Excalibur

1981

Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.

Produced and Directed by John Boorman

Screenplay by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg

Based on “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Malory

The 1980’s was a rich and fertile time for heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery films. The original “Clash of The Titans” “Dragonslayer” “Conan The Barbarian” “Conan The Destroyer” “The Sword and The Sorcerer” “Ladyhawke” “The Beastmaster” and “Legend” just to name a few. There were also the more whimsical fantasy movies such as “The Dark Crystal” “Labyrinth” “Krull” and “The Neverending Story.” All of these movies still have loyal followings and deservedly so. For various reasons they’re great examples of how heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery movies were done back in the day without CGI. But whenever somebody asks me to recommend an heroic fantasy/sword-and-sorcery movie of that period I always point them in the direction of a movie I think has been undeservedly forgotten; John Boorman’s magnificently lush and extraordinary retelling of the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of The Round Table…EXCALIBUR.

Merlin The Magician (Nicol Williamson) has worked for many years to unite a land beset by constant warfare. To this end he has manipulated events so that Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) will receive Excalibur, The Sword of Power and become king. Uther undermines Merlin’s plans through his lust for Igraine (Katrine Boorman) the wife of his most powerful ally, Duke Cornwall (Corin Redgrave.) To this end, Merlin uses his magic to transform Uther to resemble Cornwall and Uther impregnates her. Merlin shows up nine months later to take Uther’s son, telling Uther that he is “not the one who will unite the land.” But perhaps his son will be. His son who will day be known in song and story as King Arthur. Shortly after, Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before thrusting Excalibur into a stone, proclaiming that none but a true king shall ever have Excalibur.

From there we follow Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he indeed draws Excalibur from the stone and becomes king. With the help of his foster father Sir Ector (Clive Swift) foster brother Sir Kay (Niall O’Brien) along with other knights such as Sir Leondegrance (Sir Patrick Stewart) Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) and Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and with the wisdom of Merlin to guide him, Arthur does unite the land and creates The Round Table, the greatest assemblage of knights in the world. But even the paradise that is Camelot cannot stand when Arthur is betrayed by his wife Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and his best friend Lancelot who have fallen in love. Arthur’s half-sister Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) uses the same sorcery Merlin used to help Uther conceive Arthur to seduce Arthur and give birth to their son Mordred (Robert Addie) whom she then raises to destroy Arthur, The Round Table, Camelot and everything they stand for. Beset by foes from without and the sickness of King Arthur from within, The Knights of The Round Table embark on the mission which will make them immortal legends: the quest for The Holy Grail.

EXCALIBUR intriguingly had its roots in a proposed production of “Lord of The Rings” John Boorman had signed on to do for United Artists. But Boorman and his co-writer Rospo Pallenberg could never figure out how to do it in anything less than a three hour movie and United Artists didn’t want to put up the money to do it. Boorman went back to the EXCALIBUR project and secured a deal to film it. Most of the set design and costuming in EXCALIBUR were originally designed for the proposed “Lord of The Rings” project.

Me, I’m happy we got EXCALIBUR instead. I’ve got friends of mine who worship at the altar of J.R.R. Tolkien and lament that Boorman never got to do his version of “Lord of The Rings” but I would have felt the same way they do if he had never got to do EXCALIBUR. I love how the movie isn’t interested in telling the historical story of King Arthur but his legend. As a result, Britain or England is never mentioned. The story takes place in “The Land.” The story doesn’t stay strictly with the traditional King Arthur legend but again, that’s okay with me. Legends are supposed to change with each retelling. And that’s why I love EXCALIBUR. It feels like a story that’s being told to me, a myth from a time out of legend.

If I have any problem with the film is that it should have been longer. There’s a lot that is skipped over and at times EXCALIBUR plays like just the highlights of the King Arthur legend. But thanks to the performance of Nicol Williamson as Merlin, the movie slows down at just the right parts to give us philosophical insights into the characters.

In fact, Nicol Williamson easily walks away with the acting honors in this movie. His Merlin is fierce, whimsical, thoughtful, wise, silly, menacing, sly and comical. Often all in the same scene. It’s a dazzling performance that has to be seen to be believed and wouldn’t be matched until Sam Neill played the role with equal skill and deftness in the 1998 TV miniseries “Merlin” And since we’re on the subject of casting, EXCALIBUR is your chance to see Sir Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Helen Mirren all in the same movie long before they hit it big in American TV and movies. I also am extremely tickled by the performance of Clive Swift who is now probably best known for playing the henpecked Richard Bucket in the BBC sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances.” Here he gets to play a badass knight and I adore what he does with the role.

That’s not to say that John Terry, Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi should be overlooked. I loved how John Terry plays an Arthur that isn’t anywhere near what we think a legend should be. He’s a man who doesn’t quite grasp his own sense of destiny. But he doesn’t run away from it. If anything, he’s a man doomed by his own desire to do the right thing. Cherie Lunghi is absolutely gorgeous and Nicholas Clay plays a man who’s the exact opposite of Arthur: he knows what his destiny is and his overwhelming desire to fulfill it is what makes him tragic.

What else can I say about EXCALIBUR? The wonderful suits of armor that none of the knights take off, not even when having sex. The conversations between Arthur and Merlin. Helen Mirren being bad. Great swordfights. The fianl conversation between Arthur and Guenevere. The extraordinary images of The Lady In The Lake holding Excalibur out of the water. The final apocalyptic battle between The Knights of The Round Table and Mordred’s army. The magnificent use of classical music by Carl Orff and Richard Wagner.

So should you see EXCALIBUR? Quite simply: Yes. The story of King Arthur, Merlin and The Knights of The Round Table has never before been told like this and this, along with the “Merlin” miniseries I mentioned earlier is without a doubt my favorite version of the legend and one of my all time favorite movies.

140 minutes

Rated R

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4 comments

  1. I saw this movie in the theaters about half a dozen times the year it was released and many more times on video and DVD. I loved this film despite it’s problems and I especially loved Nicol Williamson. He was always an underrated actor who dominated the supporting cast in this film before getting upstaged by the supporting cast’s subsequent careers.

    I got a the film on dvd for my birthday a while back and John Boorman’s commentary track is quite illuminating. He loved Nicol and built the movie around him, but whenever Patrick Stewart comes on the screen he has to talk about him because of his career in Star Trek and other films, but he steadfastly refuses to call him by his name. He always refers to him as “this actor” or “that actor”. It made me wonder if there was some sort of enmity between them.

    But. yeah. it’s a marvelous film.

  2. Like you, Jack, I must have seen EXCALIBUR half a dozen times in the theater the year it was released. I owned it on VHS and just got the Blu-Ray the other day.

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