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Excalibur (1981)

Director John Boorman's 1981 fantasy film based on Arthurian legend.

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A Quick Tip by Count_Orlok_22

  • Sep 8, 2011
Arguably the most ambitious theatrical film to take on the Arthurian legend, director John Boorman's 1981 epic Excalibur is in reality something of a mess, but a beautiful one. I'm going to preface the rest of this analysis by saying that I intend to focus on the flaws because most of the reviews elsewhere on the internet tend to be favorable.

Despite the fact that it was made on a relatively small budget, the film boasts glorious cinematography, impressive stunts, efficient special effects, and lavish costuming and sets. Yet, it all is so stylized and romanticized that it clashes with the attempt at treating the story of Merlin, Arthur, and the Rise and Fall of Camelot with realism. As a result, the story seems very timeless and the style in which it is told feels very modern making the film tonally uneven and lacking the immersive quality that it should possess.
While it has a fairly strong screenplay and a great deal of talent to boost it in the direction of excellence, it somehow falters dramatically in its execution. It also doesn't help that the actors deliver their dialogue without any joie de vivre or psychological complexity. Much of the time it feels as though they are simply reading their lines aloud and going through the motions of the characters rather than becoming them for their audience.

Then there's the matter of content clashing with themes. The original Le Morte d'Arthur is full of violence, lust, rape, incest, adultery, blasphemy, murder, deception, corruption, madness, etc. It is indeed a story that is intended for adults. There have, of course, been various adaptations of the Arthurian legends which sanitize the story so that its content is more appropriate for children, but this isn't one of them. Therefore, it must be assumed that the film was made for an adult, mature, and sophisticated viewership. But this is where the problems set in as the abundance of violence is done in a melodramatic fashion that is almost laughably over the top. To make things worse the sexuality in the film is so gratuitous and almost pornographic in the way that it's shot you feel uncomfortable watching it. Where's the sense of romance and passion?

It certainly doesn't help that Boorman cast his own daughter Katrine Boorman as Igrayne, Arthur's mother, who is deceived by magic and then raped by the tyrant Uther Pendragon. And speaking of the cast, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot has none of the seductive charm or the sense of honor that he does in other adaptations and I'm left wondering what on earth Guenevere saw in him other than hubris.
As for Arthur himself, the actor Nigel Terry seems a very odd choice as Arthur. As the young squire Arthur in the early portion of the film he is absurdly awkward and unattractive, though in the middle portion of the film he gains some dramatic weight, but again it is all lost once Arthur descends into madness and then it becomes all hammy acting.
Even worse still is Nicol Williamson as Merlin whose accent seems not only to change, but so does his entire personality as his voice goes from high to low, as he goes from being cryptic and stoic to campy and flamboyant. At no point in the film does Merlin feel omnipotent or even that powerful and there's inconsistency here too as he is at times a fraud and others a genuine magician.
There is no pretense at psychology behind the way the characters are portrayed by the cast, which makes it very hard to identify with them or establish an emotional connection between them and the audience, much less take them seriously as mythic figures.

What really hurts the film more than anything is that on the one hand it tries to romanticize the film much like a Pre-Raphaelite or Academic painting would do and visually displays the characters, the environs, and the story in a manner that is heightened and beautiful. But there is an uneven contrast to this as the direction is somewhat stark and cynical and focuses more on the inevitability of the downfall of Arthur and his knights than on the events preceding it. The battle scenes are pretty bloody, albeit in a very comic book-ish manner, which doesn't fit in with the rest of the film.

Whether Boorman was trying to pay homage to the Arthurian myths by romanticizing them, or whether he was trying to examine them under the lens of contemporary perspectives, or whether he was trying to dissect them by bringing the characters down to a more realistic human level, it makes little difference since these various efforts all fail when brought together to form a kind of thematic cacophony.

It certainly doesn't help that many of the scenes are quite similar in their composition as those found in the Arthurian spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail which came out six years prior to this film (it's never a good sign when a comedic film manages to satirize a dramatic film that was released later).

However, there are some things here that cannot go without being praised. The score by Trevor Jones, which also features a great deal of Richard Wagner and Carl Orff, is spectacular. The cinematography is quite beautiful, even if it doesn't serve the narrative's tonal quality. And most importantly, this film helped to launch the careers of numerous actors including Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds, Patrick Stewart, and film maker Neil Jordan.

So, is it worthwhile to make the journey to Camelot? I'd say yes, but I wouldn't want to stay there for more than a couple hours and I'm not sure I'd return with any great haste.
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September 08, 2011
I cannot argue the points you brought up, but I liked this movie. I saw this first as a kid, and I was stunned just how good it was. However, these days it feels a little dated. Nice "QT" (ahem)!
September 08, 2011
Yeah, I saw an edited PG version quite a long time ago when I was probably eleven or twelve and while I was impressed by how epic it was, I was even then underwhelmed by the acting. Today upon re-watching it (the R-rated original cut), I have to say it hasn't aged well and the style of it feels very dated.

The main problem with so many fantasy films of the late '70s and into the '80s was that everything from the weapons to the armor to the castles were too shiny and new looking. But overall, the glitzy look for much of the film's second and third act and the poor acting make it hard for me to watch without either laughing or groaning.

I think had this film included more on the crusades and the Grail Quest and perhaps some of Merlin's back story such as the Prophecy of the Two Dragons, it would fare a bit better with me as well. Also they focused too much on Uther and not enough on Arthur and the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table.
September 08, 2011
I guess they had a lot of ash to clean those armors LOL!
September 09, 2011
Did you know Boorman kept Helen Mirren's breastplates? Seriously. Quite the memento!
September 09, 2011
one more QT like this and I will copy and paste it and re-post it as a a joke. LOL
September 09, 2011
And I'll sue you for plagiarism! Really.
; )
September 09, 2011
really? someone has been getting away with that for ages...oh they were 're-phrased' LOL! You won't be able to sue me if I credit you and state that it was a joke. ;P
September 09, 2011
Yeah, well, that same someone also has a habit of reviewing things he hasn't seen or read and knows little to nothing about. If I could find the legal precedence, I'd sue him for fraud, perjury, and harassment. I've adopted a zero tolerance policy with internet phonies and trolls.
September 09, 2011
Yeah. I had it out with one troll in amazon recently. Him and his friend gave me 4 neggies, and then once people read our exchanges, I got more positives. As for what you said, I also get upset with those since it insults what I try to do; but posers always get caught lying to their teeth and contradicting what they've said. They're also the ones who want the ability to give negatives reinstated in the site. (funny since they'll get those a lot)
September 09, 2011
Exactly, if people are going to write reviews they should care about it enough to know what they are writing about. I'm sick of these people who write online to get attention or try to be popular. I don't care how insecure you are or whether or not you weren't loved enough as a child... if you don't take writing seriously then don't do it for an ego boost.
September 09, 2011
The thing is...they forget that one should write for themselves and not allow their egos to get in the way. I don't care if they don't take writing seriously, what I really don't like is when folks pretend they know more about something than they don't, review something they haven't seen and other things. These people also get offended when you catch them in their mistakes. Like I told you before, just ignore and stay away; better that way.

Frank asked me why I do what I do before, and it started after I just got divorced and it became an outlet. Now, I just do it to share, and since most of my friends like the mainstream stuff, I want to express what I know through is such a good feeling when someone says they follow my reviews because there was no ego in my writing. I just do it for fun....but not forever.
More Excalibur (1981 film) reviews
review by . July 09, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
John Boorman's epic classic of the "Dark Ages" needs no more accolades, but in serving repetition, his "EXCALIBUR" remains the supreme enactment of the Arthurian legend!    Tennyson wrote in "Idylls of the King, The Passing of Arthur":     "...To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:  Ah miserable, and unkind, untrue,  Unknightly, traitor-heated! Woe is me!  Authority forgets a dying king,  Laid widow'd of the power …
review by . May 23, 2004
At times the acting pushes the envelope a bit, especially Nigel Terry in the title role. But Helen Mirren defines erotic evil as Morganna, while Cherie Lunghi is equally appealing as the fair wife of Arthur.Forget the Disney-fied versions elsewhere, this is a telling of the Arthurian legend that is faithful to the ages. The cinematography is first rate, and the musical score with selections from Carl Orff's Carmena Burana is perfect! Given that this version is 20 years old now, it's a blast to see …
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About this movie


Excalibur is a 1981 medieval fantasy film directed by John Boorman (Deliverance and Zardoz) and is a retelling of Arthurian legend based on Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The film was a lifelong dream for Boorman who had been fascinated by Arthurian legend and who had wanted to make a fantasy epic.
Originally he had intended to direct a film based on J.R.R. Tolkien's mythopoeic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, but the script was met with ridicule and he couldn't find a studio to finance the film, so he then moved on to do a film inspired by European medieval history and the romance mythologies that form the crux of Arthurian legend.

The film was released in 1981 and was a moderate box office success despite opening in the top slot during its initial opening. The film received mixed critical responses with some hailing the film as the most complete depiction of Arthurian legend ever put on film and others criticizing the acting, the story, and the direction.
Since it's release, the film has been regarded by some as a classic despite the fact that it wasn't embraced by all critics, audiences, or scholars of Arthurian legends.

The film starred Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, Nicol Williamson as Merlin, and Nicholas Clay as Sir Lancelot.
Many of the cast members, including Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Ciarán Hinds, and Patrick Stewart all went on to become famous and successful actors, and film maker Neil Jordan got ...
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Director: John Boorman
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Release Date: 1981
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: John Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg
DVD Release Date: September 21, 1999
Runtime: 140 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Orion Pictures
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