“The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth”, is how John Boorman summed up Excalibur, his bold, dreamlike interpretation of the Arthurian myth. A film that achieves the remarkable feat of seeming gritty and fanciful at the same time. In the dark ages, the magician Merlin (a superb Nicol Williamson) summons the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, which enables Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) to become king. Unfortunately, Uther grows obsessed with the beautiful Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), wife of his ally Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart) and, with a reluctant Merlin’s aid, he infiltrates their castle and makes love to her. Igrayne bears Uther’s son, but the king is slain and embeds Excalibur inside a stone. Years later, Merlin finds Arthur (Nigel Terry), raised as a humble farmhand, and guides him to draw Excalibur, assemble a legendary company of knights, and rule from Camelot as king of England. Arthur marries fair Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi), who begins an affair with the king’s finest knight, Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). Meanwhile, Arthur’s vengeful half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren) tricks Merlin into imprisonment and bewitches the king into committing incest. In time, their son, Mordred (played by Charley Boorman as a boy; Robert Addie as an adult) threatens the kingdom. The only hope of salvation lies with the Holy Grail.
Judging from the many snide reviews found on the internet, Excalibur no longer enjoys the exalted reputation it once had. Its mist-drenched, mystical musings seem to rub contemporary audiences up the wrong way, with many yearning for a more “realistic”, “historically accurate” approach. One confesses to finding that a little sad. An Arthurian romance stripped of all magic seems meaningless somehow and King Arthur (2004) demonstrated the pitfalls of that approach. In fact, Boorman does a remarkable job weaving the various historical, literary, and pseudo-religious aspects of the Arthurian legend into an allegory of the cycle of birth, life and decay. Drawing primarily upon Mallory’s Le morte d’Arthur, he and co-screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg incorporate several other Arthurian stories, outside elements including Tristan & Isolde and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and several intriguing pagan references (Merlin’s “charm of making”, the concept of the world as a living being: a sleeping dragon sometimes summoned from its slumber).
As many critics have remarked, Excalibur’s most haunting and brilliantly realised sequence - the quest for the Holy Grail - revolves around a minor character we barely get to know (Disappointingly, Boorman omits Sir Galahad). This deliberately vague, impressionistic style of storytelling is an acquired taste and hard to pull off, yet it works. Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) were similarly audacious, but hampered by an inability to deliver the goods as sci-fi adventure or scary horror. As a result, his wondrously crafted, philosophical subtext came across as airy-fairy nonsense. Here, Boorman’s imagination soars, and although the narrative can be a bewildering experience first time around, it remains compelling. The bloody battle scenes pack a visceral kick and surely influenced Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), and the like, while the sexual aspects of the legend are by turns lyrically sensual, brazenly carnal and deliberately funny. I.e. a fully armour clad Gabriel Byrne romping with lovely Katrine Boorman. John Boorman also stands alongside Dario Argento as a director perfectly happy to show his daughter naked. Hey, if it doesn’t bother them, it shouldn’t bother us.
Aside from Igrayne and the young Mordred, the roles of young Arthur and the Lady of the Lake are also played by Boorman children, adding to the familial air of the project. He lovingly photographs his adopted land of Ireland, with locations like Wicklow, County Kerry, Cahir Castle in Tipperary lending an intoxicating atmosphere enhanced by vibrant coloured lights and frequent showers of glitter. Nigel Terry was thirty-five at the time, but admirably conveys Arthur’s journey from boy hero to jaded monarch. Cherie Lunghi is saddled with a weakly written Guinevere, but Nicholas Clay is among the strongest Lancelots (kudos to them both for filming their love scene outdoors in the freezing cold), and Helen Mirren is an eerie, intense Morgana.
But the film belongs to Nicol Williamson’s surreal turn as a wise, aloof and wacky Merlin. You never know what he’s going to say or do next, as Williamson takes bold risks and remains compelling. Much like Excalibur itself, which ranks alongside Camelot (1967) and Merlin (1999) as an intelligent, profound discourse on the nature of myth making.
British director whose work can be insufferably pretentious or completely inspired, sometimes in the space of a single film. He began his career with the BBC, before directing Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us If You Can. Hollywood beckoned and his Lee Marvin movies Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific won him admirers.