Tuesday, August 31, 2010

#25. Excalibur (1981) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: John Boorman

Starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson

Tag line: "Forged by a god. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a king"

Trivia:  All the forests shown in this movie are a mile away from director John Boorman's home in Ireland

Aside from being the best filmed version of the story of King Arthur and his Knights, director John Boorman’s Excalibur also manages to deglamorize the tale, relating it in a brutal, honest fashion. 

As depicted in this film, the England of Arthur’s time was filled with deceitfulness, adultery and murder, and even the supernatural forces that controlled this world, the magical spells conjured up by wizards to assist the knights on their various quests, could, at times, be quite treacherous.

With Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as a base, Excalibur recounts the legend of King Arthur (Nigel Terry) who, with the sword Excalibur at his side, united the kingdoms of England under a single rule. 

Many of the legend's high points are here, including the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) watching over Arthur to ensure he fulfills his destiny; the infamous round table that established chivalry in it’s day; and the doomed love affair between Arthur’s queen, Guenivere (Cherie Lunghi), and his most trusted knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). 

As darkness and dread move throughout the land, Arthur’s kingdom is threatened by a terrible evil. Having used witchcraft to seduce Arthur, the King’s half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren), bears him a son, the dangerous Mordred (Robert Addie). With Morgana’s magic to assist him, Mordred sets his sights on Arthur’s throne, and Arthur must wage war against his only son to protect the kingdom he struggled to unite.

The legend of King Arthur is steeped in honor, glory, and gallantry, yet Excalibur reminds us that Arthur’s reign occurred during the Dark Ages, when war and bloodshed were commonplace. 

Even Arthur’s conception and birth came about not through love, but the basest of human desires. The film opens with King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne, in his first movie role) at war with his rival, Cornwall (Colin Redgrave), for possession of the crown. When Merlin brings Uther the sword Excalibur, recognized as the sword of Kings, Cornwall is forced into a peace accord, and Uther is declared King. 

To celebrate this peace, Cornwall throws a feast at his castle, during which Uther first sets eyes on Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne (Catherine Boorman). Her beauty is overwhelming, and so arouses Uther's desires that it shatters the treaty, plunging the two factions back into a state of war. 

Driven by lust, Uther convinces Merlin to cast a spell that will allow him to take on the appearance of Cornwall, so that he may have Igrayne. As the real Cornwall meets his death on the battlefield, Uther in disguise rides into his castle and violently seduces Igrayne. 

Before casting the spell, however, Merlin made Uther swear an oath that he would turn over to him the issue of this lustful encounter, and that issue is Arthur, future king of England. Arthur’s life began by way of betrayal and war, the very conditions that would plague him the rest of his days.

Excalibur is a film of immense atmosphere, creating a kingdom in which darkness often prevails over light, drawing an obvious parallel to Arthur’s court, which strives, at all times, for perfection in their imperfect world. The cruel reality these Knights of the Round Table had to face was that chivalry and honor could not exist without evil; and in their kingdom, this evil was so powerful that it threatened to consume them all.


Klaus said...

I saw Excalibur at the theaters when it was released. It was one of my favourite films for years. while I wouldn't rank it that high these days - i've seen a lot of movies since then - it is still one of the best "King Arthur" flicks.

...and speaking of John Boorman's movies, have you ever seen Zardoz (1974)? Once you get past Sean Connery's silly costuming, it's a pretty interesting movie.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Klaus: Wow! Would I have LOVED a chance to see this one on the big screen! I'm psyched that it's finally coming to Blu-Ray!

I haven't seen ZARDOZ yet, though I have heard of it (and you've definitely piqued my interest with "Connery in a silly costume"). Thanks for the recommendation...I'll keep an eye out for it.

Mari Miniatt said...

We saw this in high school with the teacher blocking out the sex scene, but not the battle scenes. Which meant of course that most of the class rented the movie with in a week.

The things I love about this movie are; the wonderful overacting by some of the actors, yet it fits so well into the film. Historically, the armour is wrong, but again works so well.

Its like the triple fried egg, chilli sauce, and chutney sandwich from Red Dwarf. So much of it could be wrong, but when it was put together, it is amazing.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Mari: Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment!

I was somewhere around 12 or 13 when I saw it (I had to sneak in and watch it on cable late at night!), and I loved the movie. The over-acting (especially by Nicol Williamson) is priceless.

Your Red Dwarf analogy is a good one!

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie in the theaters upon it's initial release and have been a huge fan of Boorman's Arthur take ever since. It's an incredible production on so many levels. Great post!