Human relationships as shown in the film Excalibur
By: Shannon Hyland
Somewhere between fantasy and reality, one can find the classic story of King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the knights of the Round Table: the classic tale of heroism and nobility, of deceit and betrayal, that strikes a chord with all those fantasy lovers and history buffs alike. As it spins the fantasy of blood and battle it also, somehow, manages to find a way to weave a love story with a love story, splicing in the idea of forbidden love into the mix and causing waves in what would have been a very much fairytale love story of a king and his queen. In the film Excalibur, we find this story retold with a more defining, more edgy sort of spin. The deception and sexual intrigue are much more realistic, and dare one say, raunchy, than what has become a customary view of the time. Films such as the animated Sword in the Stone stay mostly to the idea of the fantastical aspects, while Excalibur dives directly into blood and guts and sex and lies. It’s almost as if it’s a very Americanized version of the story. Perhaps that, however, is what makes it so much more believable, that is, if one can look past the wizards and witches. Spanning from the time of his conception until his death, the tale of King Arthur is shown in all its fantastical glory with enough violence and lust to keep most audiences enticed, if only for the running time of approximately two hours.
As is obvious, King Arthur is the principal character of the film. It is his destiny to lead Camelot after drawing the fabled sword from the stone. In this particular telling, it is shown that his father Uther, after being ambushed and fatally wounded, placed the sword, Excalibur, into the stone, leaving an onlooking Merlin to declare that “he who draws the sword from the stone, he shall be king”. While King Arthur’s actual existence is a source of debate and argument for many historians and writers alike, many believe that in some incarnation, he definitely did live. And in this particular film, he is shown very much as a flawed character. His desire to be a great king, a good king, sometimes becomes an overpowering force of self recognition. Perhaps that was, in fact, his downfall in the end. He created a Round Table, a place for his knights to meet, yet never considered that he could be betrayed. In his vanity perhaps he thought he was above reproach, especially beyond a betrayal by someone he considered his best friend. Lancelot was perhaps the most gifted knight in all of history, fictional or real. But like so many other characters worth noting, he was flawed. His loyalty to the court knew no bounds, yet he developed a forbidden love. This love, as much as any vanity or pride, brought about the end of Camelot. As Lancelot, despite his unwavering loyalty to and defense of his and Guinevere’s honor, finally fell victim to his lust, he brought down the seemingly unshakeable kingdom. Director/producer Boorman stated “The characters in Excalibur are seeking to find their place in the world, their destiny. Of course, it’s very unfashionable today to talk of destiny.” (Kennedy) The exile of Lancelot and seclusion of Guinevere eventually set about crumbling the façade of Arthur’s security. But, in the end, that was what made for the tragedy and romance of it all. Lancelot and Guinevere never intended to hurt anyone, least of all Arthur. They were, as is a recurrent theme, flawed. They were, like Arthur himself, believable because they didn’t maintain their images of perfection. They showed the true nature of humanity and revealed that, despite best intentions, humans do stumble and fall from their own perceived grace. Maybe that is why this story is such a source of debate. Disagreeing about the validity and authenticity of the story of Arthur seems to be an easy target for all methods and avenues of research. Social research can branch out, touching upon that complex relationship, that love triangle, and seek to explain why people are so fascinated by this tale of wonder and woe. Historians can touch upon those ideas of blood and battle, searching for evidence of existence by comparing and contrasting the historical context of the time with known records. But again, that’s why this tale is timeless. People can argue and bicker about whether the Round Table, Camelot, or even King Arthur himself existed, but they can’t erase the social impact of the tale. But, as the director/producer of the film said “The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth.” (Harty) It’s embedded into the very culture of society from England to America and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
There are some characters, however, that are quite obviously fictional. Merlin, in all of his wonderful glory, could not possibly exist, at least not in the form that he is represented. Perhaps at one time there was an advisor that had the name Merlin, but the odds of an actual magic user existing in reality are quite slim. At least, one would hope they are slim. However, he’s a principal character who drives the plot along and allows for each and every point to expand and develop fully. He is involved in the taking of Arthur from his father Uther in the beginning of the film, as well as being the one who is indirectly responsible for Arthur’s conception through magical deception. Watching this film and finding a way to look past its very human story and conflict, you can see the interest in authenticity in the portrayal of everyday life. The swords and armor seem to be historically accurate, the battles grand and bloody. It was the depiction of the social class system, however, that seemed so believable. The young boy who would become a squire, Percival, who eventually becomes knighted through an act of nobility he displays in the process of defending Lancelot and Guinevere’s honor when no other would stand before the accuser. Ordinarily, such a thing would be impossible for the boy born into a lower class, not that of social nobility. However, he showed nobility of character that allowed him to advance in the class system that previously seemed so set in stone.
This film accomplished one thing that no other could. It didn’t actually provide any verifiable knowledge, or attempt at instilling such knowledge,into its viewers. It did, however, provide a basis for the research of history. Watching this film, viewers feel themselves compelled to understand the time and place that the action occurred in; whether accurate or not, the time period is very much real. Younger people who watch this will benefit the most in the way that they will most likely seek to watch and read everything relating to this particular plot line, that is, assuming that the viewer enjoyed the film itself. If not, then it provides really nothing more than two hour exploration of an overused plot line. But, assuming that the viewers, did enjoy the film, especially if they finished it, it is that promotion of history that is its greatest aspect. One can’t really find anything new in this story because it is so well documented and absorbed into the culture of most English speaking countries. But the depictions of the battles were very well done, especially given the production year of 1981. Maybe that is the only novelty to be impressed by if one’s aware of and familiar with the plot. And while these battles could have been perhaps more epic in scale, they were quite detailed and important to the plot and accomplished their job well.
This plot, this story is perhaps one of the most well known and overdone stories in all of English speaking history. For more than fourteen centuries this tale has provided a basis to sell books and movie tickets. The films First Knight, The Sword in the Stone, Merlin, and King Arthur are but a few that cover this story in more recent years. However, in literary form the tale is just as popular, even spawning a teen series in recent years by Meg Cabot. That is a testament to the long lasting appeal of this tale and the human drama portrayed in it.
In all, this film has a lasting appeal for one major reason. In the end, the characters and their human authenticity are what stands out and makes the impression so profound on the observer’s mind. Showing flawed characters in all their dirtied glory still resonates with people today because, maybe, the reason humans want to stick to the idea of glory and redemption despite characters soiling their souls is that humans want redemption for themselves.