There have been many movies depicting the legend of King Arthur over the years with varying degrees of success; from Disney’s animated classic The Sword and the Stone to being wonderfully lampooned in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Guy Ritchie even attempted an Arthurian franchise with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but most will agree that one of the best attempts at bringing the magic of the Arthurian stories to life would be John Boorman’s Excalibur. This was a movie that wisely took its inspiration from the 15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, and also its allegory of the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration, all of which Boorman brought dynamically to life.
As with its source material, John Boorman’s Excalibur has a very episodic structure to it, covering many of the big events in the Arthurian legend that took place over a rather long span of time. The film opens on Merlin (Nicol Williamson) aiding Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne ) on his securing of an alliance with the land’s many rival lords, only to piss it all away by getting all hot and bothered upon seeing the beautiful Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) and demanding Merlin help him seduce her. This not only ends the alliance, her being married to a rival duke who isn’t up for sharing, but it also produces an heir, one whom Merlin quickly claims as payment of a debt.
The film then races along as it bounces from one key point in Arthur’s life to another. We get young Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulling the sword from the stone, after misplacing his Brother Kay’s sword; falling in love with the captivating Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and surrounding himself with his loyal knights, Gawain (Liam Neeson ), Sir Uryens (Keith Buckley ), Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey ) and the greatest knight of them all Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). With the Knights of the Round Table formed, and Camelot built on a shining hill, things all look good with the world, that is, until love comes and mucks it all up. Guinevere has her disastrous affair with Lancelot and even Merlin gets distracted by a pretty face in the form of Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren ), Arthur’s vengeful half-sister.
Boorman remains fairly faithful to the source material while also borrowing elements from the tales of Tristan and Iseult and the combining of Morgause and Morgana Le Fay into one character — Morgause being Arthur’s half-sister while the sorceress Morgana Le Fay being Morgause’s sister — and Sir Bedivere is swapped out for Perceval, and the noble Sir Galahad is completely absent, despite him being the only actual knight worthy enough to win the Holy Grail. Much of these changes can be attributed to the streamlining of such an epic tale, and for the most part, this works, and I doubt even the most anal Arthurian scholar could be too upset by this adaptation. The film is a testament to visual storytelling, and to achieve this, Boorman surrounded himself with a stellar team of designers and craftsmen that truly bring the legend to life. From dark castles to lush and magical forests, the world of Excalibur is fantastic and a wonder to behold; watching this film one cannot help but become immersed in this tale of love, betrayal and violence.
• Uther having sex with Igrayne while still dressed in full plate armour has to be one of the most uncomfortable sex scenes in cinema history.
• Polo ponies were used to make things easier for riding one-handed while wielding a sword with the other, despite the fact that such a horse could hardly support a man in full armour.
• Boorman’s decision to go with full plate armour was intentionally anachronistic (such armour not used until the 15th century), and Terry English’s designs look simply amazing. Much of the film’s success is owed to him and production designer Anthony Pratt.
• The “Charm of Making” is easily one of the most iconic spells to be depicted in cinema, “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha” was later used to good effect in Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
• Trevor Jones provides an amazingly robust score for Excalibur, but the most iconic piece that people will remember is the use of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana.
• One should never fail to mention Patrick Stewart’s awesome performance as Guinevere’s axe-wielding dad, Leondegrance.
This tale of the Holy Grail may lack African swallows and coconut-baring knights, but it does give us one of cinema’s greatest portrayals of the wizard Merlin, as Nicol Williamson simply nails the bizarre whimsy of this humorous as well as dangerous man of magic. As a bonus, Boorman has him up against the ravishingly brilliant Helen Mirren as the villainous Morgana Le Fay and the result is a dynamic duo for the ages. Now, while those two set the screen on fire, the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is a little less engaging, mainly because I can’t see what either Guinevere or Lancelot saw in Nigel Terry’s version of King Arthur. Terry isn’t a bad actor, I just found his performance as Arthur to lack the humanity and gravitas such a character demands, and that he appeared badly dubbed for much of the performance certainly didn’t help.
Cherie Lunghi definitely has better screen chemistry with Nicholas Clay’s Lancelot, but in this shorter version — the movie was originally three hours long — some of the key scenes that would have built the relationship up between the pair a little better had been cut out. Instead, we have Lancelot spouting off such romantic bon mots as, “I will love you always. I will love you as my queen and as the wife of my best friend, and while you live I will love no other,” which one must admit is a rather dick thing to say to the fiancée of your best friend.
The film’s third act gets a little bogged down with the “Search for the Holy Grail” as our main characters step off-screen to allow the Grail Knights to run around while being utterly useless; who knew traipsing around Britain looking for a cup could be so boring? At least this does lead to the wonderful introduction of Arthur’s incestuous by-product Mordred (Robert Addie ), whose golden armour and creepy smile are enough to give any kid nightmares. As much as Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren steal the show, I have to point out that with so little screen-time, Robert Addie still manages to supply the film with a fantastic last act antagonist.
John Boorman’s Excalibur remains one of the best adaptations of the Arthurian myth and when you consider that his film came out four decades ago that is truly impressive. It has production values that hold up against anything produced today, not to mention the great cast of talented up-and-comers they assembled for this film such as Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne and you can’t help but admire the film. If Excalibur isn’t the definitive version of King Arthur, it’s easily the most entertaining and gorgeous-looking one to date, and I offer Trial by Combat to anyone who disagrees with that.
Movie Rank - 8.5/10
With a brilliant cast, amazing production design, all under the deft hand of director John Boorman – who made this film because he couldn’t get his Lord of the Rings off the ground – you will find yourself transported to a wonderful land of magic and terror.