Rooted in the pages of Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" with a few liberties taken for cinematic flow, John Boorman's Excalibur is a bizarre but indisputably compelling concoction of Arthurian mythology and allegory. At times maddeningly overacted and palpably episodic, it struggles to discover a fitting equilibrium between storytelling and style, which renders a layer of '80s-era camp atop it that's difficult to overlook. Once that's peeled away, though, the dark vision that stirs underneath begins to take shape, with moody medieval design and a concentration on free-flowing mythos crafting a gritty and bracing take on the legend. In the current atmosphere dominated by black-and-white choices towards stony historical accuracy (King Arthur) or flighty cheer (Merlin), Boorman's blend of gloom, whimsy, armor-clanking warfare and abstractness still remains one of the more intriguing Arthurian recounts out there.
Excalibur charges quickly through the life of King Arthur (Nigel Terry) amid the nondescript Dark Ages, from the moment of his birth and the establishment of the Knights of the Round Table to the legendary search for the Holy Grail later in his reign. It takes on a daunting task by encapsulating all the material within a two-and-a-half hour timeframe, but John Boorman propels the story's movement with a sharp focus on what's central to take away from the legend -- both in plot points and in themes. The Deliverance director starts with painting a picture of the unholy union between Arthur's father, Uther (Gabriel Byrne), and his mother, then traverses the mythology towards how he ascended as the magically-"enhanced" heir to the throne by way of his mighty sword, all with the tutelage and manipulation of warlock Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and his half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) in the periphery. As to be expected, the story also navigates through his love for Lady Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and how Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) becomes his trusted right-hand man.
Modern takes on Arthurian legend slant towards straightforward depictions of chivalry, revolving around his starry-eyed relationship with Guinevere and his revered reign as king, yet Excalibur takes an appropriate, bleak and cautionary path. The story centralizes on the idea that Arthur's something of an unholy creation, a child created in the throes of his father Uther's self-absorbed whims, and the progression through the young king's life never lets us forget that he's born of sinister material. Gloominess permeates Excalibur while flickers of narcissistic power and lust-driven madness conflict Arthur, all while Merlin continuously reminds the young king that he's tied to the fabric of the earth -- reverentially described as "The Dragon". Boorman captures an almost fatalistic take by focusing on Arthur's other-worldliness, which becomes more thought-provoking as the story digs into its darker recesses, showing both the enriching and ugly sides of gallantry and predestined power.
Excalibur's environment remains curiously involving from start to finish, crafting a colorful yet ominous flourish of atmosphere that's gorgeous -- both in surface-level and conceptual ways. Filmed in locales across Ireland, Boorman and cinematographer Alex Thomson shape the visual tone into a misty, green-kissed daydream, with overblown shimmers from the armor and oblique emerald lighting that lend an opulent aesthetic to the fable. The look concocts a fairytale tone out of deceptive tranquility, which becomes obvious later in the film as the lighting grows more aggressively colorful and the shimmering armor becomes even less indicative of the wearer's decorum. Skillful composition brews in the expanses of undefined forests and within the mythical structure of Camelot, growing even more intriguing once outlandish figurative visuals (like that of the Holy Grail) begin to spill into the narrative.
To get to its headier moments, the audience has to exercise patience with some of Boorman's stylistic choices. There's no denying that Excalibur is a bit odd and boisterous, seen immediately when a fully-armored knight makes love -- almost feverishly -- to a stark-naked woman in a whirlwind of black magic. Similarly, it'll take some restraint to hold back chuckles at Arthur ham-fistedly calling for his brothers to sit around a "Round Table", or when Merlin splashes backwards into a creek. Part of it comes from unruly delivery from the actors; Boorman creates a brash, overblown presence for Nigel Terry as King Arthur, from puberty to salt-and-pepper beardedness, which translates into pervasive scenery-chewing from both him and those around him. A few household names appear in pre-fame roles, like Gabriel Byrne as Uther, Patrick Stewart as gallant Leondegrance, and Liam Neeson as weary Sir Gawain, but their dramatic poise gets gobbled up by over-the-top table pounding and shrill yelling.
The only two unaffected by the blunt theatrics -- and who, in ways, make the most of them -- are Nicol Williamson as the eccentric yet foreboding Merlin and an eye-grabbing Helen Mirren as Morgana. Merlin shows the same level of bloated dialogue delivery as the rest, yet his sardonic meditations and advisory comments revert to the film's compelling mystical core, making them far more interesting than the blunt-headed militant yells from the other knights. Morgana, Arthur's half-sister, only arrives to an important capacity near the second half of Excalibur, but her dark scheming sets the film's moodier tones in motion when she eventually does. It's in the link between the two magic-wielders that Excalibur finds its most compelling rapport between characters, revealed further in their mutual knowledge of the way the world's magical essence -- again, "The Dragon" -- revolves around Arthur.
Something unique happens in the process of following Arthur's tale. It focuses more on this ominous black magic powering his existence instead of on the man himself, as well as something avoided in many modern Arthurian takes: his fallibility. Instead of placing King Arthur on a pedestal as a simple bastion of chivalry, Boorman doesn't shy away from shaping the story into a cautionary tale of sorts about the tricky nature of obedience and misguided power. When the film ventures into familiar territory, including a reputation-affirming joust among the Knights of the Round Table and the David vs. Goliath-style medieval warfare later on, the director also includes some menacing thought about the knights' perception of predestination and their trepidation -- or lack thereof -- behind following those with power. All this shines in Excalibur through the thick aesthetic tone and hasty, jarring plot movement, revealing a challenging side to the flawed but involving sword-'n-sorcery lavishness that boosts it to another level.
Video and Audio:
Excalibur's one of the tougher films to critique on a visual level since the photography intentionally leans towards a hazy, whimsical look, also making it tough to judge for this "remastered" Blu-ray. It's also one that I never got around to when HD-DVD was still alive and kicking, so I'm going in having only memories of the DVD and TV screenings. What I can tell you is that the AVC encode comes in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio instead of the 1.85:1 framing that's adorned previous releases, yet not the 1.66:1 ratio of some British productions, and it's extremely clean in regards to a lack of damage or speckles in the print. The phrase "It's not a disc to show off your home theater" gets tossed around quite a bit, but that's truly the case with WB's Blu-ray. It does, however, present the material in the best fashion I've seen it, riding a very fine balance between natural film presence and digital appearance that ultimately satisfies.
The AVC encode, which doesn't appear to hit above 20 Mbps, possesses noticeable film grain (prevalent in backdrops) and obscure, somewhat fuzzy detail throughout, though it appears inherent with the film's stock and intended look. Black levels come through with appropriate depth where needed, yet showcasing a level of graying grain that's a bit heavy in others. Color richness and appropriate gradient fluctuations impress in the green lighting and Irish shooting environment, while the metallic sheen on armor and the accuracy in flesh tones contain more liveliness than expected. There aren't many moments of subtle object detail to be found, aside from faintly impressive minutiae in Guinevere's wedding veil, Morgana's lacy outfits, and the grime in Perceval's armor later on. However, the contours around the suits of plate-mail, against rocks and tree bark, within rushing water, and along sword edges remain suitably crisp.
Audio comes in a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track that attempts to handle the film's sonic age with as much nimbleness as possible, yet ultimately still feels strained. Surround activity limits itself to a few ambient indulgences, like birds chirping and the occasional rushing of water, with Trevor Jones' score being the main source of directional activity through percussion and crescendos that echo to the rears. The score's also the primary source of lower-frequency effects, especially drums, while the galloping of horse hooves and other points barely tickles the bass channel. Bursts of aggressive water splashes and clanking of swords and armor have a thin, metallic, slightly distorted twang, befitting the film's age but more awkward and raspy than expected, while the streams of dialogue fair better by staying buoyant and balanced (Lancelot's growl at the joust hits a nice deep rumble). Get this: Excalibur comes in a total of EIGHT spoken languages (English Master Audio, and Dolby tracks in French, German, Italian, Castilian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Czech) and FIFTEEN optional subtitle streams (English, French, German, Italian, Castilian, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Russian, Hebrew, Norwegian, and Swedish).
Alas, the only supplements that adorn Excalibur are, once again, a Commentary with John Boorman and Theatrical Trailer (2:37, 16x9 AVC) from both the DVD and the HD-DVD. Boorman veers into narration mode fairly often and has quite a few expanses of quiet time, but he reveals a few film-making points of interest, such as the simple effect used to create a pregnant Helen Mirren and the location / seasons for many of the shots. Some form of retrospective from the cast would've been great -- hearing from Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart about their "smaller" roles might've been a neat listen, along with hearing Helen Mirren talk about about Morgana. Alas, that's all we've got.
Through Disney animated adaptations, television shows, and historically "accurate" spins, John Boorman's Excalibur still remains the go-to rendition for a traditional, sword-'n-sorcery take on the King Arthur tale. Some could consider his adaptation of Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" as a piece of fantasy excellence with a handful of blemishes, though others see its kinks -- namely the bloated handling of performances, or the rushed, episodic storytelling -- as elements that unforgivably take away from the director's aims. Boorman gets a lot right in his visually opulent, brisk spin, though, while exploring unique subtexts and figurative points that add an artful edge to its rhythm of clanking swords, rattling armor, and mystical magic-wielding. WB's Blu-ray projects the unique visuals in a suitable new scan of the film, earning this disc a firm Recommendation.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site