A brutal but visually resplendent medieval epic, with smatterings of magic, violence, sex (including incest), and more. Nope, it’s not the latest episode of Game of Thrones, but if you follow the travails of those living in Westeros, you owe it to yourself to see Excalibur.
King Arthur. Merlin. Camelot. The famous sword in the stone. A story known to us all, one tackled by Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Outside the peerless comedic take by the Monty Python team, John Boorman’s sits above the rest because it understands what the tale’s myth is all about: legend, icons, and the very personal aspects of the tale, notably love and betrayal.
There are many elements to the Arthurian tale: his birth, claiming his throne, founding Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, betrayal by his wife Guinevere and Knight Lancelot, the quest for the Holy Grail, and finally his end, brought about by his half-sister Morgana Le Fay and his son with her, Mordred, born of evil trickery. Some of the tales have been twisted or amalgamated from their early origins, but Boorman’s effort is one of the most wide-spanning cinematic attempts to pull it all together. The end result is an epic that spans not only the life of a man, but also his effect on the kingdom around him. “The King and the Land are one,” after all.
The key aspect to Boorman’s film is the titular sword. Excalibur is a symbol throughout, not merely a weapon. It represents power, ego, hope, and more. The film dissects its power as a unifier and divider, how it is both wielded and yielded for the benefit of individuals and the good of all. It’s often the crux as the film explores themes of human desires, weaved together with natural and religious elements. Arthur exists because his father wanted to bang a guy’s wife, and did so with the aid of sorcery. Arthur’s downfall is set in motion because of the lustful pursuits of others; corruption, greed, and ambition setting in like a rot. It’s no coincidence that much of the tragedy in the film stems from an incestuous offspring, the ultimate perversion of nature by man. The tale reinforces the message that honor and duty are paramount. Rise above temptations and sin and you and the land will prosper. This approach balances a very personal look at Arthur as a man, and through his ties to the Kingdom, maintains a epic, grander feel.
The narrative of Excalibur at times feels secondary to its mood. It’s provocatively filmed. Darkness, blood, and sweat give way to more ethereal, lush visuals. Dull, muddied armor becomes burnished as the Knights unify under one banner. The whole film becoming more and more resplendent, peaking during the height of Camelot’s power before before betrayal takes hold and the film once more falls into decay. The aesthetics reflect a shift in tone. The opening depicts a more primal land, earthy and Pagan, the ascent of Arthur coinciding with the emergence of law and faith, religious symbology coming thick and fast as Christianity sweeps the land. The use of practical effects to create clanging armor, distant castles, or rolling mists of dragon’s breath always keeps the keep the film grounded, even in moments of mysticism or magic, but there is no denying the fantastical, mildly exaggerated edge everything has.
This operatic feel is underlined by a soundtrack that heavily uses Siegfried’s Funeral March by Wagner as its main theme and another piece from the composer from Tristan and Isolde as a theme for Guinevere and Lancelot. Also included is the instantly recognizable O Fortuna (Carmina Burana), a medieval poem set to music by Carl Orff. Tied together by original music from Trevor Jones, Excalibur has a truly stirring score to match the stunning visuals.
The theatricality of the film is aided by a cast of notable stage actors, largely unknowns in the film industry at the time. Gabriel Byrne, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart are but a few. There’s even the sight of Hyacinth Bucket’s husband Clive Swift, appearing as Arthur’s adoptive father, Duke Malven. Nigel Terry is convincing in his shift through the years as Arthur, in varying degrees earnest, righteous, and melancholic. The real standouts are Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as Merlin and Morgana respectively. Williamson’s Merlin is a wry, cryptic, and oft buffoonish sort with a vein of darkness. He gives a memorable delivery to the even the simplest of lines. Mirren’s Morgana is as scheming as she is sensual. Their relationship is the most interesting thing in the film, a friction apparently stemming from a tempestuous production of Macbeth a few years prior to filming Excalibur. The tension is palpable, and the film is all the richer for it.
Watching Excalibur you know it springs from the mind of the man who brought the insanity of Zardoz to our screens, a hyper-stylized effort that made a singular mark during the spate of fantasy films released during the ’70s and ’80s. It’s the legend you are familiar with, delivered with a very distinct aesthetic and tone. Stirring, provocative, dark, and at times wryly comedic. And not a holy hand grenade in sight.