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Arthurian legend is notoriously tough to put to film. The source material is vast; beyond the skeleton of Arthur unifying the land and his Love Triangle with Lancelot and Guinevere, there are countless side stories with the main focus shifted to a particular knight of the round table. Some of these are so famous — Gawain and the Green Knight, Percival and the Holy Grail — that their exclusion can make a telling feel incomplete. The temptation is for a film to balloon in length and complexity, or be curtailed and tell a sort of stripped down version. John Boorman's 1981 adaptation Excalibur takes the latter approach, adopting a sort of syncretic approach where bits and pieces of the various myths and stories are taken, placed in a narrative blender of sorts, and emerge as a story that is a condensed into two and a half hours, but remains coherent, compelling, and true to the essential spirit of the source material without being completely true-to-text.
The story is, in brief, a Cliché Storm. If you're even halfway familiar with King Arthur, you'll know more or less what happens. This is definitely a case where Tropes Are Not Bad. What makes Excalibur great is the utter sincerity of its presentation. Dialogue is formal and delivered with the gravitas of a Shakespearean tragedy, which elevates the work and outright runs with its mythic roots in crafting a high drama presentation, where a de-mythified telling would, in my opinion, make the film seem mundane and vulgarized.
The film features an All-Star Cast before any of them really became stars. Patrick Stewart shows up for a couple scenes, but steals them as the hammy Leondegrance ("if a boy has drawn the sword, then a BOY SHALL BE KING!"). Nicholas Clay's Lancelot is good, and while Cherie Lunghi's Guinevere is basically a Princess Classic, her adultery is given some depth, as she's genuinely moved by Lancelot's chivalry, slandered by Gawain, and her husband will not champion her in her moment of humiliation, being king first. The standouts are Nigel Terry's Arthur, who plays the central character convincingly as a youth, in his prime, and as an old man despite being 35 during filming, and offers a stage actor's gravitas, presenting both Arthur's virtues as The Good King, his chivalry, his sense of justice, etc. and his flaws — his pride and his inflexibility, and Nicol Williamson's Merlin, who plays the great wizard as a sort of trickster sage in a way that's faithful to the source. He's a source of humor, but his dramatic scenes are some of the best in the film. The fireside vigil where the Knights of the Round Table are formed, and where the long-dead sage appears to Arthur as in a dream ("a dream to some, A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!") are genuinely moving. Percival is re-imagined as a commoner-turned-knight and the Grail Quest occupies most of the final third of the film. This character is probably my favorite, as he goes from championing the Queen despite lacking armor or even knighthood, to finding the Grail amid the land being ravaged by Mordred, to fighting alongside Arthur in his final battle and watching as the king's body is taken to Avalon. He is a representation of the people that are left behind in the world that was made and renewed by Arthur's rule.
The music in this film is mostly taken from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal, a notable use of "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmin Burana and other incidental music from Trevor Jones. The heavy use of Wagner elevates good scenes and makes them great, and makes great scenes transcendent. In short, it, rather suitably, fits this film like a glove. It also makes the film timeless in a way that a traditional Eighties sword and sorcery soundtrack a la Conan would have dated it.
The cinematography in this film is superb and the Oscar nomination was well deserved. Without modern CGI, Alex Thomsen crafts scenes that have an air of old Celtic magic to them, from how Excalibur glows and bathes all around it in a faint green light, to the shots of a bucolic British countryside (filmed in Ireland) amplifying the legendary nature of the source. The sequence where, after Arthur drinks from the grail, the knights ride through a blooming apple orchard in a revitalized land, is a favorite of mine. The wedding scene, where the knights are dressed in shimmering armor and Guinevere in a shimmering dress, all of it catching the light, while a great rendition of Kyie Eleison plays as soundtrack, is particularly well composed.
A noticeable flaw is the poor ADR in the young Arthur portion. I have no idea while its a specific problem in this third of the film, but it can be distracting.
Overall, though, what drew me to this film was its rejection of drear. It's gritty without question, but it embraces the myth, crafts beautiful scenes, and doesn't attempt to re-imagine the source as something gaudy. Coming off the eyesore that was Guy Ritchie's King Arthur, this was the ideal antidote.
When I was younger I tried, and failed, to read Mallory's Morte D'Arthur. I simply could not understand what people saw in it until I was older, and came across an abridged audiobook. The reader spoke the words like he was reading a fairy tale for a child's bedtime story. It was then that I got it, if you will.
The story of King Arthur is high adventure, with wonder and glory and lust and love and true knights fighting great evil and so forth. It's an ahistorical melodrama, everything that the people of the Middle Ages wished the world was but wasn't.
It seems to me that Boorman had two goals in mind for this film, to convey the feel of the Arthurian Legend, and to tell it all in one movie. For the most part, I think he succeeds. Dark and vivid, Excalibur is casted with larger-than-life archetypes who do much shouting and fighting. They shout indoors and fight while covered in muck and dirt and blood. And there's armor. Lots, and lots of armor. As in, they even wear it having sex. The music is glorious and I can't say enough good things about the lush cinematography. The special effects are noticeably eighties, but that didn't hurt it in my eyes.
Unlike most King Arthur adaptions, the plot covers the entire legend, from Uther to The Sword in the Stone to The Grail to Mordred. Boorman had to do a lot of condensing and character mixing in order to cram Mallory's Doorstopper into a two hour film, but I think he pulls it off.
This movie seems to have a love-it-or-hate-it reputation, and I can see why. If you like the melodramatic aspects of high adventure, it may well be for you. If you don't, then the movie will probably be relentless Narm.
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