Apr 21, 2021
Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 4 of 7): Morgana ascendant
NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!
Last time: Arthur met and nearly killed his future champion and best friend Lancelot. The King then went about securing his kingdom, building his castle and marrying his bride Guinevere. But cracks in the foundation of his realm had already begun: Lancelot pined for the king’s bride while Morgana, his half-sister, had come a-plotting. And along the way, a young squire-to-be entered the scene.
It’s dinner time at Camelot as our squire makes his rounds around the round table, pouring wine for knight and lady alike. Morgana is awfully friendly with one knight in particular, whose appearance is…familiar. Meanwhile, Arthur has the squire fill Lancelot’s cup, for even though his friend is not here, they must do him honor.
As the squire pours, Guinevere stares at the cup, and it doesn’t unnoticed as Morgana whispers to her date to pay heed.
And great googly-moogly, it’s Liam Neeson! At the time, these two became an item; having met on the set of Excalibur, they were together for four years.
So why are the knights in their armor during dinner? It’s like Boorman had to keep reminding us they’re, y’know, knights or something. Or he blew a ton of cash on that armor and couldn’t afford more wardrobe. Morgana pours poison into the knight’s ear as effectively as the squire does wine, and then notes Merlin lurking in the shadows. She leaves her knight stewing and approaches the sorcerer. Morgana thinks Merlin is pining for her and longs for love, something he’s never had. And he thinks she lusts for something she’s never going to get: Power. If you see this and pick up prickly tension, there’s a reason; the two actors had been in a disastrous production of MacBeth and weren’t on the best of terms. Was Boorman deliberately attempting to put his actors in uncomfortable situations to get a particular performance out of them? Did he learn directing from Stanley Kubrick?
Merlin attempts a graceful exit, but Arthur spots him and asks if they’ve defeated evil. Merlin’s response: good and evil go hand in hand. Then Arthur asks where evil hides in his kingdom, and Merlin cries, “It’s your sister! Morgana! She’s a viper! Kill her, kill her now!” Actually, no; Merlin can’t resist his riddles and instead says, “Always where you never expect it.” Hmm. I’d expect it from the half sister with an axe to grind, but that’s just me.
Liam says he knows where evil lurks but cannot say, but Arthur naively insists “Gawain” speak up. And Gawain drops the bombshell: Lancelot stays away because of his lust for a woman: Queen Guinevere! Arthur’s about to throw down…
…but his wife grabs his arm and suggests it’s all idle gossip and says, “Hey, let Gawain sip from Lance’s cup and it’ll all be fine.” The cup gets passed around the table and the looks on some people’s faces are priceless, like they’re handling a live grenade. Gawain fidgets in his table, wide-eyed as the cup get closer and closer. And when given the cup, Gawain closes his eyes with a look of anguish on his face, and then he overturns it and slaps it on the table.
All the while, Morgana has been standing behind Gawain, distancing herself from him now that she’s weaponized the man. Arthur gives Gawain one last chance to relent, but he won’t back down and so Arthur says Lancelot has to be Guinevere’s champion since he’s king and has to be judge. In two days, Lancelot will fight Gawain with Guinevere’s life in the balance… I guess? In the musical Camelot, Guinevere’s to be burnt at the stake, and in the Vikings TV series, the penalty for adultery is the woman to have her ears and nose cut off. For all we know, in this case Arthur’s supposed to send his unfaithful wife back to Leondegrance or something. The stakes are kind of ambiguous here.
Everyone exits the room, leaving Gawain alone. Later, Arthur and Guinevere have a fight over what’s about to go down. He explains why he can’t defend her.
Rules for thee and not for me? Not in his kingdom! If laws are meant to really work, then they have to apply to him too and he has to be king first, husband second. Whether Guinevere understands this radical new concept or not doesn’t matter; she seems crushed by the revelation.
Elsewhere, Lancelot prays, noting that legally, he and Guinevere are innocent but not in their hearts. He prays to God to “purge” him of his love for Guinevere so he can defend her. So I guess somebody caught up to Lance and told him what went down? Glad he was still in the neighborhood, then.
That night, God answers… by animating Lance’s armor and attacking him. Lance sees himself in the armor, but when he wrestles it to the ground, it’s empty. And he finds he’s been impaled on his own sword.
Lance claims he literally fought against himself, but what if it was Morgana who did it? She has to know Gawain is no match for Lance and killing the king’s champion insures Guinevere’s death, mutilation, and/or banishment. There’s zero evidence of Morgana being able to do this, but I do sort of wonder, because it seems more plausible than Lancelot accidentally falling on his own blade during a nightmare, and Merlin said earlier he had taught her too much already.
Soon comes the day of the trial, and there’s no Lancelot. And while nobody stood with Gawain at the dinner, no one is willing to stand against him, either. I mean hell, not even Kay is stepping up here. Arthur desperately looks around for a champion but nobody steps forward… until the squire up and volunteers. Arthur has him kneel…
…and he doesn’t even know the kid’s name, but we now know its Percival. Percival is knighted and without hesitation and without wearing any armor, he literally leaps onto the back of a horse and takes up lance and shield to face down Gawain. Just how long has he been here, anyway? I guess long enough to learn how to ride.
We learn Percival has the heart of a knight, or maybe it’s just Wisdom is his dump stat. Gawain looks pissed and Percival looks determined. Arthur is ready to start the match when Lancelot arrives. Lance greets king and queen, then rides over to Percival to tell him this is his task. And Percival can’t help but notice the blood.
Or I guess we’re supposed to assume it; personally, I don’t know how the kid can see the stains from that angle.
The match is on, and the two knights charge each other with their lances, and unhorse each other, but Lancelot is hurt worse. A squire provides both men with maces and they throw down, and it seems Lance is about to win easily, but the wound trips him up. They now fight with what look like short spears with guards, and Gawain has the upper hand, but Lance gets the man on the ground and is about to drive a spike through his face.
Gawain begs for mercy. He proclaims the queen’s innocence and there is much rejoicing. But then Lance collapses, finally succumbing to his wound.
Later, Lance is in bed dying, and according to Merlin, has no will to live. Arthur demands Merlin save him, no matter the cost. Merlin’s response is to place Guinevere’s hand on Lancelot’s wound.
The sorcerer murmurs the Charm of Making and departs, perhaps not wanting to see what comes next. Arthur follows Merlin out, and perhaps because of what he’s seen, asks his (literally) oldest friend if Arthur will have a son. Merlin’s response: Yes. No riddles, which frightens Arthur. But Merlin soothes the fear and distracts the king by saying he should always be afraid, especially by what’s going on in his head.
After he recovers, Lance attends dinner and says they’ve lost their way. But is he talking about the knights, or himself? Arthur stands and asks what the greatest quality of a knight is, which prompts Merlin to speak, but when the sorcerer attempts to sidestep the answer, Arthur tells him, “No riddles!” Be careful what you wish for, Arthur.
Merlin tells him “truth” is the greatest quality, for when a knight lies, he murders part of the world. And I absolutely love how Morgana lurks in the background, as if her purple veil makes her somehow invisible, or cloaks her true intentions. For Lance, the honesty’s too much and he leaves, only to be pursued by Guinevere, who at last gives in to temptation.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Arthur learns of their betrayal from Merlin. He admits Merlin warned him years ago and wonders what to do now, but the sorcerer says his time is done and Arthur has to face this alone. There are other worlds, Merlin says, and this one is done with him. The pair share a bro hug and Arthur heads off to… do what he has to.
But Merlin has one last task before he hits the road. He tracks down Morgana and scornfully looks upon her primitive workshop, and asks if the sum total of her accomplishments is nothing but potions and petty evil? Morgana throws back in his face that he’s a meddler like her, and he notes he at least tried to help manking. He leaves and Morgana, realizing she’ll lose her chance to learn the Charm of Making, pursues him.
But this is what Merlin wanted—he guides her into the bowels of the castle. As Lance and Guinevere make love, Merlin and Morgana reach the catacombs, AKA the “coils of the dragon” where all things are possible. The two see images of Lance and Guinevere, Igrayne with a lover, and Arthur approaching the latter pair. Morgana insists on learning the charm, even as Arthur finds the lovers slumbering.
Not-so-fun fact: The moss was placed down by helpful workers for the scene who were unaware it was infested with ants. Oh, and the scene was shot at night, so it was cold as hell. Talk about suffering for your art.
Arthur stands above them, Excalibur in his hands. In the catacombs, Merlin unleashes the full power of the dragon and begins to fry Morgana’s brains with its terrible knowledge and power.
But then Arthur drives Excalibur down and Merlin seems literally impaled upon it. It’s as if the dragon’s power has been used upon itself. Merlin is stunned, dazed, and Morgana takes advantage, tricking him into giving up the Charm of Making. She uses it to freeze him, leaving him helpless in the catacombs. Flush with power, she claims she’ll find a man and give birth to a god!
Just then, Lancelot and Guinevere awaken to find Excalibur driven into the ground between them.
Lance has a massive freak out and races into the woods naked, while Guinevere collapses, sobbing. Morgana finds Arthur sleeping and whispers the Charm, making him believe it’s Guinevere he lays with.
After the deed is done, she reveals her true form, telling him she’s conceived a son and while she could kill him here and now, she’d much rather see him live to see their son become king. She then knocks him out with a pair of thumbs to the throat.
Nine months later, on a dark and stormy night, Morgana is attended to by what look like Sith midwives, all veiled up and dressed in black cloaks. As lightning comes crashing down, Morgana gives birth, but is it to a baby or god? Only time will tell.
Over at Camelot, Arthur and his knights attend church…
…and a priest holds up a cup while lightning flashes and thunder crashes, entreating God to protect them from Morgana and her unholy child. The response? A bolt of lightning strikes down through the cross and into Arthur’s chest, knocking him senseless.
The knights gather around the fallen king, and one asks if he’s dead. “He lives,” someone who sounds like Gawain replies. The question is, with what is to come, will Arthur wish to?
Next time: The Grail.