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“A dream to some, a nightmare to others”: “Excalibur” at 40

Excalibur (Orion Pictures)

John Boorman’s extravagant take on the King Arthur legend holds up as a dazzling, over the top fantasy epic.

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Excalibur was hardly the first film to be made based on the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table and it was hardly the last word on the subject either. The saga has inspired everything from a bloated musical (Camelot) to one of the funniest films ever made (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to whatever that thing was that Guy Ritchie made that you have already forgotten even existed until just about now (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). It may not even be the best screen version—I would have to give that prize to Holy Grail on the basis of being both hysterically funny and more accurate in its depiction of the period than most of its brethren (coconuts notwithstanding).

And yet, Excalibur continues to stand tall as one of the maddest and most stunning of all fantasy epics—a singular work of cinematic poetry that is a visually spectacular, wildly ambitious, and deeply personal spectacle unlike any other. It’s as distinctive and memorable to watch today as when it premiered forty years ago.

The film was the brainchild of John Boorman, the British filmmaker who made a striking debut with Catch Us If You Can, a film designed to do for the Dave Clark Five what A Hard Day’s Night had done for the Beatles, and then went to America to make the neo-noir crime classic Point Blank. After that, Boorman became interested in doing a King Arthur film, but when he submitted a script for a three-hour epic that he co-wrote with Rospo Pallenberg to United Artists, they feared it would be too elaborate and expensive to make.

He was instead offered the chance to do a comparatively smaller project—an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. That would fall through as well, and over the next decade, Boorman directed the quirky comedy Leo the Last, the very successful backwoods thriller Deliverance, the wild sci-fi fantasy Zardoz and the infamous Exorcist II: The Heretic.

While he was not able to make his Arthurian epic at this time, an overview of Boorman’s films makes it clear that the legend was never far from his mind. Each of his films offered variations on the myth by presenting stories that were journeys undertaken by people who enter mysterious and unfamiliar lands, ostensibly in search of some form of talisman, but mostly to discover who they really are.

The surroundings may seem enticing at first, but before long chaos and violence break out, and the hero is forced to come to terms with what they have become before being reborn into someone new at the end of the story. It was only after the release of Exorcist II, which has gone down as one of the biggest (but profitable) boondoggles in Hollywood history, that Boorman was finally able to secure the funding to make his King Arthur script, loosely based on Thomas Malory’s 1485 book Le Morte d’Arthur, at last.

The King Arthur story is one that almost everyone in some form or another gleaned from places like the Bugs Bunny cartoons Knight-mare Hare and Knighty Knight Bugs, or Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. That’s a lucky thing, because Boorman may have had many gifts as a filmmaker, but narrative cohesion wasn’t always one of them. Indeed, even though I’ve seen the film numerous times over the years, even I sometimes get confused as to the exact details of who is doing what to whom, and why.

Excalibur…is a visually spectacular, wildly ambitious and deeply personal spectacle unlike any other.

In most films that might be a problem, but not so much here. It’s clear that Boorman is less interested in telling a story as he is in presenting a grand excursion into the Arthurian myth utilizing the tools of cinema in the same bold manner that writers and storytellers had done with mere words before him. He offers up a story of Valor, Lust, Greed, Avarice, Guilt, Vengeance, Faith, Knowledge, Depravity, and Redemption, all writ as large as the considerable FX budget could handle. To add to the spectacle, Boorman also made sure to include graphic sex, nudity, and enough stabbings, spearings, hacked limbs, and spurting blood to ensure an “R” rating. He clearly wanted to make the point that this was not your grandpappy’s King Arthur narrative.

First and foremost, Excalibur is a visual extravaganza glorious enough to rival all the other elaborate film fantasies of its era. If there’s a boring or mundane shot anywhere in its 141-minute running time, I have yet to come across it.

Just as important as Boorman’s psychical presentation of the material is his attitude towards it. Instead of taking a lighter approach that stressed the humor, action, and romance, Boorman took a more serious approach that provided the kind of dramatic intensity that matched with the equally impassioned visuals. And while, as noted, the narrative may not always be coherent at times, Boorman stages everything with such energy and passion that you still get caught up in it. 

But even Boorman’s prodigious talents can’t quite work around the bland romantic triangle between Arthur (Nigel Terry), his beloved Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), and Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), who is torn between his loyalty to Arthur and his barely disguised love for Guenevere. There’s nothing particularly wrong with their performances, but other than their undeniable physical beauty, they don’t really bring much to the table to conjure up the grand passions, thwarted and otherwise, that one normally associates with them. It doesn’t kill the film, but it does make their scenes a bit frustrating, especially when you consider that such then-unknown actors as Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciaran Hinds show infinitely more charisma in their brief turns.

Helen Mirren & Nicol Williamson in Excalibur (Orion Pictures)

That’s not the case with Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren, who both deliver knockout performances as epic as their surroundings. The former plays Merlin, more or less presented as the central character of the narrative—the one who represents man’s emergence from superstition and magic into a new era of logic and reason. Williamson somehow manages to engender no small amount of sympathy, despite outrageous scenery-chewing. Mirren is the far more malevolent Morgana, Arthur’s vengeful half-sister and the architect of his eventual downfall. She’s spectacular as a portrait of unmitigated evil, laced with the kind of undisguised erotic delight that jump-started the puberties of any kids lucky enough to have been able to beat the “R” rating and see it back in the day.

While it’s impossible to imagine any studio today ponying up big bucks to produce an elaborate fantasy epic aimed squarely at a more adult audience, Excalibur proved to be a good-sized hit when it came out. It’s since gone on to become a cult favorite. (In an interview, Zack Snyder claimed it was his favorite film).

While Boorman would never have the big Oscar-winning project that he clearly deserved, the work that followed—including The Emerald Forest, the semi-autobiographical Hope & Glory, the largely forgotten gem Where the Heart Is, The General and the brilliant John Le Carre adaptation The Tailor of Panama—made for one of the most fascinating filmographies of his era. And while I might personally rank the truly singular Zardoz and Exorcist II above it, Excalibur remains one of his central works and one of the key fantasy films of its time. It’s a grand spectacle that makes the old come across as thrillingly new, and which remains as startlingly unique as ever.

Excalibur Trailer:

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CategoriesMovies
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.