Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 2 of 7): The Boy King

NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!

Previously: In the Dark Ages, the land was without a king until Merlin gave Uther Pendragon the sword of power, Excalibur.  But Uther let his lust rule his head and ruined the alliance. Merlin stole away with the result of that lust, the child Arthur, while Uther died, but not before he drove Excalibur into a stone.

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We now return to the scene of the sword in the stone, only now there’s quite a crowd. It’s like a Renaissance Festival broke out, with dudes selling food, a stage show, guys in armor riding around… they’ve got everything short of the port-a-potties. A trio of men ride in a lot more sedately than the jackasses galloping around. One is an older gentleman, and the other two younger.

The older man, Ector, calls the other upstarts riding around “robber knights”, which were often non-first-born sons who inherited virtually nothing and turned thief, because learning a trade is for peasants. He  tells his one companion, Kay, to be brave, honest, and merciful like a good knight, and then tells the guy who doesn’t rate plate mail—possibly a rogue or a druid, or a dude who lucked out and rolled high on his Dexterity score and opted for less encumbrance—to back up his brother. This is actually Arthur, so maybe 30 years have passed since Uther’s demise. But no! This is actually supposed to be teenage Arthur, played by Nigel Terry, who is thirty-five years old here. Man, I know the Dark Ages were rough and you grew old fast, but this is ridiculous. Did Arthur’s adopted dad have him on a diet of unfiltered cigarettes and Irish whiskey? We’ve seen this before in Hollywood, where there’s a gap between a character’s age and the actor’s real one, but I don’t think I’ve seen a disparity this big since sixty-year-old Joan Crawford took over her daughter’s role to play a 24-year-old housewife on a soap opera.

At first I didn’t think I’d seen Nigel Terry in anything else, but he played a priest in Troy, and Prince John in The Lion in Winter (a damn awesome movie, by the way; Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn devour scenery like nobody else can), where he excelled playing a loathsome troll.

A joust is going on, which in this case means guys riding around a tree and whacking each other with short, blunt lances. Ector tells the two “young men” that he remembers his first joust and how it looks far worse than it feels, and actually, I can buy it. Everyone’s armored up, you can’t get a lot of momentum with those lances, and I’m assuming head shots are illegal. A knight wins the latest round and cries out, “Cameliard!” in triumph, then rides his horse right up to the rock where a priest waits for him.

The knight dismounts, and… my God, it’s him! The man, the myth, the legend: Sir Patrick Stewart! He attempts to pull the sword from the stone…

…and he fails! Epically! Fun fact: you may have noticed this was made in the days before CGI, so director John Boorman had to rely upon practical effects and lighting. For example, he employed a green light filter in some scenes to suggest the mystic nature of Excalibur, which also made the moss more luminous. So if you go to Ireland just to see the glowing moss, well, I’ve got bad news for you.

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And I know this is a stupid question, seeing as this is based on a legend and all, but did anyone ever have the idea of just… breaking the rock with a hammer and chisel and stealing the sword? If I were running a Dungeons & Dragons game, trust me, at least one player would have been plotting that.

Stewart staggers back and he and the crowd are disappointed, but nobody’s got time to mope because the next joust is about to begin. Suddenly, Arthur realizes he’s forgotten Kay’s sword. Look, I’m a guy who forgets his glasses, keys, and phone all the time, but to forget three feet of steel seems a bit much. Arthur has to rush back to the tent to retrieve the blade, but it’s not there. He spots a boy—a real boy, not a grown man—dashing off with the blade but has trouble keeping up, so he rests by a blacksmith’s stall, where he sees a collection of swords. Arthur ponders palming one, but the wary-eyed blacksmith is on guard. But then Arthur spots the boy dashing up the rise towards the sword in the stone. Arthur gives chase once more.

Meanwhile, Kay decides to head after Arthur to see what’s keeping him, and a moment later, Ector follows. Arthur makes it to the top of the rise and realizes he’s lost the kid. It’s then that he turns and notices that hey, there’s a perfectly good sword right here in a stone! And heck, the priest is napping, unlike that blacksmith from earlier. Arthur grabs the hilt, hesitates, and pulls the blade free!

Hmm, just out of curiosity, how would this scene look with a CGI de-aging update?

Kay shows up and Arthur hands Excalibur over. Ector arrives and Kay at first claims he pulled the sword loose, but then admits it was Arthur who did it. Whether it was because he wanted to be honest, or didn’t want to get in trouble, or for some other reason is anyone’s guess… for now.

A crowd quickly gathers and word spreads. Arthur replaces the sword and Ector tells him to pull it out, but a knight named Uryens shoulders the “boy” aside and tries to pull the sword out, but to no avail. Arthur steps up again and he pulls the sword out once more, to the cheers of most. Arthur tells Ector to get up, because he was his dad long before Arthur was his king, and the old knight admits Arthur’s not his boy: Merlin dropped him off and told him to raise the baby. And at first, Ector did so out of fear of the wizard, but then later it was out of love for the child. It’s a nice piece of honesty here. Arthur then asks who the heck Merlin is…

…and speak of (the son) of the devil and he shall appear. I like how as Ector spoke, you could see Merlin striding through the woods in the background towards them. Merlin explains to Arthur he’s son of Uther and Igrayne, but before he can exposit more, the knight named Uryens trash-talks the sorcerer, and another goes on to say they don’t want no bastard as their king. The two knights try to get Patrick Stewart, whose name is Leondegrance, to side with them.  But Leondegrance figures rules are rules and sides with Arthur.

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As a shouting match breaks out, Arthur notices Merlin’s done a runner, and chases after the sorcerer into the woods and gets tangled up in the trees. And then Merlin pounces.

Merlin: hide and seek champion since the dawn of time.

Arthur’s freaking out a bit, especially after Merlin explains how “you are the land and the land will be you”, so if Arthur fails, so will the land, but if he succeeds, the land will blossom. But when Arthur turns, Merlin is gone. Moments later, he finds the sorcerer resting on a tree branch in a modest camp, literally sleeping with one eye open.

This is never explained, and honestly, I think it’s cool that it’s left a mystery. Arthur stays with the unconscious Merlin and night falls, and the [snort!] boy finds the woods to be a lot spookier in the moonlight: snakes, millipedes, a lizard, and even an owl take on frightening aspects. And then Merlin ambushes Arthur again! He explains what’s out there: the dragon. A beast that the very sight of would burn a man to cinders! It’s scales glisten like bark on the trees, its roar is heard in the wind, and its forked tongue strikes like a bolt of lightning—just like the lightning bolt that strikes a nearby tree. Arthur starts to hyperventilate, so Merlin gently puts him to sleep, telling him to dream.

In the morning, the sorcerer finds a more confident Arthur, who speculates Excalibur is part of the dragon too, which impresses Merlin. After sidestepping some unpleasant truths about Uther, Merlin leads Arthur back to Ector, Kay, and the others, even as he leads Arthur’s mind on the next step. Arthur proves to be a quick study; most of the knights are against him, save for Leondegrance, and even now his castle, Cameliard, is being laid siege to. Arthur figures the first step is to come to the loyal knight’s aid. Fortunately, Ector and Kay have assembled a loyal band, and Arthur mounts up and rides.

Elsewhere—

—it’s a typical day at the office for Leondegrance, as a host of disgruntled knights take out their frustrations on him. He tells his daughter Guenevere to get back while he takes care of business. Another fun fact: the armorer hired to make the gear for this movie was told he only needed to make seven suits. Then they told him to make seven more for the extras. In the end, he constructed a hundred and six suits of armor for the movie.

Down below, Arthur and his men show up, riding through the rogue knights’ camp. Arthur leaps onto a siege tower and throws down a grappling hook to Merlin, who ties the line to a pair of horses. A whisper in one of their ears and the horses are off, and the tower falls. Yet another fun fact: a piece of the siege tower landed on actor Nicol Williamson’s head, and the only thing that saved him from death or serious injury was his gleaming skull cap.

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Arthur rides around to the other side of the castle, and has Kay keep Uryens at bay while he scrambles to the top of the wall, his lack of armor making him agile as a mongoose. But it also makes him vulnerable, and Arthur’s been cut. But he doesn’t let that stop him, as he kills the knight who wounded him. All this unfolds while his heroics have an observer:

Guenevere, Leondegrance’s daughter. Arthur meets up with Leon, and then in an act of suicidal bravery, he leaps off the castle wall and onto Uryens, dismounting him. Arthur demands the man “swear faith” to him at swordpoint, but Uryens counters incredulously, “A noble knight swear faith to a squire?” The battle dies down as another battle commences, and this battle is one of wills. Arthur does the unthinkable and hands over Excalibur to Uryens, telling him he must knight him, so as knight to knight he can then swear faith.

Merlin stares in horror at the possibility of Plan B coming undone before him. Uryens holds the blade while his friends tell him to keep it. And then…

…Uryens, possibly overwhelmed by the power of the sword, or by Arthur’s bravery, or perhaps both, knights Arthur, his king. Uryens kneels, as do all the others, while Merlin stares on in bemusement.

Later, Arthur’s wounds are tended to by the lovely Guenevere, and it’s obvious the young(ish) king is besotted with her. Cut to a celebration, where Arthur almost kills himself trying to show off to Guenevere by lifting her up.

His wounds tear open and he dies… which is what would happen if this movie were directed by that master of subverting expectations, Rian Johnson. Arthur takes a seat beside Merlin as the party goes on, and the wizard begins to suspect the young king’s attention has strayed to the opposite sex. Arthur idly asks Merlin if he could cast a love spell on Guenevere, but Merlin quickly kills that idea. Arthur asks what he sees in the future, and Merlin somberly confirms Guenevere does marry him, but then betrays him with a trusted friend; he’s basically giving away the second act of the movie, but love has made Arthur deaf as well as blind.

As Guenevere delivers up sweet cakes to Arthur, Merlin begins to realize that his counsel will not always be heeded, and with this king he’s traded in one set of problems for another.

Next time: Lancelot!

Multi-Part Article: Excalibur (1981), a recap

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