Movie Review – Excalibur

Excalibur (1981)
Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg
Directed by John Boorman

The story of King Arthur has been endlessly adapted into all forms of media, and it can be assumed that it will continue for as long as humans make art. This particular adaptation is a theatrical version of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. If you’ve seen The Sword in the Stone or anything where Merlin takes an important role, it’s most likely derived from Mallory’s writings on Camelot. Director John Boorman was initially interested in doing a three-hour film centered on the famous wizard of British lore, but the studios thought it was too costly and without broad appeal. Boorman then turned his attention to a live-action adaptation of Lord of the Rings, which fell through, but there was interest in a film about King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. 

The film begins with Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) fighting to wrest control of dark ages England. He gets help from Merlin (Nicol Williamson), a powerful sorcerer who gives Uther an enchantment of illusion and provides him with the sword Excalibur. While disguised as the Duke of Cornwall, he rapes the man’s wife, who conceives a boy. Merlin takes the boy upon its birth, names him Arthur, and hands the baby over to Sir Ector to raise as his own. Years later, Arthur comes across the Sword in the Stone and raises Excalibur; he is named the new king of England. Of course, tragedy follows like Queen Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot, the betrayal of Morganna (Helen Mirren) and the rise of Mordred, and the quest for the Grail. 

It can be said without reservation that Excalibur is probably the best-looking adaptation of the King Arthur legends. It adheres closely to the original stories, and the production design is a mix of fantasy & gritty, dark ages reality. Director John Boorman embraces the story’s mystical elements (the Lady of the Lake, the Holy Grail, etc.) and even makes Merlin one of his central characters. Some genuinely magnificent shots capture the iconic nature of mythical moments. But the problem with all of this is that it is presented in some truly impenetrable ways, with disdain towards an ounce of exposition to explain who the hell these people are and what is going on.

There is a bit more handholding for the first third of the movie, and the pacing doesn’t seem too wildly rushed. Once the roundtable is formed and Camelot is constructed, events move much more quickly. I found the introduction of Sir Percival to almost serve as a second opening of the movie. He’s a newcomer to Camelot, and it’s the first time the audience has lain eyes on the place. 

I wonder if possibly the movie should have centered around Percival as the point of view character. He ends up being the critical knight during the Grail search and the ensuing war with Mordred. It could work to cut the opening Uther scenes and the Sword in the Stone, jumping right to Percival being brought in by Lancelot. Through clever exposition, the backstory could be divulged. It would add an air of mystery around Arthur and Merlin, revealing their mortality in the finale as they succumb to the inevitable.

Because of so much being crammed into the back half of the movie, we don’t get much development for Mordred, and Lancelot basically fades from the picture until the very end, after being hyped as such an important character. I know there have been many films about the whole Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle, but I would like to see it done on this mythic storytelling scale that Boorman is attempting here. I shouldn’t be surprised that things go slightly off the rails because that is a trademark of Boorman’s. Take a look at films like Zardoz and The Exorcist II as prime examples of that.

I firmly believe Excalibur is the best adaptation of the King Arthur legends we have gotten so far, but it’s not the best that could be done. I, for one, think director Barry Jenkins could do a mind-blowingly fantastic job with these stories. He infuses all his work with a mythopoetic sensibility, making even mundane people feel like characters of myth. You combine that with a musical score by Nicholas Britell, and I think you could have an Excalibur film that lived up to the tone those ancient stories deserve.


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