Director: John Boorman.
Starring.Nigel Terry (RIP) , Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson (RIP) , Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart. Ireland/USA/UK. 2h 20m.
Based on:15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
There aren’t too many movies that I can mention from my childhood that have such an epic reaction of admiration as this definition of epic fantasy. Albeit a guilty pleasure, I generally hang around heavy alternative scenes where this has become a fashion guide as well as cult classic pieces of cinema, but there’s a wealth of shiny aesthetics and magical storytelling which has never really been mimicked again making this truly unique stand alone opulent piece.
Much of this classic tale revolves around the story of a boy king and his cryptic muse; who becomes a distant muse as they face the beginning of the end. While Boorman sticks to this ageless combination of student and tutor he expands the dark mysticism of a medieval England on the verge of turning it’s back on it’s pagan beliefs. Boorman isn’t a director who has an obvious style, but his ability to adapt to each story line revealing a culture around it’s narrative and characters is outstanding. Previous to Excalibur, in 1974 he wowed audiences with a trippy Zardoz, starring Sean Connery in “that” outfit, cast majestically along space age philosophies and booming classical music, later in 1977 he hit back with Exorcist II The Heretic, then straight after this he went into full eco warrior mode with Emerald Forest. But this is a director who gave us Deliverance and Point Blank. But after Exorcist II, a lot of people lost most if not all respect for Boorman’s work, notably Mark Kermode. [LINK]
Somewhere between the vividly lit forests, haunting gothic voices and incredibly shiny armored aesthetics, there’s a rebirth of English magic and mysticism as a boy king rises from the mire of a lost war torn England into a new spring of hope. There’s an over emphasis of drama and everyone seems desperate to out act each other but when you have a lot of bold classically trained actors on board you can’t really expect anything less.
Gabriel Byrne kicks the movie into gear as the lusty Uther Pendragon, after ruling with a chaotic nature he gives into lust and makes a bargain with Merlin to bang another king’s consort, the price is down time for Merlin and in 9 months time, the child, after the birth of the child, Merlin whisks him away and the land pitches into chaos, without a clear leader. Until an adopted child managed to pull a sword from a stone. but this is only the beginning of his wondrous adventure as he tassels with a dual life of a young man falling in love and a king who has the task of taking control of a country that’s in a grip of civil war surrounded more around a sense of loss of a righteous path.
All the juiciest parts of the Arthurian romance and betrayal of a complicated king are insulated and poured over as the film becomes heavily symbolic especially when the search for the Holy Grail takes place. A deeply torn king who gathers his wisdom from magic and his mystical blade leads his country into the light and brings life to the land as the two are connected, flirting around in the background, Merlin pulls a few more stings, knowing the outcome is ultimately his downfall but that certain things need to happen, and eventually the Chaotic Morgane Le Fay (Mirren) and her magically aged son at in a touch of an evil adversary which help spur on the kaleidoscope journey for the Holy Grail. Boorman takes a stylised but very medieval path to the Grail, through a limbo and spiritual awakening through water, this is one of many themes which makes Excalibur feel like watching an ancient legend brought to life rather than retold through modern eyes.
orth’ bháis’s bethad,
do chél dénmha
In modern English, this can be translated as:
charm of death and life,
thy omen of making.
With a haunting operatic soundtrack bolstered with The Siege Of Camylarde by Wagner and La Fortuna by ?? there’s a higher sense of how epic everything should be perceived, which is one of the biggest criticisms of the film, is it simply style over substance? Even if you’re of this ilk, you’ll have to recognise that there is a grandeur at play here, where dragons are described in the ethereal mists that cloud the mind and landscapes, but the symbolism and theatrics allow for the lady of the lake to appear and that’s more than enough grounded magic.
Retelling a story such as this, which a lot of people have taken to heart as a personal philosophy needs to be done in a certain style, it seems Boorman really aimed to make each chapter as powerful as the whole legend, even with its vaudeville style humor and strange dubbing, a blend of action, amour fou, fantasy and philosophy it’s probably one of the most spectacular Arthurian films, and even for it’s faults, one of the most well remembered and loved.
R – Lord of the Rings (ani) (1978), Krull (1983), Ladyhawk (1985)
L – A-Z of Fantasy Vol 1.
5s – Nigel Terry (RIP) , Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson (RIP) , Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Ciarán Hinds,
One thought on “Excalibur (1981)”
Great review for a CLASSIC film! I have the DVD and love to re-watch it for a return to such a cool story!