Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Ahhhh…. Excalibur. Yes, I must have been around twelve years old when that movie came out and I remember, after seeing the trailer, bugging my mom for days to take to me to see that movie. Since it was R-rated I couldn’t get in on my own and though my parents didn’t have any problem taking their kids to R-rated movies – gotta love back in the day parents – this was one of those movies that mom just wasn’t interested in seeing. Eventually she realized that she either was going take me to see the damn movie or she was going to beat me to death and thankfully she opted for the former. As I have learned, as an adult great expectations usually leads to disappointment but as a child great expectations for whatever reason are almost always met. As a kid watching Excalibur, my expectations were not only met but usually exceeded. Before putting my DVD in to revisit ‘Excalibur’ for the first time over twenty five years I was attempting to remember what it was I loved about the movie as twelve year old. The only thing I could remember is shiny armor, breasts and the Orion logo. Watching this 27 year old film today is going to be almost like watching it for the very first time.

The legend of King Arthur has been told many times, this time around director John Boorman, who at this point and time was most famous for lording over Ned Beatty getting violated in ‘Deliverance’ is in control of the legend. As our story goes in this iteration, the wizard Merlin (Nigel Terry) is assisting King Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) in his battle to unite a war torn England under one ruler, and once Merlin guides Pendragon to the sword Excalibur it seems he has succeeded. But then Pendragon sees his main rivals beautiful wife Igrayne (Katherine Boorman) and all of Merlin’s grand plans go for naught as Pendragon orders Merlin to create a spell to allow him to spend one night with the woman. Inexplicably Merlin does just this as Pendragon impregnates an unaware Igranyne, while her young daughter Morgana looks on.

As part of their agreement Merlin seizes the child from this unholy union and the brash Pendragon is summarily murdered casting England back into the state that it has recently arisen from. From here the legend kicks in as we know it with young Arthur withdrawing Excalibur from the stone, becoming King, leading great battles, and creating the Knights of the Round Table. He also has to deal with his unfaithful wife Guinevere (Cheri Lunghi), his greatest knight and best friend Lancelot (the late Nicholas Clay) who is sticking it to his wife on the D.L., and of course his hateful magically enhanced half sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) who tricks Arthur into a incestuous tryst leading to the birth of the equally hateful Mordred (the late Robert Addie). Of course having sex with your sister is never cool, but she was only his HALF sister which makes it only half un-cool, because the Dame Mirren sure was toasty back in the day. Hell, she’s pretty decent right now considering she’s pushing sixty plus. There’s a quest, death, destruction, a glorious battle and redemption as the sword Excalibur returns to the sea to await another champion to wield its mighty power.

I must admit that some of the grand luster of Boorman’s epic has been chipped away after experiencing ‘Excalibur’ close to thirty years later, and it’s possible that this is due to most of the wonder for a child watching this movie was in the visuals. There are certain things in watching the film today that I would question, that I would have cared less about when viewing the film in 1981. For instance, considering the movie is close to two and a half hours long, the majority of the characters in this film were woefully underdeveloped. Other than the fact that we know that Guinevere and Lancelot are supposed to have an affair, there was nothing in the movie that built up to their betrayal of the king other than I suppose instant attraction. We are left to assume that Morgana’s hatred for Arthur is due to her mother being raped by Arthur’s father, because as far as I could tell Morgana gave us no other reason for sour disposition toward the king. What exactly prompted Merlin to grant Uther Pendragon’s desires, thus undoing years of his own handiwork and also agreeing to train Morgana in the black arts knowing full well that her intentions for its usage will be far less than honorable? These were just some of the character and plot issues in revisiting this film years later that seem wide open.

What remains however is the epic feel of ‘Excalibur’. There’s probably not a film director living or dead who can compose a scenic landscape shot as well as John Boorman can as he fills each frame of the Irish countryside (where this was filmed) with such a pure and natural beauty. The costuming and armor are just as majestic and as spectacular as I remember, if not more so, the battle sequences were hard fast and brutal, and what the narrative may have lacked in focus is made up for with emotion and passion. Though the characters were largely underdeveloped, the performances the actors gave through their characters were heartfelt, earnest and true. Not to mention early sightings of Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson as Knights of the Round Table.

It is always interesting to revisiting films you’ve seen as younger person because though the films never change, we have changed and these movies do a good job in pointing out how one’s thinking has been altered over the course of a number of years. ‘Excalibur’ is still one of the prettiest girls on the block, to be sure, but she’s just not as smart I thought she was twenty five years ago.

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