8.26.2011

Excalibur (1981)



John Boorman's vision for the look of a movie can have breathtaking results. If he could successfully pair his visions with a narrative that made sense he might be one of the most lauded directors in film today. Unlike Zardoz, which suffers from wasted plot in favor of bizarre visuals, Excalibur shows Boorman's best when plot and vision marry. However, his tendency to lose the plot in the layers of vision is still unfortunately present, making this film hit and miss.

The subject of the film is one of the oldest and most re-told myths of all time, focusing on the sword Excalibur that conveyed power to the legendary King Arthur.

In telling the story of the sword, the story of Arthur's conception, upbringing, finding the sword, wooing Guinevere only to lose her to Lancelot, losing the sword, sending out the Quest knights to find the Holy Grail, and finding Excalibur in time to slay his son-by-incest, then ensuring that Percival throws the sword into the sea, a lot of plot is covered in two hours. Most of the time only a student of the myth can follow the chess pieces across the board. The result is a sometimes perplexing plot, jumps in time that are hard to follow and some scenes played out so quickly that the rewind button has to be used. Alas, there was no rewind in the theater when I first saw this movie and it was only years later on rewatching that I made more sense of it.

As baffling as the flurry of plot points can be, each of those major events in the myth is presented with a specific vision of that moment that is often visually unforgettable. For example, Arthur's conception at the beginning of the movie, through magic on Merlin's part so that the virtuous Ygraine sleeps with Uther, thinking he is her husband, displays the cost of power. Merlin "calls the dragon" and the dragon's breath fills a gorge so that Uther can ride across it to Ygraine's bed chamber. The seduction (if you can call it that) is as brutal as Uther's lust, but music and lighting convey that Merlin has set in motion the conception of his chosen king, the one who will unite the warring factions. But the use of his power leaves him drained, and he is too weak and distant to save Uther when he is betrayed. Too, that Arthur is conceived through rape creates a dangerous crack in Merlin's vessel.

Quick expository lines explain how Arthur is reared unaware of his lineage, awkwardly done, but then the scene of Arthur drawing the sword from the stone is unveiled for another singular moment of myth beautifully staged and presented.

Morgana's birthing of Mordred, the King's final ride to battle as the land returns to flower (accompanied by one of the better uses of "O Fortuna!" from the Carmina Burana in a movie), and Percival's throwing of the sword into the sea are all mini-movies that stand alone even if the whole doesn't work. They are the kinds of scenes that when reading accounts of the myth I recall for visuals.  The use of Wagner's Seigfried's Funeral March, at the end of the movie, is also well done and remains a favorite moment.

Scenes that fall flat are basically most of the love scenes. They're overplayed, too long, definitely sappy and full of opportunities for juvenile jeering. All too often quips from Monty Python and the Holy Grail are great accompaniment. 

Performances vary--Helen Mirren is quite memorable as Morgana, as is Nichol Williamson as Merlin. Nigel Terry is a credible Arthur, but Nicholas Clay's Lancelot shows his lovelorn anguish more as a case of armor-burn than the subtle acting shown by others. Cherie Lunghi is a spirited Guinevere, but she comes across as a modern girl and not a figure of time-shrouded legend.

The last time I rewatched Excalibur I discovered that more scenes invited a Mystery Science Theater type commentary than ever, but some are as beautiful as they were when I first saw the movie on the big screen. This is a movie for the Arthurian buffs, or fans of certain performers, who may want to score a copy in the holiday sale bin. Everyone else will probably be best pleased if they invest nothing extra in the movie and the good parts will be happy surprises and the bad parts at least were free.

Excalibur (1981) on IMDB


One-Line Summary Excalibur (1981): Though the narrative of the myth is told in a broken manner, many visuals in the movie stand out as memorable and breathtaking for any fan of the Arthurian myths.

What's It Worth? Excalibur (1981): Arthurian buffs will of course want to have a look, though they will argue with various points of fact and should pick it up in a sale bin. Fans of various performers and those semi-interested in the myths should find it in their subscription list or cable guide as seeing it for no additional cost will take the sting out of the bad moments and make the good parts shine all the more. Get it Cheap

Watch it Again? Excalibur (1981): Many scenes are definitely worth re-watching just for their visual beauty and interplay of music with some fine performances scattered throughout. probably