Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 3 of 7): Lancelot!

Last time: A tournament was held to see who might be worthy of pulling the sword Excalibur free. Arthur, now grown into a… boy? Man? Arthur, no longer a baby, yanked the blade free and through skill of arms, bravery, and a little wise counsel from Merlin, put down a revolt of knights and saved the loyal Leondegrance. But the newly minted king’s problems have only begun.

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It’s now an untold number of years later, and Arthur is now a man, for real this time:

Thank God, because I was running out of ways to make fun of thirty five year old Nigel Terry playing a teenager. The gang looks a little haggard, like they’ve been in a scrap. We then see Ector and Leondegrance riding slowly up to them, with the former slumped in his saddle like he’s had a long night of mead and tavern wenches. But no! It turns out both men have been trounced by a knight who’s set up camp on the other side of a bridge and is taking on all comers. I’d say Arthur’s a bit of a bastard for sending two middle aged guys to fight him, but then I realized the reason why everyone else looks like they got their asses kicked is they’ve already had their shot; the old guys went last.

Frustrated, Arthur says he’ll go himself and Kay points out the king’s not supposed to do this, and he’ll go again, because that’s what big brothers do. But Arthur’s not listening and he heads off, followed by his squire. Along the way Arthur spots… Merlin! I love how Terry pitches the sorcerer’s name, as if this was the last guy he was expecting to see here. He asks the sorcerer who this knight is, as Merlin peers into the stream.

Merlin says, “Look at him; so beautiful, so quick!” and Arthur turns in his saddle to regard the guy in the gleaming, silvery armor. He then realizes Merlin was talking about a fish, and deciding he’s not going to get much out of the sorcerer today, rides up the rise to his side of the bridge. Merlin loses the fish at the same time he loses Arthur’s attention, and then…

He tries to turn this slapstick moment into a bit of self-deprecating wisdom, saying there’s always someone cleverer than yourself. Arthur rides up the rise to the bridge and he demands to know who the stranger is. He says he’s Lancelot of the Lake, from across the sea…

…and in so many words says he’s cursed with awesomeness because no one’s ever beaten him.

The two jaw-jack a bit, but in the end it comes down to a joust. They go against each other with lances, and after all these viewings, I just now noticed Lancelot’s shield bears the image of the Holy Grail.

The first pass is a draw, but the second time around, Lancelot knocks Arthur off his horse and on his ass. Arthur gets his squire to fetch Excalibur and is ready to throw down some more, and after ignoring the knight from across the sea’s offer to, you know, accept surrender because he has the high ground, Lance punches the king in the chest with his, uh, lance. The shining knight gets off his horse and things escalate quickly as now Arthur wants their fight to the death. [!]

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Arthur’s going two weapon style with sword and mace, while Lance has his sword and this badass short spear thing with a metal shaft and hook, perfect for snagging bits of armor. Arthur’s beaten, but that’s when he cheats and calls upon Excalibur’s power. He swings and shatters Lance’s weapon, smacking him in the breastplate for good measure.

Lancelot is down, and Excalibur is… broken? Is it possible to roll a critical hit and fumble at the same time? Merlin comes over and stares in horror, and he simply can’t comprehend how the sword can be broken. Or how Arthur could be this stupid. Or both. Probably both.

Arthur comes to his senses, and knowing he effed up royally, he tosses Excalibur into the stream as he admits what a complete loser he is. It’s then that a miracle occurs: The Lady of the Lake appears, with Excalibur whole.

Merlin urges Arthur to grab the sword and he does so, and then another miracle happens: Lancelot’s not dead. The best knight in the world, bested! Well, yeah, after an epic cheat. Lance offers to be Arthur’s champion, and the king accepts. And a sad fact strikes me during this scene: all three principal actors—Nicol Williamson, Nigel Terry, and Nicholas Clay—are now deceased.

Cut to nighttime, as knights ride across flaming fields to a hill illuminated with the mother of all bonfires. Leondegrance, Lot, Uryens, and Lancelot all report that each corner of the land is secure; upstarts have been suppressed, and invaders repelled. Damn, this movie moves at breakneck speed. I get that we need time jumps to get to Arthur becoming both man and king, but we don’t even get a montage of his victories.

Everyone’s slapping each other on the back in congratulations, and a couple people wind up pushing Merlin around. Merlin…

…is two seconds away from taking a flame thrower to somebody’s face. He tells the knights to remember this night, to savor it, and finishes ominously with, “For it is the doom of men that they forget…”

Arthur takes these words to heart, and says he’ll build a round table where their fellowship will meet and speak of deeds good and brave. And he will build a hall around the table! And he will build a castle around the hall! And he will marry and have an heir who will wield Excalibur!  Wow, what a great movie, what an ending!  So uplifting, so… oh, wait, that’s right; there’s still more than an hour to go. Plenty of time for everything to go off the rails, then.

We cut to Cameliard as Lancelot rides through the town. He’s met at the castle by Leondegrace, and man, I forgot how much screentime Patrick Stewart has throughout the second act. He introduces Lancelot to Guinevere and explains how Lance is going to escort her to her wedding. And both Lancelot and the young queen-to-be are obviously taken with one another. Leon’s totally oblivious, and is mostly tickled to death that he’s about to become the king’s father-in-law. You’d think Merlin would have tried warning Arthur a bit more stridently that he should keep these two apart? You can’t tell me he can’t change the future; he already did when he conspired with Uther to lay with Igrayne to produce Arthur.

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The party rides along a road as sunlight filters down through the trees. Sunlight in Ireland? This truly is a fantasy film. Guinevere’s handmaidens are all giggling like little girls as they check out Lancelot, while the queen-to-be rides up beside him and asks if any woman holds a place in his heart. So Lancelot pretty much professes his love to Guinevere. On the day of her wedding. Smooth, Lance. But the wedding commences anyway…

…and damn, is the cinematography amazing in this scene. Alex Thompson was in fact nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this film but lost to Reds, a bloated Warren Beatty vanity piece that hardly anybody talks about today. I mean, Jesus, 200 minutes?

As the wedding proceeds—sans any more professions of love from the best man—Merlin stands apart from the crowd. And it’s now that’s he’s approached by Morgana of Cornwall.

True story: by the time I got ahold of this movie on DVD, I hadn’t seen it in twenty years. So I’m watching the film with my brother Donald and I said, “Who is she?  She’s hot!” Donald turns to me with a look of utter contempt and replies, “That’s Helen Miren.” He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the movie… which in retrospect was probably a good thing.

Morgana introduces herself to Merlin and his response is, “You have your father’s eyes.” Damn, that was cold. This woman knows you did her mom and dad both dirty, and you’re just pokin’ the bear here, Merlin. She claims that she’s “a creature” like him, and he gives her a pop quiz on botany and geology, which she aces. When he asks about her future sight, she tries cheating by talking about the new castle, but that’s old news. So she turns and regards her brother’s wedding… but we don’t find out what she sees. But then again, with Merlin’s unheeded warning to Arthur, and Lancelot’s profession of love to Guinevere, don’t we already know where that’s going? Merlin says that the way of the necromancer is a lonely one. True; just listen to Rush sing about it.

Does Merlin considers himself a necromancer? I had him pegged for a druid multi-classing with sorcerer, but okay. Morgana thinks having such power would be awesome, but Merlin says those moments are few and far between. Morgana is undeterred, and wants him to teach her.

Merlin says, “Teach the daughter of the man I had killed so my plans could come to fruition? You’re joking!” Okay, he’s a bit more diplomatic than that; he talks about how things are changing, and the spirits of wood and stream grow silent, and the “one god” drives out the many. “It’s a time for men, and their ways”, he says.

Nearby, the wedding culminates in Arthur and Guinevere kissing as Lancelot looks on.  Later, Lance is found riding through the woods, where he picks up a stalker.

When Lance lays down to rest, the stalker approaches, seeming to mean him harm, but the knight was feigning sleep and holds him at swordpoint, telling him to “run home to [your] mother, boy.” Well, at least Paul Goeffrey here is 26, which is not as bad as Terry Nigel trying to pull off being a “boy”.

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Later, the “boy” catches a rabbit, kills it, skins it, then places it on a spit over a fire for Lance. And… Lance slept through all of that. Talk about critically fumbling your perception check. Cut to Lancelot riding through the woods as the stalker catches up to him, running after the knight and saying he wants to be one. Lancelot decides to take the guy with him, and offers to hoist him up on the horse, but the dude says he’ll run.

Lance: Listen, boy; it’s more than twenty days from here.

Boy: Twenty days? The world is not that big!

The pair arrive at Camelot (and I’m assuming the kid took Lance up on his offer and rode part of the way. That, or his endurance is inhuman), and this is another moment when that other Arthurian movie intrudes.

The pair make their way through the woods where all-too-clean peasants go about their lives, and knights greet Lancelot warmly.  Lance calls out a greeting to Bors, and I swear I hear him say “Gandalf”, but the subtitles claim he says “Camelot”. I prefer to think the gray pilgrim stopped by to talk shop with Merlin. Hey, maybe this is where he buys his fireworks?

Inside, Lance hands the boy off to Kay, who says, “Kitchen knives and greasy spits will be your weapons, boy!” Damn, the kid’s not even here five minutes and he’s been demoted to scullion. He makes his way through the castle and almost runs into Guinevere… and Morgana.

Check out the look on Mirren’s face, and that knowing smile; it’s as if what she just saw confirms what she envisioned earlier.

Lance tells Kay he can’t stay and rides off. Morgana slithers away, all smiles as Guinevere looks on forlornly. The boy makes his way through the halls, seeing numerous wonders: astrologers, alchemists, performers of every stripe, and he runs into Merlin, who’s scoping out a printing press. He’s probably consulting on Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition! And then the boy finds the hall in the castle, and in the center of the hall, the round table.

That night, the boy takes to his new duties with a will, serving wine to the knights and ladies of the round table. It’s about to be a night that no one will soon forget.

Next time: Accusations! Trial by combat! And the rise of Morgana!

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

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