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Having been mentally absent when old English literature was taught in high school, I went to Excalibur in 1981 expecting something completely different. The dark and mythologically oriented tale didn't jibe with ignorant preconceptions formed by the King Arthur-lite Disney and Broadway entertainments I'd grown up with. I knew that young Arthur had a "cute" name and was mentored and coddled by Merlin, who was essentially Santa Claus, Houdini and Obi-Wan Kenobi rolled into one, only more amusing. Arthur spent his adolescence communing with nature, accepting the cast of Bambi as free-range life lesson teachers. The movie Camelot played more or less the same childhood fantasy card -- its song Follow Me gave the show its only real sense of magic. Richard Harris's Arthur suffered as if yearning to restore the Kennedy White House. When things got too tough he retreated into infantilism.
At first John Boorman and his co-screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg appear to have pasted a DC Comics origin story onto their version of the Knights of the Round Table. Little did I suspect that Excalibur is fairly faithful to the magical-mythical vision of Sir Thomas Mallory's book Le Morte d'Arthur. That core work was written in the late 1400s (!) and as such is one of the earliest and most influential works of Western literature. Concluding that Excalibur tries to make the Arthur legend into Star Wars is getting everything completely backwards -- Le Morte d'Arthur is the seminal force behind a big slice of our culture's legends. We're told that John Boorman was one of the frustrated filmmakers unable to get a film version of The Lord of the Rings off the ground. Apparently Excalibur was the next best thing. If the initial back-story with Uther Pendragon and the origin of the magic sword of power sounds a lot like the forging of Tolkien's ring of power, it's because Tolkien was working with the same mythical source material.
The ambitious director John Boorman made brilliant pictures (Point Blank, Deliverance) and good but slightly pretentious ones (Hell in the Pacific). He overreached disastrously with his Sci-fi fantasy Zardoz, an underfunded attempt to graft together several major myths. But like all of Boorman's pictures, Zardoz has the courage to be bold and different. Who else would dare to costume Sean Connery in a red diaper?
Excalibur fortunately has everything going for it. Boorman cast the film for acting ability, not star appeal. Although the film can now boast a number of marquee names, in 1981 only Nicol Williamson was a known quantity. Boorman also makes the story paramount. Characters come and go and the Arthur / Guenevere / Lancelot triangle does not dominate. Most importantly, Boorman returns the sense of magic and wonder to a saga that was always supposed to exist on the level of idealized legend.
The 'story' of Excalibur is a multi-generational epic. Druid wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) helps warlord Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne, in nearly his first movie) obtain the sword of power Excalibur, but after uniting pre-England, Uther ruins everything by using Merlin's magic to seduce another man's wife. The sword ends up plunged into a stone, and many knights vie to pull it out and become the new King. Against all reason, young Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulls the sword out, and after a pep talk from Merlin, uses both might and mercy to unite the tribes once again. As he now "is" England -- the king's health and the welfare of the land are one -- Arthur founds a glorious new rule of honor and justice, assembling a group of virtuous knights and marrying Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the daughter of the loyal noble Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart). But Arthur's idyllic reign begins to crumble. Guenevere and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), Arthur's champion of the Round Table, become irresistibly attracted to one another. And Uther Pendragon's bloodline reasserts itself when the would-be sorceress Morgana (Helen Mirren) cajoles Merlin into sharing some of his most divine secrets of necromancy. With Arthur dispirited by his wife's infidelity, the land suffers as well. He dispatches his knights in a hopeless search for The Holy Grail, allowing Morgana to crush them one at a time through her evil son Mordred (Robert Addie). Arthur waits much too long to rally to save his kingdom. Merlin can only offer him a last measure of spiritual guidance: his magic is on the wane because newer gods are replacing the old pagan mysticism.
Excalibur ignores the revisionist trend of the 1970s that attempted to strip our cultural heroes of their legendary status, starting with the western's Wyatt Earp and continuing on to icons like Robin Hood. Boorman instead gives the Arthurian legend its due, dropping the romantic clichés attached to previous Hollywood efforts. Clever effects and beautiful sets, all created on a budget and without CGI, return a sense of magic to the tale, as the sword Excalibur glows green and Uther rides across the ocean on a fog of "dragon's breath". The tone of the tale is such that Boorman can show The Lady of the Lake resting calmly under the water, brandishing Excalibur aloft as if it were the most significant object in the history of mankind. The image might as well be out of the curiously similar myth of Siegfried, with his ring and his Niebelungs and so forth. We're also reminded of similar imagery used to nightmarish effect in Boorman's earlier Deliverance.
Even better, the actors take on their roles without a hint of irony. Arthur is a great king not because he's good looking or clever, but because he possesses the spirit of fairness and compromise. Lancelot embodies an unimpeachable ideal, so much so that when he states his code of chivalry to Guenevere, we respond with the same tingle of recognition that we gave Christopher Reeve's Superman. The effect is so strong, Boorman can even toss in a musical quote, just a few notes, from Tristan and Isolde. It works! Compared to Nicholas Clay's clear-eyed noble warrior, Franco Nero's callow Lancelot comes off as just another pretty boy who doesn't know his own hormones.
Excalibur slows down only when the story takes a depressing turn, with brave knights crucified like Christmas tree ornaments and the nasty Mordred and (brilliantly acted) Morgana waxing victorious. But I loved the logical resolution to the Lancelot and Guenevere sidebar. Although Arthur's loving life companions are unable to return again to his side, they raise his spirits and contribute to his noble cause.
It's great to see Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and Nigel Terry "back in the day". Only a week after seeing his interesting The Night Digger, it's edifying to watch Nicholas Clay do such a fine job as Lancelot. Nicol Williamson gets the best lines. As Merlin is a character unstuck in time, he has the necessary distance to react with sarcasm to the foibles of the heroes he tries to inspire. Nigel Terry's Arthur always looks a little stressed out, what with the responsibility on his shoulders. We love him because he's always open to the impossible and ready to break the rules. I've always liked the character of Perceval (Paul Geoffrey), a squire like Arthur who steps into the breach when it looks as if Lancelot will be a no-show to uphold Guenevere's honor. A non-noble battlefield-commission knight, Perceval ends up proving he has the Right Stuff in the chivalry department. In other words, there's hope for all of us. Lesson: study harder for that test.
The design and cinematography contribute to the magical spirit, creating a world where the impossibly perfect polished armor looks "just right". The film overflows with unlikely, artificial yet applaud-worthy visual designs. The only embarrassing scene is when Merlin shows Morgana his wizardry hideout. It unfortunately looks (and operates) like Superman's fortress of solitude, with all the magic of an over-designed department store window. Everything else in the movie is more than satisfying -- intelligent, sensual, magical, and emotionally compelling. Things didn't look good for John Boorman's career when he had to put his name on Exorcist II: The Heretic. On this one he comes through with flying colors.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Excalibur is just fine, and not the problem transfer indicated on fantasy-horror Internet boards. The color is strong and there are no problems with focus or resolution. A number of scenes with optical effects are understandably much more grainy - you can see the grain changing across cuts. Many scenes use diffusion filters and soft focus as part of their visual plan, and those techniques can also seem more 'grainy' when transferred to video, even HD video. I saw one image where a standing figure's head seemed crowded by the top frame line. As my Samsung monitor overscans a bit (I don't know how much), I have a feeling that several shots are tight, or perhaps missed the mark a bit when filmed. I don't think that the official aspect ratio should be taller, at 1:66 -- by 1981 that format was pretty much gone. 1
The film comes with tracks and subtitles in English, French and Spanish. Highly recommended is John Boorman's feature commentary, the disc's only extra. Boorman is a candid and entertaining raconteur. I'm not much of a fan of Zardoz, but his commentary on that disc raises one's interest in the movie two- or three-fold.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Excalibur Blu-ray rates:
1. Of course, it depends where you saw the film. I insisted to a restoration contact at MGM that to me the Cinerama Dome premiere of RoboCop 2 really looked to be 1:66 or even flatter, but the film's cameraman reports that the correct ratio is 1:85. So either I was just plain wrong or the Dome was doing its own thing for that particular engagement.
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