Warner Bros. // 1981 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Rob "Treg" Traegler (Retired) // October 14th, 1999
Forged by a God. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a man.
Warner Brothers continues to dazzle with this splendid transfer of a powerful film that could have easily gotten the full-frame low budget treatment. Fans and new viewers alike will rejoice at the long-awaited rebirth of this underrated classic.
Many have been waiting some time for Excalibur to appear on DVD, and with the recent announcement I was excited but also somewhat nervous about the possibilities of this disc. Purchasing the disc the day of its release, I had to instantly jump to a monumental scene to see if Warner Bros. had let me down. I was pleasantly rewarded. With dream-like cinematography and battle scenes that rival Braveheart, Excalibur retells the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with earnest dedication and a no-holds-barred attitude regarding sex and violence. All credit must go to director John Boorman who details his twenty-year struggle to get the picture made in a revealing audio commentary provided on the disc. Until recently, I had only seen this film on a drive-in screen in 1981. Upon viewing this brand new DVD release, I was blown away by the complexity of the cinematography by Alex Thomson, the succinct devotion to the legend in Rospo Pallenberg and Boorman's screenplay (based on Pallenberg's adaptation of Mallory's "Le Morte D'Arthur"), and the subtlety of the performances. As I watched the film, I came to the singular conclusion that this is basically a filmed version of a complex, grand play, similar to Branagh's Henry V. Disregarding the battle sequences, the interior scenes often resemble the limitations of a stage production, while retaining their dramatic impact.
Excalibur (the veritable name of the famous sword) is the complete story of a King Arthur, beginning with his diabolical conception (orchestrated by Merlin the Magician) to his death at the hands of the unlikeliest foe. Nigel Terry (who unfortunately I haven't seen or heard of since) convincingly portrays Arthur from his boyhood years to the brokenhearted, gray-haired old man he eventually becomes, quite a stretch for any actor. Arthur is conceived after Merlin (played slightly over-the-top by Nicol Williamson) magically allows evil knight Uther (Gabriel Byrne in his first film) to falsely impregnate Igrayne, his rival the Duke's wife after a temporary alliance is destroyed by Uther's undying desire for her. Boorman masterfully cuts between the graphic depiction of the conception (featuring the director's naked daughter!) and her real husband's death on the battlefield miles away. Once Arthur is born to this ill-fated couple, he is taken away to be raised by Merlin. Uther, the possessor of Excalibur, is eventually killed in battle, placing Excalibur deep in the stone as he dies. For years, men try to remove the sword to no avail until one day the teenaged Arthur walks up and accidentally removes it effortlessly, not once, but twice. All bow down to the new king and he quickly reveals his superiority in battle and leadership. The Knights of the Round Table are formed, Arthur falls in love with Guinevere, Lancelot and Perceval are introduced, Morgana, Merlin's nemesis and Arthur's treacherous sister, begins her wrath, and after plot developments which are too intriguing to reveal, the legendary quest for the Holy Grail begins.
Every performance in the film is noteworthy, from Nigel Terry's Arthur to a quite young and very babe-ish Helen Mirren as Morgana. Nicol Williamson is a strong presence as Merlin and his spirit looms in almost every corner of the frame throughout the picture. Director Boorman reveals in his commentary many of the actor's unwillingness to work with Williamson due to previous negative experiences which led him to cast him anyway and bank on the power of negative chemistry, especially with Helen Mirren's diabolical Morgana. Nicholas Clay is quite convincing as Sir Lancelot, a knight torn between his loyalty to his king and his boundless desire for the queen, played by Cherie Lunghi. Many of the actors are asked to age throughout the film and do so quite effectively with little makeup, relying on their performances instead. Boorman also cast his son in the role of young Mordred, the disastrously illegitimate son of King Arthur. Liam Neeson appears as Sir Gawain, challenger of Guinevere's devotion. The ingenious casting lends an air of credibility to a film that must rely on just that in order to succeed.
The violence and battle scenes in Excalibur are starkly realistic, complete with severed limbs, impalings and Monty Python-ish spurting blood. I don't mean that to be derogatory, but upon viewing these bloody scenes in this wonderful digital transfer, I couldn't help but think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Boorman also reveals in his commentary that the entire film was shot in forests and castles within miles of his home in Ireland, a budgetary relief I'm sure. His commentary is worth a listen as he reveals simple effects tricks, casting choices and lighting choices coordinated by the cinematographer. Trevor Jones' musical score (one of his first) is both somber and majestic, pragmatically integrated with the works of Wagner for effect.
As previously mentioned, Warner Brothers has really delivered the goods on this disc. While a featurette or deleted scenes would have been a nice surprise, I'm sure access to these extras was limited, if not impossible. When I heard of this disc's impending release, I prayed for a Boorman commentary track and was heard. His contributions to the disc are priceless. For a film shot in 1981 (and in Europe, no less) the DVD transfer is stupendous. The color levels in many scenes are incredible from rich forest greens to glorious sunsets; I often froze the frame and gazed at the artistic composition involved in some scenes. They could be used as a series of paintings depicting the tale of King Arthur. There are minute instances of grain on this anamorphic transfer, but nothing to complain about at all. Black levels are exact, which is a must for key sequences of the film are dark and brooding. The newly remastered 5.1 soundtrack does wonders for Trevor Jones' musical score and has exceptional separation derived from an original two channel master, but lacks the distinct separation and sub woofer effects that modern day precise recordings deliver, a minor complaint if any. I thought for sure that Warner's would go for the $9.95, full frame, 'we don't care about this picture', bare bones transfer on this one, but Excalibur is a sheer delight. If you have yet to enjoy this film, the price is also right at a retail of $19.95 (which means $14.99 at Best Buy, $24.99 at Suncoast and Sam Goody). I encourage you to purchase this film; it will be a gem in your collection.
Younger fans may not have the patience or the wherewithal to endure Boorman's attention to detail and legend in place of non-stop action and violence. Also, the new remastering of the soundtrack reveals that many of the actor's lines have been looped in postproduction, especially Williamson and Terry, which may be a distraction for some.
There never was, nor has been since, a film so expertly devoted to the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Warner Brothers knows this and has released a disc that is a gift to any fan or history buff for that matter.
If Warner Brothers continues to nurture quality films like this as they make their way to DVD, we can forgive and acquit them for those bargain basement $9.95 transfers floating around. As long as they save them for the bad films like Spies Like Us and Burglar.
Review content copyright © 1999 Rob "Treg" Traegler; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Notes