Retro Review – Excalibur

Excalibur poster

Overview

Synopsis Following a violent and scandalous conception, the young Arthur discovers that he's secretly been chosen by the Sword in the Stone to become the King of England! Now he must face fierce opposition from enemies and allies who will challenge his power and betray him.

Length 2 Hours 20 Minutes

Release Date April 10th, 1981

 

Rating R

Distribution Warner Bros. (theatrical), Warner Home Video (VHS, DVD)

Directing John Boorman

Writing John Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg, Based on Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Mallory

Composition Trevor Jones

Starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne

With the recent release of The Green Knight, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of King Arthur stories. It’s been fun rewatching comedies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail as well as more serious retellings of the story like Le Morte D’Arthur. Digging into the lore though, I’ve been curious to see if I can find a great dramatic retelling of the King Arthur legend on film. Other legends of European lore such as Robin Hood have great film adaptations. I wanted to see if I could find a great King Arthur film. While the record is spotty, I did find one film that felt very rewarding!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some extreme war fighting and gore; characters loose limbs and eyes. There are intense battle scenes with people being slayed and stabbed. Depictions of corpses decaying.
Language/Crude Humor: Somewhat mild language. A character is referred to as a b*stard.
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual drinking of wine.
Sexual Content: Several scenes of male and female nudity including breasts and buttocks. The story involves themes of adultery, lust and sex.
Spiritual Content: Some spiritual and religious themes. Christian and Pagan influences are mentioned throughout the story.
Other Negative Content: Extreme violence, themes of death, lust, greed for power and sex, and depictions of all of the above.
Positive Content: Themes of morality, honor, trust, goodness, and obedience.

Review

I’ve been trying to find a genuinely good King Arthur movie for a long time. That’s harder than it seems. There are good parodies of King Arthur movies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sword in the Stone, Camelot, Kid in King Arthur’s Court, The Kid Who Would be King) and interesting deconstructions of King Arthur (The Green Knight) but the list of good straight Arthur stories is quite limited. 1953’s Knights of the Round Table is a goofy adaptation that mostly plays the story straight but it doesn’t accomplish very much as an action film or a story. 1963’s The Sword of Lancelot is widely reviled. 1995’s First Knight is a very solid romantic drama but it jettisons all of the magical elements of the story. 2004’s King Arthur attempts to be a “historical” retelling but mostly fails, and the 2017 Guy Ritchie film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is a radical over-stylized blockbuster that nobody likes. I’m told the 1998 Merlin miniseries is fun but I haven’t watched it and I’ve met plenty of fans of the Merlin TV series. There’s also Transformers: The Last Knight which ties King Arthur into that franchise but the less said about that movie the better… 

If any version comes close to actually doing justice to the legend it’s 1981’s Excalibur. The film followed in the immediate footsteps of Star Wars and clearly was intended to draw on the nascent success of the sci-of/fantasy boom that was creating everything from Blade Runner to low-budget fantasy/sand-and-sandals flicks like Krull, Fire and Ice, and Death Stalker. The film was directed by the moderately trustworthy John Boorman who’d previously done solid work on Point Blank, Deliverance and Hope and Glory (also he directed The Exorcist II…). The movie even brags about being based on Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and does do an admirable job trying to be a loyal Arthurian film. 

Being an expert on Mallory (HAH), I have do have minor problems with the film from a lore perspective. The film does borrow its structure from the poem but the changes are drastic: all of the dialogue is original, Merlin’s character is fleshed out and given some moral greyness, entire segments of the book like the Tristan and Garett subplots are removed, Excalibur doubles as itself and the Sword of Destiny/in the Stone, Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair happens and finishes in just 2-3 scenes, Sir Galahad is replaced with Sir Percival as the Grail Knight, Percival retains his origin story from Chrétien De Troyes’ poem and gets discovered as a wild boy in the woods, King Arthur doubles as The Fisher King for some reason (mostly just so they can tie the Holy Grail quest and themes into the main narrative more cleanly), Mordrid is fleshed out with a much more villainous character motivation that’s borrowed from T.H. White (he’s basically Joffrey from Game of Thrones), Percival replaces Bedivere as the Knight who returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and Morgan Le Faye more or less works as the stand-in for every minor female character including Morgause and Vivian, and she doesn’t get a redemption arc unlike the classical renditions of the legend. 

So yeah, saying Excalibur is “based on Le Morte D’Arther” is true in the same way as saying Star Wars is based on Flash Gordon

That said, there’s a detailed understanding of the moral implications of these character arcs and why these decisions were all made. King Arthur actually gets to be the nominal lead of the film unlike in most Arthurian stories, and here he gets to work through the entire hero’s journey from a “refusal of the call” to its final bitter conclusion wherein his body is mysteriously whisked away to Avalon. Because Arthur gets as much focus as he does, the film gets to do a lot of really creative scene-writing and dramatic work by mixing and rearranging ideas from the original book. When Arthur accidentally pulls the Sword in the Stone, he sets off a minor series of civil wars that culminate in a really emotional scene where a rival Knight is given the choice to either knight Arthur or kill him. 

The first hour of the film only covers Arthur’s birth up through the initial consolidation of his kingdom. Through this time, he’s given enormous trials and uncertainty as a character who never thought he was noble enough to be king but who has been cast into the unlikely position at a time of incredible strife. At one point, a young King Arthur manages to shatter Excalibur in a duel to the death with Sir Lancelot and realizes that his weakness and personal flaws had made him a poor king. It’s at this point the Lady of the Lake makes her first appearance and delivers Arthur a repaired Excalibur, revealing that Arthur’s right as king is founded in his humility and willingness to do the right thing. 

Through this all, Nicol Williamson does an amazing job providing a somber and realistic portrayal of Merlin. We actually start to understand his character as a strange Pagan Druid who’s orchestrating these events, but who also realizes that in doing so he’s rendering himself irrelevant to the world and hurting people in the process. From here out, the story proceeds as you’d expect. Sir Lancelot and Guinevere eventually have their famous affair, Sir Percival and other knights of the round table seek out the Holy Grail, and Morgen Le Faye secretly conceives Sir Mordrid with Arthur and raises him to conquer Camelot. 

If anything sets Excalibur apart in these stories, it’s the propensity for casual gore and violence in this version which you don’t tend to see in most King Arthur films. There’s a lot of death, dismemberment, blood, and violence on display in this film. When Percival goes on his quest, he stumbles into a marsh filled with dozens of knights hanging by their necks. When characters duel, it’s not uncommon for limbs to fly or blood to pour. It’s NOT a kid-friendly experience. 

There’s also not a lot of Christianity on display in the film, which may or may not be a feature depending on if this reader worries about that or not. Religion does play a small role in the story but it’s ultimately far more interested in the nature of honor, rightness, sacrifice, and truth as secular values more so than as expressions of Christian ones. Most of the religion we see on display are vague allusions to Pagan mythology, magic, and astrology which seem far more popular than the church. 

Boorman himself wrote the script to focus on themes of birth, life, decay and restoration so the movie does end up drawing on religious ideas in a roundabout way but still approached them indirectly. As he said himself, “The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth… That’s what my story is about: the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.” 

As a stand-alone film, I find it’s hard to accurately grapple with it. I’m so deeply engrossed in the themes and execution that it’s hard for me to look at this separated from being an adaptation of a book I just spent three months studying. Other critics though have found it much more frustrating than rewarding. Pauline Kael adored the film visually while eviscerating its “near-atrocious” dialogue. Roger Ebert called it equal parts “wonderous” and “a mess”. 

Characterization in the film is clearly muddled with many of its most important characters being either unduly motivated or over-the-top in their characterization. The movie is so ambitious that there are tons of stories happening and bouncing off each other without necessarily standing on their own as fully coherent stories. Intelligent characters are easily outwitted. Camelot disintegrates for no clear thematic reason beyond being usurped by Morgan Le Faye’s anger. It lacks the richness and moral tapestry of Thomas Mallory’s vision of societal collapse. They follow the stories to their end merely because that’s the way the story is SUPPOSED to end. 

Still, it’s obvious the film is also deeply influential. Zack Snyder is on record having referred to Excalibur as his favorite film, calling it “the perfect meeting of movies and mythology”. One can see why! It’s a deeply visually unique film. Even where its narrative falls short, the cinematography and special effects add magic to the film and make it feel huge and mystical. Its cast is also a who’s who of up-and-coming actors who would go on to see major success. It’s prominent enough to have helped start the careers of Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Gabriel Byrne. 

Excalibur is one of the most stylish and complex adaptations of the Arthurian mythos on film to date. While it does make many HUGE changes to the lore, it seems to actually be grappling with the subtextual ideas of the Arthurian mythos in an interesting way despite how condensed it has to be to fit two-and-a-half hours of screen time. I’m still holding out for the one perfect King Arthur film that will find a way to be this ambitious and true to its source material while still being as coherent and accessible. Maybe that’s a truly impossible feat but if nothing else Excalibur explores how its premise can be entertaining and visually engaging while playing with the ideas of the original poems in unique ways! 

Positives

+ Beautiful and trippy visuals
+ Solid character performances and tons of great scenes
+ Unique remix of the themes of the Arthurian mythos

Negatives

- Strange storytelling decisions
- Uneven script and character writing

The Bottom Line

Excalibur is deeply imperfect, violent and edgy but it's also deeply fascinating, complex and well-intentioned so far as a King Arthur narrative goes. Fans of Thomas Mallory may find it unique in spite of how strange it is as a film!

 

7.6

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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