Monday, 7 March 2011
Starring: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Paul Geoffrey, Cherie Lunghi
By Alan Bacchus
Excalibur is both supremely awful and inspired at the time, arguably the most passionate, intense, gory and gothic romantic version of the legendary story of King Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, Perceval, the Holy Grail and the Sword in the Stone ‘Excalibur’. This is John Boorman's adaptation with help from his creative collaborator Rospo Pallenberg and as per the credits, adapted directly from the Thomas Mallory writings on the legend.
I still marvel at the grandeloquent mix of operatic melodrama, supremely gory bloodshed and sexual activity, set to the best-ever use of Richard Wagner on film (yes, even better than Apocalypse Now). It’s also acted with subtly of a wart, featuring performances so wooden and atrocious, it’s no wonder we’ve never heard of any of these actors, save for Helen Mirren and small early appearances by Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Patrick Stewart.
Boorman begins with the story of Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur who uses the sword Excalibur to defeat his enemies and become King of England. Unfortunately his carnal desire for his best friend's wife overcomes him and he uses Merlin's magic to deguise himself and rape the woman Igraine (played by Boorman's own wife, ew!). Eventually Uther is killed, embeds the sword into the stone, years later to be unleashed by his own bastard son, Arthur. Using Excalibur's power Arthur unites the scattered knights of England forming the 'round table of Camelot'.
Peace doesn't last long when Arthur's #1 knight Lancelot, betray his own moral conscience and succombs to his lust of King Arthur's wife Guenevere. Meanwhile, Arthur's half sister Morgana plots revenge against Arthur by encouraging the conflict with Lancelot and eventually manipulating Merlin into disguising herself as Guenevere, man-raping Arthur and giving birth to Mordrid, his half-Nephew/son/heir to the throne and thus his soon to be mortal enemy.
Visually, it’s a stunning work of art, John Boorman’s ability to protray the rich pathos of this fantasy medieval period with glorious cinematography and perfect compositions. Stylistically Boorman employs the same soft hazy lighting scheme popular in the 1970’s and used to fine effect in Boorman’s own films, ‘Point Blank’ and ‘Deliverance’, and to lesser effect in bombs, ‘Zardoz’ and ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’. The psychedelic embellishments rides a fine line between on laughable unintentional comedy and the right supernatural elements contained in the mythology.
Alex Thomson finds a unique visual design which blends the rich medieval period details with the pure storybook fantasy elements. Watch carefully the scenes in which the Excalibur sword is featured, Thomson subtly shines a cool green glow in the background or on the actor’s faces to remind us of the mysterious quality of the sword. And the wondrous lady of the lake moments seem to be pulled directly out of that awesome final shot of Boorman's own Deliverance.
As mentioned the immaculately designed armour worn by the knights gleam magnificently under Thomson’s lighting, especially in the wedding scene. It’s a distinctly glamour 80’s look, just stopping short of using a star filter to accent the reflections. I doubt that ever came up as an option, but it’s distinct to the decade in the best way possible nonetheless.
The finale is especially grandiose and operatic violent. The confrontation of Arthur and Mordrid, father and son who climax their oedipal relationship by stabbing each other through their plates of armour, spewing blood over their chests is so bloody grotesque and phallic. As preposterous and extravagant the scene is played, it fits like a glove to Wagner’s music. Well, that’s obvious because the bookending music is actually Parsifal, music from Wagner’s opera about the Arthurian legend.
If you understand and appreciate the connection to the opera and the tonal extremity where this film needs to reside in order achieve spiritual heights that is does, then you can look past the atrocious performances and the general silliness which critics and detractors oppose. Nigel Terry in particular as King Arthur, whom we see first as a meek squire and then grow to become King of England and die in that bloodbath ending is mostly unmemorable. Nicol Williamson’s Merlin could be seen a nasily sportscaster reciting faux Shakespearan dialogue, yet to me his giddy performance is representative of the tone of the entire movie and glues everything together. If you can't accept Nicol Williamson as Merlin, then you'll find yourself on the other side of that fine line between appreciation and repugnance.
Excalibur is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment