Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 5 of 7): The Grail

Last time: Goaded by Morgana, the knight Gawain accused Queen Guinevere of adulterous intent with Lancelot. Lance defended her honor, but the two succumbed to their feelings for one another. Arthur found them as they slept but couldn’t bring himself to kill them, driving Excalibur into the ground between them instead. This crippled Merlin at a critical time when he sought to destroy Morgana, and allowed her to steal the Charm of Making and imprison him. Having tricked and seduced her brother, she’s given birth to an unholy child.

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We now find the land in peril, suffering from blight. A knight rides through the desolation as peasants beg him for help. And once more, a particular film intrudes upon my mind as I watch this; I keep waiting for someone to tell Dennis about the lovely filth they just found.

The knight, confronted by a problem that can’t be solved by being cleaved in twain with a broadsword, rides away in frustration.

Back at Camelot, we find Arthur, weakened, who must be helped to the round table. He explains that they must find the Grail to restore what’s been lost, and that the Grail will restore “leaf and flower”. Instead of a holy relic, it sounds more like you need professional gardeners to uncover this horticultural mystery. You should call…

Percival asks where they should look for it, and we see Gawain standing behind him.

Hey, nice to see the king doesn’t bear a grudge against the guy who was instrumental in bringing his kingdom to ruin. Then again, I’m not seeing Lancelot or the queen around, so I’m guessing Arthur will take all the help he can get. The king responds to the young knight, “Portents… signs… follow…” Ah, so it’s going to be one of those adventures, is it? Full of problem solving and role playing. Judging by the look on the knights’ faces, they ain’t crazy about this GM’s new campaign either, but they man up and ride out on this quest.

The knights head out, leaving Arthur alone napping at the table. I’m assuming the knights will spread out instead of riding across the country in a single file like this.  Maybe they ride that way normally to hide their numbers.

We find Percival questing alone and over time, he starts looking a little rough and ragged, with his armor dull and rusted, and his face weathered and bearded.

Either some time has passed, or Ireland’s climate is a lot rougher on the skin than I’ve heard. Percival rides on and disturbs some crows. I wonder if these are Merlin’s crows, and how they’re doing since they’ve been unemployed.

Later, he comes across a field that’s literally on fire. Was this intentional, or did a key grip drop a lit cigarette on something flammable and Boorman said, “Oooooh, that looks perfect!  Shoot that!” Or does peat spontaneously combust? Now it’s snowing and neither the documentary or Amazon general trivia will tell me if this scene was shot in Ireland like the rest of the movie, and it’s driving me a little nuts. Percival spots a knight under a shelter of rocks, and approaches and asks if the guy found the Grail.

I’m guessing no. I remember when I first saw this, and thinking how chilling it looked… then thinking the director really blew a great opportunity by not having the skeleton knight come to life and fight Percival. Because man, that skeleton would have had a wicked armor class. Percival rides on through the desolate landscape and I’m starting to get the feeling I’m seeing the real Ireland, and not that verdant wonderland the tourist board keeps selling us.

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Percival’s looking a little rougher and now things start getting weird(er) as he reaches some woods and comes across a guy in a loincloth strapped to a horse, with his throat cut. In Dungeons & Dragons terms, this would be known as a “plot hook”. You’d be surprised at how many players would cut the body loose and just take the horse. But then Percival recognizes the man: Gawain!

However, before he can see if his fellow knight might still be alive, he hears a child’s laughter. Ride on, Percival! No good can come of a creepy child. But our hero heads deeper into the woods, following the boy’s laughter. And then he sees him…

Kill it! Kill it with fire! I knew the kid was going to be every bit as bad as that vampire child in Salem’s Lot. The little monster asks the knight if he seeks the Grail. Percival says he does and the boy has him follow. They soon reach a section of the woods where dead knights hang from the trees.

Fun fact: it took them days to get that bird to pluck a cow’s eye out of the socket. The boy says the dead knights had been looking for the Grail too, but they weren’t “good enough”. For God’s sake, Percival, cut his head off!

They head into what actually looks like castle Cornwall. Either they’re re-using a prop, or Percival’s in deep trouble. The kid takes off his helmet…

Yeah, when it comes to smug, Game of Thrones’ Prince Joffrey has nothing on this punk. This is John Boorman’s kid Charley in the role of Prince Mordred. He walks over to and kneels before a woman, and it’s Morgana. And it looks like she hasn’t aged a day despite this having to be ten years later, at least. Either these are more age-shenanigans like having a thirty five year old man playing a fifteen year old teen, or Morgana’s arrested her aging somehow. She notes how tired and thirsty Percival is and she offers him a drink… from the chalice that hey, may or may not be the Grail.

Percival collapses and finds himself in Morgana’s arms, surrounded by knights he thought were dead. All hold out cups to drink from, but Percival’s not the fool I thought he was back at the duel; he knows there’s something foul afoot and knocks the drinks aside.

We see that he never left the other chamber, and was instead being fed an illusion, and that he refused the cup Morgana offered him. Mordred says he’s “no good”. More like too good, you little punk. The brat orders Percival taken to the tree, and faceless knights—this time for real—grab Percival and string him up.

Percival is hung by the neck like the other “no good” knights and sways in the breeze. As he starts slipping into unconsciousness, he begins to have a vision. A bright light shines in his eyes and he sees Camelot, and crosses the drawbridge and within he sees…the Grail!

A voice—presumably God’s—intones, “What is the secret of the Grail? Who does it serve?” Uh, that’s “whom”, thank you very much. You’d think somebody who’s supposedly all knowing would use proper grammar. Percival senses the drawbridge rising, so he fails his Will save and makes a break for it, even as the spurs on the boots of the corpse hung above him cuts into his rope. Percival falls towards the moat in one world, and drops from the tree in the next. He lays there, knowing the secret was almost his.

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Meanwhile, Mordred wonders when he gets to be king, sounding like a kid wondering when he gets to go to Disneyworld. Man, if Veruca Salt were a boy, he would be this punk. Suddenly, the boy is like 18-20, and I can’t tell if Morgana just made him older or if more years went by. I’m going to guess the latter because, well, just because. Morgana’s getting all creepy touchy on her kid here…

…but then again, this is the woman who lay with her brother, so I’m not putting anything past her. Wow, the sexual escapades at Castle Cornwall put Castle Anthrax to shame.

Morgana clads her brat in a new suit of golden armor and says that no weapon “forged by man” will harm him while he’s wearing it. Do you think that distinction is going to be be important later? She sends her son off to go meet Arthur, who’s now so weak he can’t get out of his chair and has to be carted around by a bunch of knights.

He tells Mordred to “show himself” and the little bastard removes his helmet to reveal his face. Arthur looks into it and the feeling I get here is he’s looking for something of himself in Mordred’s face, but doesn’t see any trace; he’s his sister’s creature, through and through. Arthur tells Morgana’s spawn that he can’t give him the land, only his love. Mordred snarls that it’s the only thing of Arthur’s he doesn’t want and rides off with his men, but not before telling Arthur all the quest knights are dead, and he’s coming back to take Camelot by force.

We then discover that Percival is still alive, though a little grayer, and his armor a little more rusty. And he also spots Uryens. Sadly, Mordred spots him too.

Percival watches from the woods; unarmed, he’s helpless. He hides, terrified of being spotted by Mordred. Once he and his minions are gone, Percival sneaks over to Uryens, who dies in his arms, telling the (not so) young knight he’s the last of them, and he must try again to find the Grail. The pair hear the mystic music, and Uryens tells Percival “they call you”. Then the knight who had himself knighted Arthur dies.

Percival hears another sound that drowns out the heavenly choir: wailing peasants. He investigates and finds a group preparing to bury a child, and with them…

…is Lancelot. Who, after losing all his paladin powers, has gone full cleric and is now utterly crazypants. He goads the peasants into attacking Percival, and Lancelot’s former squire is driven into the river and swept away, calling out to his former master that Arthur needs him. Is that hesitation on Lancelot’s face? Percival sheds the rusted armor to save his life. He rises from the water… and finds himself back at the vision he had while hanging from the tree.

This time, Percival is unafraid, as if shedding his armor also meant shedding his doubts and fears. Hey, who doesn’t like a little symbolism? Once more, he’s asked [sigh] who the Grail serves and now he knows the secret: it serves Arthur, and Arthur and the land are one. And the purest knight is able to take the Grail in hand and deliver it to his king.

Arthur finds himself almost reborn, with his strength and sense of purpose restored to him. Kay comes in, shocked to find his kid bro back on his feet. As Percival kneels in the background, obviously wiped out from his trials, Arthur tells his brother he’s been on the sidelines for too long; Lancelot bore his honor, Guinevere his guilt, and his knights his causes. He tells Kay it’s time for him to be king again.

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Smiling, Kay spins on his heel, and as he strides down the corridor he calls out, “Guards, knights, squires! Prepare for battle!” And I won’t lie; with Arthur’s speech about how he had fallen short as king and man, and how he’s bound and determined to set things right, and with Kay calling out for everyone to gird their loins and prepare for a final showdown as Wagner’s music begins to rise, this scene never fails to give me a thrill. It sets up the final act and the ultimate confrontation.

Next time: The fate of Camelot, and the film’s epic conclusion.

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

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