There is a vague memory somewhere in my recollections of high school of seeing Excalibur (1981) in class as a freshman in high school. If you are at all familiar with this film (and there is no reason why you should be), then you will know how worrisome of a concept that would be because of some of the graphic content. Then again, are we at all surprised anymore as to what happens in our public school system, even in my day? My recall of the movie was not the greatest, but as I watched it unfold in all its perplexing awfulness, I began rationalizing the decision that led to my English teacher showing it to her class. I mean, the tales of King Arthur and the knights of his round table are an important part of Western culture, right? How else do you get a room full of disengaged teenagers to have even a remote chance of absorbing any of the material? If it were me, I would give them the source material and say sink or swim. The theory is that it is their responsibility to read, learn, and earn a good grade. I bring up taking in these legends in a classroom setting in relation to this film because it seems to cover most of them, albeit in a strange and sometimes hilariously bad way.
If you choose to watch Excalibur, get ready for a two and a half hour slog. This is set up by what is essentially a half hour prologue where we get to see King Arthur’s (Nigel Terry) insufferable father Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) gain the title weapon, become king, desire one of his duke’s wives, and have Merlin (Nicol Williamson) use his magic so that Uther can sleep with her. Great guy. And then Merlin walks off with the resulting child, who turns out to be Arthur. Fast forward a couple decades and Arthur is now a page at a tournament where nearby is Excalibur. It is stuck in a stone, put there by a regretful Uther who, when Merlin takes Arthur in fulfillment of the lustful pact he made with the king like a spoiled brat. Whoever is able to dislodge the sword will be declared the next king of England. When Arthur inevitably does this, those assembled for the joust are divided as to whether or not to follow such a young monarch. After a few minutes of convincing by Merlin, Arthur agrees to his fate and is able to win over all his doubters. He also captures the heart of Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), even though Merlin warns of dire consequences of marrying her. Of course, Merlin tells him this while Guenevere cavorts around the dance floor in an inviting fashion, hence the wizard’s advice goes in one ear and out the other (even though he remembers it later after everything has gone to pot). His subsequent marriage seems to go off without a hitch, and peace reigns in the land as he brings together the bravest knights in the realm in order to create the fellowship of the Round Table. The one threat to all this, though, is his best friend, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). He is the bravest of his warriors, and supposedly the most perfect. I say “supposedly” because he is also in love with Guenevere. As long as he keeps his distance, everything is okay. Yet, when Morgana (Helen Mirren), Arthur’s sister no less, puts it in the ear of Gawain (Liam Neeson) the true nature of the feelings between Lancelot and Guenevere, Lancelot is called upon to defend his queen’s name. Lancelot feels torn by what he feels he must do, and wounds himself before his joust. In the process, though he is ultimately triumphant, the puncture to his abdomen needs treatment. He is looked after personally by Guenevere. This takes their relations to the next level, and when Arthur walks in on them lying together post-coitus, the king is devastated. In his desolation, Morgana visits him in the night disguised as Guenevere, and lays with her brother. Morgana also steals Merlin’s power. Hence, Arthur feels like he has lost everything. The only thing he believes will restore him is the Holy Grail, and he sends his remaining knights to go find it. Meanwhile, Morgana conceives from her abhorrent union with her brother, and raises a son named Mordred (Robert Addie) who she hopes to place on the throne. All but one of Arthur’s knights fail on their quest, all but Perceval (Paul Geoffrey). Everyone comes together for one final battle. Though Arthur’s forces win, he and Mordred meet in the end and kill each other. Perceval is left once more to clean up, tossing Excalibur back in the lake, and seeing off Arthur’s body as it sails into the setting sun.
The above description of Excalibur makes it seem somewhat innocuous. After all, early on I did call it “hilariously bad” at times. There are a few moments that had me chuckling uproariously, such as when I noticed an extra smoking a cigarette on camera. And this was not somebody off to the side, it was a warrior running across the middle of the frame. In other words, not someone easily missed. It also talks about how it is set during the Dark Ages (roughly 500 AD to 1000 AD), even though their armor is more befitting of the knights of the fourteenth century. Okay, this last is more historian nerd rage on my part, but it also begs the question as to why they bothered to give any dating in the first place. However, the most confusing aspect for this Catholic was the randomness of the way Faith was handled. I get it, this is basically a mythical story, and the source material was perfectly comfortable with its characters moving seamlessly between witchcraft and worshipping God. The Bible makes it clear that you are either in one camp or the other. In the actual historical days in which this movie is set, magic was accepted as being a real thing, but not something a true Christian practiced. But because Arthur is the hero of this story, and Merlin is the wise teacher, they have to have a strange alliance between good practitioners of wizardry and Christianity. They get around this with a throw away line from Merlin about how the world was giving way to the “One God.” Look, I am as big a fan of Harry Potter as the next guy, but at least in those works there are not faithful also practicing that which they are taught subverts God. As the Bible says elsewhere, for those who believe no convincing is necessary, but for those who do not no amount of words will convince them otherwise. Christians believe that there is one God, and that practicing magic is trying to elevate yourself to His level. That is not something we should do because, as with another Bible verse, God’s ways are above our ways. In short, we do not understand the powers with which we meddle. And neither did Morgana, apparently.
Excalibur should be left in 1981, not to be heard from ever again. It is violent and there is far too much nudity in it for a film that is set in legendary times. Then again, there are the shenanigans of more modern shows like Game of Thrones, which has similar content, I suppose. I have never seen it, so I can speak definitively, nor do I care to do so. In sum, it is a film that fails to satisfy on any level. The history, whether or not it is supposed to be taken seriously, is dumb, its treatment of Faith is uneven, and the content is graphic. Avoid.