Warner Bros. // 1981 // 141 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 18th, 2011
The serious story of Arthur and his silly English K-niggets.
How, exactly, do you come back from one of the biggest critical disasters of the '70s? If you're Englishman John Boorman, less than lukewarm after the abysmal Exorcist sequel, The Heretic, you substantially regroup. You go back to something that obsessed you, something that you had wanted to tackle since your Lord of the Rings adaptation fell through (reason: cost) and both Deliverance and Zardoz made you a solid Me Decade movie fixture. So for his first film of the 1980s, Boorman tackled the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. "Freely" adapting Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and dividing the tale into several parts, the film hoped to inspire a new generation to think beyond previous interpretations such as Disney's Sword in the Stone and E.B. White's The Once and Future King. While clearly more successful than his previous film, Excalibur is still viewed today as kind of a failure. Looking at the recent Blu-ray release, it's hard to fully fathom why.
Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne, Miller's Crossing) has just agreed to a treaty with archrival the Duke of Cornwall (Colin Redgrave, A Man for All Seasons), thanks in part to the mighty mythic sword Excalibur that his adviser, the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson, The Seven Percent Solution) secured for him. The peace is short lived however as the former's lust for the latter's wife results in adultery, death, and a child. Named Arthur, Merlin takes charge of the boy as part of his deal with Pendragon. Years later, the youth discovers his heritage after removing Excalibur from the stone his father placed it in. After being victorious in battle, Arthur (Nigel Terry, Troy) becomes the King of all the Britains. Later, he woos and weds the lovely Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi, The Mission) even though she has eyes for one of his knights, the noble Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay, Zulu Dawn). When they betray Arthur, he falls into a deep depression. He is then seduced by his own half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren, The Queen) as payback for their father's previous deception. As the Knight Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) heads out to search for the Holy Grail, the son of Arthur and Morgana's unholy union, Mordred (Robert Addie, Another Country) plots to overthrow the kingdom.
Excalibur exists because of one man's drive to redefine himself. Director John Boorman had been one of the most acclaimed British filmmakers of the early '70s. His take on James Dickey's seminal Southern Gothic earned him rave reviews and recognition, and his sci-fi tweaking of L. Frank Baum gave him lots of contemporary pop culture credit. So it was only natural that Boorman be pegged for one of the biggest second acts in the history of post-modern moviemaking. While original participants William Peter Blatty, William Friedkin, and Ellen Burstyn wanted nothing to do with the project, producers of an Exorcist sequel pushed on. No matter your take on the end result, Boorman was a full blown participant in the debacle, hoping he could bring something both psychological and primitive to the tale. He couldn't. After the stumble, he saw his Tinseltown stock plummet, reduced to a soon-to-be-similar Michael Cimino style of aesthetic leprosy.
So he went back home and to his heritage, taking on the tale of Arthur as only he could. Rustic and exotic, passionate yet heady, Excalibur was/is a mixed bag of modern metaphors and lost legitimate legacy. It was Boorman believing in his own inherent talent, taking on a subject that really defined who he was. Remember, he was up to turning Tolkien into a live action event, but money won out. So this was his chance to be epic and epicedial, to give his country's greatest myth its long overdue justice. For some, he succeeded. For others, it was twee peplum without the short tunics or hot muscle studs. For all its criticism, Excalibur was a hit among the younger generation, spawning Hollywood to work overtime to fill the commercial void it created. Indeed, the film begat a whole up-spark in sword and sorcery films, from Legend to Krull, The Beastmaster to the aptly titled The Sword and the Sorcerer.
The best thing about this Excalibur is its combination of realism and fantasy. This is a dirty, dire England, albeit one where the characters dress up in some rather shiny armor. It's a blood place where wounds won't heal and death is either immediate or long and lingering. It's a sexy place, Camelot and its crew fornicating whenever they can. It is also a progressive place, with Arthur seen as the entire life force of his kingdom. The movie begins with his boyhood, moves from the infamous sword in the stone to his collecting of a court, and then struggles through his heart sickness and his desire for the Holy Grail. In essence, Excalibur is the story of the UK as told via one icon's symbolic life experiences. There is victory and betrayal, growing pains and the pleasures that come from knowing you and your people are experiencing the best that there is.
Boorman is meticulous in his direction, allowing details to seep in along with the spectacle. When Perceval first sees Camelot, it's overwhelming in its visual depth. Similarly, every time the Lady in the Lake is summoned, the gorgeous gloomy tableau of her arrival is magnificent. The actors are all expertly cast, from the primary roles to minor moments with future stars like Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Gabriel Byrne. One of the more intriguing elements of Excalibur comes when you realize that you have an English director, working in Ireland, with some of that country's most important actors in tow. He even comments as part of the extras that the accents were so thick he worried that audiences wouldn't understand what these "Englishmen" were saying. From the innovative use of special effects (including several aerial process shots) to the ability to get the look and feel of the time just right, Boorman delivers with Excalibur in a way that few of his films would. You can argue over its accuracy or acumen all you want, but it remains an excellent example (and indicative) of the genre.
Previously available on DVD and the long forgotten High Definition format, the Blu-ray release, timed to coincide with the movie's 30th anniversary, looks pretty good. Boorman constantly bemoans the fact that he could not shoot in "scope" (because of the needs of the lighting and F/X crew) and that does give the image a flatness that fails it from time to time. As for the digital update, however, the 1080p AVC encode looks excellent. Yes, it is muddy and soft in places, but that is how Boorman shot many scenes. The 1.85:1 widescreen image doesn't have the breadth of other productions, but there is little to complain about with this Blu-ray. As for the sound situation, the tweaking of the original Dolby Digital Mono mix into something akin to a full loseless DTS-HD Master Audio mix is not so successful. The dialogue is still centered in the front, there is very little directional dynamic, and the score by Trevor Jones (with some classical selections thrown in for good measure) is the only thing that makes use of all the speakers. Perhaps the best thing about the disc is the Boorman commentary, and even that is ported over from previous versions.
The rest of the '80s would be very kind to Boorman indeed. After Excalibur, he took on another exotic tale (The Emerald Forest) before translating his memories of Britain during the War into the Academy Award Nominated Hope and Glory. But the romantic comedy misstep of 1990s, Where the Heart Is, sent his career spiraling yet again. The rest of the decade was a wash, with only his Cannes championed The General seeing any significant critical acclaim. Now, at 78, he is rumored to be ensconced in bringing yet another adaptation of The Wizard of Oz to the big screen -- ironic, considering he already "did" something similar almost forty years ago. For John Boorman, reinvention has always been a viable artistic option. Excalibur is a perfect example of taking a negative and turning it into a positive. Exorcist II: The Heretic almost destroyed his reputation. This tale of Arthur and his Knights, like the Grail itself, brought him back from the brink.
Not guilty. A high flying period adventure with lots of blood and bodice ripping.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Czech)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 141 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R