by Lillian Csernica on April 5, 2015
Today we examine one of the most laughable interpretations of the Arthurian Cycle, the 1981 extravaganza named after King Arthur’s legendary sword, Excalibur itself. Oh my stars and garters. This movie is SO bad. Once you know that director John Boorman wanted to make a movie based on The Lord of the Rings but failed to get the rights, you can see why many of the sets and the props look the way they do. I’m not sure how much of the pre-production work had already been done by the time the final decision about the rights came down, but it’s pretty clear Tolkein was a much bigger influence on the production design than Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, or Thomas Malory.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this movie and you want to, stop here. If you haven’t seen this movie and you want to find out whether or not you should bother, read on.
To look at the cast, one would think this movie is a winner.
Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain. Helen Mirren as Morgana.
Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon holding Excalibur
Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance.
The eye candy factor is certainly there in the person of Lancelot, played by Nicholas Clay.
This was the film debut for Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Ciaran Hinds. At the time they were not familiar faces to the American viewing audience, nor were most of the actors. They did their best, but between the melodramatic script, the archetypal scale of the characters, and the awkward costuming, to say nothing of the almost constant rain in Ireland where they did all the filming, it’s a wonder the movie came out as well as it did.
There are several photos from the movie I’d love to show you, but I’d probably get banned or whatever WordPress does. So let me just mention them to you, and if you want confirmation, by all means go watch the movie.
1. The whole saga gets set in motion when Uther Pendragon gets the hots for Igraine, who is inconveniently married to Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin fixes it so Uther takes on the appearance of the Duke. Uther is a horny thug, so he throws Igraine on the bed and goes at it while still wearing the upper half of his plate armor. Now let’s think about this. They appear to be right in front of the blazing fireplace. Even if they weren’t, the sheer weight of Uther’s breastplate, back plate, shoulder pauldrons, and all the decorative bits would have done serious damage to Igraine’s bare bosom. Among the Ren Faire/SCA/historical romance crowd, we refer to this scene as the one with “My Lord Cheesegrater.”
2. Lancelot and Guenevere end up in each other’s arms. What I’d like to know is why it had to happen out in the middle of the forest without benefit of so much as a small pavilion. I hope Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi, who played Guenevere, got paid a decent amount. They had to play this love scene fully naked, totally exposed to the mosquitoes that must have been all over them. I will say this: the idea of Arthur finding them asleep together and planting Excalibur right between them is sheer brilliance. You don’t have to be Jung or Freud to see all the meanings in that.
3. Morgana’s costumes are a hoot. She’s a sorceress and she’s doing it her way all the way. Thanks to a roll in the hay with Arthur while she was disguised as Guenevere, Morgana gives birth to Modred, who’s a nasty little piece of work as a child or a young man. (Robert Addie has quite an interesting bio, if you’d care to look into it.) More than once Morgana is prepping Modred for some unholy antics. One starts to wonder just how close Mummy and her bouncing baby Antichrist might really be. Again we see the suggestion of family fooling around with family! What is it with these sword & sorcery movies that this issue is a recurring subtext?
Terry English, creator of the armor for Excalibur.
On a more serious note, I think the most significant criticism of this movie lies in the way it diminishes the roles of the female characters. The Lady of the Lake is reduced to little more than a glittery arm sticking up out of the water. Morgana is a jealous harpy instead of the character who tests the knights to see if they’re worthy of a seat at the Round Table. Guenevere is a pretty face and then a neglected wife. Her character has been subject to a variety of interpretations in the many tellings of the King Arthur story. Not often is Guenevere shown as the original character she was meant to be, a woman who has to maintain a balance between duty, love, the pressures of being an image of ideal womanhood, and just getting through each day.
Tomorrow: Another look at the Arthurian saga in a movie that has one of the worst endings ever committed to film!