of our own destruction, doomed to die in ways that are brought on by our fatal flaws.
(The idea was also utilized in that recent CGI adaptation of Beowulf, in which it’s revealed that Grendel is actually the son of Hrothgar after he went out to defeat Grendel’s mother and ended up impregnating her instead).
But in order for that theme to have dramatic weight, Arthur has to make the conscious choice to sleep with his sister (granted, he doesn’t know that she’s his sister, but he still sleeps with a woman outside of marriage; something he knows he shouldn’t do).
That aspect of the story doesn’t play out in Excalibur, which instead depicts Morgana disguising herself as Guenevere and going to Arthur’s bedchamber while his wife is elsewhere. Obviously, Arthur can’t be held responsible for this indiscretion, and so the potency of him dying at the hands of his own sin made manifest (Mordred) is lost.
That’s the key to the villains in Arthurian sagas: they use the mistakes of the good guys against them. My understanding of Mordred is that he's a master manipulator, the ultimate Machiavellian trickster, who seizes upon the PR crisis that Lancelot and Guenevere provide and uses it to fatally undermine his father's power and authority.
It's crucially important to note that Lancelot and Guenevere did not cause the fall of Camelot; rather they were used as tools to achieve that goal. Between the two of them and Arthur (as best portrayed in T.H. White’s take on the whole matter) was an odd sort of equilibrium; of mutual understanding.
Occasionally Lancelot was so torn with guilt over the whole thing that he'd take off for years at a time, leaving Guenevere to try to convince herself that her feelings for him were just a passing thing and that she was over him. For a while she would find legitimate happiness with Arthur – until Lancelot would turn up again out of the blue and she would be struck by lightning at the sight of him and the whole thing would start up all over again.
As for Arthur, he had a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place, and one can’t help but feel that if he had just taken control over the whole situation, disaster would have been averted. As T.H. White points out, if he had only confronted them, they would have instantly vowed to never see each other again, and kept that vow for the rest of their lives.
But Arthur kept his head in the sand (not out of weakness or stupidity, but because he loved them and thought it was the best way to handle the situation) leaving all three vulnerable to Mordred's manipulation. There is a reason that theirs is the most famous love triangle of all time, and it’s not because it destroyed a kingdom or because it involved a forbidden love affair between two highly-positioned people, but because all three genuinely loved each other dearly.
And the whole Lancelot/Guenevere affair leads to the other major theme that sits at the heart of Arthurian legend: the time-honoured tension between Love and Duty. Once Mordred exposes the extramarital affair he demands Guenevere be put on trial for treason, arguing that to not do so would undermine all the ideals of justice and honour that Camelot stands for. Arthur insists it's a private matter, that he is the one that has been wronged and so only he has the right to pass judgment on her. Mordred responds by getting everyone riled up into thinking that the King is playing favourites and that he’s trying to put himself above his own laws.
So Arthur is reluctantly forced to choose Duty, Guenevere is duly sentenced to be burnt at the stake, and Lancelot rides in to rescue her, killing several of his fellow knights in the process. This leads to the breaking of the Round Table, what with the knights being divided on the issue of which of the two men was in the right (none of them condoned adultery, but many were sympathetic to Lancelot/Guenevere’s predicament and thought that Arthur was too harsh in his treatment of them).
There's weight and tragedy to the way this unfolds: good people brought to their knees not only by their own foibles, but by the rules of the world they themselves had created.
But again, things play out differently in Excalibur, for though it touches on the "Love versus Duty" theme, the sequencing of events means it’s not as powerful as it could have been.
Here Guenevere is accused of adultery long before she and Lancelot do commit adultery, with Arthur subsequently putting her on trial as a demonstration that everyone is accountable to his laws. Guenevere protests his choice to be a king before a husband, is duly humiliated in front of everyone in court, and watches as Lancelot arrives to defend her honour. Naturally, the only thing all of this accomplishes is to send Guenevere straight into Lancelot’s arms.
After Arthur discovers them post-coital in the forest, they disappear from the film until the finale, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Mordred’s machinations (in fact it’s Morgana who gets the ball rolling by starting the rumours about them in the first place).
Naturally, events that have no consequences aren’t particularly powerful, and so Boorman tries to cover for Lancelot/Guenevere's lack of participation in the events leading up to Camlann by demonstrating that their disappearance from Camelot leaves Arthur with a broken heart, which in turns leads to the land becoming desolate and barren in a sort of Fisher King scenario.
Thus the Quest for the Holy Grail begins, and the film follows Perceval as he journeys into the wilderness and eventually returns with the Cup to restore Arthur and the Kingdom to full health.
Does it work? Sure, but it doesn't have quite the same cause-and-effect resonance as it should.
Excalibur is entertaining, though a lot of it has aged terrible. That it was filmed in the Eighties is unmistakable thanks to all the ginormous hair and hideous clothes, and though I have no idea whether the full-body plate armour was accurate or not, it looks bloody ridiculous. Fight scenes are generally composed of people lurching uncontrollably at each other in the attempt to land a blow, but that armour makes it virtually impossible to move.
And yeesh, no one in this movie has an indoor voice. I’m certain that at least 70% of all the lines are screamed or shouted or bellowed, usually rendering the line utterly incoherent, complete with rolling eyes and massive gesticulations.
But there are some beautiful outdoor scenes (Arthur and Guenevere’s wedding comes to mind), great use of Richard Wagner and O Fortuna, and moments of true transcendence: the Knights of the Round Table galloping to battle through clouds of apple blossom, Lancelot's disturbing dream, Perceval's escape from the hanging tree, Arthur's final words of forgiveness and hope to Guenevere, Igraine's primal victory dance (just try not to think about how the director is her father).
If I was to sum up the film as a whole, I would say it’s a bit of a mess. But it’s an interesting mess, and sometimes that’s good enough. Personally, I don’t think anyone has come close to creating the absolute, definitive, by-which-all-others-shall-be-judged version of the Arthurian legends. To be honest, I doubt anyone ever will.
But if you’re wondering which ones came close, I’d say T.H. White’s The Once And Future King, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s King Arthur trilogy (comprised of The Sword and the Circle, The Light Beyond the Forest, and Road to Camlann) and the 1998 Merlin miniseries starring Sam Neill. Don’t roll your eyes at that last one, I mean it. It may have introduced Queen Mab to the proceedings and skimmed over a few details, but it also managed to tick all the boxes of the inherent tragedy and have them unfold in the way that made thematic sense, as mentioned above.
So Excalibur is not a quintessential retelling of the Arthurian legends. Such a thing doesn't exist – not yet anyway. Perhaps not ever. It's not just the depth and scope of the legend that makes adaptations difficult, but for some reason the real meaning and power of King Arthur's story continues to elude film-makers (not to mention everyone's complete inability to cast a fitting actor for the role).