Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ich bin ein "Merliner"

Excalibur 1981 UK
Directed by John Boorman
Warner Brothers DVD Region 2

“But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.”
Morte d'Arthur, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Excalibur was a big deal to a frustrated teenager. We were two films into that 9 part series of Star Wars movies everyone kept talking up (myself, no exception) but after some of the terrible band wagon films that had followed in the wake of the first part, we were all desperate for fantasy films which would have a certain adult sensibility and lend a certain amount of gravitas to a genre of cinema that was not being treated in the way it deserved - with a modicum of respect and creativity. That is to say... we just wanted some fantasy movies which were actually well made for a change.

And then a magazine called Starburst, which I had been buying on and off in the rare moments I could afford to purchase such four colour luxuries, had a big article about John Boorman’s upcoming Excalibur movie (everything seemed to be promo’d months before it’s release back in those days) which looked like it might deliver on all those things that teenagers usually associated with “grown-up” movies in those days - blood and sex.

Then the magazine which you could only get in the local ABC Cinema, Film Review, featured the movie and there was nothing else the kids in the playground could talk about in the months leading up to the release of the movie. I even remember braving the streets to the “posher” newsagent at the end of town to buy the Excalibur Poster Magazine to fan the flames of my desire to see this tale of Arthurian legend - a treasured item which I still, of course, posess to this day (one doesn’t casually purge such cherished and prized items out of one’s pile of promotional magazines). I knew a teeny, tiny bit about Arthurian legend because my dad had always liked it and I had seen a few movies such as The Sword In The Stone in the past. Would it be as great a film as The Spaceman and King Arthur? Only time would tell but after glancing at the classy yet lurid pictures of men in blood spattered, shiny armour the chances were good.

Plus I knew the name of the director. He’d done that brilliant Zardoz movie I’d seen on TV a year or two before... so chances are it would have some naughty bits in it too! So when the film finally came out (and I think it was a Double A rating so I was just at the age where I didn’t need to lie about my age to gain admission) I sat there in the cinema and waited for a quality movie to unfold before me... and I have to say that the film delivered in spades. A thoroughly good time was had by all and my head was well filled with enough nudity and bloodletting to keep my thoughts focussed for a number of days.

Fast forward 29 years and I thought I would watch it again and write a review of it to see if it would still hold up after all these years. Partially this was motivated by the fact that a tweet I saw the other night reminded me that I had not seen the movie in a while but this was in itself re-enforced by the knowledge that I had recently picked up a copy of the film in a 3 for a tenner sale in HMV.

I’ve seen five John Boorman films in my life so far... four of them - Point Blank, Hell In The Pacific, Zardoz and Excalibur - are all great movies... the other, really terrible one, is a sequel to The Exorcist.

Excalibur, then, opens with some shots of trees with golden light behind them. Bloody battles rage and Uther Pendragon (young Gabriel Byrne) confers with Merlin (a hammy but brilliant Nicol Williamson) to win peace but spoils it by having sex with his enemies wife and spawning Arthur (in a quite starkly beautiful visual metaphor that has him penetrating the young lady in question disguised as her man via Merlin’s necromancy whilst her real husband is penetrated by spears and his flesh bloodily torn). The film then carries on highlighting key incidents in the life of Arthur, drawing episodically from Thomas Malory’s accidentally and unfortunately titled (due it is believed, to a printers error) "Le Morte d'Arthur", which Tennyson’s famous poem also takes as its source.

I won’t go into details... you all know the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table... and if you don’t the story is detailed in a zillion different places. Or go and see a movie version.

To be honest the story doesn’t matter in this... it’s a Boorman movie (and fortunately it’s not Exorcist 2) so the visual design of the film is all absolutely splendid (with green forests greener than green... Bava green) and always makes the film feel like the absolute epic it is. And although the dialogue could possibly be considered quite corny by today’s standards, the actors and actresses deliver it all with a sense of seriousness and sensitivity which allows you to take it for what it is and not break out into a grin every five minutes. And what great actors... aside from those already mentioned you have future giants of the profession in young, unknown versions of themselves such as Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren. Not to mention such notable but less legendary performers as Cheri Lunghi and Nicholas Clay, who do a fine job rendering Guinevere and Lancelot in the flesh. The real acting triumph, however, is Nigel Terry’s absolutely brilliant portrayal of Arthur in a journey that takes him from a coarse young teenager to a wise and surprisingly fair and likeable king... a really great job.

The music is a worry... Trevor Jones sandwiched between stirring classical anthems by the likes of Orff and Wagner was heady stuff when I was a kid (and still is as it happens) but I’m not sure this needle drop tone best serves the mood of the film. I suspect it’s a case of Boorman falling in love with his temp track (in much the same way that Kubrik kept his temp track in 2001: A Space Odyssey and threw out Alex North’s more than competent score) but I’m just guessing here so don’t quote me on this. Still, the music is quite powerful in it’s own right and although it sometimes feels a bit inappropriately segued in some sequences, they could have certainly done a lot worse than what we have here.

All in all though, although an episodic rendition of the Arthur story (well it has to be really doesn’t it, trying to sandwich it all into 2 and a quarter hours), I found that this skip and match kind of pacing very well suited to the material... in as much as to say that there really isn’t a dull scene in the movie and the span of time depicted across it’s real running time does help contribute to the feeling that you are watching an epic piece of storytelling from an expert celluloid author.

If you like the stuff of legends and myths then Excalibur never once tries to duck its responsibility of taking the stories at anything less than their noble and grand intent. A stirring film that was possibly the last great take on the Arthurian legend.


  1. I saw this in the summer of 1981 at a cinema in Cheltenham (I think). Some standout memories:

    Cherie Lunghi lying on a rock curled naked around Excalibur - phwoar!

    Nicol Williamson overacting and mugging furiously for the camera: "Now do you get it?"

    The knights riding through the blossoming countryside to the strains of Carmena Burana as the dead hand of veil was finally lifted from the realm

    Great stuff. How about reviewing Ken Russell's "The Lair of the White Worm" for us?


  2. Hey there Gullane! Really good to hear from you.

    Oh, ok. I've not actually seen Lair of the White Worm. If it's relatively cheap and easyish to get on DVD I'll try to get to it sometime next year. Think I'd like to read the original story before watching though. That one's Bram Stoker, right?

  3. Not sure who wrote it, I'm afraid. "Veil" in my post whas a typo for "evil".

  4. Ha! It's a great typo though... very poetic!

    Yeah, I just checked. Bram (Dracula) Stoker wrote the novel... I'll have to check it out!