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.
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 … more
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 … more
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 ...