As a filmmaker, John Boorman really goes for it. He has an idiosyncratic perspective on the diverse material he films, and carries it to the limit. Sometimes this has led to abject disaster (e.g., the incomprehensible, pretentious and unintentionally risible Zardoz). But more often than not Boorman’s courage as a filmmaker has resulted in fresh, exciting cinema, such as Point Blank, one of the very best films I have recommended on this site. 1981’s Excalibur is almost as strong and every bit as original as that classic.
Excalibur re-tells the hoary tale of King Arthur, his wizard/mentor Merlin, his knights of the round table and his tragic love triangle with Guinevere and Lancelot. Boorman keeps roughly to the classic Malory version of the story, but tells it in his own inimitable way, with bloody battles, plenty of sex, and even at times a bit of camp (some of the over-the-top moments may have drawn a few chuckles that Boorman didn’t intend). Excalibur illustrates beautifully how a talented artist can breathe new life into familiar material.
The most memorable character in the film is Merlin, played with gusto by Nicol Williamson, who gives the most eccentric portrayal of an Arthurian Wizard since John Cleese essayed Tim the Enchanter. His Merlin is a cranky, cryptic, wise and powerful oddball who alternates between helping his human charges (First Uther Pendragon and then his son Arthur) and upbraiding them for their frailties. The film develops his rivalry/romance with Morgana le Fay more than has any other Arthurian adaptation, which was a wise move given that the ageless and subtle actress Helen Mirren is on hand to play the enchantress who longs for King Arthur’s downfall.
The production values are spectacular and the battle scenes feel real. Rather than people leaping around in plate mail whilst nimbly fencing with longswords, the combat is often slow and clunky. Indeed, the actors visibly strain under the weight of their weapons and armor. Also to admire: Future superstars (Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson) giving solid performances as knights. Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Gray also register as the doomed lovers Guinevere and Lancelot, and it’s a shame their film careers didn’t take off after this movie was made.
Ultimately of course, this is Boorman’s movie, and whether it captivates you or not depends directly on whether you are willing to travel along with him as he develops his personal vision of Le Morte d’Arthur. Most viewers will find that while there are a few bumps on that journey, it’s an immensely rewarding trip with one of Britain’s great filmmakers.