Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 6 of 7): The final battle

Last time: The land turned desolate and Arthur was weakened, and in his wisdom, the king sent knights out on a quest to find the Grail to set things right. In his travels, Percival found despair, as well as Morgana and her evil son Mordred, but managed to escape her clutches. He also ran into Lancelot, who seemed to have succumbed to madness from the guilt of betraying his friend. Ultimately, Percival’s hope and courage allowed him to find the Grail and return with it to Arthur, who drank and was restored.

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Arthur and his knights (what’s left of them) ride out of Camelot as “Oh Fortuna” plays. “Oh Fortuna” was a medieval poem and German composer Carl Orff got his hands on it, and it’s now one of the most widely known pieces of music in western civilization.

Huh, I had no idea there was whole extra three minutes at the end there. I think when I die I want them to be playing this music as they roll my coffin into the crematorium. Just the first two minutes, though; with a live choir.

As Arthur and his knights ride through the land, grass grows green once more, and flowers bloom. Arthur and company are showered with petals from the trees so thick it almost looks like snow. The party rides right for Castle Cornwall… but no! It’s not Cornwall, but another castle entirely. Judging by the maids in white, it might be Castle Anthrax.

It turns out this is a nunnery, and living here is Guinevere. Ah, so I guess this is the punishment for adultery then? No disfigurement or burning at the stake? Or maybe she just fled here and the nuns took her in. Guinevere is clearly shocked at Arthur being here, but based on his expression, she knows he’s not here to lop her head off or anything. The two approach and he says he forgives her and says he’s always loved her. Guinevere confesses she loved him as king and sometimes husband but “one cannot gaze too long at the sun”. Since it only shows for five seconds at a time, you can in Ireland.

Arthur in turn asks his wife to forgive him and explains that he was born to be the stuff of “future memory”, essentially explaining that he was supposed to be larger than life and represent something bigger than just a normal man. He’s about to take his leave so he can throw down one last time, but Guinevere has a gift.

Excalibur! That sword Arthur keeps losing. But being the good wife that she is, Guinevere picked up after her husband.

Arthur stares at the blade with wonder, having despaired of ever seeing it again. He departs, but not before telling Guinevere he dreams that perhaps in another life the two could be husband and wife like two regular people. It’s an honestly touching scene, with Nigel Terry and Cherie Lunghi doing a wonderful job portraying a married couple who love each other and have reconciled, and it makes me wish we could have seen more interaction between the two. But more on that later. Arthur takes his leave, and there’s an expression of sadness and regret on Guinevere’s face.

It can be hard to describe the difference between drama and melodrama, but I think one way to tell is that drama can allow an expression to convey a lifetime of regret and sadness better than words could.

Arthur and his boys ride out and meet up with another knight with a teenager, who tells Arthur it’s just him and his son; the rest have gone over to Mordred. They can see the smoke of Mordred’s camp and Arthur says they’ll rest here for the night.

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There’s a group of standing stones nearby, and Arthur goes there to be alone. Out of sight from his men, Arthur lets his guard down, and calls out to Merlin and wonders what became of his mentor and friend. The king strikes one of the stone pillars and the impact can be heard in the catacombs below Camelot, awakening Merlin. And… okay, did no one ever see that door leading to the catacombs and think, “Hmmm, I wonder what’s down there?” Or is the door somehow hidden from the eyes of normal people? Or do people just find a locked door and say “Not my problem, man”?

Arthur falls asleep. I’d say that’s impossible, but I’ve known D&D players for decades who claimed their characters slept in their armor because they were afraid the Dungeon Master was going to throw a midnight random encounter their way, so if I let that crap slide for so long, I’m not about to start nitpicking it now. Merlin appears to the king in his dream and says Arthur’s love brought him back, and that this is where he resides now. Arthur asks if Merlin is a dream. Merlin’s response? “A dream to some… A nightmare to others!”

Arthur awakens to find Merlin gone, and goes to see Kay, who says Merlin appeared to him, too. Merlin told Kay he would fight bravely tomorrow. Yeah, Kay’s so gonna die.

Cut to Mordred’s camp, where Merlin strolls through unchallenged. He walks right up to Morded…

…who doesn’t realize he’s being eyeballed by a demi-god. Merlin enters Morgana’s tent…

…and she’s sleeping in armor, too! No wonder D&D players love this movie so much. Merlin mocks Morgana into consciousness, and she’s shocked to see her old foe’s still around, albeit incorporeal. Merlin needles Morgana more, bringing up that time he summoned the dragon’s breath so Uther could lay with Morgana’s mom.

Morgana hisses and Merlin further implies that Morgana could probably do the same even more easily, but when no mist appears, Merlin suggests Morgana use the Charm of Making. Morgana does, and soon a mist rises from her mouth. There was a time when I thought the crafty Morgana sure does fall for all of this pretty easily, but when you see her laying unconscious on her bed… wearing a plate bodice… you realize Merlin has invaded her dreams. Morgana was never truly awake, and in this state was more vulnerable. That’s my theory, anyway.

A guard comes to Mordred, informing him of the rising fog. Mordred’s incredulous, but there it is, coming out of his mom’s tent. He heads in as the guard notes rather acidly, “It will stand against us in battle!” And another aside here; do they know they’re facing Arthur? The man hasn’t rode or armored up in twenty years, and as far as they know, he’s sickly as hell. Shouldn’t the fact that Arthur’s apparently quite well and the land is in bloom be preying on their minds? And isn’t it pretty damn late in the game for me to start nitpicking? Maybe so.

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Mordred enters and finds a stranger wearing mom’s battle gear, an she’s an old woman. Merlin has tricked Morgana into using up all the power she had stolen from him. Naturally, Mordred asks this stranger where his mom is…

…and by “ask”, I mean he punches her in the face and then strangles her to death. Is he thinking this is going to make the fog go away? Does Mordred have impulse issues?  Did he always want to kill his Mom, knew this was her, and saw this as a chance? I don’t know.

The next day, Mordred’s men line up and prepare for battle. Modred asks his… general… I guess? He asks the smartass from the night before, “Where are they?” and the man responds, “Listen!” Oh my gawd, can he hear “Oh Fortuna”, too? Is he breaking the fourth wall? Oh, he’s just hearing Arthur and his knights bearing down on them on horseback. I’d say the king was foolish to give up the high ground, but since he’s the only one on the field with the closest thing to a light saber, I guess that doesn’t matter.

Arthur knows the fog will hide their numbers and he decides the “old ways” are best here; namely, ride fast and hard and plow into them. The first casualty is one of Mordred’s men, who gets a lance through the chest. Mordred realizes he’s out of position and has his boys turn, but by then Arthur and the gang are wading into them good and proper.

The fight is on and damn, Mordred’s sword can hack off limbs too! While the initial attack came as a surprise, Arthur’s knights begin to fall, one by one, dragged off their horses and hacked apart. Arthur calls for Percival and Kay to join him, and the men form up back to back, hacking into whatever unlucky bastard gets close. Still, it’s only a matter of time before—but wait! Who’s that flaxen haired madman riding in, swinging a mace left and right, crackin’ skulls like there’s no tomorrow? It’s… Lancelot!

Arthur stares, his expression one of disbelief and hope as Percival grins and confirms it; that’s Lance, all right, and he’s racking up an epic kill count. A pair of soldiers pull Lance off his horse, but by gawd, I think that just makes him even more dangerous. Lance finishes off the last of Mordred’s men and he stands, howling “Arthur!” like a wounded wolf.

It’s just Arthur and Percival now, and they make their way over to Lance, who’s on the ground dying. It’s the old wound, he explains; it never truly healed. In a scene that’s heart-breakingly poignant, Arthur assures Lance he’s still a Knight of the Round Table, and what’s more, he’s what is best in men. Lance dies, with the last thing he hears being Arthur’s assurance that Guinevere is queen once more.

And the manly tears leaking from my eyes won’t stop! But Arthur’s mourning over his friend’s passing is cut short.

“Come, Father, let us embrace at last,” is one of the most badass lines I’ve ever heard in a motion picture. It’s aided by both actor Robbert Addie’s bloodied appearance and devastating delivery. When Arthur offered his son his love, Mordred’s response was full of such loathing, and we get it here again. And damn it, I wish so much we could have seen more of Mordred… and more on that later.

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The two men square off, father and son.  Arthur eats Mordred’s spear—

—and it’s a Frank Frazetta painting come to life. Like the complete badass he is, Arthur walks his way down the shaft to plunge Excalibur into Mordred’s heart!

Hey, remember when Morgana was prepping the kid’s armor before? And making it impervious against man-made weapons? I guess she didn’t account for the one weapon in all of existence that could kill her boy to still be in existence. Whoops.

Arthur wants Percival to take Excalibur and throw it into a calm pool of water. Percival objects, but Arthur commands it and the purest knight rides off. He reaches a pool… but he can’t do it. Percival rides back and tells a still dying Arthur it was done, but he can’t maintain the lie and confesses.

Percival says Excalibur can’t be lost, but Arthur assures him a king will come and Excalibur will rise again. Percival once more reaches the waters, and this time he sees the hand of the Lady of the Lake. He throws the sword and she accepts it.

Percival rides back to Arthur, but he’s nowhere to be found. Eventually, he sees Arthur on a ship with what appear to be three sisters.

And our film ends on a stunning scene…

…leaving one wondering if the king who Arthur spoke of might be Arthur himself.

Next time: I unpack my thoughts and feelings about this movie… and I might wind up alienating a whole bunch of readers as a result. Come back and see if you’ll be one of them!

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

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