Excalibur (1981)

Director: John Boorman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

How can I write a review of Excalibur? What would Sir Lancelot have done? Well, in Excalibur, he waits until the very last moment to champion the honor of his true love and King Arthur’s queen, Guenevere, against a charge of adultery—knowing full well that he and she are guilty of the crime. Er, let’s go instead with a quote from the big man himself, Arthur: “Now, once more, I must ride with my knights to defend what was, and the dream of what could be.”

I have wanted to think noble thoughts about Excalibur ever since I found myself renting it about once every couple of months and then finally deciding it would cost less to buy it. I still have my VHS copy, but find I can’t seem to justify getting the DVD. This is what led me to believe that maybe this movie isn’t all I thought it was cracked up to be. This is also when I found out that when it comes to indulging in blood, magic, unholy lust, sappy chivalric customs and romance, and lots and lots of shiny, clashing metal, Excalibur is just my cuppa.

In some defense of my tastes, who isn’t a sucker for the legend of Arthur! The brotherhood of the Round Table, the magic of Merlin, the sword with a name, the intrigues of Morgana, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the many battles to defend a nascent kingdom have seen many adaptations on stage, screen, and television. Medieval dramas of every stripe have been de rigueur since, well, medieval times and show no signs of going out of date, if the #10, #15, and #25 rankings of the three Lord of the Rings films on IMDb’s fan-selected top 250 films list are any indication.

Excalibur is a pretty faithful retelling of Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’Arthur. The banquet at which Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne, looking uncharacteristically barbaric) and Gorlois, Duke of Tintagel, are celebrating an alliance forged in battle begins the epic. Uther sees the Duke’s wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman, daughter of the director) dance and, filled with lust, goes to his personal wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) to arrange to have that lust satisfied. Merlin cautions against this, but gives Uther the means to have Igrayne if Uther promises to give up the fruit of their union to him.

excalibur%20uther.jpgIn a wonderfully low-tech scene, he transforms Uther’s features into those of the Duke’s and makes a mist separating Uther from the Duke’s castle solid enough for his horse to cross. There, Igrayne greets her “husband,” and Uther more or less rapes her in a pretty perverted scene, considering the director is filming his own daughter. Later that night, the real Duke is brought home dead, having been impaled in a scene of glorious gruesomeness on a raft of spears. Little Morgana (Barbara Byrne) senses the moment of her real father’s death and knows at once the impostor is not her father. From that moment on, she pits herself against Uther, who marries Igrayne, and her new half-brother Arthur. Alas, her revenge will not come for many years—Merlin shows up to claim the baby Arthur, with Uther begging and Igrayne screaming; I always imagine Igrayne braining Uther with a cast-iron skillet after this scene (“You promised WHAT?”). Unhinged, Uther drives Excalibur into a rock. Who wouldn’t?

Excalibur7.jpgFast-forward to Arthur as a young man. As played by Nigel Terry, he’s a little like a rustic Jimmy Stewart. Uther is dead, and knights have been coming by to try to pull the sword from the stone to prove they are the rightful heir to the throne. (I guess Morgana wasn’t good enough for the title Uther stole, providing yet another reason for her to hate her half-brother—he’s a man!) One day, Arthur’s brother finds himself in a fight. Arthur runs into the woods to fetch their father. On the way, he happens to see Excalibur, though how he doesn’t know what it is is a mystery. He grabs it up and runs to his brother’s side. Wow, just like that! He learns that his father and brother are not his blood kin, and that he is actually the son of Uther and Igrayne. Of course, the knights who are older and tested in battle can’t believe their own eyes and refuse to accept the strapling Arthur as their king. Eventually, in battle, he bests his most vocal opponents, and they kneel to him. Happily, he accepts them and declares that they shall always meet in a circle. He will build a Round Table for this purpose, marry, and provide the kingdom with an heir. Cool!

Of course, there’s the meet-cute of Arthur and Lancelot (hunky Nicholas Clay, whose naked butt in this movie is worth the price of admission) in which Lancelot gives the haughty Arthur a right drubbing. So angry does Arthur become that he breaks Excalibur. Merlin suddenly appears (though not in a soap bubble like the Good Witch of the North) aghast, “You have broken what could not be broken! Now, hope is broken.” Fortunately, the Lady of the Lake (Telsche Boorman, more nepotism in casting) knows the rambunctious king needed to learn not to let instant success go to his head, and after he humbles himself, she returns the mended sword to him.

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Arthur chooses Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi—what ever happened to her?) the daughter of his friend Leondegrance (pre-Picard Patrick Stewart) to wed. He sends his right-hand knight, Lancelot, to fetch her to the wedding. Their eyes meet. Their hearts pound. That’s it. Adultery in their hearts, and she’s not even married yet. Later, they’re found out, and all the great times in Camelot come to an end. The kingdom is plunged into darkness, and Merlin checks out of the world by becoming a stalagmite. “It is a time for men.” What a wuss! He just doesn’t want to risk getting put on one of those round crucifixes and having his eyes pecked out by a mechanical raven. Fortunately, the squire-turned-knight Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) saves the day and learns that the king and the land are one. For his trouble, Richard Wagner writes an opera about him. That’ll show him. (In fact, Wagner’s music for the Ring Cycle provides the heroically over-the-top score for this entire film.)

mirren.jpgUnfortunately, Morgana (Helen Mirren) has learned all the dark arts and then some from Merlin. She uses them to bewitch Arthur in a scene of scandalously sexy incest. (I’m sure Liam Neeson, who played Sir Gawain, thought fishnet would never look so good again; he and “The Queen” had a scorching affair for years.) Morgana becomes pregnant with Arthur’s son, the dreaded, and sort of gay, Mordred. The grown Mordred (Robert Addie) gets one of the coolest suits of gold armor that magic can conjure. Morgana has nurtured a hate of his father in Mordred, and one day the lad calls him out. A bloody, bloody battle ensues. I especially like when father and son impale each other and die sort of near each other’s arms. It’s a touching moment. It tops Mordred choking his strangely young-looking mother to death after she spews a valley full of mist from her mouth—unwittingly ensuring Mordred’s defeat in battle—and turns into a 100-year-old hag.

Nicol.bmpNaturally, I’ve touched on the film in only the lightest of ways. There is so much more to it, primarily created by what can only be called the most eccentric performance on film, by Nicol Williamson. He seems like Hermione Gingold on cocaine and could certainly have influenced Jeremy Brett’s bizarrely compelling portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Merlin is very comical in this film, not something I had ever associated with this mythic creature before, like a trickster character from Native American and other folklore sources. He’s not even a little bit scary. Perhaps this is as it should be—showing the natural world of magic weakening and giving way to the pragmatic concerns of human beings. Maybe it reflects what Merlin himself says, “It is a lonely life, the way of the necromancer… oh, yes. Lacrimae Mundi—the tears of the world.” That line always makes me laugh (sorry).

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Despite Williamson’s scenery gourmandizing and the gleeful gore of the saga, the power of this myth remains. My mother, not exactly a fan of blood and blades, found the tape and watched it without me. She commented on how distasteful the violence was, but said she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. There’s magic in this story and, by today’s standards, even in the cheesy-looking sets and effects. It’s great fun to see so many of today’s finest and most respected actors in their early days, attacking these juicy parts with energy. Terry is not an especially charismatic Arthur, but he is sincere and believable as a person who wants the best for his country. Maybe Excalibur isn’t such a guilty pleasure after all. l

  • Dan Leo spoke:
    11th/07/2007 to 1:35 pm

    This is one of those movies that somehow passed me by all these years. I suppose that, even though I’ve liked some Boorman movies quite a lot, I just sort of assumed it would be crap, not that I haven’t quite willingly watched tons of other crap in the meantime. But after reading your delightful review (and realizing it’s got such great actors in it — Mirren, Neeson, Williamson), I’m gonna check it out one of these days.
    Sounds like a good stoner flick. Not that I would know anything about what makes a good stoner flick.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/07/2007 to 2:29 pm

    I hoped I conveyed what a watchable film this is. It’s not great, but it’s still good. As for being a stoner flick, there’s an astonishing amount of sobriety in it but, yes, I think it is a good stoner flick.

  • Mike spoke:
    2nd/12/2007 to 6:08 am

    The Best movie ever. Much Like Dune in that only those who want more than just popcorn w/ their movie.
    I can almost recite the lines from this movie and wish I could find another movie to move me as much. Any suggestions?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/12/2007 to 11:07 am

    Mike, I agree that Excalibur was a fun movie with surprising depth. If you’re looking for something in a similar vein, the hubby and I both recommend Return to Oz, a familiar fantasy that’s rather dark. Of course, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are recent movies that take their fantasy into hidden depths. Not quotable like Excalibur, but very moving films.

  • TC spoke:
    21st/04/2008 to 10:55 am

    A slight correction on this version of Arthur finding Excalibur:
    His brother is due to fight in a contest, the winner of which gets a shot at pulling Excalibur from the stone. Being his brother’s squire, Arthur dutifully runs off to their tent to retrieve his brothers sword, only to find that some scamp had stolen it. While chasing said scamp, Arthur comes upon Excalibur, which he DOES know of. Needing a sword to replace his brother’s stolen one, he yanks Excalibur out of the stone.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/04/2008 to 11:24 am

    Thanks for the correction, TC. I know remember that scene more clearly. I think the fact that Arthur seemed to just see Excalibur and go to fetch it made me think that he was not aware of the legend.

  • Charlotte Berry spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 8:37 am

    I’m surprised how many people look at this film as a bit of fun. In my opinion this is a flawed masterpiece, full of some of the most stunning visuals you’re likely to see. As somebody who has read Malory I thought the Arthurian saga was probably unfilmable, certainly back in 1981. Yet Boorman manages to get most of the important elements of the story into a film that is less than 3 hours long. Of course there is overly theatrical acting but then this is quite deliberate for an adaptation of Malory. Bear in mind the goals of the director for this production and you realise that Excalibur is both audacious and technically impressive. Anybody who sees it as Cheesy is perhaps missing the point of the film entirely.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 8:48 am

    I’m willing to concede I may have missed the point of the film entirely. Would you please tell me what Mr. Boorman’s point was?

  • Ernesto Catalan spoke:
    22nd/03/2009 to 5:13 pm

    I watched EXCALIBUR back when it was released, 1981. I was just 13 years old. As the years passed by, one tends to glorify the things that impacted us in our youth. In the case of this film in particular, the glorification is well deserved. It’s a beautifully shot and acted film. It’s a tragic story and certainly one of the main inspirations behind STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS. Nicol Williamson, Nigel Terry and of course, Helen Mirren are superb. The movie gets trippy towards the end, with all the grail stuff confusing me when I was a teenager, but I think it only added to the overall impact it had on me.
    I bought it on VHS, hunted it down on DVD and now eagerly await it on Blu-Ray.
    One land, one king!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/03/2009 to 9:48 am

    This film gives me a lot of pleasure, just like it did for you. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Aleš Fajx spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 7:12 pm

    Well, was it well done or not? Was it meant serious or not? I was laughing, i was going crazy about it, i was watching it silently and i was laughing again. Feel tired, now. I asked myself: “Was Merlin from Mars?”
    Too much philosophy in speech. Too many words. Better without sound, great settings, costumes, action, but the camera way – oh gooosh.
    Maybe it is because of it is 28 years old film, it was shooted when i was born… in that time, it had to be the greatest movie ever.
    The greatest one.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 10:48 pm

    Greatest movie ever? Absolutely not. Great fun? Absolutely. Thanks for stopping by Ales.

  • Aleš Fajx spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 8:01 am

    But, i was waiting for this movie long time, i was expecting a lot. Do you remember the posters for this movie? Great! I liked it when i was child.. I loved the compositions of the camera. But you never know – it can surprise you ever, it can happen anytime with other movie, …

  • Frank Santo Fraterrigo, Jr. spoke:
    26th/10/2010 to 5:50 pm

    Wow, I’ll always have fond memories of this film. I saw it for the first time when I was 13 when it was on that new-for-its-time wonder HBO. I recall looking in the little cable-guide booklet we used to get monthly and seeing that Excalibur contained “violence and nudity”. Ooooh, party time! As you mentioned, that scene where Uther takes Ygrayne while still in his armor will always stick with me. Of course, at the time, it was simply mind-blowing for a 13 year old…but it felt great being naughty, afraid my parents might catch me watching this stuff. Yeah, Mordred was downright creepy, Merlin was my role model for a while, and I still feel sad at the downfall of Camelot. It’s funny, I can still recall the chant Merlin taught Morgana…”A’nahl nathrath, uthvas bethud, d’otyal d’yenve!” That’s phoenetic of course, no idea about the spelling. Thanks for the fond recollections of this thoroughly memorable flick.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2010 to 6:06 pm

    You’re welcome, Frank. It might be time for me to watch this one again. It has been a while.

  • Dominica spoke:
    11th/04/2011 to 6:42 am

    This is definitely a GREAT stoner pic. Albeit 20 years ago, I definitely remember this one as something I would watch repeatedly with my similarly nerdy stoner boyfriend. Mirren rocks!

  • David557 spoke:
    7th/05/2011 to 3:11 pm

    This movie is a tremendous guilty pleasure fir me. What about the Carmina Burana score, and the enormous blood red sunset at the end? Hanging knights (pronounced “kniggets”), Morgana in her Jabba the Hut slavegirl outfit, and Lancelot showing up at the end, doing hs Unabomber impersonation. Sheer brilliance.

  • Bill spoke:
    13th/01/2013 to 9:45 pm

    My friends and I were twenty when Excalibur came out. I dragged them back to watch it a few times, started quoting lines at parties…”It’s the Duke! The Duke has returned! Open the gates!,” and the charm of making. Soon they were also repeating the lines and it lasted for several years. Probably haven’t heard the end of it. No we were not dorks, just liked to have fun and appreciated the movie. Mirren was really fine, still is. For some reason I was wondering who played Mordred and stumbled upon you site. Cheers!

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