I dunno. I enjoyed this film so much when I saw it in the cinema forty years ago, and again in later years when seen on television at least once, but this morning’s viewing was very different. Excalibur, an adaptation of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur directed by John Boorman, came over as a terrible mess, ill-lit, with implausible dialogue, at least one case of a WTF accent, and definitely overlong. Which latter was an irony in that my DVD was of an edited version, a thing of 134 minutes duration, as opposed to the film’s original 160 minute length.
Which was in itself somewhat confusing, as the edit, to get a PG rated Certificate, is supposed to be 119 minutes long, according to Wikipedia. Either way, the film struggled to hold my attention and I must have paused it nearly half a dozen times, not all of them to deal with a bit of a tummy bug.
The film’s inherent problem, which the script, by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, never even came close to surmounting, was that thestory of King Arthur and the legendary sword, Excalibur, is not a story, but a cycle. It’s a myth-cycle, the only serious British one around and, like similarly mythic cycles, such as the Norse myths, it is actually a series of stories, strung together like beads on a wire, with an ultimate progression but without the direct connective tissue between episodes that informs a story. As such, it bumbles along from tale to tale: Uther Pendragon rapes Igrayne under the disguise of her hudband, the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin takes away the baby, Arthur. Arthur is fostered by Sir Ector until he pulls the Sword from the Stone. Guinevere. Lancelot. Morgan le Fay, here called Morgana. Mordred. Throwing the sword back to the Lady of the Lake.
If you’re British and were fed these myths as an elevated form of fairy story, you know all these touchpoints, even if only from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, thugh for this version of the legendarium you can substitute the Carmina Burana for Bibbity Bobbity Boo. And Boorman ticks these off in more or less the order they crop up. This does to some extent dminish the dramatic tension one expects from a film, since the audience knows what they’re getting in advance. That was exactly the same for The Lord of the Rings, the difference being that Peter Jackson brought that to life and John Boorman, who ironically developed the look of the film out of an aborted wish to film Tolkien’s big book, doesn’t begin to do so.
Part of this is the uncertainty of tone throughout the film. It begins with a deeply unwise dimly lit introduction to Uther Pendragon, which is so dark that it’s very difficult, if not impossible at times, to work out what is actually happening. In fact, one of the few things that can be made out with any real clarity are the breasts of Katrine Boorman, playing Igrayne as she’s being shagged enthusiastically by Gabriel Byrne as Uther, in full armour. Even in 1981, and substantially more shallow then than now, this was so improbable – I mean, the discomfort, for him as well as her, as well as the lack of facility for fucking of doing it in body armour – that the reality of the film slipped sideways quite a bit. It must also be said that whilst these were breasts that were pleasant to view, they were the breasts of the Director and Co-scripter’s own daughter, which does cast something of a disturbing pall over the scene.
The armour is also a fundamental part of the film’s inability to decide on a consistent approach. Boorman is depicting a High Romance look, literally Knights in shining armour, full body, bright, bulky and a bit clunky, but instead of the elegance, fantasy and unhindred grace of the look, he layers this with mud and grime and blood, not to mention clumsy, staggering, visibly exhausting fights. Monty Python did this in their Holy Grail, but they were aiming at a deflating comic opposition, whereas Boorman isn’t directing a comedy.
Though you’d be forgiven for wondering as soon as Nicol Williamson turns up as Merlin. Dressed in blacked, with a close fitting silver skullcap he never takes off, stomping around on a staff topped by two stylised snakes, not to mention what looks like an oxy-acetylene torch in one night scene, Williamson is a joke from the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking in an accent that is by itself a tour of the regions, not to mention a collection of inflections, speeds and oral mannerisns that would have made him a shoo-in for a guest spot in The Goon Show, if that had still been going. Williamson sounds like someone who is making it all up as he goes along, whilst simultaneously being unable to believe what he’s being asked to say.
But that could be said for the whole film. There isn’t a line of dialogue that sounds as if it could be spoken by a normal human being, yet it also fails to convince as high fantasy by failing to make itself into a convincing alternative. And it should also be remarked that Nigel Terry, who plays Arthur from his teens to what should be his late fifties whilst being 35 himself, starts off with a comic West Country yokel accent that gradually flattens itself out the longer, and more ragged, the film becomes.
Given that this DVD is approximately 25 minutes shorter than the theatrical version I originally saw, there didn’t seem to be any holes in the ‘story’. The only thing I actually noriced that had been cut out was a brief shot of Helem Mirren’s breasts through a very translucent lace top in the scenewhere she, as Morgana, seduces her half-brother Arthur to conceive their incestuous son, Mordred (played as a young boy by another Boorman offspring, Charley).
I have to admit that the casting was good, full of young actors and actresses whose careers were just beginning. Not just Byrne and Mirren, but Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds and Patrick Stewart had roles to play, whilst Guenevere was played by the lovely Cherie Lunghi, who did her best with a role that was weak and wet, with the substance of tissue paper. And, when you could see it, the landscapes – in #ireland – were enjoyable, though the age of the print did suggest that if it was worth someone’s economic while to do so, which I doubt, it would greatly benefit from a digital remsastering.
No, what once attracted me to this film, has, with the exception of Mesdames Boorman, Lunghi and Mirren, wholly evaporated. The silliness of Williamson’s accent, his complete detachment from anything to do with the rest of the film, was criticised at the time, and now I can see how destructive it is to the appeal of what, it the right hands, could still make a bloody good epic film. Mr Jackson?