The Arthur Myth-When it works and when it doesn’t

I blame my new fascination with German musical theatre for re-kindling my interest in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, and as with all things that resonate with me, I binge on it and you, dear reader, get to hear about it. On the upside, it’s not been a full binge (like going back to re-read the Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart or any of the huge academic tomes on the subject) so I’ll keep it light.

It’s been awhile since I enjoyed Mary Stewart’s 5-Book Saga, so it has gone back on the re-read list. It was one of the more memorable fictionalizations of this myth, if not my hands-down favorite.

For this comparison, we have three movies (or rather, two movies and a play).

The first is First Knight, a 1995 production that even Sean Connery could not save from itself. We’ll go into why in a bit.

The second is Boorman’s Excalibur, a 1981 production featuring some of my favorite music, a full-on Cylon wedding (yes, all that chrome and no, you’ll never look at it without thinking about it in this way; you’re welcome) and one of my favorite actresses, Helen Mirren in the role of Morgana.

While both of these movies feature King Arthur as the protagonist, Arthur does not “make” the movie. This was my revelation as I rewatched them.

And what sparked the revelation? A German play called “Artus Excalibur” that premiered in Switzerland in 2014 [Ignore the critics; they’re idiots]. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find a DVD of it (if there is one, let me know so I can buy it), but the soundtrack is fantastic, and clips can be found on YouTube. A new Korean production of the play is the works and I expect it to be grander in every way, as was their production of “Elisabeth das Musical.”

So, what “makes” the movie/play? Morgana and Lancelot. Sabrina Weckerlin plays Morgana in the St. Gallen, Switzerland (2014) version and like Helen Mirren in her performance, she is absolutely fantastic.

As an aside, I will note the death of the Temptress archetype as we’ve known it. Morgana fits that archetype and she is absolutely essential in making this story work. The Temptress archetype, defined as a woman that tempts the protagonist (i.e. she is NOT the protagonist) to go down the wrong path and offers a sexual reward for doing so AND opposes the protagonists love interest, seems to be dead. I challenge you to find her appearance in a novel published in the last ten years. She has, instead, been replaced by drugs or addiction of some type, or perhaps an object or possession like The Ring.

I will come right out and say it: Morgana makes or breaks the story. She is completely missing in First Knight, a movie that has no magic, and I mean that on several levels. There is no Merlin, no magical power at work. The characters lack chemistry as well. The love triangle isn’t really there at all.

Boorman’s Excalibur at least kept the Morgana character, the magic, but looking back at it with fresh eyes, I finally pinned down what’s bothered me about the ending. I didn’t care for Lancelot going crazy. The build-up to the ending just didn’t pack the right emotional punch for me, but obviously not enough to say I wouldn’t watch it again. And I will admit that I often stop watching at the point where it goes all dark and gross because I know all the best parts are over and I’m just gonna end up disappointed again if I watch it all the way through.

“Artus Excalibur” on the other hand checked all the emotional boxes on my dance card. We have a fantastic Morgana and a fantastic Lancelot (played by Mark Seibert) and while the story line was simplified to fit it into two hours, there was chemistry between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. More importantly, there was a satisfying ending, one of redemption for both Guinevere and Lancelot (and even Arthur) which was lacking in the movies.

Given that stage is a different medium, there are no special effects to muddle the story, the fight sequences are well done, but not gory and they don’t go on forever. The story focuses very much on evoking emotion in the audience, something that Hollywood is steadily losing as it relies more and more on stunts, special effects, and hype.

If you are lucky enough to live in one of the countries where “Xcalibur” will be playing (I’m hoping it gets stage time outside Korea), check it out. I’ll have to settle for watching clips of it on YouTube and perhaps using it as inspiration for writing something of my own.



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