Episode 14 – Excalibur

Excalibur movie posterExcalibur (1981)

Merlin the magician helps Arthur Pendragon unite the Britons around the round table of Camelot even as forces conspire to tear it apart (IMDB)

John Boorman’s alleged classic gets torn out of the stone we found it in. The long-awaited deep examination of the legend of King Arthur made cinema fare, Excalibur!

This movie stands pretty significantly in fantasy movie history, but does it stand the test of time? Will it be a unanimous success? Will we EVER find a movie to do from the 90s? These questions and more get answered in the next episode of DRAGONREEL!

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Episode 14 – Excalibur — 1 Comment

  1. After taking a break I came back to the podcast and, though I think you guys could dial back the banter, it settled down and there were some insights, factoids and observations I really appreciated.

    For me, there are three striking positives about Excalibur and two (possible) negatives.

    Negatives first: Nicoll Williamson and Nigel Terry. Williamson (Merlin) is a Shakespearean actor venting his inner Puck in this film. When it works, it works beautifully.

    MERLIN: It’s not for you, Uther; hearth and home, wife and child.
    UTHER: To kill and be king?
    MERLIN: Perhaps not even that.

    When it doesn’t work, Merlin’s gurning and OTT delivery can be jarring. Now you might argue (I would argue!) that this is actually faithful to the Merlin of Mallory and the Welsh material, who is a demented trickster figure. You could argue (and I would agree) that Williamson’s acting style being on SUCH a different wavelength from the rest of the cast further establishes Merlin’s other-ness, his inhuman qualities: he’s a supernatural being performing a passable imitation of human. But it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

    Terry (Arthur) is an unknown actor and brings a lumbering ingénue quality to the role you may love but will probably hate. There are some low points:

    ARTHUR: Rise father. I was your son before I was your king.

    That one clatters like tin. Terry puts on gravity as old-Arthur later in the film and a case could be made that his very awkwardness humanises his character and sets him apart from the languid Lancelot (Nicholas Clay).

    Only right to offer commendations for positive acting. Cherie Lunghi is luminous as Guinevere and Helen Mirren positively serpentine as Morgana. Nicholas Clay brings a sort of louche charm to Lancelot. Great fun spotting future stars (Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson) giving 110% in minor roles.

    Positives: the Jungian/Freudian subtext, the harmonising of the source material and the soundtrack.

    The subtext is electrifying. Boorman firmly grasps the archetypal quality of these characters and situations, confronts the incestuous politics head on (how many Arthurian films since have done that?) and freely transitions from gritty medieval realism to dreamlike symbolism. Imaginatively, it’s a triumph.

    The sources all contradict each other, but Boorman’s synthesis is notably ambitious. Here, the Sword in the Stone becomes Excalibur, the Orkney Sisters are combined together in the person of Morgana and Merlin becomes some dimension-hopping pan-being in the service of an ultimate energy/being/abstraction called “the Dragon”. I particularly delighted in the alteration of Lancelot’s role. Boorman has Arthur defeat Lancelot illicitly, bringing into his service a knight who (it is implied) had a different destiny and triggering the final catastrophe; when Arthur fails to execute the lovers, the entire world is turned on its head and Merlin’s power is broken. Other nice touches: reversing the spear versus sword armaments in Mallory, pitting a sword-wielding Arthur against a spear-wielding Mordred; the armour transitioning from Dark Ages pig iron to gleaming fantasy chrome and back again; the delicate handling of both Christianity and Druidry in this context (neither overstated; Merlin is, I would contend, some sort of extradimensional being, not a pagan magician).

    These two elements (to my mind) combine beautifully in the handling of the Grail Quest, which becomes (in the best tradition of T S Elliott and Robert Browning) an interior quest as well as a physical journey.

    The third asset this film has is its stunning soundtrack. OK, “Carmina Burana” verges on clichĂ© but this is one of the few occasions where it works for me, with Arthur’s knights riding out as the Wasteland buds into new life around them. The use of Wagner is simply stunning, especially in the final sequence with the casting of the sword and Arthur’s disappearance to Avalon. The folk music is wild and catchy too as is the synth figure of the score’s central melody. Excalibur is a film that seems to me to come from the same place as the British series “Robin of Sherwood” (which featured some of the same cast) with its Clannad soundtrack. Maybe a little too much reverb-y bass and ooh-aah choir, but it was the early ’80s.

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