Warner Bros. // 1981 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // January 17th, 2007
Forged by a God. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a man.
Apparently, Excalibur has quite the fervent group of fans behind it, so much so that Warner deemed it worthy enough to give it the proverbial high-definition treatment ahead of other (and arguably more popular) films. So, are John Boorman (he of Deliverance and Zardoz fame) and his adaptation of the story about King Arthur and a sword he played with worthy of this new high-definition treatment?
Based on the book Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory, and adapted to the screen by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (The Emerald Forest), Excalibur starts by following the knight Uther (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects), who's kind of like the Dubya of the medieval word, not knowing exactly what to do, led by the mystical wizard Karl Rove, er, Merlin (Nicole Williamson, Robin and Marian). Uther has in his possession a sword given to him by an apparition, the Lady in the Lake, and with that sword (later named Excalibur), Uther is able to have at his beck and call pretty much whatever he wants. With Merlin's help, Uther manages to get a rival's wife pregnant, but Merlin takes the baby away to be raised as a future king, shortly before Uther's demise, which involves putting Excalibur into a stone, only to be raised by the future king.
The infant named Arthur grows into a man (played by Nigel Terry, Troy). After everyone sees aspiring knights like Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart, X-Men) try to pull the sword out to no avail, he manages to do it, to everyone's surprise. He is eventually made into a knight and later a King, and forms the Knights of the Round Table. With Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) at his side, he encounters a knight named Lancelot (Nicholas Clay, Zulu Dawn) who he beats after great effort, and becomes Arthur's champion. Through many trials and tribulations, Arthur and Lancelot defeat a skeptical knight named Gawain (Liam Neeson, Batman Begins) and square off in battle against a knight named Mordred (Robert Addie, Captain Jack) and his scheming mother Morgana (Helen Mirren, The Queen), who also happens to be Arthur's sister.
I've gotta say, Excalibur was pretty tough to sit through. I mean, this is a movie about a period that doesn't appeal to me that much, unless Ridley Scott is directing hundreds of CG warriors into battle. This version of Excalibur wasn't entirely bad, though. The performances themselves aren't too bad. While I'm not too familiar with many of these actors, Terry and Williamson were very impressive in their roles, and Mirren looks like a stone-cold fox in many of the scenes.
If there's one thing that detracts from fully enjoying the film, it's the story, ironically enough. It goes beyond dry and it's something that the average viewer has seen before, told countless times in many different incarnations. I mean, Errol Flynn had done it before. Wait, that was Robin Hood. Maybe it was Sean Connery who did it before. No, that was with Boorman in Zardoz. Maybe Clive Owen did it better in King Arthur? God, no. Nevertheless, as close to the period as Boorman tried to stay, the film can easily lose the viewer, and lost this one at the end of the second act. I mean no harm to Addie or to Boorman's son Charlie, who portrayed Mordred at an early age in the film, but they looked like dead ringers for William Zabka in this medieval tale that somehow made me think of The Karate Kid, and made me think of all of the other epics that I've seen over the last decade, many of which were just a bit more engrossing than this one.
I've gotta say the picture is OK in this high-definition treatment, though I've never seen Excalibur before (unless scrambled pay-per view television back in the early '80s counts). Some of the exterior scenes look clear, but there doesn't appear to be a lot of depth in many of the larger-scale images, and the whites in the title cards (and some other images) look a little blown, but watchable. The Dolby Digital Plus sound option is actually a bit better, as there's quite a bit of music (Arthur does have his own classical section playing "Carmina Burana" whenever he and his troops roll out for battle) and a lot of rumbling in scenes where Merlin is showing Morgana some of his power. It does expose some of the foleyed sound effects during the battles but overall it's quite the surprising little soundtrack. The commentary track with Boorman is brought over from the old SD disc, and it's a good one, as he discusses in detail the journey to see his dream realized.
If this film has such a cult following behind it, where are some of the bonus features that would justify such an early HD release, or even an SD special edition of some sort? I would have at least respected Warner if they had struck a new master to this, but once everyone has an affordable high-definition DVD player and drives around in their rocket car, I'm sure this will be revisited with a new transfer of some sort and the extras that people are clamoring for.
Excalibur is certainly not for everyone, as a two-plus hour film about British people in British times didn't particularly appeal to this son of a British mother. It's an oft-told story done in a fairly new and dedicated way, and, even in high definition, deserves to be explored at some point down the road. When there are some better extras, of course.
The court puts the lady back in the lake and tells her to summon Boorman to pull out all the stops for a great release worthy of the fans of this film.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director John Boorman
* Original DVD Verdict Review