Wednesday, March 16, 2011


There is a special class of flawed movies that, despite their limitations, grabs hold of you for one reason or another. They vary from person to person, but for me one of those is John Boorman’s uneven 1981 film Excalibur.

Like a lot of boys, I went through a strong “knights in shining armor” phase. I listened while my Grandmother told Welsh-centric stories of Arthur and his knights, and read the books by Howard Pyle, T. E. White, and Thomas Mallory that told of their exploits. The first Latin phrase I ever learned was “Hic Jacet Arturus, Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus.” All legends and moonbeams, but it stuck with me.

When I was in college, the movie Excalibur came out (now I’ve dated myself) at the exact time the two rival theater chains in town were locked in a bitter competition, which would ultimately destroy both of them. One of the by-products of their struggle was a pricing system of $1 for evening showings Monday through Thursday, and 50 cent matinees Monday through Friday. Affordable for even a broke college student, and it resulted in my seeing Excalibur probably a dozen times during its long run.

Last week, the movie was released for the first time on blu ray (earlier VHS and DVD releases were very poorly mastered), so I thought I would see how well it held up. The short answer is that everything that was good about it back in 1981 is still good, while the rough spots, well, they are still painful. I won’t bother to recap the plot, since I assume everyone either knows the Arthur story, or doesn’t care about it.

The good: What originally attracted me to the movie was its beauty. The photography is gorgeous, depicting a lush green England. The knights are clad in completely impractical but beautiful shining armor (which they never remove – even when they are having sex. This indicates the women of the day were made of pretty stern stuff.) against which spatters of red blood seem to glow. Many of the better scenes were shot at night, and the flickering torches give the scenes a mythological beauty. Music is also used very well, with this film being the basis of my love for Carl Orff’s now-overused Carmina Burana. Some of the acting (Nicol Williamson as Merlin, Helen Mirren as Morgana, Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon) is also top notch.

The bad: As much as I like the good parts of Excalibur, I have to admit where it comes up short, it’s terrible. The script, by Boorman and his frequent collaborator Rospo Pallenberg, has some of the most clunky and obvious dialogue in the history of cinema (Examples: The king is ambushed, and shortly after, his bodyguards arrive. Their dialogue: “The king is ambushed!”, which we just observed. Helpful for the blind, perhaps. Hector says to Arthur “You are not my son”. Arthur replies “Then Kay is not my brother?” Makes you think Arthur is a little slow.) There is a scene at the end where the dying Arthur asks Percival to take Excalibur and throw it into the water. Percival rides off, can’t do it, comes back, tells Arthur he couldn’t, Arthur says you must, and Percival finally comes through. An unnecessary break in the pacing of the movie.

The bad acting in the movie is truly horrendous. Boorman’s daughter Katrine played Igrayne. She is beautiful, but struggles to say the simplest lines. The child playing the young Morgana does much better. Also disappointing is Liam Neeson. Neeson is a great actor, but this is one of his earliest roles, and he had a lot to learn about technique.

Despite the bad spots, I still enjoy the movie. Whether you will or not will depend on your ability to overlook its flaws.


Erik Williams said...

One of my favorites growing up. I, too, developed an unhealthy love for Orff (and Wagner) due to this flick.

Can't forget old Patrick Stewart as Leon DeGrance of Camelyard.

Favorite scene: Arthur's duel with Lancelot. Really captured how exhausting fighting in armor can be.

noigeloverlord said...

I love Excalibur! Despite the flaws lol

Anonymous said...

Dude, I loved this movie when I first saw it! Thought it was amazing :-) Helen Mirren was a fantastic choice for Morgana, and Gabriel Byrne was quite good, too. I watched this one a while ago so didn't even realize that Liam Neeson and apparently Patrick Stewart were in this one, but I'm going to have to check it out again! ;-) Despite the campiness and the bad dialogue, etc, I still love this one ;-) lol