My mother would not go see any movie that had any graphic sex or violence. Period. It was ok if a film had difficult thematic elements which involved sex and violence, but she had no need to see naked bodies walking across the screen or entrails splattering a sidewalk. To her that broke the magic. She said the films worked best if they did not have to show the so-called “gory details”. There is absolutely no chance of her ever watching Game of Thrones. I suppose she has a point. So The Lion In Winter, fine. Excalibur, no damn way. That she left me and my dad to see on our own.
My mother’s rather high film standards (and they were high,, not merely G rated), left me seeing a lot of films with my dad growing up. Later in the summer, I might tell you about the time I saw Jaws with my dad and granddad at the age of 9, the day before we left for our summer beach trip. It was hilarious.
I was older when Excalibur came out, still too young for an R rated film without a fake id. I am obsessed with Arthurian legend. In the long stretch of my youth, I could not, for the life of me, understand why something so fantastical had such a tragic end that never resolved.
I read The Once and Future King by T.H. White at a very young age. My mother always preferred that I read instead of watch films or television. She insisted if a movie was based on a book, I had to read the book before I saw the film. So in order to see The Sword and the Stone, I had to read the mammoth T.H. White book first. I loved it. It is still one of my favorites. However, this arrangement with my mother soured a bit when I took on reading The Exorcist and The Godfather, but that is a tale for another time.
By the time Excalibur came out, I had read and studied every bit of Arthurian scholarly material, fiction, and poetry including Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (there is a reason my fantasy is called Idylls of Alleysiande), as well as Thomas Mallory’s Morte de Arthur. In short, my dad knew I wanted to see this film.
There is this one scene that struck a chord that bleeds in my psyche and vibrates there still. Arthur and his knights have won a great battle. They are rejoicing and talking about forming the Round Table. Merlin, played gorgeously by Nicol Williamson, bursts into the circle and utters these lines:
STAND BACK! Be silent! Be still!… That’s it… and look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then… this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, ‘I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!’ For it is the doom of men that they forget.
They had a won a hard-earned peace. My mother also had me read a great deal of history, things like Plato’s Republic, Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm which was at the heart of my love for historical fiction. She often quoted Winston Churchill’s quoting of George Santayana “Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.” I suppose that is why that scene in Excalibur hit me so hard. It was the beginning of my understanding of why the Arthurian legends were so damn tragic.
So it’s a few years later, and I am in college, studying abroad in London. Several of the other American students took me on a long weekend in France. I think they all wanted to go to Nice, and who could blame them. I did not have enough money so we decided to visit Normandy. There was a special student rate both for the passage there and the little inn we stayed at. It was spring, sunny, the beach white, the water blue dazzling, one of those picturesque scenes painted by the hand of God until you turned around and put your back to the sea.
It is a haunted place. One that I could not comprehend. All those white crosses, stretching out to the edge of your eyesight so that we, not as a country, but as human beings would remember. This generation, now dust in the wind, fought and won our freedom against absolute tyranny. The history of the world is all peasants and tyrants, and we were spared unimaginable oppression and darkness. At least, for a time we chose the light. We were supposed to remember.
My mother tried so hard to tell me what her generation and the ones before her faced. She did not meet her father until she was four. He was off saving the world, flying paratroopers in World War II. There was no Skype, no internet, and so for months on end, I picture my mother and grandmother wondering if my grandfather, Jack, was still alive. In my grandmother’s tiny home town in Texas, all the boys in her year’s high school graduation class died at war. They were only seventeen and eighteen year old boys who decided to let childhood go and become men for generations to come, people they would never meet, who would never know their names.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace²but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! – Patrick Henry
Today, an entire generation has grown up in war. I know so many families waiting and wondering if their loved ones will ever return. The more weakness and lack of resolve shown by the so-called leaders of the free world, the more die. These young men and women of the American military volunteer to put their lives on the line for the sake of people who will never thank them, who do not care as long as they can use any damn bathroom they wish. We were supposed to remember.
Now I know why the Arthurian legends are so tragic. It is the same reason that J.R.R. Tolkien refused to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings. Men always forget and so darkness, oppression, tyranny are never defeated forever. It always comes back and so we always require more blood to keep it at bay.
Yes, today is Memorial Day. Try not to forget.