Excalibur – Part I
I love the movie Excalibur. A squire pulling the sword from the stone. The tale of Lancelot. The quest for the Holy Grail and the final embrace of father and son. And never forget the epic and triumphal music. This movie is my knowledge of King Arthur’s tale. John Boorman’s version of this myth will forever suffice for this non-Brit.
The more I watched this polyphonic film, the more I questioned who is the real hero. Eventually, I decided this movie is less about Arthur or Merlin or Lancelot or anything they represent and more about someone else.
The story of Excalibur is a better tale about Perceval. One of the Knights of the Round Table, many people do not remember his name.
The more you think about it the more you realize he is the only character worth a damn in the whole film. And he is not introduced until the middle.
I break this movie into six acts:
Act I: Backstory with Uther and Merlin and Arthur’s birth
Act II: Arthurs wields Excalibur and becomes King, saving LeondeGrance.
Act III: Introduction of Lancelot and Marriage to Guinevere
Act IV: Betrayal and Things Fall Apart
Act V: Quest for the Holy Grail
Act VI: Redemption and Final Battle, Conclusion.
Only Merlin, Arthur and Morgana span all acts in some form.
On first glance, you would probably list the main characters as: Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Morgana, Guinevere, Mordred and Uther before going further.
Let us examine these main characters, dispensing first of the two main villains:
Morgana: Wronged in childhood, Merlin and Uther killed her father and it made her evil. Nothing else need be said. (Except here)
Modred: Incestuous, power hungry, murderous, heathen offspring of Morgana and Arthur. Demon child. Pure evil.
And the potential protagonists:
Uther: Undeniably a dirtbag. Merlin basically hands him the thrown by giving him Excalibur and has to teach him how to make peace with Cornwall. A peace which lasts for less than a day. Minutes after making a blood oath, Uther lusts after Cornwall’s wife. He then gets Merlin to cast some magic to lure Cornwall out of his castle and kill him while he rapes the lady in front of her daughter Morgana. Wonderful guy this King is. He got what he deserved. Thrusting the sword in the stone is a cool way to go out though.
Guinevere: Has essentially one job in the whole movie: DO NOT SLEEP WITH LANCELOT! Sleeps with Lancelot and things fall apart. Her redemption is she held on to Excalibur for Arthur. (And so much more)
Lancelot: The perfect knight with the perfect flaw. Worships Arthur even though he knows Arthur cheated to win their duel. Then becomes useless as he will not come to Camelot since he can not stop lusting over his best friend’s wife. After he sleeps with Guinevere, he goes AWOL for twenty years while things fall apart and then tries to kill Perceval because Perceval has the audacity to come near him. Only comes back at the very end when all the characters are redeemed of the crap they pulled during the movie. It should be noted no one actually kills Lancelot. He appropriately dies from a self-inflicted wound.
Merlin: Unquantifiable idiot whose conceited manipulations spawned the whole fiasco. He gives Excalibur to the arrogant tyrant Uther. He helps Uther rape Cornwall’s wife, getting Cornwall killed in the process and all the while bartering a child with the rapist. Mind you it was Merlin who convinced Uther to make peace with Cornwall in the first place. Duplicitous. He does not ever seem to worry Morgana may want revenge for killing her father even though he confessed his role to Morgana’s mother when he took baby Arthur. Instead, he is deceived like a giant doofus because Morgana shakes her behind at him, getting forever locked in an ice tomb after giving up all his secrets. Like everyone, gets redeemed at the end. This movie could legitimately be retitled “Merlin is a Moron”
Arthur: Incompetent squire. Goes from humble king to arrogant king in minutes breaking Excalibur in a fight with Lancelot. Does not notice his best friend ogling his wife at every chance and vice versa. Lets people talk crap about his wife and does nothing before she even sleeps with Lancelot. She then sleeps with Lancelot and he still does nothing except give up Excalibur and be pathetically depressed. Gets easily duped into sleeping with Morgana, hell-spawning Modred. Lets the land fall into disrepair and becomes a genuinely worthless sack of potatoes for twenty years while Morgana and Mordred rampage about. Is always reliant on Merlin for advice and Excalibur for fighting. Sends all the knights on a pompous quest to find the grail for his own purposes, causing the brutal death of every knight but one. After the battle saving LeondeGrance, everything about Arthur reeks of failure and arragance. Until of course he is handed the Holy Grail while decrepitly laying on his throne. He then redeems himself and gets a totally underserved king of kings sendoff.
There is not one worthy hero in this entire lot. Just flawed people who create problems.
So who is the best hero in this movie of heroes?
Perceval. He of perseverance.
It is clear. Some clues should be (w)holy obvious but we will go in order of the movie.
First, Perceval is the only character who could plausibly represent the viewer or common man. Every character from the onset is either ordained nobility, mysterious Lancelot, a more mysterious lady in a lake, a villain (also ordained nobility) or Merlin. There are no common man characters in the entire film except him. Perceval was not a knight or empowered by lakes or magic. He was a young peasant scrub when Lancelot came upon him. He convinced Lancelot to take him as a squire by showing skill in the forest, successfully shadowing an otherwise fearsome knight for a time and even hunting and cooking while the great Lancelot slept. This is called earning a job through merit and ambition. He then ran all the way to Camelot rather than ride piggy back. This is impressive determination to prove worth to an employer. Who would not hire such a man?
Second, he earns knighthood through courage, valor and adherence to duty in the face of death. When Gawain challenged the Queen’s honor before her affair with Lancelot, not one of Arthur’s supposedly loyal or brave knights would rise to his challenge and Lancelot was nowhere to be found. Lowly Perceval did not know what was going on or, frankly, give a hoot. He only knew his King was asking for someone to defend his Queen’s honor. Not to know why but to do or die. Arthur did not know Perceval’s name when he knighted him. It was irrelevant because his qualities already showed. This man leapt on a horse with no armor ready to brazenly charge at what appeared to be certain death against a heavily armored and studly-young Liam Niesson. And more so, Perceval looked on it as if he had won an award. A squire bravely fulfilling a knight’s duty is how a squire becomes a knight. Of course, Lancelot finally showed up to take care of his own mess, sparing Perceval a needless and unjust death. Or sparing Gawain perhaps.
Third and most obvious is Perceval succeeds in the Quest for The Holy Grail and is the only character worthy of speaking with God. Twice actually since he failed on his first attempt to answer the Almighty questions and therefore had to continue the quest.
Act V is the story of the persecution and perseverance of Perceval. The Knights of the Round Table all starve, freeze or are slain in battles but Perceval carries on. They fall to the hallucinogenic temptations of Morgana but Perceval somehow resists. He does however receive good fortune when the boot spur of a dead friend cuts his noose. A little help from heavenly above for the one character who deserves to receive such timely and divine assistance.
God’s scene is not too important. It is straightforward with God asking Perceval about the purpose of life and the Grail and our hero responding “to serve Arthur/The Lord.” Do no begrudge anyone for this. It is difficult to write God well so it is best to leave it as a simple statement about Perceval understanding the meaning of his life (to serve his Lord Arthur) and move along to the rest of movie.
The preceding scene carries more meaning. After seeing Uryens killed and totally hopeless knowing he is the last knight, Perceval comes upon a desolate valley with lowly people around a river. There, he sees old, filthy and haggard Lancelot along with a group of poor souls mourning in a funeral procession. Seeing his former boss and assumed greatest of knights, Perceval begs Lancelot to return to help save Arthur. Perceval thinks they need the awesome abilities of Lancelot to find the Grail. Perceval pleads with Lancelot to keep faith in Arthur and Lancelot promptly tells the people to throw Perceval into the river to drown.
Great juxtaposition, Lancelot represents the best mortal men believed could be attained. As Gawain said, “is there anyone here who doesn’t think him a God?” If anyone thought he was more than a God, it would have been Perceval, his former squire. For Perceval especially, Lancelot would represent the limit of human ability and courage. If Lancelot could not do it, then it could not be done.
And for his dedication to the Round Table and after twenty years of honoring a knightly quest Lancelot has ignored, Perceval is rewarded with a horrible death by the Round Table’s greatest knight, Lancelot himself. Further, since he is the last knight, Perceval knows Evil will win upon his death. But no matter the circumstance or how hopelessly dejected Perceval appears, this man never quits.
Drowning and weighted down by the knightly armor whose worth he thought paramount, Perceval sheds this burden by dumping it on the river bed where it belongs. Practically naked but free, Perceval finally rises ready to meet God. Not as a self-rigteous Knight of the Round Table but the mere and worthy man he has always been. This time, after his long persecution and continued perseverance and with clairvoyance of purpose, he nails without hesitation the Almighty’s questions on the first try. He takes the grail and still half-naked goes straight to pathetic Arthur, restoring the King’s clairvoyance of purpose and setting in motion the final battle which redeems the other characters.
Fortunately, Perceval is properly rewarded in the final scenes after an awesome battle. The good guys sacrifice to extinguish evils they themselves created throughout the film, dying brave deaths. No one is left after this brutal slaughter of two armies. No one except somehow Perceval. Of course, how fitting and deserved. The one survivor is our common man. The only man worthy of meeting God twice and living to tell the tale. Perceval’s whole story is akin to the ‘meek who shall inherit the Earth’. Well done, Boorman!
As much meaning as there is in the rise-to-God scene and Perceval’s ultimate survival, there is also much in the sparse dialogue between dying Arthur and Perceval. King Arthur tells Perceval to throw Excalibur into the lake and Perceval tries but thinks against it. He pleads with Arthur that “other men” may need to wield the mighty sword to fight future evils. Arthur tells him when the need comes the sword will again return and commands him to toss it into the lake. Arthur is telling Perceval or rather common man that he does not need help to rule this realm, though Perceval struggles to realize this and still doubts his future despite surviving everything he has already been through.
Now this is the great Excalibur for which everyone battled throughout the movie, forged at the dawn of time or whatever Merlin said. Very few people would have given it up. Not you, probably. Certainly not me. But unlike most, Perceval is truly noble. He takes the greatest weapon ever known and heaves it into the lake to be never seen again. Perceval, the peasant scrub casually introduced in the middle and who at end is the highest and mightiest man in all the land, will be fine without ordained tools or the ordained themselves. Even if he fears what may come, this man will persevere.
As credits roll, King Arthur and all of his fantastical brethren have been rightfully cast off. Their show is done. Only he remains and it could only have been him. Invictus Perceval. Brave and righteous. The (not-so) hidden hero of John Boorman’s Excalibur.
10 thoughts on “The (Not So) Hidden Hero of Excalibur”
Great essay! This is one of my favorite movies and it took a number of viewings for me to see that Perceval was really the hero. But I didn’t see so many layers until reading this. Fantastic job, MM!
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Thanks, Rob! Appreciate the kind comment.
This piece made me better understand the character of Perceval. Thank you.
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I loved this analysis because I also see Perceval as the true hero of Excalibur. Paul Geoffrey’s performance was great & he should’ve been in more stuff.
Looking forward to the arthurian film The Green Knight which should be coming out soon, it looks like it may pay some homage to Boorman’s epic Excalibur.
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Glad I chanced upon this write-up. I’ve always loved Perceval in this film. Interesting that Boorman made him the focal point rather than Galahad – there is no Galahad in this film. Dunno why – doesn’t matter. It’s all part of what makes this film so singular and unique. It’s definitely in my top 3 films of all time, if not #1. REally enjoyed your breakdown and analysis here – spot on and so in line with my own feelings. This is one of those movies that I just genuinely worship – it transcends movies and becomes art, metaphor, a take on all the ambition we mortals have in life… the best and the worst of us. Love, lust, honor, friendship, duty, betrayal, family… it’s all explored so beautifully. I always felt like Perceval was the unsung hero in this work and I’m so glad you agree. Cheers!
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Interesting take. I especially like your interpretation of the return of Excalibur to the lake, although for a moment you’re inconsistent about Perceval’s allegiance to his king. Certainly any knight who would follow his king unquestioningly would also honor his dying command. I don’t think he would just “forget Arthur.”
Also, he’s not talking to God when he receives the Grail. He states quite clearly that he’s speaking to Arthur, or at least a vision of Arthur.
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Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
The “forget” Arthur portion was to the reader, not Perceval. Forgive my poor syntax. I edited it. As for the Grail, I definitely only interpret it as being given by God, for whom Arthur is the representation. In the old literature, the Grail was given to Gallahad directly from God as well. While Indiana Jones had a different grail, the classic grail has almost always been bestowed by God or a representation of him like Jesus rather than like a treasure to be found.
He does clearly state it is Arthur and the Lord, one in the same. That also corresponds with the common metaphor of God/Christ as Arthur. But to be honest, it is to each his own when it comes to fan theories. Great movie…so many potential thought threads.
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Thanks for writing this, it’s a very good analysis. My favourite character from my favourite film!
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