John Boorman’s Excalibur Isn’t Just Another King Arthur Movie

The legend of King Arthur has never been more stylized or strange than it was in John Boorman's Excalibur.

After so many centuries as an inescapable figure in literature, art, poetry, comics, movies, cartoons,  and on TV, it still seemed in 1975 Monty Python had offered the final word on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I mean, after the holy hand grenade, what more was there to say?

Then six years later along came Excalibur.

As directors go, John Boorman has always been a weirdie, and a tough one to pin down. In the late ’60s he gave us two of the most fundamental pictures of Lee Marvin’s career with Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific. He then moved  onto the unforgettable backwoods savagery of 1972’s Deliverance. Throughout the rest of the ‘70s it felt like he was making a grab for Ken Russell’s crown with the bizarre, surreal sci-fi of Zardoz and the hilariously bewildering all-star trainwreck that was The Exorcist II: The Heretic.  

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In 1981 it felt at times like he was still on that same Russell track with Excalibur’s mix of hyperstylized visuals, hifalutin dialogue, extreme violence and gore, lots of (often taboo) sex, unexpected humor, and a handful of morbid little touches, like a crow plucking the eye from a rotting corpse hanging in a tree full of corpses. In retrospect, though, Excalibur was much more than a simple (if over the top) sword and sorcery picture.

Boorman said he’d been trying to get a film version of Sir Thomas Malory’s 1469 work Le Morte d’Arthur off the ground since the early ’60s, but without luck until Orion ponied up the money. The timing was good. There was a brief flurry of fantasy films in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, which I always took to be Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on the exploding popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs.

Coming out just a few months before Dragonslayer and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, and just a year before The Dark Crystal and Conan the Barbarian, Boorman’s Excalibur fit right in with its wizards and magic and knights and armor and big battle scenes and what all have you, even if there were no actual dragons of the firebreathing variety. What’s more, the success of that first wave of ’80s fantasy films cleared the way for Labyrinth, Legend, Fire and Ice, The Princess Bride, and The Neverending Story a few years later. But Boorman’s picture still stands apart.

There’s an awful lot of story crammed into the film’s 2 hour 20 minute run time, from Uther Pendragon’s devious plan to spend a night with Igrayne (conceiving Arthur in the process), through Arthur’s training under Merlin, that whole sword in the stone business, the rise of Camelot, Merlin’s betrayal by Arthur’s evil sorceress sister Morgana, Morgana’s devious plan to spend a night with Arthur (conceiving that snot Mordred in the process), Guenevere’s fling with Lancelot, the quest for the Grail, and the eventual fall of Camelot and Arthur’s death at the hands of his own son. If you knew the legend going in, Excalibur certainly hit all the highlights, with lots of battle scenes and jousting and feasting and dream sequences and hallucinations and Wagner and Carl Orff tossed in along the way.

But that’s really just the beginning. Because he wanted audiences to concentrate on the story and not just a bunch of big stars playing dress up in fancy aluminum suits, Boorman cast mostly unknown actors, or at least actors unknown to American audiences.

So we get the screen debuts of Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, as well as Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart’s introduction to US moviegoers. Nigel Terry (who sadly did very little in the years following Excalibur‘s release) gives a fairly remarkable turn, playing Arthur from a wide-eyed and naive teenager through increasing maturity and gravity into adulthood and old age. A shamelessly overacting Mirren plays Morgana like an amateurish Lady Macbeth or a Disney witch (well, minus all the incest). Paul Geoffrey’s Perceval and Nicholas Clay’s Lancelot you just want to smack.

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But the real star here is Nicol Williamson’s comic turn as the cynical, androgynous, and deeply sad Merlin, who watches as the world that once gave him so much power, a world he once understood and manipulated, fades away. His line readings remain one of the most memorable things about the film, his timbre sliding all over the spectrum as he adds additional syllables to even the simplest of words, which helps explain why to this day I find myself slipping into my Nicol Williamson impression at least once a week.

The production was beset with problems from the beginning. Orion executives, who’d had a few recent disasters with films featuring Williamson, told Boorman anyone except Williamson should play Merlin (even Lee Marvin was suggested as an alternative). Boorman persisted and eventually won out, but when Williamson learned Helen Mirren was playing Morgana, he tried to back out himself. The two had co-starred in a miserable production of Macbeth a year or two earlier (see?), and some mighty bad feelings continued to linger. Boorman won out again, thinking the off screen antagonism would translate well into their on screen relationship.

Then the massive and complex battle sequence which opens the film (and was the first thing on the shooting schedule) had to be shot three times, after the cinematographer misread his light meter the first two times. Even with a new DP and the cast he wanted, Boorman had to deal with a five month shoot during which it rained every single day. Rain, aluminum armor, and cameras apparently don’t work well together.

Despite all that, and story and performances aside, Excalibur would remain just another King Arthur movie if not for Boorman’s visual style. Using the simplest of low-fi practical lighting, optical effects, and in-camera trickery, he created an otherworldly atmosphere that is both earthy (all the grunting and squeaking and clanging and mud) and mythically luminous. The armor glows. Excalibur itself glows. The walls of Camelot glow. Even the forest glows. Combine that with some majestic sets, his use of the surrounding forest, the care he took in bringing out the personalities of characters almost always clad in nearly identical suits of armor, and in the end he crafted a bona fide and lush mythological epic, silly and corny, and campy as it may feel at times.

I think what really makes the film stand out is that at heart it’s structured, like Kubrick’s 2001, as a history of mankind’s past, present, and future, albeit set exclusively in the Middle Ages. It sounds like a mighty bloated and grandiose claim for a silly knight movie, but it’s all there.

The film opens with a primeval fire-lit night battle sequence, and the faceplates worn by the knights resemble highly-stylized animals. The whole scene is rough and bloody and muddy and crude. Even the Dragon’s Breath, a powerful bit of earth magic conjured up by Merlin, is a primitive far cry from the sleights of hand, potions and fireballs audiences had come to expect from their onscreen wizards.

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The emergence of civilization and the arrival of Christianity, as embodied by the rise of Camelot, are accompanied by the aforementioned ethereal glow emitted by damn near everything. The world, for a moment, was perfect and peaceful and sleek and a little dull.

And by film’s end, the trees are all but  gone, the blood-soaked land is littered with dismembered corpses, and the King is dead. It’s the wasteland, Boorman seems to be saying, that awaits us inevitably down the line. What the film really illustrates and comments on beneath all those dazzling visuals is that with the arrival of civilization and Christianity, man lost his primal and magical connection to nature, to the world around him, and that was the  source of his eventual downfall.

Still a fun sword and sorcery picture, though, gotta admit that. Even if it was a little creepy Boorman cast his own daughter to play Igrayne in that, ummm…notorious early scene.