Retro Film Review: Excalibur (1981)
According to the results of recently published poll, some 11 pct of Britons think that Adolf Hitler is product of someone's imagination rather than historical figure. Same poll suggests that 57 pct of Britons think that King Arthur was actual historical figure. That poll shocked many historians, showing how Hollywood finally blurred the line between real history and myth. However, in the case of King Arthur some British historians weren't that appalled, shocked or convinced of their countrymen's ignorance. According to some studies, in 5th Century AD a man named Riothamus brought some sort of political unity, law, order and prosperity to inhabitants of Britain following the Roman withdrawal from the island. In next centuries accounts of Riothamus blended with oral tradition of native Britons and their medieval conquerors. The mythology, further refined in the works of English, French, German and other medieval poets and troubadours, was finally codified in Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (1414-1471), one of the first printed books in England. In last hundred years or so, Arthurian legend became part of global culture, mostly thanks to Hollywood films. The most impressive of those movies was Excalibur, 1981 epic directed by John Boorman.
Screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg adapted book in such way that the almost entire Arthurian mythology is condensed into single feature film. Prologue begins in a Dark Ages - period when today's England was plagued by endless wars between petty little fiefdoms. It is foretold that the one man would unite the country and bring peace, harmony and prosperity. Uther Pendragon (played by Gabriel Byrne) thinks that he can make prophecy true with the help of magical sword Excalibur, given to him by powerful wizard Merlin (played by Nicol Williamson). Only a step away from fulfilling his goals, Uther succumbs to lust towards Igrayne (played by Katrina Boorman), wife of one of England's mightiest dukes. For the sake of one night with Igrayne, Uther throws away the peace treaty, any chance to become a king and ultimately his own life. Product of Uther's and Igrayne's intercourse is taken by Merlin and later grows up to become young man named Arthur (played by Nigel Terry). When it turns out that Arthur is the only man able to wield Uther's magical sword, he becomes a king. He quickly vanquishes all of his opponents and gathers formidable group of supporters known as the Knights of Round Table. Peace comes to England and Arthur from his castle rules as just, benevolent and enlightened ruler. But that bliss is short-lived because evil lurks within Camelot, mainly in the form of Morganna (played by Helen Mirren), Arthur's magic- practicing half-sister.
Arthurian legend was born in turbulent times of transition and that explains its contradictions. Arthur (or its historical equivalent) lived in times when old pagan world was being slowly replaced by Christianity. The conflict between those two worlds reflected on the Arthur himself - on one hand, he is described as the first truly Christian monarchs and his men are embodiment of Christian chivalry; yet, Excalibur, Merlin and all the magic belongs to pre-Christian world. Malory, the author of the book, was also the man of contradictions living in turbulent times. 15th Century England was ravaged by endless civil wars that would end in old feudal system being replaced with absolute monarchy. Malory himself was product of those turbulent times; he allegedly wrote the book in prison, having been put there for the acts that had little with ideals of chivalry. Five hundred years later Boorman builds his entire film on those contradictions and conflicts.
The conflict in Excalibur isn't just the conflict between paganism and Christianity. It is also conflict between romanticised mythical past and its modern realistic representation. The film is compromise between the two. Arthur and his knights are presented just like they used to be imagined in medieval songs and chronicles - as the idealised embodiment of medieval chivalry. Boorman chose to discard historic authenticity; instead of 5th Century AD costumes, protagonists wear clothes and objects more familiar to people who lived in Malory's times; Arthur and his men are literally knights in shining armour. All that makes their human weakness more apparent - people in the armour are plagued by rage, lust, self-doubt and often commit acts contrary to their noble code of conduct. Boorman underlines this contrast with the heavy use of naturalist violence - people are impaled, limbs are chopped off, blood spurts and birds feast on decomposing human corpses. Boorman also another thing which is hard to imagine in spectacular period films these days - nudity. It is far from being gratuitous, because nude characters in this film are being vulnerable than being erotic.
Boorman directed this film with great skill. Irish locations are put to good use in this film and they show how Western Europe used to be both beautiful and sinister in its pagan times, before the arrival of Christianity and modern civilisation. Alex Thomson's cinematography enhances this impression with green light being reflected in knights' armour plates. Acting in the film is superb, although only a fraction of this excellent ensemble is well-known in today's cinema (most notably Patrick Stewart of Star: The Next Generation fame, here in the small role of Guenevere's father). Nigel Terry is very good in the role that required transformation from clueless youth to embittered old man. Nicholas Clay is also very effective in the complex role of Lancelot. Cherie Lunghi and Patrick Geoffrey are more than solid in their roles of Guenevere and Perceval, while Byrne is very effective in the role of Uther. Most effective acting, however, comes from two artists whose on-screen animosity (according to Boorman in his DVD audio commentary) matched the their real life feelings - Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson. Mirren is formidable as embodiment of seductive evil, while Williamson chews the scenery as the character who is hero's mentor and comic relief at the same time. Williamson's role, however, isn't helped with Pallenberg's dialogue which often leaves much to be desired. Music in the film is also something of a disappointment - Trevor Jones' original score doesn't mix well with Wagner, while Carl Orff's Carmina Burrana suffers being overused in plenty of other films.
However, despite those minor flaws, Excalibur has one big advantage over most of period, fantasy and sword & sorcery films being made these days. Because its contradictions are part of authors' artistic vision, this movie represents true art and so far the most honest and most powerful on-screen depiction of the ancient and universal legend.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on April 23rd 2004)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/11527-excalibur