1980s Fantasy Film Festival #6: “Excalibur” (1981)

What is, is when Lancelot awakens from his nightmare a moment later, only to discover that his internal battle was more external than he’d realized; in his sleep, he had actually skewered himself with his sword. It’s gone all the way through the front of his abs and is sticking out the back, just over his left buttock. I was likely taken with this image at the time not only because it’s extremely strange but because it’s extremely erotic, the buff, nude Lancelot showing off his perfect, muscular body even as the large phallic weapon fully penetrates him. Boorman is clearly fully aware of the psychosexual implications underlying this emotional menage a trois between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere.

Lance, speared.

Lance, speared.

The language of Excalibur is the symbolic language of myth. Merlin speaks of an immense underground dragon, encompassing all of England–here only referred to as “the Land”–from which he and the Land get all their magic. The dragon is both literal and metaphorical. It is both an actual dragon so large and ineffable that no one can see it all and emerge with their mind intact, and it is also metaphysical entity. It is perhaps the Land itself. And, of course, Arthur’s last name is Pendragon. He is the Dragon that Merlin had hoped would replenish the Land and turn it into a veritable paradise. There is an ancient belief that a king and his kingdom are literally linked. If the king is healthy and good and wise, the kingdom itself will flourish, whereas if he is ill, evil, and/or sickly, the entire kingdom will fester. And that is the mythic idea around which the entire film arguably revolves.

Merlin, chasing the dragon.

Merlin, chasing the dragon.

More than even being the story of Arthur, Excalibur uses Arthur as a symbol of the Land’s one great hope. For the “brief shining moment” that Arthur and Camelot are successful, the Land overflows with beauty and joy. As soon as  he loses his best friend and Guinevere, however, Arthur becomes mentally and physically ill and worn out, and the Land follows suit. For nearly 20 years, as the knights search for the Holy Grail and Arthur seems to rot away, the Land is once again beset with strife, hunger, and poverty, not to mention rebellion at the hands of his son, Mordred. It isn’t until Percival finally brings Arthur the Holy Grail that he is restored with a sip from the chalice–a conflation of the Fisher King legend with that of Arthur–and he once again briefly becomes the great man he once was, in order to battle his evil son, finally dying at his hands and going off to Avalon, until the Land is ready for the next ruler worthy of wielding the magical sword.

Mordred himself is nearly always depicted in the film wearing an armor costume that looks like a cross between a golden Cupid and an angel–another extremely surreal touch–and unlike many other versions of Mordred, when we do see his face, he is angelically handsome and blonde, not ugly or haggard. He calls up the image of a fallen angel, like a Miltonian Lucifer.

Morgana and Mordred

Morgana and Mordred

Again, John Boorman is more interested in these more heightened, symbolic ideas than in character development or conventional plotting, which leads to a film that is often ravishingly beautiful to look at and an intoxicating dreamscape in which to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes but which certainly works better as a work of atmospheric art than as a drama.

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Author: Robert Berg

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