Excalibur has had a somewhat chequered history on home video. It has seen numerous VHS incarnations, a gloriously remembered Laserdisc, some lacklustre DVDs and an apparently woeful HD-DVD (I can’t comment on that one because, after all the negativity towards it, I never actually picked it up). No matter how the film is presented, it is testing material indeed. The film is softly lensed, almost gauzy with gentle filters. It is also extremely shiny, what with all the armour and the often shimmery visuals. Colours are bold, yet smothered with that dreamy coating that diffuses their intensity. All of which conspires to give us lots to talk about with regards to this new AVC encode (the HD-DVD was VC-1).
Firstly, the film has not been restored, which is a shame, especially as we are now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Damage is slight, but there are still some very small pops and flecks, here and there. Colour fluctuations or contrast wavering is not an issue, however, and scene transitions appear smooth (other than the leap-frogging narrative style that Boorman adopts, that is). Grain is ever-present and it is film-like and not molested by DNR. The aspect ratio, erroneously labelled on the disc packaging as being 1.85:1 (as it has been most often displayed on disc), is actually 1.78:1. Neither aspect, of course, is the correct 1.66:1 frame that the film was originally presented with in theatres, but the re-framing that has taken place here is certainly not the travesty that some people have feared. Now, I did see Excalibur on the big screen at the time it came out. It was an AA certificate, and yes I was still too young (but since when did that stop us, eh?), and quite obviously I have no recollection as to how it looked. But you have to admit that this ratio does seem a touch cramped on occasion. Not all the time, you understand. In fact, it is only the odd shot that appears too tightly hemmed-in. I, personally, did not feel that anything vital was missed off the frame – a couple of heads, or rather fluffy hairdos, are neatly truncated, but there is none of the vicious trepanning of actors’ noggins that such cropping may have created. Boorman has stated, and you can hear bits about this in his now old and rather stale accompanying commentary, that he deliberately chose not to shoot 2.35:1 because he surmised that the aspect would not support his visual effects, possibly in the belief that they would look all the more blatantly phoney.
Colours, as I have said, can appear vibrant, yet still deliberately muted. There is a gloomy palette to the film, and any and all brightness is suffused and softened to a hazy veneer. This also helps to ruin any chance you’ve got of seeing the film crew reflected in the characters’ armour, of course. The colour that gets the most out of the transfer is green – seen across the foliage of the countryside, and reflected in the faces, eyes and armour when Excalibur is wielded with power – and it does look quite vibrant at times. It is also marvellously rendered as moss and lichen across rocks, trees and walls. Red is only reasonably showcased, however. Blood is dark and chunky, wine slightly less so. The orange-red orb of the sun during the climax is hardly going to set the screen ablaze. Skin-tones are pallid, though this is how they have always looked. Silver and gold – the armour of the Knights and the burnished armour of Mordred – are, once again, softened, yet not without some gleaming glory. Contrast is sorely tested by the woozy visual style, but some of the exterior daytimes look fine, and there is that nice and stark image of the blinding light suddenly dazzling across Perceval's eyes. Blacks are not too bad, but they can also have a tendency to become infiltrated by greys. Not to any detriment, though, and many of the darker scenes are suitably atmospheric with their shadow depth. The final battle is swathed in mist, meaning that the picture is smothered with swirling grey. Now, this was never going to look pretty – and it definitely doesn't on this BD. But, as ugly as this sequence appears, the transfer handles it accurately and without banding.
Those expecting to find more detail in the image should actually be quite pleased to discover that this is, indeed, the case. But this is not to say that Excalibur now looks much cleaner or crisper than before, or that image clarity is rich and rewarding. For every shot that exhibits more chain-mail, finer gradations in makeup, tighter resolution in leaves and branches, and in the blades of grass that the Knights across, and more intricate heraldry in flags, emblems and armour, there are many more that, quite simply, do not. I can’t compare this disc to the image found on the HD-DVD, but I can heartily attest to its ample upgrade over the previous SD editions. Improvements are certainly made in the presentation of lace in Morgana's slinky costumes and the diamond sprinkling in Guinevere's wedding veil. Although there is not a lot of it, the image does display some fine three-dimensionality and visual depth in some shots – most noticeably as we gaze back down the congregation at the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, and during some of the more kinetic tracking shots of characters moving through densely wooded glens. Thus, the image does not look as bleak or as flat as it has done in previous transfers but, with only a handful of exceptions, it can still lack the pictorial spatiality that many releases manage to attain.
A couple of shots make you think that there is edge enhancement – the outlines of the standing stones against a grey, overcast sky, say – but this is merely the cinematography and the lighting. Edges are smoothly rendered and without ringing. There is no banding taking place within the image, and no aliasing or blocking. You show this disc to someone unfamiliar with the film and they are bound to refute your claims that it looks like hi-def material. This said, those that know Excalibur, or have an understanding of the limitations that a faithful transfer has to work with, will see unmistakable benefits to how it looks on this new Blu-ray from Warner.
Well, John Boorman does claim that his film was originally engineered for a mono soundtrack because the Dolby Stereo track that he heard the playing with on some test previews in the States was deplorable. He also claims that, should the original elements be found, then he would be happy if they could be polished and restored and added reintegrated. Having said that, we have no way of knowing how he feels about this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track … because his commentary is from much longer ago.
Some people have been disappointed with this lossless audio mix, but I think expectations may have been artificially high. Without a doubt, Excalibur is exactly the type of film that demands a big, brash, full-on surround experience with plenty of grinding, impact-heavy sub-action. But, sadly, we don't get any of that. I would have loved to have heard a brand new remix – but this is simply a greedy excess on my part and would not have been faithful in any way to the film's original sound design. As such, this mix does what it can with the source material, but remains a front-heavy assault that is musically dominant, harsh with dialogue, quite poor with .LFE and very sparing with ambient surround.
The stereo spread across the front does not convince me, with effects and breadth sounding slightly dislocated at times. Some of the dialogue has always sounded slightly out-of-synch, and it is no exception here, although this just shows how authentic the track is to the source. The bash and crash of swords and armour yields little genuine heft, and the toppling of a siege tower provides only a minimum of clattering timber. Although I have to say that the flaming fireballs catapulted against the castle at the start actually do sound quite dramatic and powerful, and provide a little bit of steerage. This sort of dynamism is in short demand though. The grand melee at the climax throws a fair bit of weight around, but it is all sort of directionless and just part of a larger crush. You’ll get the impression that a bunch of big blokes, dressed in cumbersome armour, are laying-into one another, but it lacks detail and finesse and clarity.
The surrounds get to carry some meagre musical surplus, and there are some slight elements of natural ambience, such as birdsong, and the tinkling of running water during the scenes when Arthur duels with Lancelot and when Perceval is hounded-away by the God-squad, which is fine but, once again, this is not exactly clean and concisely prioritised audio mixing. Although this may be blasphemous to say, I still believe that Excalibur could have accommodated more imagination and flair in its lossless sound design than this. Like the image, the source material is problematic and not the best to showcase the full hi-def experience, but I doubt fans will have too much to complain about.
And yet I enjoyed the film with its vague attempts at stretching out the sound-field, and the increased depth that it provides.
The hurt really sets in here as the Lady of the Lake holds aloft this Blu-ray with little to bow down before. All that Warner have elected to embroider the disc with – on its 30th anniversary, too – is the banal and dry solo commentary from John Boorman that fans have heard before. And a theatrical trailer. Look at the packaging as well! What’s all that about, then? It’s a disgrace when you consider the absolutely awesome poster art that once adorned this mythological epic.
Boorman's chat-track is a rather humdrum affair that may offer some production trivia and a little insight into why he made certain choices regarding the look and sound of the film but there are a few too many lulls and some meandering narration that makes the whole thing something of a chore to sit through. Still, at least, he offers up some stories about the story and his interpretation of it, the effects and the locations, his cast and, ahem, the ample charms of Helen Mirren.
We definitely deserved more than this, though.
You're begat by an arranged rape. You're abducted by a necromancer. Your wife is busy enjoying the attentions of your best friend. Your own half-sister then seduces you, and the subsequent offspring wants nothing more than to kill you. It’s not easy being a king, is it? Welcome to the most dysfunctional family saga of them all. The seeds of the soap opera are sown here in the mythical tale of King Arthur.
For all of its flaws and its eccentricities, John Boorman’s Excalibur remains mighty. There have been many interpretations of the Arthurian Romances – from the sublime and the fantastical to the skewed and the clever, and from the child-pleasingly escapist to the historically revisionist – but this lavish version from 1981 is the one true telling that seems to encompass all the juicy bits and to fulfil its dark and magical, doom-laden aspects as well. There is glory, and there is treachery. No-one is left unmarked by the passing of an age that was never meant to last. Wonderful music, a chaotic and haphazard structure, crazy characters and a devout conviction to weave legend from imagery, Excalibur is a grand old yarn, stunningly told.
From a visual standpoint, this most majestic of productions, ironically enough, is never going to look all that good, which, given the amount of pageantry on offer, is slightly odd. But, given the style with which it was made and photographed, it just cannot, I’m afraid. At least, not by the standards that many fans of hi-def material expect from the format. If you know the film, however, you will certainly appreciate that this is still a very fine and respectable transfer, though obviously a full-on restoration would have been far better. The lack of extras is lamentable, with only Boorman’s lethargic and now dated commentary providing anything of supplemental worth to what should have been a blazing 30th anniversary edition.
But Excalibur is a terrific and bravura slice of prime fantasy – dark and violent and yet brimming with magical thunder.
“A dream to some … a nightmare to others,” it may be, Excalibur still comes very highly recommended.
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