Excalibur begins with Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, riding over a battlefield as the victor by virtue of being the strongest warrior, and receiving the counsel of the wizard, Merlin. Uther is a man of action, bravery, and strength. However, he is also a man with strong desires in which he is all too happy to indulge. Uther is a man ruled equally by the power of his soul as well as the power of his desires, but not so much by the faculties of reason and wisdom. This combination of strong desires and a lack of wisdom will, in the end, prove to be Uther’s undoing.
Uther defeats his rival, the Duke of Cornwall, thus ending a bloody civil war and uniting the country under one banner: Uther is made king. The Duke accepts Uther as King, and a peace is struck between the former rivals. The victory is celebrated with a feast, during which the Duke’s young wife, Ygraine, entertains the warriors with a dance. Uther is immediately stuck by lightning and falls madly in love. Ygraine is out of Uther’s reach, since she is already married to the Duke, and Uther is warned not to destroy the hard-won peace by making a move on the young wife.
Uther, ruled by his desires, breaks the peace regardless, and launches an assault on the Duke’s castle in order to take the woman by force. Uther asks Merlin to help him. He agrees and casts a spell which makes Uther look like the Duke for one night. However, Merlin does not to this for nothing. In return he asks for the result of Uther’s union with the Duke’s wife: their child. Uther, of course, accepts the bargain and rides off to his destiny. The rest is pure tragedy. The Duke dies in combat, and then Uther sleeps with the Duke’s wife, impregnating her. Shortly thereafter, Uther takes the Duke’s castle and his woman.
But as we are soon told, Uther has brought doom upon himself through his actions. He has no allies anymore because no one trusts him. This is not hard to understand: Uther lost his honour when he broke the peace and betrayed his ally, and then used trickery in order to fool the Duke’s wife. Arthur is the fruit of their union, and as promised, he is given to Merlin, who in turn makes sure he is raised in a proper family. Uther regrets giving Arthur away and pursues Merlin; during the pursuit, Uther is attacked by assassins and killed. Before he dies, pronouncing that none can wield Excalibur apart from him, Uther plunges it into a stone, and Merlin declares that the man who draws the sword from the stone will become king.
The next time we see Arthur, he is a grown man and serving as the squire of his foster brother, Kay. They are at a tourney, and knights from all over the realm are jousting in order to prove themselves worthy of attempting to draw the sword out of the stone. The winner is Sir Leondegrance (played by Patrick Stewart), and he makes a good try for the sword, but of course he fails. By a stroke of bad luck, Arthur loses Kay’s sword, and in an attempt to find a replacement he happens to come across a certain stone and, without thinking, pulls the sword from the stone.
What follows is interesting for several reasons. Once Arthur obtains the sword, people immediately crowd around him. He is immediately recognised as the true king, at least by some. The noble Leondegrance declares for him, and therefore comes into conflict with other factions within the nobility. Arthur, of course, is the son of Uther, and one could claim that he therefore has a right to the crown. But that is not why people declare for him: it is the act of pulling the sword which proves his worthiness – being the son of Uther is merely convenient.
This is one of the recurring themes throughout the film. Arthur is shown as a man whom other men follow because of his capabilities and his worthiness, not because he is the son of the former King. Men declare in Arthur’s favour because he proves himself worthy of their loyalty with his heroic deeds. Leondegrance has nothing to gain by supporting Arthur, but he does it anyway because only the true King is capable of pulling the sword from the stone, and honour dictates that one follows the true King. Later, Arthur relieves Leondegrance when his castle is under siege by his enemies. The victory is won when Arthur defeats the leader of the assault, Sir Uryens, but Arthur spares him. Arthur then gets down on his knees and asks Uryens to knight him. Uryens, moved by Arthur’s act, obliges him.
There is something particularly European about all of this. Sir Uryens recognises Arthur’s worth, just as others had before, and loses all of his hostility and knights him on the spot. This is a far cry from asserting rule over oppressed slaves by putting them under the crack of their master’s whip. These knights are free men who recognise another man’s worthiness and decide to follow him willingly. This is demostrated with great intensity when, a few years later, Arthur encounters and duels Sir Lancelot. Lancelot is obsessed with finding a king worthy to follow, but he will only follow someone who can defeat him in single combat.
Lancelot embodies the ideal which is at the core of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic as understood by Alexandre Kojéve. This dialectic describes a conflict in which two men duel for the sake of honour. There can be only one victor and one loser. In Kojéve’s scheme, the loser has a chance to save his own life by surrendering to the victor and pledging himself to his service. The master is thus he who is prepared to risk his life, and the slave he who preferred to give up his freedom rather than his life.
It is necessary, however, to slightly adapt this setup when we apply it to Lancelot. Lancelot is prepared to give up his freedom in order to follow a worthy master, but the master has to prove himself worthy in the eyes of Lancelot by defeating him. The essence of Kojéve’s dialectic is recognition, and the need for recognition. In this film, the King has to gain the recognition of his subjects by proving himself worthy of it.
When Arthur and Lancelot duel, Arthur loses self-control and flies into a rage in his attempt to defeat Lancelot, who proves to be the better fighter. Arthur realises that he is going to lose and calls on the power of Excalibur to give him the victory. Lancelot is knocked unconscious by the power of the sword, but the sword is also shattered into pieces in the process. Arthur comes to realise his own folly; the power of the sword should be used for greater things than to satisfy his own vanity. A king shouldn’t act in such a way. Because of Arthur’s regret, the Lady of the Lake appears and offers Excalibur back to Arthur, having been forged back into one piece. Lancelot recovers and pledges himself to Arthur.
In the next scene, we are shown the creation of the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur and his knights have unified the country and they are standing in a circle when reporting of their victories. Merlin suggests that they should always gather around a round table as a way of remembering this victory. The Knights of the Round Table is therefore a männerbund: an exclusively male brotherhood of capable men which is led by one worthy individual. In this scene, their brotherhood has achieved an extraordinary thing by uniting the land under one King and one banner. This film therefore depicts the uniting of the nation in a very Rightist way: a nation is built by kings and warriors, not because people come together to form a ‘social contract’.
Good times follow the unification of the country. Arthur is a just king and his people fare well under his rule. But darker times are soon to follow. Arthur marries Guinevere, but Lancelot also desires her. In the end, their lust proves too strong, and they make love in the forest, far away from the castle. Arthur comes to learn of this and is heartbroken. Lancelot, having lost his honour through the betrayal of his King, disappears from the knightly brotherhood. Simultaneously, Arthur’s half-sister, Morgana, a sorceress who seeks the destruction of the Knights of the Round Table, tricks Arthur into impregnating her by using magic to make herself look like Guinevere.
As a result, Arthur becomes a broken man, and his realm suffers accordingly. I am inclined to interpret this being symbolic of nationalism. The moral of the story is that when Arthur suffers, the land and the people also suffer, the reason being that Arthur and his land are one. The story of Arthur thus demonstrates via cultural means that a people, a land, and its leadership must be seen as one and the same. When there is something wrong with the leadership, the people can expect hard times. In the film, the knight Percival comes to this same conclusion, and recognises that only the Holy Grail can heal Arthur, which he manages to find after a long quest.
After Arthur’s restoration, things can be set right in the realm. Arthur battles Morgana and Mordred, his bastard son born of their union, killing him in the process. Lancelot returns from his seclusion to turn the tide of battle and reclaim his lost honour. The film reaches a moral equilibrium during its final scenes, and everything is put right when old sins are atoned for and old enemies are put to the sword.
The themes of Excalibur could be seen as being demonstrative of Right-wing premises. First, the concept of honour is the driving force for the main characters. Second, a nation is created through the efforts of a band of skilled warriors who build it through conquest rather than by observing some sort of social contract. Third, reverence is given to those who demonstrate superior capabilities and carry out heroic deeds, and these qualities are shown as being those upon which an individual’s social position is based. Fourth, this film is, in essence, about men in their traditional social roles. The women who appear, such as Ygraine, Guinevere, and Morgana are not very important, being little more than objects of desire. The only one of them who demonstrates any real agency, Morgana, could best be described as a bitter and scheming cat lady.
Its deeper implications aside, however, Excalibur is primarily an entertaining film which is well worth watching.