Excalibur is the type of movie where all the men wear suits of armor or robes and all the women wear nuns habits or shear dresses. Excalibur is the type of movie where every battle scene takes place in either mud or at night. Excalibur is the type of movie where things just sort of happen. Excalibur is a movie where almost every shot is bathed in green light. Excalibur is the only good King Arthur movie. Excalibur, based on the 15th century retelling of the Arthur legend “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Mallory, is directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman. In it Boorman, director of famed films such as Deliverance and Point Blank, tells an epic story covering the fall of Uther Pendragon and the life of his son King Arthur.
The film begins with the wizard Merlin (Nicol Wiliamson) bestowing the eponymous sword to King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) after the latter secures an truce with the Duke of Cornwall. The truce is soon broken after due to Pendragon’s coveting of the Duke’s wife. Pendragon convinces Merlin to cast a spell allowing him to enter the castle while the Duke is away and while magically transformed to resemble the Duke beds the Duke’s wife. After the Duke is killed and Pendragon conquers his lands the Duke’s wife gives birth to a son who is claimed by Merlin as compensation for his aid of Pendragon. Later Pendragon is killed searching for Merlin and his son but before dying manages to thrust Excalibur into a stone where it will remain until the true king pulls it out. All of this happens in the first half hour of the film.
After this we are introduced to a teenage Arthur, played through his entire life span by Nigel Terry, who while at a tournament squiring for a knight pulls Excalibur from the stone and is hailed by some to be the new king. From here we follow the traditional Arthurian legends, albeit streamlined for film, pretty closely as Arthur establishes himself as the true king, recruits his knights and creates the famous round table. We see as Arthur deals with the affair between his wife Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the threat to the kingdom by Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) and Prince Mordred (Robert Addie), and the search by his knights for the Holy Grail. As you can see Boorman has recruited a team of heavy hitters to make this film, and that’s not even counting Patrick Stewart, Ciará Hinds, and Liam Neeson as some of Arthur’s knights.
All of this is a lot of story to cram into a two and a half hour film, and doing so leaves precious little time for characterization. While Terry does a solid job of expressing the change in Arthur from his unsure teenage years through his confident middle-age and finally to the world weary tired old-age, the other actors are given little to work with character wise. Events seem to simply occur because the story says it should, events that change the dynamic between characters such as the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot receive no foreshadowing or explanation. Ultimately, Boorman seems more interested in story rather than character and the film at times seems more like it is following a collection of moments than characters. The amount of story that Boorman wants to put into this film makes things happen quickly and never allows the story to breathe or for emotional moments to get the gravity they deserve. Perhaps it would have been better had Boorman focused on one area of the Arthurian legend instead of attempting to cover the whole thing.
For all it’s failings there is a lot that is done well. The movie looks incredible, the sets feel huge and create a moody atmosphere while the stunning costumes create memorable images on screen, most notably Prince Mordred’s all gold armor. Boorman does a beautiful job of manipulating light to demonstrate the tone of the scene and to amplify the way characters are feeling. The deliberately mythological tone of the film gives a dreamlike feel and the world it exists in feels fully fleshed out. The all-star cast do an incredible job in their roles even if occasionally they are given clunky dialogue. The shadows and fog present in battle scenes serve to create striking imagery and ground the often fantastical film by creating an ugly and dirty contrast to the idyllic images of the Camelot. Boorman clearly has a love for the source material and creates a film that does the epic nature of the Arthurian legend justice.
Excalibur isn’t a perfect film, far from it, but it does show the power that a good retelling of the Arthurian legend has. In the hands of a strong director such as Boorman the story has the ability to become truly epic in scale and tone. Yes there are problems, heavy handed symbolism, a bloated story, and poor characterization but the beauty of the film push those problems to the back of your mind. Every few years we get a new King Arthur movie and they would do well to learn a few things from the successes and failures of Excalibur. In Excalibur Boorman has created a flawed film that demonstrates why King Arthur still captures the imagination even after all this time.
Directed by John Boorman
Starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, and Gabriel Byrne.