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.


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

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
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.


  1. I agree with your assessment. It's still probably the best film version of King Arthur. There's some missteps, but you have to take into consideration when it was made (the 80s) and CG effects weren't around then. All that haze or whatever that Boorman created makes it looks like something from the mythical past too. I can't say due to it's running time or maybe its subject matter it's a film I watch often, but I own a copy of it. It's one of those film along with Conan that's just very era-centric for me.

    By the way I ran across a podcast you might enjoy about D&D, that's family run. It's called The Adventure Zone. My one complaint is that they use profanity, which I think is not needed. At either rate:

    1. I agree that it is very early 80s in many aspects of the visuals. In some cases that may work against a film like this. But because Boorman creates such a dreamlike atmosphere for the film, the disconnect actually helps it.

      He mentions in the commentary track that it rained for 90% of the shooting. It explains why the world looks so lush and vibrant around the characters. Boorman just ran with it, integrating the theme of the Land and the King being one into all aspects of the story.

      I had actually heard of Adventure Time, but forgotten about it. My wife and I went to a D&D event in Los Angeles. And one of the brothers from Adventure Time was there, and he was a hoot. I made a note to check out his podcast, and forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. It remains a matter of contention among acting schools whether mythic or epic tales should be acted naturalistically (the classic "like ordering a ham sandwich" comparison) or with an over the top flair. I can see the point of both though my taste generally inclines toward the former.

    I see Lancelot's knightly armor is literally shining. I've never tried it, but I don't suppose shining armor would work in a singles bar these days.

    1. I typically agree with you. Less is more in a lot of cases. But I think Boorman's visual approach supports the acting in this case. Everything is so dreamlike that hearing Uther yell everything or seeing Morgana slink up to Merlin works fine.

      I don't know about armor at the singles scene. First off, to get it that shiny all the time you'd need to have a squire around to polish it constantly. In addition, that squire would need to light you with some kind of spotlight each time you enter a room. Quite a production that might actually get the cops called on you. :)