“Now, once more, I must ride with my knights to defend what was, and the dream of what could be,” says King Arthur.
The King Arthur legend has been the subject of many TV miniseries and feature films (even a Monty Python Broadway musical). Of all the different versions that have been made, the best version that stands above the rest is John Boorman’s fantasy classic Excalibur (and not just because of the graphic violence and sexual content). I had caught bits and pieces of it on cable over the years, but it wasn’t until almost a year-and-a-half ago that I finally got a chance to see it in its entirety on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art (a surprisingly good archival 35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros. was shown). Boorman himself was there to introduce the film (my favorite anecdote was about his attempts to cast Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren and why they were reluctant to do the film, which drew a lot of laughs). I enjoyed the film very much; it was even better than I had previously believed.
1981’s Excalibur follows a young king named Arthur, who is guided by the wizard Merlin, as he tries to bring peace and prosperity to the land after years of conflict. He must contend with the scheming Morgana Le Fay and send his knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail in order to heal the land. Boorman assembled an excellent cast that includes Nigel Terry (as King Arthur), Helen Mirren (as Morgana Le Fay), Nicholas Clay (as Sir Lancelot), Cherie Lunghi (as Queen Guenevere), Paul Geoffrey (as Sir Perceval), Nicol Williamson (as Merlin), Corin Redgrave (as the Duke of Cornwall), Patrick Stewart (as Leondegrance), Keith Buckley (as Sir Uryens), Clive Swift (as Sir Ector), Liam Neeson (as Sir Gawain), Gabriel Byrne (as Uther Pendragon), Robert Addie (as Mordred), Katrine Boorman (as Igrayne), and Ciaran Hinds (as Lot). Terry is commanding yet vulnerable as Arthur as he struggles with his leadership at times, trying to bring peace and prosperity for all. Williamson steals every scene he’s in as the wizard Merlin, Mirren is treacherous and conniving as Morgana, and Geoffrey is relentless as he refuses to waver in his quest to find the Grail. The film is also notable for being one of the first films in the careers of Stewart, Neeson, Byrne, and Hinds.
The screenplay by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg is a condensed adaptation of Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur (which in itself was largely a translation and compilation of the Arthurian stories), depicting the end of the age of magic (the disappearance of the old religions and the emergence of Christianity in their place). Alex Thomson’s Oscar-nominated cinematography gives the film a soft look that makes the images simply gorgeous (I loved the use of green in regards to the lighting of the sword Excalibur). Bob Ringwood’s costumes designs are amazing (Terry English did a fantastic job with creating the armor for the knights), as is Anthony Pratt’s production design, which utilizes both real castles and constructed sets, and the makeup design by Basil Newall and Anna Dryhurst. Trevor Jones contributes one of his first scores, a rousing effort that includes some classical music adaptations (Boorman wanted to use a theme from Richard Wagner’s Gotterdammerung as the main theme for Excalibur, Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana in some battle sequences, a theme from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde for the theme of Lancelot and Guenevere, and a theme from Wagner’s Parsifal as a theme for Perceval and the Holy Grail). Boorman’s Excalibur is undeniably a classic in the fantasy film genre that features engaging performances, thrilling battle sequences, and effective pre-CG era special effects. It has held up well for 35 years, and will continue to do so for many more years!