Friday, August 10, 2018

Exploring a Scene – Excalibur

Back in 1981 John Boorman wanted to craft a film version of the Arthurian legend that we had never seen or experienced before. He rejected the stately and ornate pageantry of the 1950s and 60s epics and went for a more visceral approach. Excalibur was bloody, lusty and surreal all at once. It is a movie with some powerful imagery in it. But it also presents its themes in a clearly visual way.

I’m going to explore the opening scenes of Excalibur to show just how Boorman sets up several of the struggles we will witness in the film. 

I do want to point out that the film starts with The Funeral March from Gotterdammerung by famous operatic composer Richard Wagner. The foreboding introduction scores the opening logos, as well as the prologue sequence. This same piece of music is played during the final scenes at the end of the film and into the end credits acting as an audio bookend for the movie. 

The live performance below sounds really great for a YouTube video and man is the conductor getting into this! He knocks his stand down at near the end, but keeps right on going. Bravo sir!

Now lets get to the visuals. The prologue tells us of the “dark ages” and indeed the screen is black with the words in a dull off-white color. 

But the words of the prologue keep pace with the music, telling us of the coming of the sword of power. 

The music hits its crescendo (at about 1:41 into the track above) and the title Excalibur appears on the screen.

The lettering for the title is made of shimmering silver metal. This is a visual cue, although we don’t know it yet. Once Arthur’s knights achieve their true purpose in the Round Table, they will all be garbed in shimmering silver armor. Indeed, the titular sword itself is one of the few that actually seems to always be shimmering just like the letters of the title. 

Then we finally start the movie proper. The film opens in darkness and flames. A fire rages behind a hill. It truly is the dark ages.

Mounted knights ride up, silhouetted against the crackling orange and yellow light. 

Even Merlin, when he appears, emerges from the fire lit haze. He is obscured, but there is more light around him than the other characters at the battle. Merlin is focused on thought and planning. His purpose is to drag humans out of endless years of blood and despair - out of the dark ages. We aren’t told this explicitly, but Boorman shows us using a couple of different visual cues. The first is the amount of light surrounding Merlin in his first appearance.

The opening battle in the dark is violent and brutal. Uther and his knights are dressed in black and dark grey armor. The only light is from flames, and the forest they fight in looks ravaged and dead. 

The only gleam we see is in the strange metallic skullcap on Merlin. This does two things. It gives Merlin a completely unique look, one that is far cry from the traditional conical hat and long beard. It adds a touch of the unusual to the character. But note, it is his head, the storehouse of knowledge and wisdom that is highly polished and gleaming. This already ties him visually to the word Excalibur as we saw it in the opening.

This first scene tells us much beyond the short prelude. It shows us about the world we are thrust into. It shows us about the kind of film we are getting (no pageantry and formality). It is brutal and bloody. It is aflame with desire – Uther demands “the sword” because he “is the strongest”. Close ups on Uther show his sweaty face, grimy armor and aggression.

This contrasts with the calm performance by Nicol Williamson as Merlin. His opening lines are almost a whisper of Uther's name that seems to carry across the battlefield. Merlin is untouched by grim or sweat. He seems otherworldly even here. These first scenes are a clash of black, orange and dull metallics. Our eyes get used to this look.

So it is quite a contrast when we suddenly switch to this next scene with Merlin obtaining Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. 

The next scene brings us the first of many picturesque moments from the film. Boorman shot all of Excalibur in Ireland, on locations not far from his home on the island. The result is that Excalibur is filled to bursting with beautiful locations, wonderful skyscapes and jaw dropping natural beauty. I wonder if Peter Jackson was inspired by this move when he decided to film Lord of the Rings in his home of New Zealand.

This scene where Merlin obtains Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake is glorious. The setting of lush green forests, towering green crags, and the pure white hand lifting the magic sword directly from the still water looks like something the Pre-Raphaelites would have conjured on canvas. It is amazingly familiar and yet also so fresh from a visual standpoint. Wagner’s music gives this scene additional power, and becomes a theme of sorts for the sword of kings. It is also key to notice that in these early scenes, no other weapon shines and shimmers like Excalibur.

That touches on another visual element in Excalibur. Many times in the film, when the sword is drawn from its sheath, Boorman shines a brilliant green light upon it. None of the characters remark on this, but we clearly see it. Does the power of Excalibur giving off an unearthly glow? Possibly. But it also ties the sword visually to a statement that Merlin makes later in the film. The sword is part of the natural world, an aspect of “The Dragon”. For the most part, we usually see dragons depicted as brilliant green beasts. This color is seen most often in the film in the lush lands surrounding the knights. No one uses the color in flags or dress. It is reserved for the natural world and Excalibur alone. It binds the two visually together and key to the latter half of the film.

In these two scenes in the film, Boorman sets up the visual conflict between the dark ages of lawlessness and bloodshed, with the shimmering silver glory of truth and peace. Excalibur stands in sharp contrast to the black armor that Uther and his fellow brutes wear. We also see the contrast between nature and the works of humans. Merlin acts as the go between, able to see and interact with the Lady of the Lake, and thus take the sword in hand. 

These two scenes set up a lot of visual touch points that are explored and developed later in the film. Excalibur is full of thematic imagery extending beyond this. The use of smoke/fog has importance. The clash of Christian imagery and pagan sorcery is touched on. There is the contrast of flesh and metal. I recommend that you give the film a rewatch (or a watch if you’ve never seen it before) to really see all the interesting visuals that Boorman crafted in this film.

One more bookend I caught while grabbing screenshots. I don't think I'll have anywhere else to put it, so here you go. The first appearance of the sword and the final appearance of the sword are studies in contrast. Dawn vs. Dusk. Radiance vs. Blood. The start of the journey (with the sword on the right side of the screen) vs the end of the journey (the sword is now on the left side of the screen). 

And the music Wagner wrote is a Funeral March for an opera about the twilight of the gods. The choice seems strange and yet fitting at the start of the film. But at the end, I can't imagine anything else working quite so well.


  1. The Arthurian legend still speaks to us as do a few others like it. In a way this is odd since it is so far removed from our world today, but the whole substrate of nobility and knightly virtues still appeals. Even the villains in the tales take those qualities seriously, even if they try to subvert them. The qualities are sorely lacking in modern life, having been largely replaced by moral outrage, which is the (far easier) task of judging others whereas nobility is the (harder) harder task of behaving oneself, even toward those (noblesse oblige) that don’t “deserve” it. We know they’re lacking and miss them.

    Not all movies handle the subject well, of course. I haven’t seen this, but it looks promising.

    1. I've got a full review coming later this week, but this is probably my favorite of the arthurian adaptations. Manages to keep the thematic elements along with the magic of the original tales, and keeps things passionate and dare I say, operatic.

  2. Wow! What an amazing breakdown and show of symbolism. I just remember it being visually stunning and eerie with powerful music. But your right it sets the tone for the movie. You kick ass brother!

    1. Yeah this viewing really allowed me to see how well those visual themes are presented and carried through right to the end. My review later this week goes into a few more, especially he armor.