Three Thrusts at Excalibur


We were in China.

I had to clear up some urgent business and, after breakfast with a member of the Gang of Four (Yao Wenyuan), we appointed a leader.

It was four in the afternoon.

Outside, everybody was doing gymnastics.

The rest of us (at the time, numbering more than forty), ensconced in a small room, listened to the report of the attack on the general quarter.

As for me, situated in the back row, I could do nothing but sleep. At my side, by contrast, an insomniac (dutiful militant that he was), a Chilean ‘peasant’ who drew anthropomorphic forests.

Conversation flowed between us.

So naturally, the materialism surrounding us sparked the theme of ideological monstrosities (dragon metaphors). And, passing from one monstrosity to another, we inevitably came to the subject of a completely different monster: the ‘villages of our childhood’.

‘Last year, La Fiura appeared to me’, he said suddenly.[1]

‘La Fiura? What’s it like?’

‘It takes the form of a woman.’

‘What kind of woman?’ (I well know that the La Fiura resembles all women, not any particular one.)

‘La Fiura looks like Gina Lollobrigida.’

I was stunned. But I instantly shot back:

‘What was La Fiura doing?’ (Everyone knows La Fiura can only dance.)

‘She danced.’

‘But what was she dancing?’ (I knew that the La Fiura does not merely dance; she is The Dance.)

‘She’s a go-go dancer.’

At the time I believed one could only impoverish a myth by illustrating it, attributing some familiar form to it. I thought, for instance, that accepting Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe [in Richard Thorpe’s Ivanhoe (USA 1952)] was simply laughable. Today, I believe that it is not the sudden visualisation of a myth that creates such impoverishment, but rather the dictatorship of narrative. It is the problem of a myth, once illustrated, entering immediately into a particular story of a centripetal nature. And that is laughable. (How can anyone stand, for example, the mythic James Dean settling accounts with the myth of the millionaire American oil man in the soap opera context of Giant [George Stevens (USA 1956)]?)


Today, watching Excalibur (John Boorman, UK/USA 1981), I had a strange experience: as the story unfolded, other stories – heard in childhood, or seen in other films – converged upon its symbolic images. By absorbing these other stories without actually mixing in with them, it renders them, nonetheless, all the more present.

I know this could be said of many films, and that the experience usually depends on the spectator. But, in this case, I believe the effect is richer, because the myth that the film illuminates has a dual source: pagan and Christian.

Furthermore, the childhood stories that one remembers while watching the film split in two on contact with it. To remark that there are also pagan and Christian elements to these childhood stories oversimplifies (in my opinion) what is happening here. I prefer to begin from the presupposition that every story is double, and that its straightforward cinematic illustration renders this characteristic evident: every story, to the extent that it narrates, also at the same time excludes – and thus makes obvious – not the rest of the world, but its counterpart.

From that, we can deduce – skipping several dozen syllogisms – that the story-history takes place beyond its own Will, because its motor lacks any interest in what is to follow in the story; the interest is only in its occult alternative.

Nonetheless, the entire film industry rests on the principle that there must always be a story, and that there is no story without Will. That is, to interest anyone, there must be a character who wants something, and who acts in order to achieve what he wants.
But, in the stories of King Arthur, characters act without Will; they cannot not want what they want.


I believe Lotte Eisner was the first to speak of the poetic charge arising from a supernatural story when it takes place in a natural setting.

Everybody knows that a facial expression is composed of hundreds of muscles. But we overlook the fact that the thousands and thousands of leaves which flutter in an ordinary landscape thus compose an expression every bit as precise as a human face’s. Linking the two we have a machinery. But when this machinery becomes just as complex as a human face or a landscape, and so precise that its ensemble can form an expression, and this expression (a smile, for instance) is the same in the face, the landscape and the machinery – then one can say that this expression is surrealist, i.e. real at least three times over.

In Excalibur I sensed the presence of a smile at least twice. And I am sure that there is a third smile hidden somewhere.

We see several excessive images.

Tableaux vivants at the chance mercy of nature.

We contemplate them just as we would a tableau vivant by Fellini or Jancsó. We look at them, and then wait for the next one.

But suddenly we realise every element composing the tableau has a narrative function which indissolubly links it to the other tableaux; while King Arthur’s tales arbitrarily linked to each viewer’s childhood stories comprise the poetic element.

How is it possible for the setting sun to be narrative, while King Arthur’s destiny is poetic?

I am still asking myself that question today.

Translator’s Note

[1] La Fiura is a mythological figure in legends of the Chilean island of Chiloé. Wife of the monster-seducer El Trauco, La Fiura is ‘an incredibly ugly and shameless little woman who will cast a sickness spell upon anyone who rejects her advances. So foul is her breath it will scar a human and turn animals lame. Despite this she is an irresistible temptress who, after using her victims, will drive them insane’ (source: Sarah Todd, ‘Incubus and succubus mythology’,

Originally published in Positif, no. 247 (October 1981), p. 43. Reprinted with permission of the author.

© Raúl Ruiz 1981. Translation from French © Adrian Martin June 2009.

Created on: Tuesday, 22 December 2009