Forged By A God. Foretold By A Wizard. Found By A King.
And now on Blu-ray … Excalibur.
1981 was a great year for fantasy films. We had Dragonslayer, Disney's brave attempt to beef its image up with a cruel tale of wizardry and maiden-munching monsters. There was the awesome Conan The Barbarian, Dino De Laurentiis large-scale brawn 'n' sword cut-em-up that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the gym to fill the screen at the beginning of a decade he would make his own. Clash Of The Titans marked a charming though lacklustre swansong for the stop-motion talents of Ray Harryhausen and his love affair with the Greek myths. And then, of course, there was the majestic, lavishly mounted adaptation of England's own mythology with the spectacularly operatic Excalibur from the quixotic John Boorman. Though none of these magical tussles in bygone times were initially successful at the box office, all have gone on to attain devoted cult followings, remakes in a couple of cases and a considerable amount of reappraisal over the years.
Although I love all of these valiant and imaginative offerings, I think my favourite, perhaps, is this dreamy, transcendent, patchwork and often downright loopy interpretation of the glorious Athurian Romances as depicted by Sir Thomas Malory in his epic Le Morte d'Arthur. Long in gestation, Shakespearean in tone, but occasionally pantomimic in execution, Excalibur is a quill-pen-written love-ode to the legendary Age of Chivalry.
Conceived during a phantom-rape presided over by the sorcerer, Merlin (Nicol Williamson), clumsy squire Arthur (Nigel Terry) is the only man able to pull the Sword from the Stone and, thus, become the true King of England. He founds the gleaming castle of Camelot, musters the Knights of the Round Table, marries the fair maiden Guinevere (Cheri Lunghi), bears witness to the dawn of politics and technology and Christianity, loses his way in a turmoil of deceit, misbegotten love and star-crossed treachery, courtesy of the wandering affections of his champion, Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), seeks out the Holy Grail and, in the symbolic mists of a passing age, locks in mortal combat with his own hate-filled son, Mordred … and becomes legend.
Other than the Iliad, there is little to touch the epic and allegorical and simply enduring nature of King Arthur and the Round Table. Each of the Knights has his own grand story to tell. The overarching legend contains heroic actions, foul deeds, sex and betrayal, hopes and failures, dreams and magic. A whole lotta magic. Boorman would have to whittle away at the huge canvas of such a grandiose powerplay, but his film makes sure to cover all the big and well-known elements that are vital ingredients in the celebrated yarn.
Co-writing the screenplay with the wonderfully named Rospo Pallenberg (who collaborated on the director's Deliverance and The Emerald Forest, as well as the lamentable Exorcist II: The Heretic), Boorman would emphasise the mythical broadstrokes of what King Arthur and Merlin have come to mean to literature and ideology and English culture. Existing in a limbo of medieval chivalry outside all known heraldic history, Excalibur is its own beast … and it is a very curious one at that. For every fan who cherishes the director’s quest to bring the story to the screen, there is someone who despises its overt theatricality and hop-scotching narrative. But this divisiveness could also be seen as endemic to its themes of one belief system gradually being replaced by another, of the nobility and altruism of one man and his dream causing fear and resentment in others. It is a film about fundamental change – for good or for ill. It is about the dream of what can be. The eternal pursuit for societal harmony. It is also about the fundamental flaw in any such cosmic scheme – the involvement of Man.
Visually gorgeous, and highly stylised, Excalibur is more concerned with set-pieces and vignettes than it is with a properly structured form. Elegantly photographed by Alex Thompson, and ponderous with dialogue wrought with the utmost import, the film can feel stagey and slow, and yet it gets through a lot of material and incident in a remarkably short amount of time. The early days of Arthur’s conception and rise to power are bright and exciting, and the second act, once treachery and evil take hold, are dark and glowering and filled with dread. The quest for the Holy Grail is often the stumbling block that the Romances suffer, seemingly taking the story into quite heavy-handed religious territory almost at the expense of all that sword-swinging heroism. But Boorman, by virtue of the surrealist stance with which he depicts it, makes these dour and grim-set challenges in the more serious final third of the film enthralling with the flavour of one world coming to an end, and the epochal passing of a flawed saviour. Wherever you dip into his film, the image and the mood is instantly gripping. The flow is stuttering, the narrative fractured … but the pulse is always strong and enervating.
The cast stride around in infeasibly shiny and cumbersome armour the whole time. Part of the film's soundtrack is the little assortment of clinks and clanks that they make as they move. Gabriel Byrne’s obsessive, ever-angered Uther Pendragon, the warrior-chieftain whose embittered desires set the whole saga in motion, even seduces whilst in full armour. Perhaps he has a little “nookie-hatch” that he opens when the time comes. But this lumbering steel-encased quality doesn't necessarily come across as being merely decorative. You get a sense of the pride and honour and dignity that the Knights feel. Their belonging to an order that represents valour, heroism and decency is fabulously wrought by Boorman and his firm-chinned ensemble. I often wonder how someone like John Milius, who was responsible for the same year's savage Conan outing, would have handled it. It would have undoubtedly been more popular, and considerably more action-packed and violent, but, as Cimmerian epic proved, it would probably have botched the fantastical elements completely in order to concentrate on the art of medieval brutality. Boorman, on the other hand, understands the glory that can be imparted merely by showing a cluster of bloodied warriors breathing heavily on the battlefield after the confrontation has been fought. For him, the power and sanctity of one man's dream and the commitment of those who follow him is often enough to drive the theme home like a battering-ram. He doesn't, therefore, feel the need to pummel audiences with non-stop scenes of epic stunts and derring-do.
Having said this, though, there are battles aplenty, but they are never of the scale that audiences weaned on The Lord Of The Rings, Troy or Kingdom Of Heaven will have become accustomed to. In fact, most of the time, Arthur and his Knights resemble more the Magnificent Seven when they ride out to conquer, to avenge or to put verdant England to rights. Despite the rain-sodden Irish locations (all the better to keep the theme of lush and fertile growth with the abundant greenery), there is a spirited verve to each skirmish. Even the climactic battle between the God-fearing forces of light and the black-garbed army of foul corruption, set amidst a thick enchanted mist, is propelled with vigour and the sort of lust for life that is, inevitably, a head-on collision with death. A wonderful touch is the decayed vegetation suddenly blooming with replenished vitality as Arthur and his Knights charge towards a righteous, long-delayed victory, the symbolic reference to the King's umbilical link to the land that he rules.
Wagnerian pomp thunders across the soundtrack. I mean, how better to ride into glorious, destiny-fuelled battle than to the rousing brass and percussion and soaring choral passion of O Fortuna? There is also the classical delights of pieces from Tristan and Isolde and Gotterdamerung to keep the operatic nature of such high points positively gleaming. In-between, composer Trevor Jones provides many merry medieval ho-downs, something that he would also excel with the following year for Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal. If you listen to the scene when Merlin conjures up the spectral fog of the Dragon's Breath for Uther Pendragon to ride across and into Tintagel Castle, you can hear the beginnings of his main theme for The Last Of The Mohicans, which would wow many years later. James Horner was clearly enamoured with how Wagner could raise the spirits into unparalleled and giddy splendour too, as he emulated O Fortuna with his climactic battle music for Glory. And Hans Zimmer made very concerted efforts to have Gladiator come across as a musical sibling to Excalibur. What I will say is that as fine a soundtrack as all of this undoubtedly is, Boorman's handling of some these bravura fanfares is less than ideal, his spotting of some cues slightly off. O Fortuna is heard several times throughout the film, but there are a couple of occasions when it merely comes and goes, petering-out at the wrong time with a fade that doesn't do the visuals or the pace justice.
Nigel Terry chews his way through a comical West Country accent, whilst Nicol Williamson conjures-up an utterly bizarre and wholly irresistible dialect all of his own as the eccentric, twitchy Merlin. In fact, his performance as the wily wizard is so strange/funny/cunning/knowing/clever/uncanny that you can never quite get a handle on precisely what he is up to from one minute to the next. Which, of course, is perfect. But I refuse to believe that it is merely coincidence that the comedy actor Ade (The Young Ones/Bottom) Edmondson has almost exactly the same quirky mannerisms and voice pattern as Williamson. Terry was a classical stage actor, with occasional film interludes (namely 1968's The Lion In Winter, which must have been a nice dress rehearsal for this) and he brings the same sort of exaggerated form to the screen, egged-on, of course, by Boorman, who wanted “bigger” performances from his cast. His transition from awkward and naïve young kingling to fully-fledged mature monarch and warlord is quite striking. Although we can plainly see the old-age makeup and the salt 'n' pepper wig, you really do get the sense that the character has aged and weathered. Terry doesn't get the credit he deserves for pulling this off, in my opinion. However, we cannot make such apologies for the lack of chemistry between himself and Cherie Lunghi, for he must, in equal measure, take the blame for the blandness of their passion.
For his part, Williamson excels as one of the most mesmerising Merlins ever to cast a spell. I adore Sam Neill's more human incarnation of the wily warlock in Steve Barron's excellent TV show, but somehow the scatty, irascible thespian gives the character a true sense of otherness. Williamson was no stranger to the genre of the Dark Ages, with the title role in Tony Richardson's Hamlet (1969) and appearances in the Inquisition drama Le Moine (1972) opposite Franco Nero's mad, sex tormented monk, and in Richard Lester’s elegiac Robin and Marian (1976), as none other than Little John. But his own idiosyncratic style is very much the pedigree that makes this particular Merlin stand out as the grand wizard whose need for a son in spite of his own esoteric loneliness is the very catalyst for the fierce moral tug-of-war in the first place. It is great to see that Merlin grasps the idiocy and fallibility of Man and accepts it for what it is without dire condemnation. When the enquiring young Arthur asks about his own father, Merlin is even able to remark of his volatile relationship with Uther that “it is hard not to love folly in a child,” which brilliantly sums up his infatuation with mortals. The slapstick that sometimes accompanies him does not feel forced or out of place, even when he accidentally bangs his head or loses his balance in a stream. Well, not really.
Cherie Lunghi has the pure damsel appeal that the role requires, but the miracle of her performance is that she is even able to appear devout and full of worth even as she lies, nude, in the arms of her lover. With an English Rose look about her, pale complexion, a cascade of medieval curls and beatific eyes that always seem to be on the verge of weeping, she is the very epitome of the love-stricken Queen. She isn’t given a great deal to work with when it comes to building her relationship with Nigel Terry, her spiralling descent into the love-trap with Lancelot the primary focus, and this does considerably lessen our empathy with the pair during their last reunion and repatriation. But it is to the young Helen Mirren to which most male gaze is inevitably drawn. As Morgana, Arthur’s black magician half-sister, Mirren is electrifying. The temptation to play the part with panto-like boo-hiss villainy has proved irresistible to many, such as Miranda Richardson in the great TV mini-series Merlin, opposite Sam Neill, but Mirren does not overplay the deviousness and the sick desire that burns within Morgana’s dark soul. Even before Julianna Margulies provided the character with a finely sympathetic allure in the feminine-focussed Mists Of Avalon, the adolescent fantasy babe from Caligula and The Long Good Friday, found a way to make the sorceress a fully-rounded character with depth and motivations that are unique, troubling and scarred, but understandable. Plus, she looks absolutely gorgeous – something that Boorman was clearly keen to emphasise with the fashioning of steel nipples on her own curvaceous breastplate, and a loving, smitten direction that enables the camera to become enchanted by her radiance.
King Arthur may be nothing without Merlin by his side, but his fate is inextricably linked to that of his champion, Sir Lancelot, the very person who, unwittingly, undermines his power and starts the cancer that ripples through Camelot. Nicholas Clay had been a familiar face on television and the big screen for years, with small but memorable parts in Zulu Dawn and Victor Frankenstein (a 1978 Swedish take on the novel), but a rise to leading man status was not forthcoming even after this opportunity to portray the legendary knight in shining armour, and emotional usurper to Arthur's pride. With a tasteful love scene in the woods and a brief skirmish against himself in the nude (in a sequence that seems to hark back to Luke Skywalker's confrontation with himself shrouded in Darth Vader's attire in the previous years The Empire Strikes Back) and a final, wild-haired, werewolf-like last stand in heart-pumping honour of his King, Clay does make a fine stab of things. But it is his lonely, forlorn and doomed glances towards Lunghi's forbidden fruit that linger most.
The greatest tale is that of Sir Perceval and his quest to find the Grail. Naturally, and rather beautifully, this is an endeavour that is as much a trek through his own heart and soul as it is across the desolate, plague-ravaged landscape that has befallen the ailing kingdom. TV actor Paul Geoffrey does well as the determined and ever-loyal knight, turning what could be seen as a shallow earnestness into a highly emotional one-man crusade against the forces of evil and corruption. The fantastical and theological outcome to his trials and tribulations is deliberately vague and possibly quite shaky in its abstraction, if we are honest, but there is a definite sense of catharsis about his eventual victory that, at the end of the day, only serves to reinforce Boorman’s conviction to myth and magic holding court ...
even if their days are numbered.
The taunting by the young Mordred (played with piggy-eyed surliness by Boorman’s son, Charlie, of Long Way Round fame) as he leads poor Perceval on a wild goose chase through a nightmarish briar of decay and rot, and on towards his meeting with a dark tree hung with the bodies of slain knights who have failed in their quest. Interestingly, even the hulking Conan found himself affixed to such an arboreal prison on the Tree of Woe the same year, and the Immortals would gruesomely employ a similar tactic in both graphic novel and film adaptation of 300. There is something of a Leone-like moment as Perceval hangs from the branches, the sharpened spurs of a fellow victim slowly cutting through the noose around his neck as he dangles there in an agonised reverie somewhere between life and death. We may love Lancelot for all of his emotional confusions … but it is Perceval who strives, more than anybody else, to do the right thing, even in the face of absolute barbarity. For me, Perceval's fear-glazed devotion is as much a symbol of Arthur's unfulfilled dream as Excalibur, itself.
What does threaten to derail all of this redolent, heart-surging atmosphere is the way in which Boorman’s screenplay veers from one famous chapter to another without a clear and well thought-out structure to mesh it all together. One minute we hear of Arthur’s proud intentions to found Camelot, take a wife and form the Round Table, and the next we have the serf, a younger Perceval, tagging along behind Lancelot with aspirations of becoming a knight. Sir Gawain (a young and volatile Liam Neeson), his stoic character sadly cut short in this interpretation, barks out his suspicions regarding Guinevere, yet we have barely had any time at all to notice that the scheming Morgana has been whispering poison in his ear. And, for that matter, the matter-of-fact nature of Morgana's presence in Camelot seems to come from practically nowhere. When last we saw her, she was but a child – and Arthur never seems to mention her at all. However, the deception and imprisonment of Merlin is nicely done, and quite unexpected … and the carnal subterfuge that Morgana commits as a result of it is also quite a thrilling episode. But, after all of this, the sudden arrival on the scene of the fully grown Mordred (played by the late Robert Addie, who would go on to portray the splendidly villainous Sir Guy of Gisburne in the cracking Robin Of Sherwood TV series), the son Arthur didn’t really want, is treated with little of the impact that it deserves, and such a great character seems slightly wasted as a result, consigned as he is to the final act. The voyage to Avalon, also, seems merely tacked-on and ultimately conveys little of the enormity of what is happening.
It is as though Boorman and Pallenberg are assuming that we all already know the story inside-out and backwards. Admittedly, a lot of us do, but this still makes for a quilt-like rendering of the narrative, closely-seamed but patterned only with handsome snippets that we must make sense of, ourselves.
Budgetary concerns are raised with the lack of a good shot of Camelot. We see a few interiors, most notably the chamber of the Round Table, but when we want to get a good look at this citadel of glass, gold and bronze, we are merely treated to a couple of rather naff shots of a trumpeter atop the battlements, and a repetitive image of the draw-bridge opening and closing. I know I am nitpicking, but with the great Wally Veevers (2001: A Space Odyssey, Raise The Titanic, Superman and Michael Mann's toweringly eerie The Keep) handling the visual effects, surely we could have stretched to a more elaborate shot that revealed something of the castle's intricate, Merlin-designed geometry. Composited shots of the Grail look surprisingly bland, even by the standards of a children's TV show on the Beeb at the same time. And the ranks of Mordred's demonic battalion are depicted only by the fleeting, mist obscured image of a couple of monster-masks. I must admit that I love the image of Merlin's mystical crystal cave, though! And Thompson's ravishing cinematography is always first rate, marrying-up the intimate with the awesome with startling alacrity and invention. He would work with Veevers again on The Keep (a Blu-ray release puh-leeze!), and would produce evocative imagery for Labyrinth and Alien 3, even voyaging quite extensively into the comic-book action genre with the likes of Demolition Man and Cliffhanger. Working closely with Boorman, he would hone Excalibur into an often merciless work of art.
Excalibur is classic British Cinema. It takes a home-grown legend, refuses to dumb it down or to reinvent it, and invests it with a decidedly English quirkiness and a stalwart cast of old dependables, promising soon-to-be’s (including Patrick Stewart) and left-field never-wills. It takes a magical subtext, but layers such mumbo-jumbo with all the appropriate randomness, ill-conception and dire ramifications of a blundering and rash dream society that doesn't fully appreciate the power that it wields, and doesn’t just hurl lightning bolts about for the sake of it. It accepts the very notions of religion and faith as inevitable supplants to the old ways without going out of its to way to preach. With a conflict so far-reaching and imposing, Boorman is right to skip lightly across such a radical swing-shift and to capture its essence with surrealist flights of fancy. The film would have become a thesis on Christian assimilation if he hadn’t, and it would have lost the key to its glorious sword-thrust into the swirling vortex of so a ripe and ever-promising a mythology.
“Now, once more I must ride with my Knights to defend what was … and the dream of what could be.”
Excalibur is a very English triumph – brash, redoubtable, proud. And more than a little bit daft and eccentric. It is also highly unique … and comes highly recommended.