Directed by John Boorman and telling the classic story of King Arthur, Excalibur is one of the finest fantasy films ever made and one of my favourite films, period. I didn’t always love it – in fact the first time I caught it on TV many years ago I actually thought it was one of the most ridiculous, stilted, hideously overacted things I’ve ever seen, and I suspect that this reaction would be fairly common. It wasn’t until later that I rewatched the movie and hopelessly fell before its dreamlike charm.
In fact “dreamlike” is a crucial word when approaching Excalibur: this is a movie about a legend that makes no attempts at gritty realism or modern psychology. Like all fairytales, it has its own internal logic and consistency, but it has little to do with the real world – instead it creates its own magical, legendary, highly stylized universe, with an amazing sense of otherworldliness that pretty much ruins all the other adaptations of the Arthurian myth for me, which can only feel mundane and jarringly modern in comparison. Mind you, none of that otherworldliness is clean or dainty – the movie is at the same time grimy and hazy, with a rough-edged tactile quality and a realistic lack of grace to the fighting scenes. Knights in this movie don’t do elegant choreography – they just bash and swipe at each other while looking very uncomfortable in their bulky armour.
Visually, the movie serves up one gorgeous, sumptuous scene after another, with the lush Irish landscapes and beautiful costumes – the knights’ shining armour in particular is so stunning I can overlook the fact that it clearly moves like a fake light armour in some scenes. The ladies’ flowing dresses and Morgana’s increasingly elaborate and kinky costumes are also a standout. The musical score makes a clever use of Wagner, and while Carl Orff’s O Fortuna has become something of a commercial cliché, damn if it isn’t one of the most stirring pieces of music ever used in a film. If the sight of Arthur and his knights galloping through the blooming countryside to the soaring choir doesn’t raise your pulse and make you want to ride in front of your own giant army, this movie is probably not for you and it’s highly likely that you’re in fact dead.
The cast of the movie is a curious one; while it showcases actors like Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart in early small parts, other than Helen Mirren I couldn’t put a name to anyone in the major role without the help of IMDB. Nigel Terry at first makes for an unlikely future king – not particularly tall, with a rather high-pitched voice, his Arthur initially comes off like a Middle Ages version of Luke Skywalker circa A New Hope – which makes his maturation into a true sovereign even more impressive. He is not supposed to be a perfect speciman anyway, because that’s Lancelot’s job, and Nicholas Clay is perfect as the beautiful, melancholic knight who has a misfortune of falling in love with his best friend’s wife. My favourite performance in the film though is Nicol Williamson as Merlin – once I got over how eccentric, over-the-top and plain bizarre some of his line readings are. Merlin here is wily, powerful, dangerous, wise, lonely, whimsical, caring, ruthless, and unlike most onscreen older wizard/mentor type characters, he’s no sexless creature and has his eye on Arthur’s half-sister Morgana, understandably so since she’s played by a young alluring Helen Mirren. I’ve read that the real-life actors had a personal feud going on at the time, and the director clearly put that volatile chemistry to a good use onscreen.
Story-wise the film has a lot of ground to cover, from Arthur’s father King Uther and his lust for Igraine, a wife of a fellow king; to the sword in the stone; the Knights of the Round Table; Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal and the ruin of the kingdom; Mordred, Morgana’s creepy child from her and Arthur’s union; the quest of the Holy Grail where the film gets even more dreamy and quite loopy; to the climatic battle and Arthur’s final journey to the Isle of Avalon… whew! Despite story galore, the passages of time are done well and while unavoidably episodic the movie never feels like it’s rushing through things. It touches on the theme of the passing of the old pagan ways in the wake of Christianity, but doesn’t dwell too much on the religion.
Excalibur has dated of course: some of the make-up is a tad unconvincing by today’s standards, the staging of Arthur and Mordred’s final fight feels clumsy (Mordred is running a giant bloody spear through Arthur and Percival just stands there with zero reaction… huh?), and Merlin’s Amazing Secret Chamber of Melted Wax is pretty cheesy and silly. But these are all nitpicks. Excalibur is a ballsy, full-blooded, operatic movie that really shouldn’t work as well as it does, and it works because it commits fully to its crazy, bloody, beautiful vision.