Most people are aware of the legend of King Arthur. There have been many stories, films, and references to the character for hundreds of years. The magic and fantasy of the tales go back long before the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. Adapted from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, “Excalibur” follows the life and times of King Arthur (played by Nigel Terry) from before his birth to his death. A lot of the legends are included in this film, from King Uther (Gabriel Byrne) uniting Britain and lusting after Igrayne, Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, dueling Lancelot, Lancelot and Guenevere’s affair, Merlin and Morgana le Fay’s relationship, the search for the Holy Grail, and even the battle against Mordred (Robert Addie), Arthur’s evil son. In other words, they put everything in here.
All this story unfortunately comes at the heavy cost of characters, in that those here are fairly shallow. If there’s one major complaint that I have with this film, it’s that you never get a strong sense of these famous characters and their relationships. I think that director John Boorman instead relies on the audiences’ preconceptions of the story and what they already know of the characters to fill in the blanks. Everyone knows that Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and Arthur are best friends, but this is only really known in the film because they tell us this. After their first meeting, the story jumps farther into the future, glancing over what would be their time spent fighting alongside each other. The same goes for Arthur and Merlin. They meet after Arthur has already grown and pulled the sword from the stone, yet in later scenes, Arthur looks to him as a father-figure. It’s a shame because when there’s character interaction, it can be quite good. Some highlights include the way Merlin interacts with Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren). Even though it’s clear to the audience and possibly Merlin that she’s evil, he’s still seemingly fascinated by her beauty and their shared magical abilities. It’s hard to tell who’s really in control when they banter and had they more scenes, they could have really developed this relationship.
The acting from nearly every central member of the cast is very good. Nicol Williamson as Merlin is a particularly entertaining performance, full of eccentricity and nuance. His Merlin can be kind and even lighthearted at times, while in other scenes it’s clear that his mind is concerned with far more serious issues. This keeps him mysterious and enigmatic, yet not unsettling. Another good performance comes from Paul Geoffrey, who plays Percival. The majority of the quest for the Holy Grail follows him exclusively as he overcomes trial after trial over a span of at least ten years.
The heavy plated armor that the characters wear is clearly not from the Dark Ages in Britain, but I don’t think that was ever a concern when making this film. The armor is shiny and looks good. That’s the main purpose. It also emphasizes the color scheme and themes of the story. The country is in turmoil and the knights wear dark armor. There’s a considerable amount of mud and fog to accompany this in the mis-en-scene. When Arthur rules over a united country, there’s a lot of green and the armor is much more silver and light catching. The scene in which Arthur and Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) get married displays this at its peak. This is also emphasized by the green gleam of Excalibur and how Arthur’s health and status is somehow tied to the well being of the country. Mordred and his army wear dark armor and Mordred himself wears gold, a striking contrast to Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’s silver armor. Aesthetically, this is a very interesting film. There are some very large sets and they are crammed with detail. The inside of Camelot is full of all kinds of colorful people including jesters and alchemists. There are some scenes, such as the duel between Arthur and Mordred, that are almost expressionistic.
Unfortunately more time is spent indoors than outside in the country. There are only a few scenes that show off the world beyond the dark of the castles and forests, and this is too bad because the shot of the Knights riding their horses over vast mountains in one scene makes for a very memorable image. At about 2 hours and twenty minutes, “Excalibur” manages to tell nearly everything there is to tell in the Arthur legend, maintaining a mystical tone and carried by striking and epic imagery. Though not lacking in characters, they certainly leave something to be desired and this hurts the film the most, especially given its fairly lengthy run time. That being said, there’s still a lot to get from this version of the legend of King Arthur.
In many ways, “Excalibur” is a satisfying viewing experience in that it tells the classic stories of King Arthur and includes much of what people have always liked about them: sex and violence. Throw that into the Dark Ages and it turns into something beautiful.