Excalibur
Rating -

Fantasy (US); 1981; Rated R; 143 Minutes

Cast
Nigel Terry: King Arthur
Cherie Lunghi: Guenevere
Nicol Williamson: Merlin
Nicholas Clay: Lancelot
Helen Mirren: Morgana
Paul Geoffery: Perceval

Produced by John Boorman, Edgar F. Cross, Michael Dryhurst and Robert A. Einstein; Directed by John Boorman; Screenwritten by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg; based on the novel "Le Morte D'Arthur" by Thomas Malory

Review Uploaded
2/22/99

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Good and evil, there never is one without the other."

-Merlin's Dialogue from "Excalibur"

He steps from the shadows and into the glowing flames of battle. His scathed robe flickers in the wind, the dragon's breath clouding the brooding landscape. His helmet reflects light into the shadows, and his silhouette graces the lands in conduct of war. To him, the dark ages of England are merely silly little children's games where the loser screams and shouts until he gets his way. For him, those days are about to come to an end.

His name is Merlin. Legends speak of his indefinite power and strength; the magic that brought the dark ages into the light, and the prophecies of a majestic sword that would rise above centuries of war and pestilence. When he enters the screen of John Boorman's unforgettable "Excalibur," he not only shifts the face of time, but of humanity as well.

In the film's opening scene, Merlin wades through crowds in heated battle, searching for his diamond in the rough; the man that would bring England out of its dimness. "Uther!" he shouts through the walls of soldiers, as combat wages on without reason. Finally, from the burning landscape, a silver body of armor emerges through the masses on a noble horse, confronted by the dwarfed but prominent wizard.

"Where is the sword?", this man demands.

Merlin looks at him with lofty ambition. "Come to the lake and you shall have it," he replies, unknowing of the mistakes that lay ahead.

A day later, the great wizard retrieves this legendary artifact, the Excalibur, from the lady in the lake. The essence of its glow as it emerges from the water is overwhelming; it might even send chills down your spine. Once Excalibur is in possession, Uther is proclaimed king throughout the land. At galas, women dance with grandeur to serve as his entertainment. During one such dance, he falls in love with the wife of the duke, whose beauty outshines that of even the Excalibur.

The attraction is simply too much to go unnoticed, however. She is married, but that isn't enough to stop Uther. He requests Merlin to disguise him as the woman's husband while the duke is away at battle. Once a dragon's breath is weaved and settled on the land, Uther floats through the fog, journeying across the hills and into the lair of the woman he loves. A burning passion ignites a sexual encounter between the two. The daughter of the duke's wife, Morgana, watches them in their heated passion. She's a developing sorceress; and she knows her father as died in battle, and knows who this man really is.

Through Uther's adultery, a child is conceived, by the name of Arthur. In the blink of an eye, Merlin takes the child from his mother and ventures off into the forest with it. At this point, no one trusts Uther as king. Merlin knew it he was a mistake in giving Excalibur to him. "You aren't the one after all," he pronounces. But it's not like it matters for long: during a pursuit for the sword, Uther pronounces, "No one shall have the sword but me!", and imbeds it deep into a stone rock. Merlin looks down at the screaming child he holds. "You're the one, Arthur." The tales that follow prove Merlin's words true. England could not have asked for a better king than this child.

That, at least, is apparent, whence the sword is pulled from the stone and the dark ages end. The land flourishes from the monarchy of King Arthur, and his queen, the beautiful Guenevere. Early on in the movie, Merlin warns the new king of what lies ahead. "A friend will betray you," he insists at first. "When you grow as a king, the land will thrive from it." Once Camelot is built, the darkness in England lifts and we are allowed to see the earthy tones that not even real life has. One scene by a waterfall contains a landscape bright and alive, as if magic grasped its creation.

Later, we meet that legendary and loyal soldier, Sir Lancelot, whose search for a warrior better than he comes to an end upon Arthur's arrival. The sword Excalibur is too powerful, even for he, and thus, he gives up the land he watches, to join Arthur's court.

It was a mad act of destiny that brought these characters together. Lancelot, while Arthur's #1 knight, so to speak, falls in love with Guenevere; but to protect the sanctity of her marriage and his honor, he does not advance the brewing relationship that he and she began sensing. It's obvious on screen that both the queen and the knight feel something for each other, but it goes unnoticed by Arthur, who was, after all, warned of betrayal. You can easily guess what happens next.

Thus, all falls asunder. Morgana, the young sorceress we met early in the movie, returns in adult form, with more than good tidings on her mind. Trapping the wizard Merlin in the dragon's temple and then causing a fall of the knights of the round table, she conceives a child by seducing her half brother, Arthur. The child, as chronicled through both the movie and literature, was to be supremely powerful, and projected to inherit Camelot once Arthur had died. In his teenage state, the king's illegitimate son almost assumed the throne, since Arthur, at that point, had lost his noble soldiers, as well as his wife, to the coldness of his half-sister.

This prompts the search for the legendary Holy Grail. In this quest, the story focuses upon one of Arthur's more prolific soldiers. Earlier on in the movie, we met him as poor boy whose clothes and manners were anything but civilized. Here, the boy has developed into a young Arthur; his goal for succeeding is apparent every time he's on the quest. History tells us that this artifact was found after much death and destruction in Camelot, and we see that in the movie. The land changes from its rich and colorful vibrance to the poor and dreary tones that the movie started in. Is that repetition of scenery? Naturally, but it's not a problem. After all, how often does history engage in repetition?

Excalibur, the sword, may have been forged by a god and foretold by a wizard, but it was found by director John Boorman, and rightfully so. His movie is an example of the greater powers that exist beyond humankind. Excalibur is its own character, held by the wisest and most powerful of men, and studied by all who have heard its name. Today's interpretations of Arthur's sword are so cliche-ridden that the makers have a difficult time believing the legend. In this case, Boorman and his writers view the material as something they truly opine. They believe in it, and treat it with passion. To watch Excalibur glide through the crowds of soldiers is to see it before it saw itself. The movie is seemingly ahead of its time.

All of the elements of Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur" are intact in the film, too: the wars, the evolution of Camelot, the rise and fall of the round table, the study of Sir Lancelot, the affair between Guenevere and Lancelot, the loss of Excalibur, the search for the Holy Grail: everything. The journey is, of course, a long and painful one, but never is it iterative or boring. The filmmakers allow us to examine each scene down to the naked eye: the majestic landscapes and detailed costumes are so incredibly breathtaking that it's no wonder each shot in the whole movie contains its own unique style. From the gloomy atmospheric treatments of men at war to the tapestries embroidered with symbols of virtue at Camelot, it's a concept treatment unlike any other. Once could imagine the obvious difficulty of costume design.

"Excalibur" is one of those great miracles in filmmaking that set the standards for what comes ahead. It's concept of Arthur and the landscape that surrounds him is a benchmark for fantasy as we know it. The first time I saw the film was back in 1992, and it was breathtaking, on a 6-inch black-and-white TV set. Perhaps the observancy is due to the fact that "Excalibur" depends on every element of fantasy to emerge successfully. Set and costume photography scrambles off the screen and into the most vigilant portions of our minds, while characters remain focused on the material and the themes. Their personalities reflect the ones that Thomas Malory gave them in "Le Morte D'Arthur."

John Boorman has made a name for himself in Hollywood, and that was largely due to the success of his earlier film, "Deliverance." He and his photographers must have had considerable patience with this project, since word is, the costumes themselves took nearly half a year to complete, not counting the set design. A director like this obviously has the intention of keeping the viewer amused for two hours and twenty minutes, otherwise the movie might have fallen into a heap of muddled story directions. A famous director once said that our cinema is starved for new ideas and images. You wouldn't expect such unique visuals to emerge from a centuries old story, but they do anyway. By the time the movie is over, the freshness of the concept has settled down into our minds. We've had a great time viewing it, and we imagine the filmmakers had a great time making it.


1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
 
 
           
     
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