Excalibur (Blu-ray Review)21 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson.
It sounds a bit flip to call director John Boorman’s aptly intense Arthurian epic a greatest hits package, but the film’s preponderance of action involving a long list of already familiar 5th/6th-century characters is a major part of its appeal. Along, of course, with the sex. This is one movie where passions we’ve usually only heard about get visually acted upon — that is, not just the kind of action that involves brandished armor and the clanking of hardware. Give Boorman and co-screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg (adapting Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur) credit for taking the story seriously 30 years ago (hence, this anniversary Blu-ray) when it had only been six since John Cleese and the boys had made Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Malory’s book was also the literary source for journeyman director Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table, which was MGM’s first CinemaScope release and one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, probably because my dad wanted to see Ava Gardner as Guenevere. I haven’t re-seen it recently enough to know exactly what I think about it, but it’s reasonable to say (despite my affection for Thorpe’s atypical-to-him Night Must Fall and Jailhouse Rock) that Boorman’s cinematic vitality is the polar opposite of Thorpe’s stodginess. And, in addition, that Boorman’s tendency toward soft focus here is even softer than some of MGM’s widescreen Metrocolor releases of the ‘50s (though Knights was shot early enough in the Scope era that the studio hadn’t yet quit using Technicolor). All this is a way of saying that Excalibur’s good looks are of the hazy sort and that even a Blu-ray of it will never be of “demonstration” quality, though it does replicate my memories of what the movie looked like on screen in 1981. Which was dreamy.
Given that the anti-dynamic Mel Ferrer played Arthur and Robert Taylor (not exactly getting pitched to in his wheelhouse) got cast as Lancelot in the earlier picture, I feel a little timid noting that Nigel Terry and Nicholas Clay are adequate but not brilliant in the same roles here — which is something one can also say of Cheri Lunghi as Guenevere. Still, some of the pleasure to be had here is due to the acting. Nicol Williamson makes perfect sense as a Merlin who never seems to enjoy his powers very much, and Helen Mirren steals the picture as Morgana (aka Morgan le Fey in some versions of the story) — though Barbara Byrne, the young actress who plays her in the early scenes, is good as well and gives one the sense that this kid will grow up to be a pill. Star spotters will also have fun watching Gabriel Byrne in a crucial role early in the story — as well as Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart. The end credits list Ciaran Hinds as well, though I missed him when watching the picture.
Early on, the image of the Excalibur sword coming up out of the water becomes the movie’s signature shot, providing what a friend of mine used to call “auteur antics” when taken in conjunction with the shot in Boorman’s screen adaptation of Deliverance it brings to mind. Other standout chunks of lore include the murkiness (a kind word) of Arthur’s birth; his uniting of kingdoms as an adult; his marriage to Guenevere and all that mess; the belated appearance of grownup Morgana (you can feel the narrative getting a full tank of adrenalin the second Mirren appears); some fun apparitional games between herself and Merlin; the Holy Grail pursuit; and dreams destroyed. Plus jousts, lots of clanking one-on-one in that grind-you-down armor and (when the armor is off) coupling by a blazing fire without much too much evidence of foreplay.
Excalibur was Boorman’s first film in four years following the disaster of Exorcist II: The Heretic (not that Zardoz, which immediately preceded it, was any career-maker despite the loyal adherents one meets from time to time). I always admired how he went in and took on material that wasn’t exactly untouched — giving it punch and sustained pacing over two hours and 20 minutes and an inevitably episodic structure. Boorman then went on to have a strong ‘80s with The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory — and I even admit to being a member of the small fervent cult for 1990’s Where the Heart Is, which was generally treated as a crime against nature. (I’m not talking about the lousy Natalie Portman same-namer but the Dabney Coleman comedy about a household of femme lookers.)
But just because Boorman got away with Excalibur doesn’t mean I’m any too excited about rumored remakes that have been attached over the past couple years to directors Bryan Singer and Guy Ritchie. Then again, if Ritchie wants to take on a remake of Boorman’s big screen debut — Having a Wild Weekend with the Dave Clark Five — that one I’d pay to see, even though only three of the five are still living.