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Revisiting Our Favourite Movies: Excalibur

2011 June 14

Team BadRep were sent a writing prompt this month: What is your favourite film or TV series, and why? If it’s what you’d call ‘feminist-friendly’, what about it appealed? If it isn’t, how does that work for you, and are there nonetheless scenes, characters and so on that have stayed with you and continue to occupy a soft spot for you as a feminist pop culture adventurer?

I’m a movie geek who (along with several of Team BadRep) can’t possibly choose only one favourite film. It’d take me a month just to narrow it down to a top 20. In the end I wrote about two films – this first one precisely because it’s pretty indefensible from a feminist point of view, and the second – which I’ll get to in tomorrow’s post – because I think it is very feminist in a genre where you don’t expect it.

But I also think this choice, my first, has some hidden feminist aspects:

The movie poster from the Warner Bros 1981 film "Excalbur", showing an upraised sword, a knight in golden armour and the wizard Merlin

Movie poster for the 1981 film "Excalibur". (Copyright Warner Bros.)

John Boorman’s Excalibur. We’re firmly into ‘Knights In Armour’ territory here, which means the usual relegation of women to being prizes to be fought over, silent Queens, or love interests whose own opinions aren’t asked for, and absolutely nothing else. There’s a debate about whether showing this dynamic is itself feminist if you use it to highlight how unequal and appalling the situation was for women historically (HBO’s recent series Game of Thrones is reigniting this argument, although the source material books for that one are clearer: they start from a position of female oppression and have several characters rebel against it precisely because of the extreme power difference, and makes the readers acknowledge and dislike the inequality).

At first glance though, Excalibur isn’t even trying for feminism points. Its famous heroes are a male King and a male Wizard, some men who all get to be equal to other men around a table, and a man who starts a war over someone else’s wife. And everything goes to hell when one of the few named women sleeps with the man she actually loves.

Looking at the main female characters in detail, we have Igraine who is a pouting, mostly naked object of lust, and played by (somewhat creepily) director John Boorman’s daughter Katrine. She is famously – and this causes wincing every time – naked while being given loving attentions by a man in full plate-mail (surely that would chafe?!).

We also have Guinevere, played excellently by Cherie Lunghi as someone spirited, but increasingly trapped and fragile. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal that Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot. The fact that she chooses to act on it in defiance of the strict rules around sexual conduct could be seen as empowering (even if it does result in her being sentenced to death, from which she has to be rescued by him).

And we have… Morgana. Played by Helen Goddamn Mirren.

Which is the point at which the film redeems itself a hell of a lot. It’s not just the power of the performances (several of which are brilliant despite the very-1980 effects and pomp) it’s that as well as being the best cinematic retelling of popular Arthurian Legend even today, the movie is filled with iconic archetypes, and they stand out way beyond the plot.

We’re reaching a bit to find any feminism in the movie up to this point, I agree. The source material was put together (in the best-known version) just around the time women were reduced to princesses in towers in storytelling, so maybe it’s not surprising that they’re mostly given similar treatment here. But there is one ray of hope.

Whether this movie counts as having a strong positive female lead eventually depends entirely on whether you think the archetype of The Witch is a positive one.

Morgana is absolutely the classic dangerous magical female. She’s immensely threatening: ambitious, capable, cunning, sexual, malevolent, but also completely outside the rules. She uses seduction as a weapon, and is utterly transgressive – her hate drives her to sleep with Arthur (her half-brother) and have a child (Mordred). This in turn breaks the whole of nature, and specifically the King’s link with the Land.

The only other magic-user (Merlin) is also chaotic and mysterious, but very careful to stay within the boundaries. Morgana is not. She is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, stronger than the King, and stronger than Merlin (and she proves it in both cases). She sees clearly, which (due to the aforementioned sex-in-armour incident) is what sets her on a path of vengeance in the first place. She is owned by no man, with her own desires and plans for her family to gain power. And she succeeds at a great deal of it.

Now okay, it’s not going to raise the banner of feminism very high when this character is unequivocally the Baddie – meant to be feared and mistrusted from the outset. Witches are outcasts, however independent or fearsome that lets them appear. The men Morgana opposes have made her their enemy by being flawed with greed and lust, by abusing her family and fighting endless wars, but we’re not meant to be sympathetic to her. She’s far too lethal and hungry.

As well as the performances, this movie is one of my favourites because of the amazing visuals, the number of people who turn up in early roles (Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Ciarán Hinds, Patrick Stewart), the fact it has loads of mud and blood in it (unlike many sanitised retellings) and for the sheer bonkers joy of filming a load of knights in armour charging around to the sound of Wagner.

But Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson (Merlin) really do stand out. What could have been an epic about how ‘men defeat other men to decide which man gets to be top man while a man does some magic’ is instead largely taken over by the brilliant interplay between Merlin and Morgana – the electric, snake-hissing, mountain-deep emnity, the sense of power and caution whenever they invoke their power. They’re much more exciting than Arthur or Guinevere.

Of course, there is a story behind that.

As the director says in his autobiography ‘Adventures of a Suburban Boy‘, Williamson knew Mirren from some years before, when they had a huge falling-out during a production of Macbeth. Boorman told the would-be Merlin that Mirren was likely to be playing Morgana, and the actor immediately changed his reply. (I can’t remember the exact words from his book, but the general idea was as follows):

“Oh, then I couldn’t possibly do it.” “Why not?” “Well, if you must know, she wanted to sleep with me and I turned her down.”

This confused John Boorman. Neither of the pair were known for being shy in that regard. (Helen Mirren ended up dating Liam Neeson during filming…)

Boorman asked Mirren if she wanted to play Morgana, and she was very excited. Then he said Nicol would be Merlin.

“Oh, then no way.” “Why not?” “It’s been awkward ever since he wanted to sleep with me and I said no.”

Not knowing if either of them was telling the truth, Boorman decided to cast them anyway, figuring the tension would be good for the chemistry onscreen. And he was right.

I love the overblown fanfare of this movie (and not just in the soundtrack). It has the best ever “hand holding a sword out of a lake” scene, epic battles, amazing Irish locations, and moments where everything is just focused on Merlin or Morgana saying a few words which change the world. Also, Helen Goddamn Mirren being awesome.

The really bad news is… they’re remaking it. In the last two years both Bryan Singer and Guy Ritchie (!) have been linked to King Arthur movies with the words “remake of Excalibur” from Warner Brothers specifically mentioned. Don’t do it, WB! This version may be knee-deep in Eighties Cheese but it will never be beaten, certainly not by today’s Hollywood. Huge amounts of Eighties Cheese never stopped Robin of Sherwood from being amazing (and in fact still the best version of Robin Hood, despite constant remake attempts) and the two have much in common.

Overall, Excalibur is a bit of a guilty viewing pleasure in feminist terms, but that’s not the case at all with my next pick. That one stands up as a triumph of film-making AND feminism…

12 Responses leave one →
  1. June 14, 2011

    I haven’t seen this version of the Arthur story, but it sounds amazing! I love Helen Mirren… Have you seen the new Channel 4 Camelot( Morgana (Eva Green) is pretty badass in that too! Though still an entirely non-central character.

  2. Russell permalink
    June 14, 2011

    I have to strongly disagree. The best version of Robin Hood is definitely the Disney version where he’s a fox. Foxes are cool.

    • Miranda permalink*
      June 14, 2011

      I love the Disney, but Michael Praed forever!

    • Stephen B permalink
      June 14, 2011

      I will always have a spot in my heart for NAWT IN NAWTEENGHA-YAM but I have to put Robin of Sherwood in the lead. Sorry.

      • Miranda permalink*
        June 14, 2011



        etc :D

  3. June 14, 2011

    Come on, surely you are forgetting the EPIC AWESOMENESS that is MAID MARION AND HER MERRY MEN?

    • Stephen B permalink
      June 14, 2011

      This is an entirely valid point. And the theme song counts double.

      • Russell permalink
        June 16, 2011

        I think it’s pancake day. Yes, it’s pancake day. P-p-p-p-pancake day.

  4. Russell permalink
    June 14, 2011

    I feel so sorry for Stephen. A throwaway comment about Robin Hood has got more responses than the actual subject matter of the article.

    Anyway, I’m a sucker for Arthurian swords and sorcery nonsense, but, on the best evidence, had always assumed film versions of the legends I love were s**t. However, having read this review, I might now check it out – whilst keeping the part of my brain that absorbs messages about gender switched firmly OFF.

    • Miranda permalink*
      June 14, 2011

      As a Sir Gawain nerd (um, in a medieval literature sense at any rate) I’ve always been disturbed by how beardy he is in Excalibur!

      I have no idea why. It’s not necessarily inaccurate (I’ve just seen too many Pre-Raphaelite prettyknights(TM), but I’ve never seen him as that strapping and booming! His speaking lines are few, too. The beard absorbed them all, or something.

      Anyway, back to the feminist lens: Helen Mirren is great fun in it, and really is the only woman in the story with much going for her at all – poor old Guinevere and Lancelot have a forest romp and wake up with Excalibur (or A Sword, at any rate) lying on the grass between them. OMINOUSLY.

    • Stephen B permalink
      June 15, 2011

      Your throwaway comment about Robin Hood led to me watching “Bear Necessities” “I wanna be like you” and “Everybody wants to be a Cat” on youtube, so I forgive you :)

  5. michelle Jones permalink
    July 19, 2011

    HAs anyone stopped to think that maybe the reason why Morgana is ALWAYS played as a ‘Witch’ is that, in reality, she was a powerful female Queen and, Mallory, being a bloody man, didn’t like it.

    I personally like Morgana or Morgan Le Fay or Morgan or whatever she’s called. She kicks ass and gets up to no good but she spots the rot in Arthur’s Utopian little happy gathering and exploits it. Thats what women do. We spot the rot.

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