In discussing any story about King Arthur, one first must distinguish between the historical King Arthur and the King Arthur of legend. Of what we know of the historical King Arthur, there is too little on which to base a movie; of what we know of the legendary King Arthur, there is too much. Therefore, when one sets out to tell a story about Arthur, it is not merely that the author is likely to take liberties with the source material. He must do so, or else the result will be a ponderous mess.
Mostly, it is a matter of simplification, which involves eliminating many of the characters and stories about them. In Excalibur, the title tells us that the unifying principle of this movie about King Arthur will be a sword. In many versions of the Arthurian legend, Arthur becomes king by pulling a sword out of a stone; and then, somewhat later, he receives Excalibur, a completely different sword, from the Lady of the Lake. That is one magical sword too many. But it gets worse. In Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, the basic source material for this movie, there are two more stories about two more swords sticking out of two more stones. Apparently, the idea of a sword sticking out of a stone was so fascinating that it ended up being used a couple more times; but the effect is to make it seem rather commonplace, as if there were swords sticking out of stones all over England, and every other Tuesday some knight would run across one and try to pull it out.
Less is more, and so later versions of the Arthurian legend tend to have only one sword sticking out of one stone, the one Arthur pulls out, and it is the same sword Excalibur that comes from the Lady of the Lake. So it is with the movie Excalibur. This is accomplished by having Merlin (Nicol Williamson) secure Excalibur for Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) to help him wage war against the Duke of Cornwall and become ruler of all of England. It is Merlin’s hope that the truce will result in a permanent peace, enforced by this enchanted sword.
And so it would probably have been were it not for a disrupting force that recurs throughout this movie: women. At a party at Cornwall’s castle celebrating the truce, Cornwall has his wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) entertain the guests by dancing. As soon as Uther sees her, he knows that he must have her, and says so openly in earshot of her husband. Needless to say, the truce is broken.
Uther’s army lays siege to the castle and tries to batter down the gate, but to no avail. And so, Uther makes a pact with Merlin that if he can gain access to the castle and possess Igrayne, whatever issues from his lust will be Merlin’s. What follows is a great scene in which the beautiful, naked Igrayne is being ravished by Uther in a full suit of armor. Nine months later, Igrayne gives birth to Arthur, and Merlin shows up to collect. Uther gives up the baby, but then relents and chases after Merlin to get him back. However, as Uther is no longer trusted on account of his having betrayed Cornwall, he is ambushed by men intent on killing him and gaining possession of Excalibur. Mortally wounded, Uther denies them possession of the sword by plunging it into a stone. Seeing this, Merlin makes the pronouncement that only the future king of England will be able to draw it out. It is in this way that the movie fuses Excalibur and the sword in the stone into just one sword.
Years later, Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, proving that he is to be king, but many knights have doubts, and another civil war breaks out, in some ways paralleling the first one. Once again, the man who wields Excalibur wins, the opposing sides are reconciled, and there is a celebration, this time at the castle of Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart). And once again, there is a woman who dances and who will prove to be a disruptive force, but not quite in the same way. This time the woman is Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), but at least she is only the daughter of Leondegrance and not his wife, and Arthur does not merely lust after her as Uther did Igrayne, but has fallen in love. And this time, instead of Uther betraying Cornwall to possess his wife, it is Arthur who will be betrayed by Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), who has an affair with Guenevere.
There have been many movies based on the Arthurian legend, but the only movie that is any good besides Excalibur is Camelot (1967), a movie very different in tone and style. For one thing, it is a musical; for another, it is lighthearted, at least in part. The unifying theme of this movie is indicated by its title just as was the case for the former: Camelot as an ideal place and time. Arthur (Richard Harris) has ideas about the law and courts that should replace the barbaric notion that disputes were to be settled by force of arms. There is something almost pathetic about this Arthur, however. When the movie begins, he comes across as timid and fearful. Admittedly, he is anxious about meeting Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave), the woman he is to marry, but most of the movie is about his relationship with her. And from the song she sings, we find that she wants the exciting life of a maiden, in which men fight over her, and not have to enter an arranged marriage. She and Arthur meet by accident, and she finds she likes him. But liking someone and loving him are two different things, so we are not surprised when she falls in love with Lancelot. So, Arthur becomes a cuckold, and that of the worst kind, a wittol. I don’t mean to go full Nietzsche, but I can’t help feeling that his avowed preference for right over might is an expression of weakness. Presumably, we are supposed to admire him for rising above his feelings of jealously, for having an inner strength, but when a man knows his wife is cheating on him, and he allows it to continue without protest, it is hard not to harbor feelings of contempt. Eventually, thanks to conniving on the part of Mordred, Arthur is forced to condemn Guenevere to be burned at the stake for her adultery, but she is saved by Lancelot, and the two of them escape to France, soon followed there by Arthur. Too bad Arthur didn’t think of no-fault divorce when he was musing about more civilized ways of behaving. In any event, regarding this rescue of Guenevere by Lancelot, the movie follows the story as told by Malory and White, but though it is for many a favorite part of the legend, yet it is omitted in Excalibur, perhaps because it would have made the movie too long.
Also, in the basic legend, Mordred is a man at the time when Guenevere is condemned to die, whereas he has not yet been born when Arthur learns of Guenevere’s infidelity in Excalibur. And this brings us to a simplification that may actually be the elimination of a complication that arose out of a desire to conceal a story that was originally quite simple. This concerns the above-mentioned character of Mordred. In Bulfinch’s Mythology, Mordred is simply referred to as Arthur’s nephew. However, in the movie Camelot, Mordred is referred to as Arthur’s bastard son. This movie was based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which makes it clear that Mordred was both nephew and illegitimate son of Arthur, the result of an incestuous union between Arthur and Morgause, his half-sister. Presumably, the producers of Camelot wished to avoid the notion of incest and mentioned only that Mordred was Arthur’s bastard son, just as Bulfinch avoided the topic by referring to Mordred only as Arthur’s nephew. True, Morgause is said to be Mordred’s mother in this movie, but her being Arthur’s sister is not mentioned. Excalibur returns to the original story and makes it clear that Mordred was both nephew and son of Arthur.
Actually, the story in Le Morte d’Arthur was even more scandalous. When at one point, Mordred became ruler of England in Arthur’s absence, he forged some letters purporting to tell of Arthur’s death while fighting Lancelot. He called a parliament and asked them to make him king, intending to cinch the deal by marrying Guenevere. In other words, Mordred, the bastard son of the incestuous union of Arthur and his sister Morgause, intended to marry Arthur’s wife, who is practically his stepmother. However, the plan fell through and the marriage never took place. Speaking of Morgause, another simplification in Excalibur is that Morgana (Helen Mirren), the third and most disruptive woman in this movie, is a composite character consisting of Morgause, her sister Morgan le Fay, and Nimue, a woman whom Merlin fell in love with and to whom he revealed many secrets of necromancy.
Being the offspring of an evil union, Mordred is naturally evil himself, and so much so that merely the fact of his birth causes England to go into decline, beset by famine and pestilence; and Arthur, who is one with the land, also goes into decline, coming close to death. He sends his knights off to find the Holy Grail, which will restore England to peace and prosperity. Perceval finds the Grail, restoring Arthur to his former strength. Arthur calls his remaining knights to arms to fight a third civil war against Mordred. Pretty much everyone dies in the final battle, save for Perceval (taking on the role of Sir Bedivere as another simplification), who returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and Arthur, who is taken away by three queens to the vale of Avalon.
Except for “O Fortuna,” the music for this movie comes from Richard Wagner’s operas. Excalibur would still be a good movie about King Arthur without Wagner’s music, but it is unthinkable without it, so perfectly matched is the one with the other. Now, those who regularly attend the opera will probably disagree, being appalled at the way Wagner’s music has been appropriated for this movie. But the fact is, Wagner’s music has never before been put to such good use.