EXCALIBUR (1981)

  • Director: John Boorman
  • Writers: John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, based on La Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
  • Starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, Patrick Stewart, Clive Swift, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Addie, Katrine Boorman, Ciaran Hinds, and Niall O’Brien
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I picked out Excalibur because The Green Knight is currently in theaters. The latter movie, based on an epic poem from the 1400s that is also partly set in the court of King Arthur, is so good and you should 100% see it. Dev Patel plays Sir Gawain, who has to go on an epic quest that involves lots of crazy visuals. I could write a whole thing about it, but this does not seem like the site for that. Like The Green Knight, Excalibur is shot against epic Irish landscapes and features a heaping dose of psychosexual weirdness. But while The Green Knight focuses in on a very specific episode of Arthurian legend (King Arthur is in it but is sort of a side character), Excalibur is the movie for the Arthurian completist. It literally feels the need to start with Arthur’s dad and mom having sex, and heads out from there in a similar vein.

I found myself not sure what to make of Excalibur. I’m sort of fascinated by it, but I’m far from convinced that it’s actually a good movie. It is very weird tonally. That sex scene near the beginning involves King Uther (Gabriel Byrne, in his first movie role), framed by a wall of flame, dressed in full armor, thrusting away at a completely naked Queen Ygraine. To make things weirder, Ygraine is played by Katrine Boorman, daughter of the director John Boorman. Yet he still made all of these choices.

In fact, most of the major male characters spend most of the movie in extremely bulky-looking armor, which is also extremely shiny throughout, sometimes glowing in colors that don’t actually make sense. Another scene (actually stolen from another vaguely Arthur-adjacent story, Tristan and Isolde) has Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) (in the middle of their famous affair), waking up in the middle of the forest, completely naked, to find Excalibur thrust into the ground between them. Realizing this means Arthur knows about the affair, Lancelot panics and runs off, butt naked, into the forest, leaving Guinevere to all but make out with the sword, or something, I dunno.

Yet for all this, there’s a weird power and conviction to the whole thing. Visually, it is absolutely spectacular from start to finish. It is hardly a revisionist version (this is far more faithful to the source material than either Antoine Fuqua’s weird Ancient Roman Arthur, starring Clive Owen, or Guy Ritchie’s weird, frenetic con-man Arthur from a few years ago that nobody saw). Yet thematically, it finds something different, recasting the whole thing as a kind of mythic cycle of birth, decay, death, and rebirth. Boorman had spent years working on adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that never quite made it to the shooting stage, but re-used many of his set and theme ideas from that project here, and if you’re willing to just go with the wild tonal shifts it mostly works.

It doesn’t help the movie’s tenuous sense of coherence, however, that it also feels way overstuffed. Few movies I’ve seen (even yesterday’s Greed, which was cut from 9 hours down to 2) feel more like we are watching a severely cut down version of a much longer movie. To some extent this is true, in that Boorman’s original cut was well over three hours and the final movie runs about 2:20. Things happen very suddenly, characters develop motivations all of a sudden, Arthur’s villainous half-sister Morgana (played by none other than a young Helen Mirren, having a ball in some very… interesting outfits) suddenly reappears nearly halfway of the way through the movie with no explanation, leaving me to piece together over several minutes who she was supposed to be. To cut the movie some slack, I’ve recently started reading the original Le Morte d’Arthur, partially inspired by both this movie and The Green Knight, and it’s actually a lot like this too. It spends several chapters giving the blow by blow of a battle, then suddenly announces in two sentences that Arthur then met Guenevere, they fell in love, and got married.

From a casting perspective, the movie is sort of legendary for its supporting case of younger British and Irish stage actors who would become much better known later in their careers. In addition to Gabriel Byrne, this was also the film debut of Liam Neeson, playing a very different version of Sir Gawain than Dev Patel’s, and the great stone-faced Irish actor Ciaran Hinds (who you will recognize even if you don’t recall his name). A pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart even makes an appearance in a medium-sized role as Guenevere’s father, Leodegrance. If you ever wanted to watch Captain Picard just bashing the heck out of people with a giant axe, this is the movie for you. Yet none of the “main” cast members are nearly as well remembered as the actors in smaller roles. Nicol Williamson, a popular English stage actor at the time, gives an enjoyably weird and mercurial performance as Merlin. Arthur is played by another less known English actor, Nigel Terry. I’d say his performance is fine, if not particularly memorable. He does do a decent job of playing Arthur from a young man to an old man believably, without that much makeup, which couldn’t have been easy.

The central double-edged sword of Excalibur, if you’ll forgive the pun, is that it throws in absolutely everything it can think of from the King Arthur myth. It has about 45 seconds that feels lifted from The Once and Future King, and another 45 seconds of Merlin in the woods trying to put the fear of God into Arthur, and then it skips right to him being this inspiring king and leader of men. It also includes the Quest for the Holy Grail, in what is basically a montage that feels like it could be a whole other movie. In fact, there are specific shots in this movie that some have commented seem to be direct quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which predates Excalibur by six years. The difference is that this movie seems to posit that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is in fact a good basis for a system of government.

So yeah, I have thoughts about Excalibur. This is one of those movies that I’m not sure is actually good, but I would definitely recommend to a friend. I saw on the movie’s Wikipedia page that 300 and Justice League director Zack Snyder says that this is his favorite movie, and I thought “yeah, that makes sense.” And it does feel a bit like Justice League in that I would completely buy it if a five-hour cut of Excalibur came out tomorrow on HBO Max or something. Yet Zack Snyder could never have made this movie, and it feels entirely like its own thing, for better or worse.

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