There have been many movies based on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Of those I have seen, Excalibur is my favorite. Except for “O Fortuna” and some original compositions for this movie, most of the music for Excalibur comes from Richard Wagner’s operas, about which a few preliminary remarks are in order.
The Music of Richard Wagner
Those who regularly attend the opera are probably appalled at the way Wagner’s music has been appropriated for a mere movie. But from my lowbrow perspective, Wagner’s music has never before been put to such good use.
It is not surprising that much of Wagner’s music is dark and heavy. He was, after all, influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, who is known for his pessimistic philosophy. Wagner, in turn, influenced Friedrich Nietzsche, who praised Wagner in his The Birth of Tragedy, but became critical of him in his subsequent writings. Both Wagner and Nietzsche were appropriated by the Nazis. In the case of Nietzsche, his philosophy of the will to power undoubtedly appealed to the Third Reich, while Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen glorifies the Teutonic warrior gods and heroes of Norse mythology, with whom the Nazis readily identified. It also helped that Wagner was an anti-Semite.
As a result, if you are watching a movie in which a character is associated with Wagner, he is probably evil. In Brute Force (1947), for example, Hume Cronyn is Captain Munsey, Chief of Security in a prison. During a conversation he has with the prison doctor, it is clear that Munsey is a fascist. He says kindness is weakness, and weakness makes a man a follower instead of a leader. When the doctor quotes Jesus about the meek inheriting the earth, Munsey says that is contradicted by science, which says the weak must die so that the strong may live. The doctor says Munsey enjoys inflicting pain. Munsey inflicts some of that pain on the doctor. In a subsequent scene, Munsey, while wearing a wife beater, repeatedly hits one of the inmates with a rubber hose while we hear the overture from Tannhäuser in the background. It is not background music, however. When the prisoner is first brought into Munsey’s office, we see that the music is coming from Munsey’s record player. It helps put Munsey is the proper mood. After hitting the prisoner with that rubber hose several times, and finding that he still won’t talk about the prison break Munsey knows is being planned, he walks over to the record player, turns the music from that Wagnerian opera up twice as loud, and then really starts whipping that prisoner. The actor playing the part of the prisoner Munsey is torturing is Sam Levene, who was a Jew.
On a lighter note, in Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen tells his friend about the tall, blond guy looking at him in the record store while saying they were having a sale this week on Wagner. He is sure that he did this because Allen is a Jew.
In The Stranger (1946), Orson Welles plays a man who was a high-ranking Nazi during the war, but now is in America, hiding under the name of Charles Rankin, employed as a professor of German history. He pretends to despise the Nazis in particular, and Germans in general, all the better to deflect any suspicion as to his past. When asked for his opinion, as an objective historian, as to whether Germany would ever want to go to war again, he replies that a psychiatrist is needed more than a historian, giving us insight into just why there is such a fit between Wagner’s music and the Nazis, especially regarding his Der Ring des Nibelungen:
The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred. Conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing. Not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain. But we learned from our casualty lists the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No, he still follows his warrior gods, marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried. And in those subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in, the German’s dream world comes alive, and he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic Knights. Mankind is waiting for the messiah, but for the German the messiah is not the prince of peace. No, he’s… He’s another Barbarossa, another Hitler.
At this point, he is asked about the reforms being effected in Germany. Rankin continues:
I can’t believe that people can be reformed except from within. The basic principles of equality and freedom never have and never will take root in Germany. The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue. All men are created equal, liberté, egalité, fraternité, but in German….
His brother-in-law points out that Karl Marx was an advocate for freedom, but Rankin dismisses the objection, saying that Marx was a Jew. His father-in-law says in that case, there is no solution. But Rankin disagrees, suggesting there is a final solution, so to speak: “Annihilation. Right down to the last babe in arms.” When his wife expresses surprise that he is advocating a Carthaginian peace, he replies that the world hasn’t had trouble from Carthage for two thousand years. In this way, one of the architects of the holocaust hides the role he played in that by pretending to be in favor of a genocidal elimination of all Germans.
And who can forget the way the “Ride of the Valkyries” was used diegetically in Apocalypse Now (1979) to accompany the attack of the helicopters on a North Vietnamese village. “Yeah, I use Wagner,” says Robert Duval, who plays a psychopathic colonel. “Scares hell out of the slopes. My boys love it.” Just before the attack, we see a school teacher bringing young children outside to play, but scrambling to get them back inside as the first notes of this music reaches their ears.
The inverse is also true, in a way. In any movie set in World War II, showing a Nazi listening to Wagner or hearing him praise his music, as in The Night of the Generals (1967), is to be expected. However, if a German in such a movie ostentatiously avoids Wagner’s music, then we know he is basically a good German. The movie Das Boot (1981), for example, is set on a German submarine during World War II. When the crew enthusiastically sings “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a marching song associated with British soldiers in World War I, we know we are supposed to like these Germans.
I noted above that purists object to using music from an opera as background music for a movie. Beyond that general complaint, many are bothered by the fact that Excalibur is based on the British legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, while Wagner’s music is German. The fact that Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are Wagnerian operas based on Arthurian stories is still not enough to appease their sense of propriety. Worse, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde is used as background music for the story of Lancelot and Guenevere, not for Tristan and Iseult proper. The fact that both are stories of a love triangle is no excuse. The music from Götterdämmerung is unquestionably associated with Siegfried, a Teutonic knight, rather than a British one. The fact that Siegfried, like Arthur, has a magical sword worthy of having its own name, which was stuck in a tree, which only someone special could remove, suggesting an affinity between the two legends, is not thought to be sufficient justification for using that music in this movie. Finally, there are those that object to the fact that the music associated with the title sword in Excalibur is from “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” their complaint being that funereal music is inappropriate as a leitmotif for a weapon; although they might begrudgingly concede that this grim music, which we hear at the very beginning of the movie, foretells the tragic end toward which the events of this story move.
But enough of this. Suffice it to say that there are those who prefer the opera, and there are those who would rather watch a movie. As for this movie in particular, given what has been noted above regarding movies where characters associated with Wagner are understood to be evil, does this not mean that using Wagner’s music for Excalibur implies that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are evil? It does not, for a simple reason. It is only after Wagner became associated with Nazi Germany that Wagner’s music acquired that evil connotation, and then only for movies set during or after World War II. Even Wagner’s anti-Semitism would probably have been overlooked as a nineteenth-century commonplace had it not been for the holocaust. I am sure that those who attend the opera never regard Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal, or Siegfried as evil. For similar reasons, Wagner’s music could be used for Excalibur without fear of putting the legend of King Arthur in a bad light.
As a final note of irony, although The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a silent film, music was scored for it, intended to by played by an accompanying orchestra. This music has been added as a soundtrack for subsequent viewing. When the Ku Klux Klan is riding to the rescue of a white family as they are besieged by a mob of black men who are intent on killing the men of the family and raping the women, we hear the “Ride of the Valkyries” in the background. Because the movie was made before World War II, the music was intended to glorify the Klan and make the audience thrill to their heroism. The evil connotation this music had in Apocalypse Now does not apply to The Birth of a Nation, even though we might think it should.
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 the legendary 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 (Nigel Terry) will be a sword. Its purpose is to unite the various warring tribes of England into a single kingdom. In many versions of the Arthurian legend, Arthur becomes king by pulling a sword out of a stone; 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 is another story about another sword sticking out of another stone. And then there is still another story about a sword in a scabbard that only someone special could remove. Apparently, the idea of a sword sticking out of something that can be removed only by one person 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 this or that 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.
Merlin (Nicol Williamson) secures Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake for Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) to help him wage war against the Duke of Cornwall and become ruler of all England. It is Merlin’s hope that the truce will result in a permanent peace, enforced by this enchanted sword.
And so it would have been were it not for a disruptive force that recurs throughout this movie, brought about by 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 Cornwall’s 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. (And I knew a woman who complained just because her husband didn’t shave first.) Nine months later, Igrayne gives birth to Arthur, and Merlin shows up to collect. Uther gives up the baby, but then changes his mind 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.
Igrayne cannot be blamed for cheating on her husband when Uther has sex with her. Instead, she is effectively raped, because Merlin’s magic allowed Uther to take on the appearance of Cornwall, thereby deceiving her. And so, while Cornwall was getting himself impaled by a lance, Igrayne was getting impaled by Uther, who gives her his seed just as Cornwall expels his last breath of air.
There are those, however, who might say she was just asking to be raped, what with her voluptuous dancing, all scantily clad in front of Uther and his men, purposely teasing their passion. In all seriousness, in this and what follows, there is a suggestion that it is the women who are at fault for all the disruption they cause. This shouldn’t surprise us. Men have been blaming women for causing trouble ever since Adam blamed Eve for what happened in the Garden of Eden.
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. As she dances, she is more modestly attired, 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 Guenevere who betrays Arthur when she has sex with Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay).
Another excellent movie based on the Arthurian legend is Camelot (1967), which is 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 also indicated by its title: 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 into an arranged marriage. She and Arthur meet by accident, and she finds she likes him. But liking a man and loving him are two different things, so we are not surprised when she falls in love with Lancelot. As a result, 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 thinking that Arthur’s 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 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, Camelot follows the story as told by Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur and T.H. White in The Once and Future King; 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.
As for Excalibur, there is only suspicion at first, voiced by Sir Gawain at the Round Table, that Guenevere is in love with Sir Lancelot, and that is why he absents himself from their fellowship, which is true. But while Lancelot nobly tries to resist Guenevere, she proves too much even for him when she seeks him out in the forest and overcomes him with her love. Later that night, Arthur discovers them together, naked and sleeping in each other’s arms. Unlike the Arthur of Camelot, this one isn’t putting up with any of that. He plunges the sword Excalibur into the ground between them, thus marking the end of his marriage to Guenevere.
Another difference between Camelot and Excalibur is this: in the basic legend, which Camelot mostly follows, 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. In Bulfinch’s Mythology, Mordred is simply referred to as Arthur’s nephew. However, in the movie Camelot, we learn that Mordred is Arthur’s bastard son. In The Once and Future King, White 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 illegitimate son, just as Thomas 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.
Continuing the Theme of Incest in Le Morte d’Arthur
While not in this movie, there are a couple of stories in Le Morte d’Arthur that intensify the dread of incest.
The May-Day Massacre. First, because Arthur had sex with his sister, the offspring of that incestuous union, Mordred, is destined to kill Arthur, ending the kingdom, and bringing ruin upon the land. Merlin is aware of this, and he tells Arthur that a child born on May Day will be the cause of Arthur’s death. So, Arthur rounds up all the male babies in England who were apparently born around that time, loads them all on a ship, and sends them to sea where they die in a shipwreck. But wouldn’t you know it! Mordred is the one baby that survives. A stranger finds him and raises him until he is fourteen years old. Well, that trick of killing a bunch of babies didn’t work for Herod either.
Once again, however, it is all the woman’s fault. Arthur did not know Morgause was his sister, so he was blameless. Well, almost blameless. He knew she was married. But as far as the incest is concerned, Morgause knew what she was doing when she seduced Arthur.
An Oedipal Tease. Second, 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 clinch 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.
Back to the Movie
Speaking of Morgause, another simplification in Excalibur is that of Morgana (Helen Mirren), the third and most disruptive woman in this movie, a composite character consisting of Morgause and her sisters Morgan le Fay and Nimue, a woman whom Merlin fell in love with and to whom he revealed many secrets of necromancy. Nimue is sometimes identified with Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. The Lady of the Lake, by the way, is not the woman whose hand reaches above the water holding Excalibur. In Le Morte d’Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Arthur have a conversation about that hand sticking out of the water holding a sword, and she tells him to go get it.
The movie has its own way of blaming the woman for Arthur’s incest. Morgana makes herself appear to be Guenevere, and Arthur allows her to make love to him, distraught as he is for having just lost the real Guenevere. And so, if we may rightly say that Uther raped Igrayne by magically taking on the appearance of Cornwall, so too may we say that Morgana raped Arthur by magically taking on the appearance of Guenevere.
Morgana wants Mordred to become king of England. Over the years, she uses much of her magic to keep herself looking young, but she is tricked by Merlin, at which point she becomes old and ugly. Now that she is no longer sexy and beautiful, Mordred has no more use for her, so he strangles her. This, along with the kisses she gave him on the lips, earlier in the movie when he was growing up, is a contribution by John Boorman, the director, adding a hint of incest between mother and son.
The Holy Grail
Being the offspring of an evil union, Mordred is naturally evil himself. His birth, in combination with Guenevere’s adultery, and the loss of the sword Excalibur, 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 when he drinks from it. Arthur calls his remaining knights to arms to fight a third civil war against Mordred. Knowing that Guenevere has become a nun, he first goes to the convent to forgive her and say that, perhaps in the hereafter, they may be together again. She agrees. She then returns Excalibur to him, which has been in her care all this time.
The Death of Arthur
Almost everyone dies in the final battle. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur thrusts his spear into Mordred, who then forces himself forward on that spear until he can strike Arthur with his sword. In Excalibur, this is reversed, which is an improvement: Mordred impales Arthur with his spear, and it is Arthur who pushes forward on that spear until he can use Excalibur to kill Mordred.
Only Percival remains, taking on the role of Sir Bedivere as another simplification. Before Arthur is taken away by three queens to the vale of Avalon, he tells Percival to return Excalibur to the Lady in the Lake. Percival is reluctant to give up the sword, but Arthur says that some day another king will come, and the sword will be there for him when he does. But that future king is Arthur himself, the king that was once and will be again.