Friday 17 May 2024

Excalibur (1981)

John Boorman’s Excalibur is a very ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur. Despite its ambitions it was apparently a rather modestly budgeted movie. Boorman claims to have inadvertently kicked off the sword-and-sorcery boom of the 80s. Given that Conan the Barbarian came out in 1982, a year after Excalibur, he may have a point.

Excalibur aims to retell the entire Arthurian legend, starting before the birth of Arthur.

Boorman’s idea was to show the three stages in the history of the land, coinciding with the three stages of Arthur’s life. The idea that the king and the land are one is central to the myth. If the king thrives, if he is strong and just, then the land thrives. If the king loses his way then the land suffers.

The first third of the movie is the first stage, an age of barbarism and chaos. It is Arthur’s destiny to unite and civilise the land. Boorman saw the story as also being a metaphor for the rise of Christianity and a more rational individualistic outlook displacing the older nature-centred concept of the land, the king and the people being mystically and magically linked. Which in some ways means that civilisation contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, since an individualistic rational conception of life is incompatible with the older truth that the king and the land are one. Boorman doesn’t try to tell us which of those outlooks we should prefer. We have to make up our own minds. This is a movie for grown-ups.

Britain is a chaotic divided land. The sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson) aims to unite the land under Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne). He hopes that Uther will be the man capable of doing so, but Merlin has his doubts when Uther becomes obsessed with Igrayne (played by Boorman’s daughter Katrine Boorman), the beautiful young wife of the duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave). Uther persuades Merlin to use his magic to allow him to spend the night with Igrayne, with Igrayne thinking she is making love with her husband. This night of lust will have immense consequences. The child that results is Arthur, and the deal was that the child would be Merlin’s to raise as he sees fit. The other consequence is that Igrayne’s young daughter Morgana (Arthur’s half-sister) will have a life-long grudge against both Merlin and Arthur.

Merlin sees the boy Arthur as the man destined to bring a new world into being. Merlin however knows that there will be no place for him in this new world. He is in effect putting in train events that will destroy the world of magic and of the old gods, the world to which he belongs. Merlin accepts this as inevitable. Morgana will also come to realise that there is no place for her in this new world. She belongs to the world of the old gods, the world of mysticism and magic.

This first stage of the movie has a dark grungy look. This was not quite the first epic to go for this look. The excellent The War Lord, made back in 1965, had pioneered the gritty realistic approach to the epic but Excalibur puts this approach to a very different use.

The second stage begins when Arthur becomes king, ushering in an age of prosperity, peace and stability. The whole look and tone of the movie changes. Everything is bright and airy. Camelot is not quite a fairy tale world, but it is a world of light and of order.

This can however only continue as long as the king is strong and just. The problem is that Arthur is betrayed by his queen Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and his best friend and most trusted knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay).

The king has lost his faith in himself and in his destiny and he has lost his sense of his own destiny. The king sickens physically, morally and spiritually and the land sickens. There is famine and plague, and misery. Again the tone and look of the movie changes. We’re now in a dark and gloomy world.

Morgana has played a sinister role in promoting discord between the king and queen, but it is the betrayal by Guenevere and Lancelot that does the real damage.

Once again magic has been used to bring about a fateful sexual union, and the birth of a child which will have consequences. The child is Mordred, the son of Arthur and Morgana.

Merlin is determined to prevent the fatal consequences which will follow, and a battle of magic between Merlin and Morgana ensues.

The Arthurian legend is no cheerful fairy tale. It is a tragedy. The triumph of good over evil cannot be assumed. The triumph of the new world over the old cannot be assumed. In this third stage of the movie there is hope, perhaps the Quest for the Grail can restore both the king and the land, but it’s a precarious and desperate hope.

Merlin and Morgana are by far the most interesting characters. They are outsiders. They belong to a different world. A pre-rational world of pagan gods, nature mysticism and magic. Arthur is ushering in a new world, a world in which there will be no place for Merlin and Morgana. While Morgana has other more personal reasons for opposing Arthur she would have to oppose him anyway because he represents this new world.

Merlin is aware that there will be no place for him in this new world. He believes it is destined to come anyway, and that he is destined to play a major part in bringing this about.

Perhaps Merlin knows that Arthur’s world will not last, and will end in a reversion to chaos and barbarism. Perhaps he sees human history as a cyclical thing, as in Norse mythology where the world will inevitably be destroyed, and then reborn. The idea of an eventual rebirth is certainly implicit in the Arthurian legend - one day a king will once again appear and will once again claim Excalibur from the lady in the lake.

This movie probably has more resonance today than it had in 1981, given that we now live in an age of gloom and pessimism.

There are some great action scenes and the movie can certainly can be enjoyed as a fantasy action movie, or even indeed as a sword-and-sorcery movie. There is however also plenty of thematic and emotional complexity.

Boorman relies mostly on fairly simple special effects. It’s another demonstration that talent and imagination (and intelligence) matter more than money and gee-whizz digital effects.

Excalibur looks superb on Blu-Ray and John Boorman’s audio commentary is what an audio commentary should be. He doesn’t tell us things that we can perfectly well see for ourselves. Instead he tells us how and why he made the movie and what he was trying to achieve.

Excalibur is very highly recommended.


Morgan said...

I love this film, one of the very few adaptations of mythic stories to really capture the feel of the source - you never get the sense that Boorman is putting a modern spin on the story, he isn't trying to rationalise or deconstruct Arthurian myth. Wonderful.
Have to give The War Lord a look, I do enjoy that kind of mid-century 'historical epic'.

tantalus1970 said...

It's ironic that a film about England's most famous mythical king was made entirely in the Irish Republic, both on location and at a Dublin studio - hence the number of Irish actors (and future stars), and also why IIRC the land is never actually named.

It's a great piece of cinema. I loved it as a teenager, and so did most of my friends; now I like bits and scenes of it - I particularly love the section where Arthur is actually knighted, and Williamson's entertaining performance - but a few things make me cringe, as they remind me too closely of various spoofs and comedies.

One of those films where you realise how important the cinematographer is. I would also recommend it - the Blu Ray is pretty good.

dfordoom said...

Morgan said...
Have to give The War Lord a look

Some people don't like The War Lord because the characters don't behave in a modern way. They're not touchy-feely. It wasn't a touchy-feely time. That's what I like about it. It's not romanticised.

dfordoom said...

tantalus1970 said...
but a few things make me cringe, as they remind me too closely of various spoofs and comedies.

Yes, the problem was that Monty Python and the Holy Grail took that grimy grungy approach and now when I see a serious movie that takes that approach I keep thinking of the Python movie!