Nicol Williamson as Merlin
Nicol Williamson as Merlin
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[First published in 1982, in "This Sceptr'd Isle" Autumn Quarter Film Series, Office of Cinema Studies, University of Washington]

The Quarry, a 75-minute film for the BBC (early 1960s): A sculptor named Arthur quests for a very particular kind of stone, amid many references to King Arthur, Merlin, and magic.

Point Blank (1967): On some level, a conventional tale about betrayal and revenge among corporate gangsters and their women. This strange film, in which time slides backwards and forwards, begins in a deserted, decaying Alcatraz, where a man named Walker (provocative name for a quester) is doublecrossed and seemingly murdered by his wife and best friend. Reborn or resurrected in the waters of San Francisco Bay, he sets out to pay them back and to find out who ultimately “runs things.” Guided by Yost, a Merlin-like figure, Walker passes through a sterile city encased in plastic, metal, concrete, and glass. Nature is buried, love and friendship dead, and only the greedy accumulation of “things” and sensations a thriving concern. The film comes full circle back to its beginning, at a disused San Francisco landmark described as “safe as a church” and used for a gangland money-drop. Walker finally discovers the identity of the corporate puppetmaster: Yost/Merlin himself. Walker, a mindless, primitive force—perhaps a zombie—recedes into the shadows, back into his own dream, thwarted by a world in which the unconscious is an anachronism.

The Lord of the Rings (1969): An abortive project in which Frodo was conceived as a young King Arthur and Gandolf as Merlin. (Boorman’s Merlin script deemed “too expensive” to film by United Artists.)

Deliverance (1972): Four city men trek into a Southern forest and down river rapids with the notion that nature can test a man benignly. Where the land is to be “drowned” into a lake by the construction of a dam, primitive forces and emotions are loosed, and the four friends fall into terrible knowledge of themselves and their environment. They try to bury that knowledge, but the corpse’s hand that thrusts up out of the dark lake at the end of the film signals the futility of such repression.

Zardoz (1974): Its title an elision of The Wizard of Oz, this film takes place in a 23rd-century wasteland devastated by nuclear war. Survivors who have regressed into brutality are kept in check and occasionally exterminated by the Eternals, sexless, immortal intellectuals who cannot sleep and therefore never dream, but consider themselves the “custodians of the past for an unknown future.” A hand—holding a gun—explodes out of a heap of golden grain: thus Zed, a time-bound catalyst of evolution, is “born.” Three women assist Zed in his quest for the Creator—a scientist, a visionary, and his eventual mate. May, the scientist, warns him when he opens his mind to her knowledge, “It will burn you”; he replies, like Excalibur’s Morgana, “Then burn me.” The “wizard,” only a lesser god, turns out to be one Arthur Frayn, part show business con-artist, part magician, who professes admiration for Merlin and T.S. Eliot. Paradoxically, Arthur insists that he has “invented” Zed even as his intelligent primitive wrecks the godhead, kills the Eternals, and flees into the natural world, a new Adam with his Eve, promising to be fruitful and to multiply. In the last moments of the film, the couple make love in a cave and then, in a series of dissolves as they stare at the camera, at us, they pass from youth to age to death, and finally into dust. The cycle of birth and death, frozen by the Eternals, moves again and the earth is satisfied. All that remains of Zed is a hand painted on the cave wall and a rusted gun, symbols of making and destroying.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): A child once possessed by the Devil becomes the best hope of salvation for humankind. This strange messiah is guided by a lapsed priest who must journey to Africa, where man began, to seek renewed faith and knowledge from a scientist who, in visions, sometimes becomes a primitive and powerful native priest.

***

The above is offered in evidence that John Boorman did not come to Excalibur unfamiliar with archetypal patterns of myth, especially as they are embodied in the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Boorman is a literate man who has actually read those literary, philosophical, and critical works that inform, directly or by allusion, nearly all his films. Sometimes that’s made for a problem: too much self-consciousness about mythic ideas and images can retard the movement and impact of a visual narrative. People begin to say things so Significantly and take action that is so Fraught with Symbolic Weight that after a while there isn’t any life left in the old story—and myths are nothing if they aren’t alive and kicking us into new ways of seeing and being. Boorman has said that he wanted to make Excalibur “as if it is the story—not a retelling of the myth, but the very events on which the legend was based.” In this, I believe, he succeeded—as he had not done so completely in any of his previous films.

Excalibur is dominated by images of fire and water, the elements long associated, respectively, with the male and female principles, with destruction and rebirth, endlessly in necessary opposition and thereby contributing to a wholeness that keeps the earth in cyclical motion. Our first window on Boorman’s world reveals horned, tusked, and snouted figures, mounted on or perhaps part of smoke-snorting steeds—all silhouetted against a sky of fiery red-gold. They stand poised among dark trees as though waiting for a signal, as though they were on the edge of something momentous. The battle begins; unwieldy shapes lunge at each other in bloodiest combat—not quite human, more beast than man. Burning tree trunks curve around the edges and the bottom of the frame to suggest a cauldron, a bloody womb from which some mythic imperative is being delivered. On the lip of the hill a shadow appears, resolves into substance, is the wizard Merlin, midwife to this requisite carnage out of which he dreams of breeding order and civilization. Uther the warrior demands the sword that will make him a king: “I am the strongest!” Merlin, holding a staff topped with the two-headed snake, caduceus, ancient sign of regeneration and wisdom, speaks of healing, not hacking; but his words fall on deaf ears, for Uther represents the bestial childhood of mankind, powerful because he is driven by nature’s imperatives, but incomplete without evolved knowledge. Uther is not the One, but he is a necessary stage in the creation of Merlin’s King and civilization.

Burning, bloody night gives way to an early morning lakeside awash in green foliage and mist. Merlin attends another conception, in which the supernatural penetrates the time-bound world of actuality and experience. Boorman: “In Jungian terms, the underwater reflects the forces of the unconscious and the sword contains all these forces and dangers which are focused on its point.” It strikes me that one would have to be dead not to respond viscerally—with awe, in its old sense—to the emergence of Excalibur from the lake. Joseph Campbell names the mythic locus of the sword: “the umbilical point through which the energies of eternity break into time.” The sword is a sign, like the Christian cross—when such symbols still had true mythic resonance—of wounds and deaths that are only fertile ground for renewed strength and life, a process which is ultimately not a circle but an ascending gyre.

Most of the images, individuals, and events in Excalibur echo and reflect on each other, backwards and forwards in human and mythic time, but always there is the sense of an incremental refrain, changing only slightly but ever moving towards some distant point of culminating meaning. Uther makes his truce by a stream, attends a feast, and is overcome by lust for his host’s dancing wife. Merlin looses the dragon’s breath and shapechanges Uther to seem Igrayne’s husband. Arthur, the product of their coupling, also makes peace in water, this time a moat, attends a feast, and is seduced by a dancing girl, his host’s daughter. The son seems to recapitulate his father’s experiences. But note the differences, the signs of evolution. Uther must be consistently coached by “director” Merlin as he treats with the Duke and the two armies are separated by the healing waters of the stream. Arthur, on the other hand, displays none of his father’s armored arrogance when he leaps from a parapet into the moat and begs knighthood from the man who would not acknowledge a squire as his king. He does not coerce, but has the wisdom to win Yuriens’s fealty. More, Arthur’s actions are a surprise to Merlin (“I never saw this!”): this actor writes his own dialogue and plays out his own scenes.

Arthur’s knighting is the first of his many trials by water, a baptism that is meant to echo Christ’s at the hands of John the Baptist. Uther’s element is fire; it is by firelight in the Duke’s dark cave of a castle that he and his sullen men watch the redheaded Igrayne dance until they become berserk with lust. Though Igrayne spins within her weblike dress, and webs and nets are associated throughout the film with women who are witting and unwitting snares, her expression reveals her as a pawn, an instrument in a drama she does not comprehend. Uther is making a mistake, setting back Merlin’s plan for unity and peace, but it is a fortunate error in the greater scheme of things, for it brings Arthur, the true King, into being. But adjust the focus another notch and we see that, in this moment, the seeds of Arthur’s fall are also planted: he too will be betrayed in adultery by his wife and a friend; his sister Morgana will transform herself—as Uther did—to lie with him and bear a monstrous child of incest—a bastard born of adultery, like Arthur—who will be the death of his father, as Arthur himself was of Uther, in some measure.

The film consistently emphasizes the interrelatedness of all human experience, the interlocking circles of birth and death, triumph and defeat, that create an all-inclusive circle (the mandala in the center of the Round Table) which is human history freed from time and limited human interpretation. Uther’s sin allows for Arthur’s beginning and his ending. So, too, did the sin of Adam and Eve, sometimes called the Fortunate Fall, allow for and ensure the coming of Christ, who would die for humankind’s sins. Indeed, an early Christian sect, the Ophitics (from the Greek for “serpent”), believed that Christ’s first appearance in the world was as Eden’s Serpent, tempting Eve to necessary disobedience. The forbidden Tree of Knowledge prefigures the Cross that is the only ladder to Heaven. Medieval poets played with Eve’s name—Eva—as the reverse (and prerequisite) of the Ave (“hail”) which was practically synonymous with Mary’s name. One woman closed Eden’s gates to man and the other opened Heaven’s gates to man, but the point is that each action is completed, reconciled, in the other. The larger harmony is born of apparent opposites. This vision permeates Excalibur: Boorman crosscuts between the Duke, impaled on ranked spears, dying in the red light of Uther’s burning camp, and Uther riding Igrayne to the “little death,” the fire behind them seeming to rise out of their bodies. Rosy crucifixions, these, suffered in the service of Eros and Thanatos: death allows for birth, which, in turn, breeds death. Uther’s ill- (and yet fortunately) conceived son confronts his own similarly begotten son, a line of ranked spears at his back, a red sun bleeding over the world. Mordred impales his father on his lance—“Come, father, let us embrace at last”—and is run through by Excalibur. They stand, poised for a moment, umbilically linked by the weapons and events that have made them and broken them.

Guenevere’s dance is not hieratic spectacle, separating man from man, man from woman, as was Igrayne’s. She is part of a newly forged community and her dancing is more like play than primitive ritual in a gratingly minor key. Arthur’s desire is boyish, innocently enthusiastic: “I love ’er!” But he is entranced enough to miss Merlin’s ominous reading of the future, tasting Guenevere’s cake (Eve’s apple?) even as his mentor speaks. Merlin mutters, “Too late,” and so it is, for that future—the adultery of Lancelot and the Queen—was sown even as Merlin stood on the hill beside the Duke’s castle and triumphantly declared, “The future has taken root in the present!” That hill was topped with a yoni-shaped rock and several lingam-shaped menhirs, evoking the requisite life-enhancing coexistence of female and male sexuality. But before Merlin turns his gaze from the castle—where lust has borne good fruit—we see those rocks reflected in starkest white on his gleaming silver helmet: the reflection is a skull, symbol of death to come, shadowing forth the image of a roseate, blooming boy whose spiritual emptiness is expressed in the stylized, inhuman blankness of a golden mask. Echoes here, too, of another hill, Golgotha, Place of the Skull, locus of an earlier crucifixion, death, and transfiguration.

The Arthurian and Holy Grail legends are wonderful concatenations of pagan and Christian mythology. Arthur is part of an ancient tradition of god-kings whose spiritual and physical health is bound up with that of land and people, the seasons themselves. The loving harmony between divine king and queen fructifies the earth. Impotency, illness, old age, any perversion or violation of the divine marriage, is reflected in the mirror of the world. The quest for the Holy Grail is meant to make the wasteland fertile again, to change winter to spring, to bring renewed youth and potency back to a king who has suffered the Dolorous Stroke—a wound that emblemizes the one made in Christ’s side by the Roman Longinus, but which is ultimately the sign of man trapped in time and his own mortality. The sought-for Grail (often to be found in conjunction with the Lance that pierced Christ’s side) is the cup Jesus used to perform the first Communion at the Last Supper, and it contains His blood, the spiritual rain that brings new life to the wasteland of man’s parched soul. The symbols of the never-empty cup and the lance are very old and richly inclusive; for, in harmonious proximity, they embody the feminine and masculine principles that inform and enliven all of existence.

In Excalibur Boorman is explicit in the association of the primal wound with man’s snaring in the web of Time, as emblemized in the natural tensions between Eros and Thantos, body and soul, man and woman. Consider the charged and fated linkage among Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. Arthur first encounters Lancelot on a bridge, a transition point that will be marked by another crucial rite of passage and baptism for the King. In his rage and personal pride, the public, law-serving self is submerged and Arthur breaks the sword in striking Lancelot. Though the Lady of the Lake restores Excalibur, the symbol of private and public potency, the broken sword foreshadows Arthur’s and the land’s emasculation. Lancelot, unwilling agent of Arthur’s ultimate wounding, carries on his breast—in the thin red line of blood that bisects the chalice on his armor—the sign of Guenevere’s nullified role as Arthur’s divine consort, mother to the land and his children. Guenevere counters Gawain’s accusation of illicit desire, with its breaking of the unity of the Round Table, by unsuccessfully enacting a rite of communion with the absent Lancelot’s chalice: “Come, drink from Lancelot’s cup, and partake of his goodness.” That which has been whole and complete is broken, and Lancelot’s very armor takes up arms against him as sense and soul battle in his divided self. Guenevere ends Arthur’s first wound, causes and fails to heal Lancelot’s, and is the instrument of the emptying of Arthur’s soul after the bolt of lightning heralds the birth of an unholy child (as much the Queen’s progeny as Morgana’s) by striking Arthur into impotence as man and king.

Guenevere and Lancelot consummate their love in a clearly Edenic setting, recapitulating the sin of Adam and Eve. Boorman crosscuts the fall above with the fall below, as Merlin leads Morgana into the dragon’s cave. Arthur grounds his sword between the lovers, burying all his life-giving force, and the earth itself recoils and cries out in pain. The sword pierces Merlin (and the dragon) and the charm of making is used to unmake, immobilize, and freeze up all regenerative force. Morgana and Mordred are regressive powers, unevolving the world back into bestiality and sterility. Their defeat, though it costs dearly, allows the earth to move again, the cycle of birth and death to continue, and promises that the Once is also the Future King.

***

I have scarcely scratched the surface of Excalibur’s celebration of mythic riches, have not even spoken of Merlin’s wonderful combination of magic and chicanery; the joy inspired by the use of Orff’s Carmina Burana as Arthur first forges his dream and later makes the earth flower again; Perceval’s quest for the Grail, during which he finds trees bearing terrible fruit, dies, and is reborn in life-giving water; Boorman’s delight in and identification with Merlin as director, creator of special effects and a world, the ultimate Artist; and finally, the power and satisfaction generated by the enactment, as though for the first time, of these mythic events, so affecting that, with Arthur, we may well say, “I didn’t know how empty was my soul until it was filled.”

One last word, and by all means let it be John Boorman’s: “I have a theory about a good story. We know it already, we’ve heard it a thousand times, but it holds us, we listen, we want to know what happens next. Why? I think we’re hearing echoes of some deep pattern of early happenings in the human race that is now being repeated. Listen carefully to the echoes of myth. It has much more to tell us than the petty lies and insignificant truths of recorded history.”

Copyright © 1982 by Kathleen Murphy