by Allan Fish
(UK 1981 141m) DVD1/2
Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha
p/d John Boorman w Rospo Pallenberg, John Boorman book “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory ph Alex Thomson ed John Merritt m Trevor Jones (including Richard Wagner, Carl Orff ) art Anthony Pratt, Tim Hutchinson, Neil Jordan cos Bob Ringwood
Nigel Terry (Arthur), Cherie Lunghi (Guinevere), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot du Lac), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Robert Addie (Mordred), Paul Geoffrey (Perceval), Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Corin Redgrave (Duke of Cornwall), Liam Neeson (Gawain), Katrine Boorman (Igraine), Keith Buckley (Uriens), Patrick Stewart (Leondegrance of Camellard), Clive Swift (Ector), Ciaran Hinds, Carolyn Boorman,
There have been many Arthurian films over the years, conjuring up images of Richard Harris’ non-singing, Keira Knightley’s battle costume, and Stanley Baker glowering in a stone circle. Most of them have been predictably awful, and only really two stand tall. The first, Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, is certainly a classic of sorts, but in trademark minimalist key. His is the world of Chrétien de Troyes, and sets the legend in a very real medieval world. History tells us that, if he existed at all, Arthur was a Romano-Saxon of the 4th-5th centuries, which tends to call for a fantastic take on the legend that, up until Excalibur, hadn’t been attempted. Boorman’s masterpiece may be gory and, with its nude love scenes, not really for kids, but it’s a visual triumph of the film-maker’s art.
Filming in his beloved Ireland (County Kerry and Wicklow), it’s impossible to underestimate the power of the imagery in Excalibur. Boorman’s Britain is a Celtic hybrid where people speak in Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Scottish brogues, where pagan necromancy is disappearing in favour of Christianity and the central ethos is of harmony with nature; “you and the land are one“, Arthur is told. The use of green, in particular, is quite astonishing, none more so than in the ethereal lighting seen throughout not only the woods but inside the castles and even reflected in the pristine shine of the armour and of Excalibur itself. A symbolism at its most potent in one of the most beautiful, symbolic sequences ever filmed, as Arthur leads his knights from Camelot for the last time to their date with destiny, riding through a barren landscape when the flowers and trees magically transform themselves into full bloom as the rejuvenated king leads his knights through a row of budding blossom trees. All accompanied by the greatest ever use of Carl Orff’s immortal ‘O Fortuna’ as could be offered. And Orrf is not the only composer to be so brilliantly served; in addition to Trevor Jones’ career-best score, there’s some spellbinding uses of Wagner. Is there a more foreboding entrance in film than Merlin, in full shaman garb and in silhouette against a fiery backdrop of torches in a forest battle, striding over a hill towards the camera while the theme of ‘Siegfried’ rises up? Or a more perfectly suited use of ‘Parsifal’ than in the grail sequences that proved so controversial? True, they do take the film off into a psychological state that may offend purists, but it successfully emphasised the psychological aspect of the quest, both of mind and soul as well as body. It’s also, of course, in the guise of the unseen ‘dragon’, a homage to George Lucas’ Force. “It is everywhere, it is everything“, as Merlin says.
Featuring more future stars than one could possibly hope to see in one place, it enabled its cast to have a literally fantastic time, none more so than Williamson’s truly barmy Merlin, one of the great eccentric performances in film, with more riddles and cryptic mantras than a dozen sphinxes. Essences of everything from Olivier’s Henry V to Kurosawa’s Kagemusha can also be glimpsed in what Pauline Kael called “one lush, enraptured scene after another.” Castles of gold and silver, charms of making in magical caverns, impossibly beautiful weddings, you name it. Here’s a film that truly does evoke a sense of mythical wonder and shows a legend you believe could last. Terry’s Arthur calls it “the stuff of future memory“, and Excalibur is certainly that. One of the greatest, most underrated films of the eighties; rumours of a longer cut are tantalising, to say the least.