Saturday, September 22, 2018

Movie Musing - What Do We Want from a Star Trek Film?

Patrick (H) Williams created a wonderful video essay about What do we want from a Star Wars movie? It hit on all the elements that he thinks people want in their Jedi fueled franchise films, and why The Last Jedi was such a divisive film. But it got me thinking, that the same question could be asked to the other huge space opera franchise out there: Star Trek.

Boldly brandishing belt buckles.
For decades Paramount seems to be a bit confused with what fans and the general audience want in their Star Trek films. The results have been a whole batch of films with mixed reviews over the last couple decades. Sure Star Trek (2009) seemed to hit a sweet spot of sorts, but much likeThe Force Awakens it felt like the start of something, a grounding of the Star Trek universe that was going to pay off in future films.

"Is it supposed to do that? I don't think it is supposed to do that."
For many people Into Darkness and Beyond did little to fulfill the promise set out by the first film. But the big question remains, what are we looking for in a Star Trek film? I know some folks just want the same things they are looking for in any space adventure film. But I usually expect a bit more.

It's all smiles and giggles until someone mentions "The Last Jedi".
1.    Solid, memorable and meaningful character interaction. One of the best elements of every Star Trek series or film is the interaction between the crew. Their reactions to the problems in front of them, their ability to work together (or not) is the source of much of the joy of Star Trek. Some of the most memorable films have great interaction between the characters, be it Khan, Kirk and Spock or Picard, Data and the Borg Queen. When Star Trek is at its best, it is because the characters are written and acted well.

"Drop the stupid script and back away slowly."
2.    Events and plots that impact the characters in a big way, or the world of Star Trek in a big way. These are movies after all, and we expect the film to have stakes that feel like they need a movie size canvas to tell. It is one of the reasons why Star Trek (2009) feels more important than the sequels, because the events in that film have major consequences. It is also why First Contact feels more satisfying than Insurrection

"I thought you said they dropped the stupid script."
3.    A sense of wonder about space travel. Now I admit this has been missing from a lot of the Star Trek films over the years. But it is one of the reason I adore The Motion Picture so much. That movie has this immense sense of scale. It feels larger than life and wondrous all at once. We need more of those moments in these films. Because in my mind Star Trek acknowledges the enormity of the task of exploring the universe and finding our place in it.

"Are we having a moment? It feels like we are having a moment."
4.    Themes about our place in the universe. This is the primary thematic difference between Star Wars and Star TrekStar Wars is mythic and most of its themes deal with ones familiar to us from myths and legends. It is much more of a fantasy narrative. But Star Trek focuses on humanity’s place in the universe and our journey through it. The best Star Trek films fashion their narratives to get you thinking about humanity. Even Nemesis for all its faults, tried to tie back to nature versus nurture. The newer films seem so focused on plot and spectacle they forget the core exploration of this theme.

Are they really ready for the final frontier?
5.    It needs to showcase how the diverse crew comes together to solve a problem. In the end, as much the movies want us to believe it comes down to Kirk or Spock, or Picard or Data. The best episodes (and films) give key moments to the whole crew. Everyone gets a moment to shine and the mission would fail if they all didn’t give it their best shot.

They captured Kubla, or Shaka, or Sherlock...
So those are the elements I’m looking for in a Star Trek film. No, I don’t need a great villain. No I don’t need massive starship battles or motorcycles zipping around. No I don’t need Khan to show up again. I just need a solid space exploration tale well told. Include these five elements and you ware well on your way to making a great Star Trek film, no matter what continuity you decide to use.
 
"Is that a breakdancing Gorn, or did I hit my head harder than I thought?"
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How about you? What would you like to see in your Star Trek film?

Friday, September 14, 2018

And Then This Happened... Star Trek: The Original Series

When it comes to exploring strange new worlds you have to make sure dress appropriately. It helps to be color coded, so you know if you are going to be the first to die on the away mission. Always make sure you have enough room in the slacks. This comes in handy when rolling away from enemy creatures, you won't tear the seat of your pants. Yes, the rolling does help!

But most of all don't dress like you just stepped out of the 1960s version of Ivanhoe because that kind of "uniform" is just going to draw attention to the fact that you are, in fact, an alien.

Well leave it to the crew of the Enterprise to make a tactical blunder here... or did they? Provide a caption to this moment from the classic episode Shore Leave.

And then this happened...


Friday, September 7, 2018

Score Sample: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

When it comes to the music to the Star Trek films you actually have a great pool of music to enjoy. Of course my favorite work comes from Jerry Goldsmith and his scores for five of the films of the series (up to 13 films as of this writing). But you have a lot of other excellent composers chiming with some top notch work. Lately we've had Michael Giacchino giving us a thrilling new theme of for the Enterprise, as well as some propulsive action tracks.

One composer who really put his stamp on the series was James Horner, who unleashed an amazing score for The Wrath of Khan. This was early in his career and the young composer knocked it out of the park, creating some of the most accessible and engaging music of the film series. It was no wonder that the producers brought him back for the third film, The Search for Spock.

Horner revisited his heroic main theme, created some new material for the Klingons and evolved the sound he created for Spock into a vulcan motif for this film. The Vulcan material goes in the opposite direction from Goldsmith's "logical" approach. There is tremendous feeling and mystery in the Vulcan music in this score, and it creates one of my favorite tracks from the series called Returning to Vulcan. The film version covers our heroes return journey to the planet with the body of Spock to reunite his spirit with the flesh. The film version is excellent, but I love the additional emotion that Horner crafts in the concert suite version on the album.

So here is Returning to Vulcan from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock composed by James Horner. Enjoy!


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Movie Musing - The Magic is Gone

I’ve obviously blogged quite a bit about Excalibur and the opening scenes already. But I wanted to explore a strange phenomenon that occurred with films based on the Arthurian legends for the last couple of decades. For a lot of folks Excalibur is the definitive film version of the legend. But Hollywood is always eager to churn out films with familiar characters and situations. In theory, that familiarity entices viewers to come to the theaters and watch the film.

Often the creative forces behind the camera have a different idea. They are not content to make the same movie over and over (can't say I blame them). They will want to shake things up a bit and bring a new twist to the old story. When you are talking about something as old a King Arthur, it is hard to imagine a new twist that hasn't already been done. Mark Twain did time travel and King Arthur back in 1889.

The Arthurian legend provides plenty of stories and characters to tap into, as well as numerous versions of the familiar stories. You can focus only on the love triangle. You can focus on Merlin and the magic. You can focus on the Quest for the Holy Grail. You can select another knight’s story to explore like Gawain and the Green Knight, or Sir Tristan’s love for Isolde. Lancelot has a ton of adventures on his own and some of those are bound to make for exciting films. Or you can select one of the many other knights who manage to get mentioned in Malory’s Le Morte de’ Arthur. Who wouldn't want to see The Many Adventures of Sir Griflet.

No need to fight about it, you both look ridiculous.
But for some reason Hollywood used a different tactic during the 1990s and 2000s. In those years we had three films based in the legends. First Knight focused on the love triangle and turned Arthur and Genevere’s marriage into one of political gain. The other two attempted to place Arthur and his knights firmly in history, specifically at the end of the Roman Empire. King Arthur, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean and Top Gun fame, brought an action heavy version of the story. It was gritty, and dirty and packed with action. The Last Legion went for a similar angle trying to work a more historically believable scenario and putting Colin Firth in the lead role of the man who would become Uther Pendragon. None of these films did all that well and are essentially forgotten by most folks (except film music fans who will tell you how entertaining the scores are with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer and Patrick Doyle working on them).

No the sword isn't helping, I still don't buy it.
You could attribute a bunch of reasons for this. Each film has some serious faults on display. First Knight throws Richard Gere into the role of Lancelot, and he looks about as out of place in medieval armor you expect him to. King Arthur looks so dower and grim that you don’t see a hint of any of the adventure or thrills you would expect in this kind of story. The Last Legion also had some odd casting and was poorly marketed.

With all the grit and realism flying around, it is no
wonder the movie looks so drab.
The main reason I found these films frustrating is the fact that they ignore the magic inherent in the legend. These films try to ground Arthur and his knights. They try to explain all the “magic” in practical and sensible ways. Merlin isn’t a sorcerer (if he even appears in the film) but he’s a druid or trickster. Excalibur is a normal Roman sword that just happens to have some Latin writing on it that could be mistaken for the word, Excalibur. Holy Grail? Who needs it. Those wonderfully weird moments form Malory’s epic where omens appear, or people transform, or the oddly wonderful Questing Beast taunts the knights. None of that to see here. We are going for realism... in a King Arthur movie.

Guinevere lets out a mighty yawp.
Are these movies ashamed to embrace the fantasy of what is essentially (and maybe quintessentially) a fantasy story? Can you really have these characters without the magic? Maybe. But then you have to have all the other elements working. Clearly that wasn’t happening in any of these adaptations.

Ok, James Franco as Tristan may have been
worse casting than Richard Gere as Lancelot... maybe.
I’ve given First Knight the most chances over the years. I keep wanting it to work, because all the story elements are in place. Even though Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into overdrive to make it all work, the movie ends up lifeless and dull for a good portion of the film. Part of it is the lack of chemistry between Gere and just about everyone else in the movie. But I feel the lack of magic removes anything that makes it stand out from a standard medieval epic. You could have a similar story with differently named characters and it would probably be just as effective.

Does anything about this image remind you of King Arthur?
The other two films came out in the post-Dark Knight/Casino Royale world. Everything had to be realistic and gritty. I guess Jackson’s amazing adaptation of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films had taken up all the magic Hollywood could handle. So we get these two films that are “historically accurate”, except that historians can’t agree if Arthur was a real person and if so, who he was. Both films take major liberties with all kinds of historical details. It opens up the Arthurian legend to a bunch of scrutiny that isn’t needed. We shouldn’t be distracted by the fact that we have end of the Empire era Romans running around in the incorrect armor in front of a castle that is clearly build in the late middle ages. There is no point to that. Neither of these movies is all that fun to watch. The spirit of adventure or romance are gone. It is all grim action and serious growling of silly lines.

"Smile kid, at least Uwe Boll isn't directing this."
To not embrace the magic and fantasy is to miss one of the key reasons for the appeal of these stories. We want to see and experience the fantastic. We want to see the unbreakable sword pulled from the stone. We want to see Merlin casting spells. We want to see the dangers of the mysterious forests filled with bizarre creatures. We expect the Holy Grail. We expect the Lady of the Lake. We expect the magic.

I think they are both disappointed in Camelot's "grandeur".
While the recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword bombed in theaters, at least it looked like it embraced the fantasy. It is obviously more inspired by Game of Thrones and the Marvel franchise, but that is another issue altogether. But it somehow managed to look more monochromatic and drab than the Bruckheimer King Arthur, a feat in itself.

These stories are timeless because they explore timeless themes. The three films from the 90s and 00s do accomplish this to a degree. But they also ignore the key elements that make them so beloved and well known. I think this may have hurt them in the long run.
"At some point, someone is going to look back fondly at this
version of Merlin."
Check out Patrick H Willem's YouTube channel for an excellent video essay about Hollywoods obsession with Robin Hood and King Arthur and his theory on why the latest films based on these stories have failed. He also has tons of great video essays about film in general. Well worth checking out.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Excalibur (1981)

When it comes to Western mythology and legends, there is one name that looms large, King Arthur. Just mention this British monarch to anyone in the Western world and you are likely to hear about swords in stones, love triangles and a wizard named Merlin. Because the stories are so well known, you would think people would be tired of revisiting them. But it didn’t stop director John Boorman from bringing his own take to the screen right before the Barbarian Age of fantasy films kicked in.

Summary:

Some of this may be familiar to you. Merlin (Nicol Williamson) is trying to get some order going around these Dark Ages, so he helps out Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) by giving him the sword of power: Excalibur. Unfortunately Uther is a lustful hothead that destroys all of Merlin’s plans. Merlin is able to smuggle baby Arthur away from all the bloody insanity to be brought up by a good knight. Many years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulls a sword from a stone, starts a civil war and battles alongside Captain Picard… I mean Leodegrance (Patrick Stewart) much to the delight of Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi). Arthur forges the Table Round, builds Camelot and marries his queen.

But things start going downhill once Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) shows up. He is a master knight, but falls for the Queen. Prodded by the plotting, scheming Morgana (Helen Mirren), Sir Gawaine (Liam Neeson) challenges Lancelot to a mighty duel. But Lancelot proves his innocence in a contest of arms. That doesn’t mean too much, because eventually Arthur finds his wife and best friend naked in the forest. The King is unable to slay them, and leaves Excalibur behind, plunging the land into famine and despair. The only hope for The Knights of the Round Table is to find the Holy Grail. Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) nearly achieves the quest, but discovers that Morgana and her unholy son Mordred (Robert Addie) are preparing to wrest the kingdom from the ailing Arthur. Can Perceval obtain the grail and return it to the King? And even if he manages that, does Arthur have any hope against the deadly Mordred without Excalibur at his side?

Good Points:
  • Very impressive visual style that creates a mythic feel
  • Admirable job condensing all the key events of the legend into 140 minutes
  • The use of classical music works wonders in many key scenes 
Bad Points:
  • The film is not subtle at all, some of the acting and visuals are over the top
  • Some of the actors are miscast
  • Tries to cram in so many elements that you never get a lot of depth to the characters
Overall:

This is Arthurian legend presented as mythic saga, not afraid of the blood or sex that saturate the narrative. Boorman uses impressive location shooting, eye-popping color and visual storytelling to bring the stories to life. The side effect is that diving into all the passions of the Arthurian saga leads to some over the top dialogue, acting and settings. It gives the movie the feel of the dream at times. For all its enthusiasm the film manages to be entertaining and powerful. I feel this is still the definitive film version of the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals:  5
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review

King, Queen and Champion stand before God at the Table Round.
Arriving in screens in 1981,Excalibur was a strange film for Orion Pictures to release. Arthurian legend hadn’t had a big budget release since Camelot in 1967. But studios were giving big budget fantasy and science fiction films a try after Star Wars raked in massive amounts of cash in 1977. Many of these post Star Wars fantasy films weren’t well recieved, and it wouldn’t be until the release of Conan the Barbarian in 1982 that the fantasy renaissance of the 1980s really kicked in. So Excalibur was ahead of the curve (kind of like Hawk the Slayer in that way). That ends up being a good thing, because Excalibur isn’t like any other fantasy film of the 1980s. It has its own feel, its own methods and its own themes that it explores.

Merlin is about to get this party started!
Boorman wanted to show us Arthurian Legend stripped of the pageantry and the staid nobility of previous Hollywood versions. He reduced down the characters and story to passions. There are many moments where the film feels almost operatic in tone and acting (and the opera music by Richard Wagner helps as well). The film is one that dives into the heart of the tale – one that revolves around the need to control our desires. Characters that lose control in this film end up dooming themselves and others. Those who are not slaves to their passions are rewarded.

Uther does not understand the power of a king, and wastes Excalibur.
To illustrate this, we are thrown into a primal world where the Dark Ages are truly dark. Boorman is a very visual director, and he does not shy away from bold symbols and colors to execute visual storytelling. I wrote an extensive breakdown of the first few scenes of Excalibur, examining how Boorman uses various images and style to set up his reoccurring themes. Needless to say, nearly every shot in the film is crafted with skill and an eye to not just plot and characters, but to themes and mood. 

All the knights in these early scene are wearing black or grey armor.
One interesting visual aspect of the film that ends up supporting the story and yet is never remarked upon by the characters is the armor. When the film opens, Uther and his contemporaries are dressed in black and matte grey armor. It is often spattered in blood and mud. 

A young King Arthur is about to meet his match... and his Champion.
Even after Arthur becomes king, he and his knights are dressed in similar armor.

The stark contrast between the fallen King and the noble shimmering Champion.
But then we see Lancelot, and his armor shimmers like silver. He is the paragon of knights, something that all knights, including Arthur, aspire to be. It is after Arthur unites the kingdom do his knights also appear in silver armor. 

The wedding sequence is awash in silver for the knights, and green for
the natural world. "The Land and the King are one."
This visual persists until Arthur plunges Excalibur into the earth between the naked Lancelot and Guinevere. After he loses his sword, the armor of the Knights of the Round Table starts to lose its luster. 

The quest isn't going so well.
As we follow Perceval on his Quest for the Holy Grail, his armor becomes more and more rusty, more dented and soon without any shine to it. 

Mordred doubts the veracity of your claim.
In contrast Mordred appears in golden armor, hinting at his conceit that he is superior to Arthur and his knights. But Mordred’s armor is also gaudy looking, with the helm giving him the look of a statue of Alexander the Great, a young conqueror, who many see as a power hungry brat. 

The final ride from Camelot
Mordred’s army are all dressed in black armor, harkening back to the dark times of the opening of the film. Mordred’s reign will be a return to a dark age. When Arthur and his knights ride into battle the last time, their armor is gleaming in the sun, silver and pure once again.
You would think Percival would wipe some of Mordred's blood off of
Excalibur before he returned it to the Lady of the Lake.
Time and again Boorman allows the visuals in Excalibur to speak to the themes of the story. His use of locations shots not only creates some amazing and beautiful moments in the film, but also ties the natural world to the story. There is a scene that occurs in a ring of stones involving Uther and Merlin, and the scene is mirrored near the end between Arthur and Merlin. The contrast is powerful as we see the two kings interacting with the magician in very different ways. The use of challises in the film not only foreshadows the quest for the grail, but provide twisted mirrors of the holy object. Even the scene where Perceval returns Excalibur to the lake is a mirror to Merlin’s retrieval of the sword at the opening of the film. Boorman’s use of these mirror scenes give the film a feeling of resonance beyond what we expect.

You wold think that if anyone could pull the sword from the stone,
it would be the captain of the Enterprise.
To match the visuals the sound effects work very well. The battle scenes are awash with metal on metal clangs and the soundscape fills with thundering hooves in several key scenes. Boorman also injects some natural sounds into the mix, especially during the Grail Quest, when the knights search the known world, and are battered by rains, snow and wind.

Boorman said that Mirren and Williamson disliked each other, but
it added to the rivalry between Morgana and Merlin.
Boorman is no stranger to using classical pieces as score in his films. Excalibur continues this trend, and this may be one of the most effective uses in his filmography. Most of the music heard in the film is from composer Richard Wagner for his operas Tristan und IsoldeGötterdämmerung and Parsifal. Each of the pieces is an instrumental overture, interlude or prelude, so no singing Valkyries here. Instead the music does a lot of the heavy lifting in key scenes. Whenever Lancelot and Guinevere’s eyes meet we get the swelling lush notes of Tristan und Isolde. The grail’s appearances are scored with music from Parsifal. This may explain why Boorman selects Perceval as his Grail hero instead of the usual Galahad. Finally, the sword itself (as well as opening and ending credits) are scored by the funeral march from Götterdämmerung. This gives these scenes a grim but powerful feel that certainly sticks in the mind.

The Quest for the Holy Grail begins as the land is plunged into
uncertainty. "The King without a sword, the land without a king!"
The other classical music we hear in the film is Fortuna from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. You know the piece when you hear it. This choral piece has been used in countless movies, televisions shows and commercials. These days it often shows up in parodies when something “epic” occurs. If you hear a composer using bombastic choral moments, such as Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, you will hear folks saying how it sounds like Carmina Burana

The moment where Arthur forges the knighthood, and the Round Table.
Excalibur used the piece before it became a cliché, and hell, it may have inspired those clichés. The piece is based on actual medieval texts, so it fits a movie about King Arthur. It also has an intrinsic power behind it, something primal. It is showcased in the film near the end, when Arthur and his knights ride into battle one last time, and the land springs back to life. It really works wonders in the scene. But you also hear it a couple times before that during moments of triumph.

Arthur knew the Lady of the Lake was around, because of 70s synths.
Boorman did hire composer Trevor Jones for some original score material in the movie. But most of it is limited to scenes of magic. Jones uses some late 70s synths as well as orchestra in these moments, and they work well enough. He has some ghostly wordless female vocals for the Lady of the Lake sequences, and it adds an uncanny feel to these dreamlike moments. I will say that Jones’ material contrasts a bit with the classical pieces, but it also adds that surreal disconnect that works in the movie’s favor.  

Neeson embraces the boorish nature of Sir Gawain.
When it comes to acting in Excalibur, things get a little strange. You have several very fine actors from the British Isles in early performances. We’ve seen many of them do wonderful things in later films. Here, well there is no way to put it delicately, they are all pretty much going over the top. Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart seem to shout all their lines. Liam Neeson is a brooding hulking and drooling (not kidding here) brute. Helen Mirren vamps it up wonderfully in some scenes and other times draws her cloak around her face like silent film villainess.

"Look lady, I've seen the future. I know what you do with your brother.
See a therapist. I hear Sir Bors is a good listener."
Nicol Williamson pretty much steals the acting show with his take on Merlin. Williamson uses strange inflections for his lines. He makes some expressive faces of annoyance and joy. But he is also disturbing when he channels the power of The Dragon, or lurks nightmare-like in his final confrontation with Morgana. He goes out of his way to be otherworldly and it works. When Morgana accuses him of being a creature, we believe it. He also has some of the best lines in Excalibur, acting as Arthur’s Yoda on several occasions.

Did I mention that Mirren vamps it up a little bit... just a touch.
All this big acting will annoy some viewers and pull them right out of the film. But as I mentioned, Excalibur is not going for subtly and realism. It is bringing this primal myth to life in a big way. Passion is the name of the game, and that passion comes through in the acting, especially by the folk we would come to know later in their career.

Would you trust this guy to find anything, much less the HOLY GRAIL!?
Some of other members of the cast play things a little lower key, but seem a bit out of their depth. Paul Geoffrey never quite sells Perceval to me. He seems too simple minded as the thief turned squire in the middle of the film, and he just doesn’t feel like the best and bravest of the knights to achieve the Grail. He’s never horrible, but he never seems to rise to the role, admittedly a difficult one. 

Young Arthur ignoring the spirited advice from Merlin about love.
In a similar boat is Nigel Terry as Arthur. This role is very, very challenging, and would test an experienced actor. Boorman cast Terry to play Arthur as a young squire all the way up to being the older king riding into his final battle. Terry is at his best when playing Arthur in those later years, with the gravitas and power at his command. When he is playing the young squire he is just too old to be all that naïve. He isn’t bad in the role, and his interactions with Merlin are some of the best parts of the film. But I wonder if Excalibur would have benefited from different actors playing the part at different ages (as Boorman did with Mordred). 

"Come father. Let us embrace at last."
Speaking of Mordred, Addie does a good job being both arrogant and unsettling all at once. But a big part of that is also how well young Charley Boorman plays him in earlier scenes. The kid is just creepy with that laugh and the casual cruelty he displays.

Guinevere tries to chat up Lancelot, but he is "sworn to the quest".
I doesn't last long.
Wrapping things up are the two lovers. I think Clay does a fine job as Lancelot. He has the nobility of spirit and determination down. You believe he is the best knight in the land, and his dedication to that is palatable. Clay is always the image of Lancelot in my mind and one of the reason I found Richard Gere’s casting in First Knight such a confusing one. However the love angle falls a bit flat. I don’t think this has anything to do with Clay’s acting, but the simple fact that the film spends very little time on it. As I mentioned the music does the heavy lifting in those scenes, and Clay does the best he can with the material. I do think that he does a fine job later in the film when you can see the conflict and anguish overtaking him when Guinevere finally comes to him in the forest. I also love crazy ass hermit Lancelot at the end of the film.

Husband and wife, King and Queen, meet one last time.
Cherie Lunghi gives us a Guinevere we hadn’t seen before. Lunghi plays very naturally, playful and impressed by Arthur in her youth. Resentful of her husband’s duty to order and law in her maturity. And wonderfully wise in her final scenes with Arthur. In fact, that sequence is one of my favorite from Excalibur. Lunghi and Terry do a great job in this scene, and it makes you wish the film had slowed down enough for more scenes between these two (and Lancelot) to really build that love triangle. Again, the love angle feels underplayed, but not really because of Lunghi’s commitment to the role, but just because of the short amount of screen time it does get.

The Round Table is revealed to Percival and the audience from an upper
gallery.
So let’s take a look at the script for Excalibur. It is ambitious to be sure. These days the Arthurian legend would be drawn out across multiple films or in the form of a television series (as both were attempted in the 2010s). But Boorman didn’t have the luxury. He was lucky enough to convince Orion that the film concept could be a crowd pleaser, even if it was going to be rated R because of all the blood and nudity. Boorman felt that the story needed to show the arc of Arthur from boy to man, life to death. It needed to show the world before, as well as the world Arthur created. It needed to have the redemption of Grail and horrors of the final battle against Mordred. And of course you had to have Merlin, even The Sword in the Stone had Merlin.

Percival's armor probably smells as bad as it looks by this point.
It is a lot of plot elements to work into the story. Along with that there are themes flowing throughout the film: Christianity vs. Paganism, Order vs. Chaos, Law vs. Passion, New Paths vs. Traditions, Truth vs. Lies. Each of these comes into play during the film and some of them carry all the way through the film in plot, visuals and dialogue. It is a lot to chew on, and because of that Excalibur feels like an epic film. But it also feels rushed in places.

"How spicy do you want your Hot Wings?"
The love story at heart of the fall of Arthur feels incomplete. Boorman has stated that the original film was three hours long and included a sequence where Lancelot rescues Guinevere from a group of bandits. Some of this can be seen in the trailer. A scene like that, or even a dialogue scene between the two would have done wonders to build their relationship. As the movie plays out now, it goes for the love at first sight swooning that just doesn’t work, even in a film as operatic as this.

I double checked, and that is not the Grail shaped beacon. It is the real thing!
I also think the finale of the film with Perceval returning Excalibur to the lake and seeing Arthurs final voyage play out very rushed. I think the reason is that Boorman wanted to edit the sequence to the eight-minute Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. When you watch the sequence it fits the music perfectly. And damn if it doesn’t work as an amazing short film right there. But as the finale to all that came before, it just feels abrupt. An epilogue of some kind dealing with Perceval’s fate, or the fate of the kingdom after Arthur’s departure would give some needed closure here. Or if the sequence was allowed to play out a little longer, and not so tied to the music (and Boorman had allowed Trevor Jones to compose music to the sequence) it might have worked. As it stands, I’m always surprised when the credits just start. Not as abrupt as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but few films are.

The once and future king is taken to Avalon.
Excalibur never feels its 140 minutes. Boorman’s enthusiasm for the story and telling it in such a rich and visual way really carries the film along. I love that he went for the R rating, because the passions of war and love need to play out fully in this version. It makes it stand out against the older versions of the tale, as well as the television versions. It is not a perfect fantasy film, but it does so many things right. Even some its faults are endearing at this point (and I’m sure that is nostalgia talking). I would love to see this same approach taken with King Arthur again, but given time to breathe and flow. A television series or a trilogy of films could do it justice… and yet, we’ve had both in this decade and they fell short. Excalibur is still theking of Arthurian legend for me, and whenever I think of these characters I usually see the cast in this film and hear Wagner’s motif from Götterdämmerungin my mind.

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The sun sets on Arthur's story. Excalibur is drenched in blood.
The king is dead, long live the king.