Excalibur (1981)

Excalibur (1981), produced and directed by John Boorman.

Boorman is an imaginative director trying to realize a specific vision, but it never comes into focus. We have dramatic visuals, but the characterizations are not very strong and the sweep of the Arthurian epic never really grabs me. Combining a fantasy approach (he really believes in "shining armor") with the blood and mud grittiness of the dark ages is jarring and keeps us off balance, which may be a good thing.

The story is presented in distinct acts:

Throughout, "magic" is a forest-green light just offscreen, representing the force of the old nature-religion.

Nicol Williamson plays Merlin semi-comically, part mage part con-man. He had a feud with Helen Mirren over previous work and Boorman hoped this would amp up their conflict on screen.

We have many faces that became more familiar in later years, eg Patrick Stewart. First film for Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and CiarĂ¡n Hinds.

Could I point out: even when knights wore armor in battle they didn't wear it while hanging around or sitting at table. It makes both the fantasy and realistic aspects of the story look ridiculous.

Like most Arthurian treatments they claim this to be an adaptation of Le Morte D'Arthur. I seriously doubt it. All I remember of Malory is hundreds of pages of repetitious jousting formulae, ably lampooned by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court:


The truth is, Alisande, these archaics are a little too simple; the vocabulary is too limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas of fact, and not enough to picturesque detail; this throws about them a certain air of the monotonous; in fact the fights are all alike: a couple of people come together with great random -- random is a good word, and so is exegesis, for that matter, and so is holocaust, and defalcation, and usufruct and a hundred others, but land! a body ought to discriminate -- they come together with great random, and a spear is brast, and one party brake his shield and the other one goes down, horse and man, over his horse-tail and brake his neck, and then the next candidate comes randoming in, and brast his spear, and the other man brast his shield, and down*he*goes, horse and man, over his horse-tail, and brake his neck, and then there's another elected, and another and another and still another, till the material is all used up...

Quite a lot of Wagner in the soundtrack. The main theme is Siegfried's funeral march. I think this was the first time I heard Orff's Carmina Burana, which became more popular thereafter.

Brief nudity and passion and some gore and hacked off limbs. Filmed in Ireland.

Available on Blu-ray. Boorman provides a light commentary track with anecdotes about the production. He has the sword Excalibur at home and the Holy Grail on his mantlepiece; not many people can say that.

Netflix doesn't have the Blu-ray.