Retro-View: Excalibur (1981)
Now we go back to the medieval future of the 1980’s and the first, most defining sword epic of the era: EXCALIBUR, co-written and directed by John Boorman. I saw EXCALIBUR at the Roseville Tower, a lush deco-movie palace where I spent most of my high school movie going. Tuesday nights were two for one, and it was a good place to meet with friends, or if you were lucky, have an actual date (tho my only date there seeing FLASHDANCE was a bit of a disaster which has slightly tainted my thoughts on that wretched MTV trifle. O’ what a feeling!); better still, my wayward friends and I loved going there to see every horror film of the day, smokin’ drinkin’ in the alley behind the theater with Marty, Bruce and Mike before a double-feature of FRIDAY THE 13TH and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. We’d laugh and scream, freak ourselves out with every bloody murder. Glory days. Or is that Gory Days?
Happily, EXCALIBUR was both gorious and glorious indeed. The 1980’s had a rich (and often poor) fantasy culture, with HEAVY METAL magazine (spawned from the French version METAL HURLANT) at the apex of its popularity, the graphic avatar of every pre and post-pubescent sex and violence adventure wet dream. Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons influential role-playing game was given wider release in a nifty new box, being played and condemned at high schools across the nation (they banned my 8th grade peers from playing it after I brought the game to Rocklin Elementary). As for film, it was a grand period for geeks, with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) keeping the STAR WARS myth alive and dominant at the theaters. But EXCALIBUR broke the sword and sorcerey movie mold and left it asunder.
I’ll always recall the film’s opening at the Roseville Tower, crouched in my seat as that powerfully prophetic Wagner music from “Siegfried” tells you immediately, “This is a big film about big men with big swords and desires and the hot mystic women who love and kill them.” Audiences saw an English sixth century battle of knights that bathed their armor in a preternatural glow and showed the clumsy grandeur of these Iron Men as they hacked and slashed opponents. You knew the movie was for real when an arm gets lopped off with spurting blood and the knights fall into the mud screaming. We all tittered when Uther Pendragon had full body armor sex with his naked conquest, one of the most erotic scenes in cinema history (there, I said it). You couldn’t help but feel inspired as young Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone to become King, and a great one at that. By the end, the film had held back on nothing, especially not the magic of Camelot and its dream of noble warrior legends. I saw EXCALIBUR three times in its first release. Definitely a high school water-cooler film.
Made four years after the disastrous EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, John Boorman had been trying to forever set up a movie version of LORD OF THE RINGS but the financing fell through, so he fell back on the source of all things Sword and Sorcery: King Arthur and his wizard adviser Merlin, adapted from Sir Thomas Malory’s LE MORTE D’ARTHUR. This was the perfect outlet for Boorman’s mystic primitivism and his wide screen compositional gifts. Thanks to Bob Ringwood’s costume design, never before or since has armor looked so tactile and luminous, glowing with an unearthly cobalt and emerald sheen. It almost forces you into a visual relationship with this battle-wear as you try to comprehend how difficult it must have been to fight in a giant sculpted can wielding heavy swords. Even the ladies’ sexy, ornate costumes ebb and flow with mythic grace among the lush green landscape. The deep dark forests and mountains seem alive. This is what Camelot would look like. Rightfully, the gorgeous cinematography by Alex Thomson was nominated for an Academy Award.
Boorman is out to demystify as well as deify, with Merlin the Magician being the prime example. Although the studio did not want Nicol Williamson for the role due to his legendary trouble-making, it’s hard to think of a better choice. Along with Sir Ian McKellen’s towering Gandalf, this is one of the screen’s great wizards. Williamson plays Merlin quite broad and provides EXCALIBUR’s only intentional humor, but it makes sense since this old magician has seen much in his many lifetimes. Even he loves being surprised by the world, as when Arthur allows a foe to knight him with the Excalibur sword: “I haven’t seen this before,” Merlin coos with delight to himself. Better still, Merlin has a worthy enemy in the form of Arthur’s half-sister, the burgeoning witch Morgana Le Fey, played to the hilt by Helen Mirren. Clad in headdresses and cobwebbed outfits, she’s both sensual and repellent, yet you can have sympathy for her vengeful desires. After all, it was Merlin’s magick that broke her mother’s heart and forced an unwanted brother on her.
Another one of EXCALIBUR’s pleasures is the cast of excellent actors, a few of whom would go on to bigger things much later. I didn’t realize until my recent retro-viewing that Gabriel Byrne played the fiery Uther Pendragon, even watching him in it now I can see little of the sleepy-eyed soul I associate with MILLER’S CROSSING etc. Then there’s Patrick Stewart in his first film as well as Liam Neeson, sporting a samurai-style hair do. And somehow the actors have pulled off the remarkable feat of going from youth to elder with only graying hair and the power of performance. Nigel Terry plays Arthur from 16 to 50 through sheer force of personality and it’s a shame he hasn’t been seen much since, for he encapsulates all of King Arthur’s heart and wisdom. His relationship with Merlin is also touching as it’s his love for the wizard that frees him from Morgana’s spell.
The story stumbles in the third act as Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail takes center-stage. Boorman’s mysticism gets jumbled here, a typical flaw in his ouvre such as ZARDOZ and THE EMERALD FOREST, but this is the one film most suited to his flights of soft-focus fantasy. Speaking of, look how vast and expansive the sets and battles are with only a sprinkling of mattes, miniatures and studio walls. I particularly love the expressionistic last duel between Arthur and his unholy scion framed by a burning red sun and a tableau of crumpled knights at their feet. Fritz Lang would have been proud. And the lo-fi effects are still startling. I didn’t have any idea how Lancelot yanks Excalibur from his nude torso in one of the most memorable scenes. When Boorman explains it on the DVD audio commentary, the mind boggles at the simplicity. As he states, often times the best effects require nothing more than a little ingenuity. Along with MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975), another film that creates a completely believable medieval landscape, the strength of EXCALIBUR comes from its verisimilitude. We can only imagine what a LORD OF THE RINGS directed by John Boorman would have looked like, but it’s clear that Peter Jackson is a fan of this film.
A big hit through the spring and summer of 1981, EXCALIBUR ushered in the new age of 1980’s cinematic fantasy, followed quickly by CONAN THE BARBARIAN; DRAGONSLAYER; THE BEASTMASTER; KRULL; LEGEND; RED SONJA; LADYHAWKE; and a personal favorite, THE SWORD & THE SORCERER (1982), a low budget, high imagination movie directed with verve and style by Albert Pyun. I have fond memories of this genre yet none matched the gritty grandeur of EXCALIBUR. If ever a film could be considered “forged” it’s this magnificent epic that dazzles to this day.