All Hail, Knights and Squires!
To me, Excalibur is the cinematic equivalent of a comfy pair of slippers. I've watched it more times then you've likely had hot meals.
Back in the early Eighties, there weren't really a lot of competent and respectful adult-themed fantasy films. Excalibur came twenty years before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and a full thirty years (yikes!) before HBO's Game of Thrones. A part of me suspects that this isn't just co-incidence.
In many ways the film now looks a tad threadbare but it's also still gloriously alive with a weird, quirky vibe that's never been replicated, duplicated or imitated. Both are self-evident in the movie's low-fi trailer:
The film kicks off with a couple of title cards bearing a groovy 70's-style font explaining that we're about to enter the Dark Ages, a time when "The Land Was Divided And Without a King". We're told that "Out Of Those Lost Centuries Rose a Legend", namely the wizard Merlin, a noble monarch and the fabled Sword of Power. Each new line is punctuated by the haunting strains of Siegfried's Funereal March courtesy of Wagner's Götterdämmerung. Translation: a mere thirty seconds into the film and we've already got enough fodder to inspire a thousand heavy metal bands.
If that doesn't give fantasy fans a raging semi, the next segment certainly does. We get an amazing shot of fog-cloaked, back-lit knights in grotesque armor astride barded warhorses presiding over the arrival of a tatter-cloaked, staff-wielding wizard. This presages a pitched battle which can only be described as documentary footage lifted from Ronnie James Dio's wet dreams.
Amidst the din of battle, Uther (Gabriel Byrne) demands that the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) follow through on a promise to deliver the fabled Sword of Power to him. The following day this is accomplished via a gloriously genuine practical effect which probably resulted in the drowning deaths of at least three stuntwomen. Now armed with Excalibur, Uther manages to pacify his rival Gorlois (Corin Redgrave) and the two retire to the Duke's keep for a celebratory feast and grunting contest.
Immediately upon first glance, Uther comes down with a case of the throbbing thigh sweats for Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), the wife of Gorlois and (apparently) the Dark Age's hottest Flashdancer. The next thing you know, Uther is besieging his rival's castle (with only about twenty men, curiously) and urging Merlin to mystically enable his requested booty-call. The sorcerer reneges but warns Uther that he will claim any product resulting from this deceit.
Merlin puts Arthur in the care of Sir Ector (Clive Swift) and the boy ends up becoming squire to his son Kay (Niall O'Brien). By now, the right to draw Excalibur from the stone is logically being determined by having a bunch of knights riding around on horseback and bashing each other over the head with sticks. Silently, one wishes that the same method could be used to determine the leadership of the Republican Party.
After Captain Picard...er, Sir Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart) win the first "tournament" but fails to free the blade, Kay gets a chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, Arthur (Nigel Terry) misplaces Kay's sword and 'Yoinks!' Excalibur as a replacement. The next thing you know, a boy has been declared king, battle lines have been drawn and from the resulting chaos the utopia of Camelot is born.
What follows is basically a "Greatest Hits" package from Le Morte D'Arthur and similar tales. Arthur meets and marries his beloved Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi). Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) is subdued by Arthur and joins the cause. The Knights of the Round Table are assembled. Arthur's half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) begins dabbling in the dark arts. A betrayal occurs, fracturing the fellowship and causing a blight to fall upon the land. The Quest for the Grail challenges the endurance of the knights. A final conflict occurs with the forces of darkness.
People criticize the performances and dialogue in Excalibur as being kinda flaky, but I think this is what gives the movie it's own weird, unique charm. For example, as the wizard leaves Uther's castle with Arthur in his arms, little Barbara Byrne as Young Morgana says to him "Are you the mother and father of the baby now, Merlin?" It's one of the strangest lines and oddest deliveries I've ever seen in a film and it really serves no function other then to unbalance the viewer.
Entire characters are built on this edifice. Nicol Williamson doesn't look like the traditional Merlin, but in light of his gloriously cock-eyed performance, such concerns are trivial. It's tremendous fun to watch him relish such ripe dialogue as "When a man lies, he murders some part of the world", "For it is the doom of men that they forget" or "Good and evil, there never is one without the other." He's also given plenty of eye-rolling one-liners which are designed to show Merlin as a creature baffled by the folly of mankind.
Inexplicably, John Boorman chose to have Nigel Terry play Arthur as a teenager. Despite obviously being well north of thirty at the time, Terry does a good job bringing a pop-eyed, "gee-whiz" quality to Young(ish) Arthur. He's even better as the seasoned King, turning in his own glorious moments of scenery chewing and bombast. I love the sequence where Sir Gawain (played by a sweaty and youthful-looking Liam Neeson in a fake beard) accuses Guenevere of an affair with Lancelot. Terry's reaction to this charge is so twitchy, unhinged and over-the top it makes me smile every time I see it.
The always-awesome Helen Mirren also really shines as Morgana. Although she doesn't get a ton of scenes, every time she appears on screen she seems more corrupt and degenerate then when we last saw her. She does a fantastic job taking the character from wizard groupie, to devious trickster, to full-on evil bitch mode. Her kid-in-a-candy-store glee when Merlin catches her knee-deep in witchy trappings is quickly trumped by the devious betrayal of her master. By the time she magically seduces her brother and spawns a creepy bastard child, she really deserves to be included in the pantheon of repellant chicks along with Nurse Ratched, Cruella DeVille and Annie Wilkes.
As a side note, Excalibur is often referred to as the Boorman Family Project, since the director's rampant nepotism is on display from stem to stern. John's daughter Katrine plays Igrayne, which is sorta disturbing since she's basically portrayed as an exotic dancer/piece of crumpet that Gabriel Byrne end up humping furiously. Man, I can only imagine the awkward conversations on set that day.
John's son Charley also appears as the young Mordred. Since Mordred is supposed to be a loathsome little cunt, I'd have to consider Charley's performance to be the most successful in the entire film. During his short screen time, he immediately manages to get underneath the audience's skin with a gratingly annoying giggle and a shit-eating grin that you can't help but picture caved in. As an adult, Mordred is portrayed in a cranky and pompous fashion by the gangly-looking Robert Addie, ensuring the character's immediate nomination for VILLAIN YOU MOST WANT TO SEE IMPALED ON SOMETHING SHARP.
Actually, I might as well come clean about this right now: pretty much every performance in this picture ranges from over-the-top to completely unhinged. Witness Patrick Stewart's gregarious turn as Leondegrance, Keith Buckley's yeller-iffic portrayal of Sir Uryens and Gabriel Byrne hamming it up mercilessly as passionate brawler / walking testicle Uther Pendragon. Although critics might poke holes in this stylistic choice, I think it makes the film feel as if it's set in a more passionate time when men were intent of bending the world to their will, whether this be for good or evil.
Only a small handful of actors in the film seem to be taking their meds. Cherie Lunghi is appropriately warm and graceful as Guenevere and Nicholas Clay is pained and understated as her lover Lancelot. Coincidently, these are also the two actors who have their efforts hampered the most by the truncated script. Lancelot is only given a scene or two before he immediately turns duplicitous. As a result, Clay's performance sometimes comes across as pie-eyed and kinda smug.
Also, the script doesn't give Guenevere much motivation to transform from devoted wife into adulteress. Except for the scene where a wounded Lancelot defends Guenevere against Gawain's accusations, a compelling case really isn't built for her infidelity. Since her attraction to Lancelot seems to stems from Arthur's slavish devotion to the *GASP!* law, their subsequent relationship seems more sordid then tragic. I really chalk this up as a symptom of the film's limited run time. If Lunghi and Clay had shared more scenes together I'm convinced that this would have played out infinitely better.
When it comes to Excalibur's production design I have nothing but praise. Although full plate armor didn't technically exist in the Dark Ages, I love how the film-makers use it to bring a sense of evolution to the story. At first, the armor is corrupted, black and twisted, but as Camelot's influence brings a sense of civility to the land, the plate-mail becomes gleaming burnished silver.
This comes full-circle later as the knights grow rusted and tarnished during their Grail Quest. I'm also convinced that Peter Jackson must have seen Excalibur as a kid since his twisted design for Sauron's forces seems evident in the ranks of Mordred's army. This is in stark contrast to the gold, neo-classical armor of Mordred himself, which I assume is kinda like the medieval equivalent of a douchebag wearing white sunglasses.
The rest of the costumes and sets are also stunning. The wedding of Arthur and Guenevere is suitably lavish. The jousting set, which serves as the battlefield between Gawain and Lancelot, is also pretty amazing. There's also a great scene which features a completely agog Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) stumbling through Camelot's courtyard and marveling at all the spectacle around him. In this one clever continuous shot, Boorman does a great job immersing us in the colorful and resplendent fantasy world he's concocted.
Having shot most of the film on location in Ireland, Boorman can't help but deliver a stunningly beautiful film. Lancelot and Arthur's battle by the waterfall, lensed at Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow, is a truly magical sequence. Also of note is Cahir Castle standing in for the keep of Leondegrance. The gorgeously preserved Norman battlement really gives this medieval siege a genuine feel of authenticity.
Trevor Jones's original score is nicely augmented by the aforementioned Wagner and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Although this tune has since been exploited by a million movie trailers, it was Excalibur that did it first and did it best. I challenge any fantasy film fan to not get goosebumps while watching the segment where a revitalized Arthur rides out to confront Mordred's forces to the tune of "O Fortuna". The only other piece of music that's had a similar effect on me is the "Anvil of Crom" main theme from Conan the Barbarian. I'm really at a loss to think of a comparable example from modern cinema where a piece of music was so well-married to a scene.
Having said that, there are a few small things rotten in the state of Camelot. Despite the film's then-respectable $11 mil budget, some pretty weak visuals still managed to slip past quality control. A composite shot of a plant springing back to life as Arthur rides by is laughably inept. The oft-seen hand-animated lightning strikes look like they were lifted from a Sam Fleischer Superman cartoon. Every on-screen appearance of the highly-vaunted Grail reveals the Almighty's clear ineptitude with visual effects. And last but certainly not least, Morgana's "evil" keep looks suspiciously like a Castle Grayskull playset re-dressed with X-Mas lights and concealed by a stage smoke.
Regardless of it's technical limitations, Excalibur still holds a special place in my heart as one of the first fantasy films that didn't completely pander to kids. In fact, it's unapologetic sexual awareness and penchant for bloody combat made for a pretty memorable experience for me as a kid.
Despite cruising on a wave on nostalgia, Excalibur is still a classic that modern fantasy films owe a tremendous debt to.