During the Middle Ages, a young man named Arthur (Nigel Terry, The Lion in Winter) retrieves the mysterious sword Excalibur from a stone, and immediately he is proclaimed King. Using Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson, The Seven-Percent Solution) as his advisor and confidant, King Arthur initiates the unification of England under one kingdom, culminating with the creation of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. But Arthur is betrayed by the people closest to him and not even the powerful Merlin can save Camelot.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Historians have debated for years about the truthfulness of the Arthurian legend. Although most scholars have concluded that the stories about Camelot and the Knights of the Round Tables are mostly part of a mystical fantasy, there is evidence that the often-told story has basis on real people and real events.
Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur remains the best-known book about the subject, and is the primary inspiration for Excalibur, a brooding, super-stylish, sometimes phantasmagorical retelling of the famous fable.
With all legends, it is impossible to know what is true or what is fiction. What remains important is that this superb film attempts to explain a period of transition in human history that seems missing from history books. That transition represents an end of an era of darkness and mysticism (represented by the Dark Ages) and the beginning of a period of renaissance and enlightenment (triggered by the discovery of America in 1492) — it’s an ambitious approach for any filmmaker.
Director John Boorman (Deliverance and Hope and Glory) clearly understands the dilemma, and he succeeds in presenting the story as an allegory of mankind losing its sense of wonder, and the price that we eventually paid. It’s an interesting movie that, I think, will puzzle and fascinate audiences for years to come.
Snazzy and spellbinding, Excalibur, written by director Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, is an astonishing accomplishment and it breathes much-needed new life into the well-known legend. Boorman and company have not only given new form and resonance to the popular story and characters; they have managed to create a perfect fusion of legend and historical accuracy.
Boorman’s idiosyncratic interpretation keeps all the mysticism of the story intact, while placing the fantastic events in their real-time and place. The movie shows the grimness of the Dark Ages like no other film has done before or after. Realism and mysticism have never been realized so vividly and in such great harmony.
Considering the scope and opulence that the entire production radiates, it comes as a shock to learn that the movie had a relatively tight budget. Much of the film was shot on location in Ireland. Alex Thomson’s exquisite, Oscar-nominated cinematography is one of the film’s greatest achievements. I also loved Trevor Jones’s thunderous musical score, which really shows off during the magnificent battle scenes. There are significant scenes played against the powerful classical compositions by Wagner and Orff.
Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren (The Queen) nearly steal the film as Merlin and Morgana respectivly. Williamson and Mirren (allegedly) hated each other in real life and since the actors play adversaries, the film actually benefits from their uncomfortable situation — the scenes between actors are packed with tension.
The cast also includes many familar faces: Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) as Gawain, Patrick Stewart (X-Men) as King Leondegrance, Nicholas Clay (The Night Digger) as Sir Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Queen Guenevere, and Gabriel Byrne (Miller’s Crossing) as Uther Pendragon. Boorman’s daughter, Katrine, plays Igrayne, and his son, Charley (The Emerald Forest), plays Mordred as a boy.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Excalibur is a smart, provocative and stimulating film — it will give you something to think about for days to come. It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive film about the Arthurian legend. Highly recommended! Color, 140 minutes, Rated R.