Thirty-six years ago, there wasn’t much that would convince this reviewer and his geeky homeboys to miss an evening of playing Dungeons & Dragons in the pub. Where else would you play it? But one night in the spring of 1981, the locals had to find some other weirdos to stare at because John Boorman’s Excalibur had arrived at the local fleapit and we’d gone off on a collective jolly to drool over it. This was the movie we’d been waiting for.
We’re not going to dwell on the plot as we all know the legends of King Arthur but this is a fairly straight telling of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century Le Morte d'Arthur version of the story. So we start with an implausibly armoured Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) conceiving Arthur (Nigel Terry) with a bit of magical assistance from Merlin (Nichol Williamson) and end with Arthur’s death and flinging that sword back into the lake. Along the way, there’s swords in stones and missing Holy Grails. You know the routine.
Boorman had made an attempt at getting a Lord of the Rings movie off the ground but that never came off and he had to settle for Arthurian fantasy instead. As it turns out, this was probably just as well. It got a lot of stick at the time for being a bit of a confusing mess as far as storytelling was concerned but it’s easy enough to follow and characters talking cod-medieval nonsense is exactly what you want in this sort of caper. Anything else just wouldn’t be quite legendary enough. In fact, Nichol Williamson gives a pleasingly eccentric performance as Merlin but it’s worth having a look at the rest of that stellar cast. This was 1981. Williamson is actually the only one who was a reasonably big name star at the time. For many of that lot, this was their screen debut. Blimey.
But what is brilliant about Excalibur is just how stylised it is. It looks fantastic. While King Arthur (2004) goes for a vague attempt at accuracy for the 5th century legend by sticking him in Roman-style armour, Excalibur gives two fingers to that and has everyone clanking around in medieval armour in the way that even 15th century knights never actually clanked. Who wants Arthurian legend to be historical? And they wear armour all the time. When Camelot is going through good times, the armour is shiny. In bad times, it’s covered in mud and blood. The look of those nice bits is pure Pre-Raphaelite as befits a story whose place in modern popular culture was established with Alfred Lord Tennyson and Malory’s work being re-printed in the 19th century. But, unsurprisingly, there’s also more than a hint of Tolkien in the visuals along with epic fight scenes in the mud accompanied by Carl Orff’s O Fortuna. The Holy Grail sequence is wonderfully apocalyptic.
Basically, Excalibur is brutal, beautiful, sexy and epically legendary. You need this movie.
Special Features: Commentary from John Boorman.
EXCALIBUR (1981) / DIRECTOR: JOHN BOORMAN / SCREENPLAY: JOHN BOORMAN, ROSPO PALLENBERG / STARRING: NIGEL TERRY, HELEN MIRREN, NICHOLAS CLAY, CHERIR LUNGHI, NICOL WILLIAMSON, LIAM NEESON, PATRICK STEWART, GABRIEL BYRNE, CIARÁN HINDS, ROBERT ADDIE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW