[Originally Published: May 31, 2011]
The old wizard turned away from his creation, and vanished beyond the veil of illusion. One wonders if the world would ever see him again, let alone have any sort of real discourse about his hidden knowledge. As he glanced back one last time in the darkness, there was a bemused sparkling look in his eyes.
John Boorman’s Excalibur came out 30 years ago in 1981. As one previews the current onslaught of action hero films based predominantly on Marvel Comic adaptations, one is apt to look back at the legends of old, especially as this is being written on Memorial Day, a day when our culture celebrates our fallen heroes—in and out of battle.
Excalibur is an excellent feast for the eyes—the battle sequences are superb, and the scenery is both rugged and beautiful—and the ears—the soundtrack is a combination of classic pieces culled from the archives of some of the legendary musical figures of our past, and newer motifs written by Trevor Jones. Excalibur faired well with film goers 30 years ago, but its selection here is more so because of its quest for hidden knowledge, that which can bond and unite a nation, and give it purpose, as well.
Therefore, we extend a warm salute to a film about a hero named Arthur, his wife, Guinevere, his not-so-loyal knight, Lancelot, a wizard named Merlin, and a sword called Excalbur in this edition of Hidden Flick, John Boorman’s classic take on a legendary tale.
Perhaps, a bit of background before we conclude our study of Arthurian legend with some final comments on this pursuit of hidden knowledge, or hidden magic in a great time of transition between the chivalric and Renaissance eras in Boorman’s Excalibur.
The story of Arthur was a myth whose time had come. The ‘real’ Arthur was possibly a Roman garrison commander, circa 470 to 420 A.D. The legendary Arthur is slated at 12th to 13th century A.D. In the movement of eras, he is also transformed from empirical servant to a mighty king and ruler. This chosen one, perhaps even a Welsh cavalry general named Artorius, remains unclear to this day. Was he indeed Welsh, or, as believed, Roman? Or, a king’s associate from the 5th century?
Regardless, it appears that he was a great military campaigner who was unable to repel the pesky, barbaric Goths in Burgundy. The historical Arthur was, like the legendary figure, apparently duped by a loyal follower—Lancelot betrayed Arthur by his liaison with Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. The overdramatization of the betrayal of our Arthurian hero indicates another similar trait. The Romans never latched on to the chivalric ideals that would blossom in the 12th to 14th centuries. Nevertheless, the historical and legendary aspects of both myth and alleged fact share a common empirical lust.
Whether it be the Caesar figure for almighty omniscience and power, or the Excalibur sword, brought forth and offered by the Lady of the Lake to the wizard and seer, Merlin, who would offer the fateful words to Arthur, not only in the legendary tale, but in Boorman’s film, that Arthur was destined to be at One with the Land, meaning that his entire existence was tied to the well-being of his kingdom, the people, and the land where they dwelled…so it is foreseen, so it will be done…the Excalibur sword was brought forth to guarantee Arthur’s might, and these two cultures viewed life as a struggle full of risks, conquest, and, ultimately, self-righteousness.
Rome sought space allocation and commercial strongholds. The Britannia of the Dark Ages and the legendary Arthurian era, which is captured in the myth and cinematic tableaux drawn by Boorman, was striving for moral cleansing while spreading its language, doctrines, beliefs, and might. Arthur was, perhaps, again, Caesar reborn, but he had no equal. Lancelot could not match up with the virtuous Arthur. Furthermore, it is interesting that the Excalibur sword is used by a burgeoning nation as a symbol of power, a very Roman feature which carries over the philosophy of good conquering evil.
More to the point, ancient empirical Rome and latter-day medieval Britannia had their collective hands full vanquishing encroaching alleged evil barbarians. In Rome, these advancing hordes eventually sapped the power of the once great empire. In romanticized Arthurian times of myth and legend, the evil and corruption are within the kingdom itself. It is in its very nature, the ultimate symbol of historical Arthur—external, probing, insistent enemies. This contrasts with Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 version of Arthur, in which the rotting of the Round Table—filled with knights sworn to service to their King Arthur—is an internal process fueled by infighting and responsibility conflicts. Should Lancelot be loyal to his king, or to his true love to Guinevere? How can Arthur run a country when he cannot control his own home, let alone himself?
The dichotomy of the historical Arthur—allegedly a great Welsh warrior, or maybe, a powerful Dark Ages Britannia king—would echo into the future of a soon-to-be budding British empire. Whether or not Arthur was of Roman, Welsh, or early Britannia stripes, one wonders if, possibly, that is missing the mark. The time of chivalry, romantic love, and unshakeable loyalty to one’s cause had come in the 12th to the 14th century. Heroes would be bred and foisted onto a public who clamored for meaning in a world previously hollow and loveless. Again, one also wonders if the only truth in this life is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The choice, one ponders, is yours.
In Boorman’s film of the Arthurian legend, Merlin offers a sword to the Chosen One, and Arthur becomes that very leader that is either sought or rejected depending upon one’s point of view. Suffice to say, that Boorman does a rather powerful job of not only exposing the humanity inside Arthur’s mythic interior soul, but his external actions, as well. Perhaps, a leader always needs a strangely astute wizard next to one’s shadow. Indeed, who is the Magic Man of yore? Is it Merlin, the man with supernatural visions and power, a power that seemed to fade away as the Dark Ages led to the Renaissance era, or was it Arthur, who contained the one secret hidden bit of magic that all souls appear to seek? In the end, it is not our minds that fail us, but our hearts. Alas, we return to the darkness from whence we came.
Had he even existed? Or, was this Charismatic Guru in our imagination? Bread crumbs in the forest to another peak, another deep look inside what makes magic, and what makes something worth seeing in a strange and secret place? Is it a place one goes to escape time? Or, was it to find hidden magic in the forest of lost truth?