Film 2022: Excalibur


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?

10 thoughts on “Film 2022: Excalibur

  1. I’ll have to put this in my films to watch list. Have you seen the new Punisher series? I think I’m watching it on my parents shared Disney channel its very good. I enjoyed the new Batman one too with Robert Pattinson.

    1. I can’t recommend Excalibur, seriously, but if you disagree with my response I’d be interested in your reasons. As for other things, I have finally reached the point of losing interest in superheroes. I haven’t watched any of the Marvel series since season 4 of Agents of Shield, and I haven’t watched any of the DC ones in nearly as long, with the honourable exception of Stargirl (waiting on an affordable copy of the season 2 boxset). As for Batman, I have reached saturation point: when something like four out of evry five DC comics is a Batman title, the will to live expires pretty rapidly. I did enjoy the new Doctor Strange film last week, though mainly for Elizabeth Olsen, and I will be seeing the forthcoming Black Adam, because that brings back my lifelong favourites, the Justice Society, and especially Dr Fate… (I’m sure your Tom can translate all this gobbledy-gook for you).

      1. Reeves does all he can to make The Batman fresh, but you do really feel the saturation. It’s as if there is nothing new left to say about this character after all these years.

      2. I quite like King Arthur stories I think it goes back to when we went on holiday and I tried to pull a sword out of a stone, i can’t even remember where that was now. Then we went to Camelot and that stuck with me. Did you watch the one with Sean Connolly in called The First Knight – I quite liked that one. When I went to the Minack Theatre that area is full of Excalibur stories and King Arthur.

        Actually it was Tom that recommended all the Marvel stuff to me. I didn’t think I’d like the Punisher but the actor is fab and it had a good story line in it. There weren’t as many gadgets in the new Batman, they tried to approach it with a different perspective to previous Batman’s I’ve seen. I watched Jane Eyre last night and a modern Wuthering Heights researching the Brontë books but I didn’t enjoy it, so my Dad told me today to watch the one from 1939 with David Niven, so that’s tonight’s film.

  2. My feeling exactly. And the sheer number of stories he is appearing in simultaneously is so excessive that it is impossible to physically imagine them existing outside the 48 hour day and the twenty day week. That said, my last comic will be Batman, Batman/Catwoman 12, next month. After that, occasional Graphic Novels only, and not even very many DVD runs either. An end to sixty years.

  3. Charlotte, I was almost certainly introduced to King Arthur when I was a little kid. I’m surprised that i don’t remember him as appearing in any of the comics I got then, except for his role in a brilliant adaptation of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. I can’t remember any other films I’ve seen of King Arthur, and I don’t think I’ve even heard of the Sean Connery one you mention; you’re one up on me there.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying The Punisher. I’m afraid I have serious problems with the character and wouldn’t watch it on principle, no matter how good the acting. I’ve probably seen the 1939 Wuthering Heights film – if it’s the one I’m thinking of, it only adapts the first half of the book. I studied the book for O-level in 1970/1 which, like most of the subjects I studied at school, permanently repelled me from the book. When it comes to 19th Century literature, I was surprised to find myself developing a firm liking for Anthony Trollope. If you ever get the chance to watch the BBC series ‘The Barchester Chronicles’, take it. It’s a superb adaptation of the first two Barchester books (of six) and is blessed with one of the most perfectly perfect casts ever, including the much-missed Alan Rickman in his first major role and effortlessly blowing some serious acting heavyweights away. And everybody in it is fantastically good.

  4. Haha on the studying books at school, I quite enjoyed the ones I did but only because I read them at home with my Mum: Frankenstein, The Inspector Calls, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tartuffe and Our Countries Good. I did some Shakespeare plays in Drama too but I honestly feel they should be acted out and not just read.

    1. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, one of those rare instances where book and film were equally superb. I read Frankenstein in a profusely illustrated edition I wish I’d kept. I don’t recognise The Inspector Calls but I do love J B Priestley’s play and film An inspector Calls, and recommend his novels The Good Companions and Bright Day. At school we did Shakespeare twice a year: not that into him as drama after that. I would never have foreseen my becoming someone who enjoys analysing why stuff works as much as I do via the blog.

  5. I get your points, but I can’t say that I agree. I adored it 1st run (US opening day) and I adore it still. Some of the things you criticize, like the opening, which, granted, is implausible, for me represent features rather than bugs. Poetic license. Boorman is one of my top 20 directors and I love everything that he’s done, and that includes The Heretic, which I prefer to the original Exorcist because it is gloriously, hallucinatory and pagan in comparison to the original’s dead serious Catholic hysteria, something I have little tolerance for.

    1. Until yesterday, I’d have agreed with you whole-heartedly, but now… I’d be curious to watch the full 160 minute cut to see if that hangs together better, but I’m unlikely to ever watch this version again.

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