Excalibur (new artwork)

USA, 1981.  Rated R.  140 minutes.

Cast: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Helen Mirren, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Robert Addie, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Keith Buckley, Katrine Boorman, Charley Boorman
Writers: John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg based on the book La Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
Music: Trevor Jones
Cinematographer: Alex Thomson
Producers: John Boorman
Director: John Boorman


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

M any directors, at some point in their careers, come up with a project they are willing to risk everything for. James Cameron practically mortgaged his soul to make Titanic, and the result was the most successful movie of all time. More often the result is a film like Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate or Kevin Costner's The Postman–critical and box office catastrophes from which the directors' careers would not recover. Even if the film is successful, like Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, it can break something in the director–Coppola never again made an outstanding film.

Excalibur, a chronicle of the legend of King Arthur, falls somewhere in between Titanic and the titanic failures. Ambitious and soaring like Titanic, bloated like The Postman, and reasonably successful at the box office, Excalibur is a movie that director John Boorman had been wanting to make for twenty years. After finally persuading Orion Pictures to fund the project, Boorman put together a dazzlingly lavish production–the likes of which is rarely seen in live-action fantasy movies intended for adults.Merlin casts a spell

Each single frame of Excalibur would make a spectacular poster. Fire and fog, peril and pageantry, sex and sorcery–cinematographer Alex Thomson films it all in lush, rich colors. His Oscar nomination was well-earned. The dramatic soundtrack, featuring music mostly by Wagner, is a perfect match to the extravagant visuals. Only a few of the special effects seem dated, and the costumes are gorgeous–though Mordred's golden plate mail and mask do look stupid. The plate mail in general is an egregious anachronism, as plate mail wasn't invented until centuries later–the knights should be wearing chain mail. But these are minor complaints.To battle

There isn't much beyond the show, however. Indeed, if I weren't already familiar with the legend of King Arthur, I'd be hard-pressed to explain the plot. Characters come and go with little explanation. Key events are presented abruptly, without much connection to what has passed before and what will happen next. From our knowledge of the legend, we know, for example, that Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) goes into exile after his affair with Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) is discovered. What happens after Arthur discovers the two lovers is a key part of the story–Arthur's jealousy, mixed with guilt over choosing to be king first and husband second, Lancelot's tortured decision to leave, Guinevere's flight to a convent.  But in the movie, Lancelot's disappearance is not explained, nor is his reappearance (poof! there's Lancelot!) explained at the final battle with Mordred (Robert Addie). Similarly, we have no idea that Guinevere has taken refuge in a convent until Arthur visits her there years later.

Boorman handles the episode of the Holy Grail particularly badly. Guinevere and Lancelot's unfaithfulness, Merlin's defeat by Morganna (a young, scantily clad Helen Mirren), and Morganna's sorcerous seduction of her half-brother Arthur (begetting Mordred) somehow lead to pestilence and famine. The only way to heal Arthur's broken kingdom is by finding the heretofore unmentioned Holy Grail. (Why is this Palestinian artifact in the British Isles? Who knows.) Arthur sends forth his knights, most of whom die, and a few minutes later a dozen or more years have passed, and it's time for Arthur (who has apparently spent the time in a semi-coma) to fight Mordred. Again, were we not familiar already with the legend, our reaction could only be this: Huh?
The Big Picture
Kristian C-
ratings explained

Even worse, there is little explanation of the characters' motivations. Why is Uther (Gabriel Byrne, in his first screen role) so smitten with Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) that within moments of seeing her he's ready to throw away his new kingdom for one night of lust? Why does Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart, not-quite-entirely bald) risk his life to accept a no-name boy as his king? Why do Guinevere and Lancelot experience love at first sight? Why does Nicol Williamson, who gives an otherwise note-perfect performance as Merlin, seem at times to be channeling the Monty Python boys? Why didn't anyone plead with Boorman not to cast his children Katrine and Charley (as boy-Mordred) in the movie? Is that Liam Neeson as Gawain? Yes, it is!

While it may not be part of the oral tradition through which Arthur's legend has been handed down, the psychological drama of the tale is almost as compelling as the age-old conflict between good and evil. But Boorman paints his characters' actions with the broadest of strokes, relying on our knowledge of the legend to fill in the holes in the narrative. There are many such holes. Too many.

The reason to watch Excalibur is for the grandiose spectacle of it. In fact, it's pointless even to bother unless you can see Excalibur on DVD, in widescreen format. Just don't think too hard about it. And don't let your young children see it, because this isn't The Hobbit. Excalibur is rated R (there is a PG version) for a reason–several reasons actually–violence, sex and nudity. And thank goodness for those things, because where would movies like this be without them?

Review © October 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Film stills © 1981 Warner Bros. DVD/video artwork © 1999 Warner Home Video

  Comment on this review  

  Read selected user comments
  Unofficial site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page