I finally got around to rewatching 1981's Excalibur, what was for at least one generation the definitive retelling of the Arthurian legend.
Now, this is one of those things I have a complicated history with, which is to say there have been times I've actively dismissed it as terrible filmmaking. When it showed up on a marquee in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year, as the movie (previously, The Mark of Zorro) the Waynes saw on that fateful day in the updated timeline, when Batman became an orphan, I started thinking I should give it another shot.
Clearly, I'd argue, Excalibur was made because of the Star Wars effect. Everyone was scrambling to contextualize this new phenomenon. Dune became a movie (it can be argued that Star Wars owes a debt to Frank Herbert's saga) for the first time. Star Trek reached the big screen. And King Arthur rode back into popular culture. Now, this is a guy who helped define, over the centuries, what pop culture is all about. Along with Robin Hood, it's hard to find any fictional character who's had more enduring appeal in the West. Where Robin Hood embodies the triumph of will over state, King Arthur is the myth to end all myths about how states become great. It's the updated version of the founding of Rome, where the figure at last supplants the foundation. You might argue about how Greek myths came about, but there's no longer any clear lineage about where all those gods came from. You could also argue, Jesus Christ, and indeed, Arthurian lore is steeped in Christian symbolism.
Putting that aside, I have to admit, even now I find Excalibur to be unwieldy. It's hugely overwrought, to be sure, even as it contains the secret origins of Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciaran Hinds (he's the only one I couldn't spot this time around), all of whom later became hugely successful actors, and so you spend half the film just seeing how much of their later selves is on display, and by that have a worthy distraction when other things aren't working for you. If you're not particularly hip to the legend, the proceedings are probably impenetrable.
Sound familiar? The same can be said for Batman v Superman, which obviously chose to give a nod to Excalibur because it depicts the founding of the Knights of the Round Table, where Dawn of Justice is all about laying the foundations for the later Justice League. That, and Batman is Lancelot to Superman's King Arthur. Tellingly, Excalibur is all about King Arthur's twisted history and fate, all tied up in a single thread, just as Dawn of Justice focuses on how Superman's alien origins define how people view him, either as threat or savior, and the monster that kills him being a relic of those origins. Where Excalibur crams everything into one movie, Batman v Superman's greatest sin is expecting people to not only have already seen Man of Steel, but invest in the future Justice League movies, too.
But enough about superheroes. Excalibur's legacy goes further than that. It ranked 18th in box office earnings the year it was released, grossing $34 million. Another Grail seeker, Indiana Jones (admittedly looking for something different this particular movie), was the year's top hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The follow-up to another Star Wars response, Superman II, was a big hit that year. This was still a time when Hollywood was trying to definitively crack the Star Wars code, though. Non-genre hits like On Golden Pond, Arthur, Stripes, The Cannonball Run, Chariots of Fire, and The Four Seasons (this starred Alan Alda and Carol Burnett; it's the only film from the 1981 top ten that's been lost to history) were other big hits. There was also the James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only and Terry Gilliam's breakout hit Time Bandits. Ahead of Excalibur, too, was Clash of the Titans, and a Tarzan movie.
No, Excalibur picked up steam in later years. It was a cult hit. I discovered it in college, likely a place for a movie like Excalibur because it has a couple of nude scenes, and where else but college are you going to be watching stuff like that for the first time (assuming that like me, you were previously pretty innocent about such movies)? This was a movie that reeked of mythic proportions, something ideal to watch in those formative years of your life, if you were already well-versed in stuff like Star Wars.
Finally, Peter Jackson made his Lord of the Rings movies, which were responsible for blowing open the doors for movie sagas that could finally compete with Star Wars. And clearly, Tolkien had a lot of King Arthur on the brain, and so did Jackson. The first one, Fellowship of the Ring, has always been, for me, the most successful creatively of them, because it follows such a clear narrative line, straight to the Lancelot of Boromir dying in redemption in front of Aragorn's King Arthur (complete with his own legendary sword needing to be reforged).
Another movie I think has a strong Excalibur connection is Star Trek Nemesis, which Star Trek fans have always confused with a rip-off of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And yet, the central conflict of Picard's feud with his clone Shinzon has less Khan to it than King Arthur's ultimate rival in Mordred, who happens to be both his sister's son, and his. Strange liaisons indeed. It's the kind of logic that sent Star Trek fans livid, because for them, this was a franchise that was about sending social messages, not eating its own tail, which is kind of funny, because no one cared for its predecessor, Star Trek: Insurrection, even though it was a clear parallel to the continuing plight of Native Americans (it bothers me a great deal that out of all the social causes out there today, no one cares about the most screwed-over population in the whole country).
That's what Excalibur got wrong, I think, trying to immerse its logic too deeply within itself, and I guess, what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did, too. You can't have Picard engaged in a direct feud. That's why Star Trek: First Contact worked so well, and was such a big success, because it mixed up the revenge story with one of hope for the future, which is what Star Trek is all about. What is King Arthur about? He's the story of hope, too, that times won't always be so bad, because there weren't always terrible leaders and there will be good leaders again. That's the sword analogy right there. What do Batman and Superman say in their movie? That we can put aside our differences, if we try. King Arthur's story is full of intrigue, and conflicting motivations, and things forbidden, and the ability to overcome our worst impulses, even if we've already made the fatal mistake.
To find that message in Excalibur, you have to be able to navigate a lot of barriers. The dialogue is spoken almost exclusively as if the recording equipment was the least reliable to be found, and actors were given the simple command, "Just try and make a forceful delivery." It's like bad Shakespeare, but it's so overblown, it's impossible to forget, no matter how hard you try. Mordred's ridiculous gold armor and his even worse helmet, even harder. This is what it looks like when you try too hard. The more time Peter Jackson spent in Middle-Earth, the more he leaned in this direction, too. That's what people have been saying about Batman v Superman, that it's impenetrable, merely an excuse to try and grab some cheap money from gullible movie-goers. Me, I never saw it that way, but then, I guess I was just in the right place at the right time, to get it.
But that's what happens when you're chasing something big, something like Star Wars. Not only did Hollywood never see it coming, but everyone else sought to understand what it was all about, too. That's why someone made the connection to King Arthur. And why, once everyone had become accustomed to lavish productions, they became easier to accept as big hits, a whole series of blockbuster sagas. Only now, we're circling back again. We never did stop to figure it out, and eventually even Star Wars started looking overblown, with the prequels. What can you do?
Except, keep giving the results another chance. I mean, plenty of people saw potential in Excalibur. It just took some time. In the end, the important thing is, these are stories vital to the culture. They're being told because someone thought it was important. Sometimes, it may be enough to just try and figure out why, because inevitably, someone will try telling it again. That's what it's all about.