“The Dark Ages. The land was divided and without a king. Out of those lost centuries rose a legend… of the sorcerer, Merlin… of the coming of a king… of the sword of power: Excalibur”
Fantasy, particularly high fantasy, is a genre that hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect from movie critics, or even from the public at large. In fairness to the detractors, it’s a genre that hasn’t always deserved a lot of respect. It’s doing better in recent years, thanks to The Lord of the Rings and other works showing that it can be a genre to be taken seriously, but for a long time the best one could hope for from a fantasy film was that it would be a fun, campy B-movie adventure. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but such things seldom acquire a fan base beyond people like yours truly.
But every so often there would be a film that, while not necessarily eschewing the camp and the strangeness of the fantasy worlds, exceeded its genre cousins in both quality and legacy. John Boorman’s Excalibur, released in 1981, is one such film.
“Forged when the world was young, and bird, and beast, and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.”
By the time Excalibur was made, John Boorman had, by his own account, been trying to bring the story of Merlin and King Arthur to the big screen for twenty years — as long as he had been making films. Though Deliverance had brought him a certain cachet, Zardoz and The Exorcist II were less acclaimed, to put it mildly. Studios still viewed him as a risky director, and fantasy films were a rarity — successful ones even more so. Boorman worked on several scripts on the concept, but none were picked up. Finally, he offered one to United Artists, who declined, but instead offered him another fantasy film, based on a work that they had acquired the rights to and thought might be more successful in the times (then the late 70s): The Lord of the Rings. Collaborating with screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg, Boorman set to work on a treatment. But when they finished, they were again rejected. Showing a degree of foresight that rightfully belongs on lists next to the studio that turned down the Beatles, United Artists felt that a three-hour film treatment of The Lord of the Rings was simply too risky for the money that it would require.
“It is easy to love folly in a child.”
United Artists allowed Boorman and Pallenberg to take their script elsewhere, but they were unable to convince any other studio to produce it either. However, during the discussions Boorman was finally able to convince a studio to support his original dream, and he and Pallenberg worked up a script for what would become Excalibur, which would be produced by Orion Pictures. Some of the sets and designs that they had originally planned for The Lord of the Rings found their way into Excalibur as well, and the script occasionally has subtle references — nothing out of place for Arthurian legend, but clear enough in the way phrases are turned, if one is looking for it.
“Your wisdom has forged this ring. Hereafter, so that we remember our bonds, we shall always come together in a circle to hear and tell of deeds good and brave. I will build a round table where this fellowship shall meet.”
Of course, just because a studio had approved the project didn’t mean all the troubles were over. Boorman had considerable trouble with casting the role of Merlin, a critical role both for his prominence in the story and because much of the early part of the film is from Merlin’s perspective. Boorman knew from the beginning who he wanted to play the role of the sorcerer: veteran actor Nicol Williamson, known among other things for starring in the title role of the 1969 film adaptation of Hamlet. Orion executives immediately nixed the idea; they had had several pictures with Williamson that had been commercial failures. They told Boorman he could have anybody but Williamson for the role of Merlin. Boorman auditioned several other candidates, including Max von Sydow, but kept coming back to Williamson. Eventually he managed to convince Orion that Williamson was the right man for the role.
“I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It is mine to know which and when.”
But then he had to convince Williamson. After Boorman was authorized to hire Nicol Williamson for the role, Williamson — having read the script and seen who his main antagonist would be — asked Boorman who would be playing the role of Morgana. The role had been given to one of the few other experienced actors in the film, Helen Mirren. Williamson immediately told Boorman he could not take the part; when Mirren found out that Williamson was to play Merlin, she also tried to bow out of the film. Mirren and Williamson had worked together on a stage performance of MacBeth which had gone poorly, and had not been on speaking terms for several years. Boorman was able to convince both of them to return to the film (he glosses over how in his commentary). He did not hope that they would be cooperative with each other; rather, he hoped that their animosity would enhance their performances as rivals in the film.
“Perhaps you ache for what you’ve never known.”
“Perhaps you lust for what you cannot have.”
Williamson and Mirren are a highlight of the film, but not the only one — even though they are among the few veteran actors among the cast. Most of the other principle roles were filled with actors who had limited or no film roles previously; Boorman chose to fill the movie largely with unknowns. Nicholas Clay, who played Lancelot, was one of the more experienced ones with a half-dozen roles, but they were mostly B-movies and small parts. The other actors usually only had one role prior to Excalibur, if that. They were cast because of roles in stage plays and performances in auditions, based on how Boorman thought they could convey aspects of the characters that the script didn’t have time to spell out. Cherie Lunghi was cast as Guenevere because of her ability to combine allure with innocence, a necessary trait to keep the audience’s sympathies given the character’s eventual affair with Lancelot. Paul Geoffrey and Robert Addie, as Perceval and the adult Mordred, had two film roles between them prior to Excalibur, and form something of a pair of opposites: the thief turned squire who maintains his innocence, and the privileged lordling who wants only power. And Nigel Terry, whose sole credited role before was as Prince John in The Lion in Winter, plays King Arthur from a youth of sixteen to an old man without ever seeming out of place.
“You have a kingdom to rule.” “But how? I don’t know how.”
“You knew how to draw the sword from the stone.” “That was easy.”
“Was it? I couldn’t have done it.”
Of course, just because some of the actors started out as unknowns doesn’t mean they remained so. Gabriel Byrne, now a familiar and prolific actor, had his first named role as Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur. The role of Gawain was filled by Liam Neeson, then in his late twenties. And in the role of Leondegrance, Guenevere’s father, was a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart. All would become very familiar faces to movie goers, but all were virtual unknowns at the time of Excalibur‘s filming.
“I saw what I saw. The boy drew the sword. If a boy has been chosen… a boy shall be king.”
Boorman’s intent by casting so many unknowns may have been to let the characters outshine the fame of the actors. Or it may simply have been a monetary issue, with so many roles needed for the film. Boorman has described the film’s budget as “shoestring”; it has been estimated at $11 million. By way of comparison, Dragonslayer, released the same year, had a budget of $18 million, and Krull, released two years later, had a budget of $45 million. Special effects were produced on the cheap, leading most magic to be subtle effects; fog is produced by dry ice, and the green glow of supernatural elements (such as Excalibur itself) is simply a backlight with a green filter on it. The silver and gold castle of Camelot was filmed in distance shots by using a model and reflecting it onto the camera using a special mirror. The knights’ armor was aluminum, and had to be constantly rubbed down to prevent water stains from forming, as it rained part of the day on every day of shooting. They couldn’t afford a crane, so crane shots were faked by having the cameraman walk backwards up a ramp. This was after the first cameraman had already quit, having had a nervous breakdown due to faulty exposure meters ruining the first two days of shooting.
“The sword! You promised me the sword!”
But even a fantasy movie isn’t defined by its special effects, and quality actors can’t salvage a low-quality script. Excalibur delivers on the story by going back to the roots of the King Arthur legend, and remaining true to its spirit even as it makes some changes. There are some differences made from the source material for the sake of narrative convenience and keeping its 2 and a half hour run time from becoming even longer; some of these changes have been adopted by later adaptations as well. The characters of Morgaine, Morgause, and Nimue are lumped into one character as Morgana. The Fisher King is Arthur himself. The character of Galahad is excised, with his role as the Grail Knight going to the character Perceval — who was actually the Grail Knight in the oldest renditions of the stories. But the overall tone is true to Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur. The story of King Arthur is one that has been adapted to film dozens of times, possibly even hundreds. Most tales want to focus on “the legend of Camelot” or “the adventures of King Arthur and his knights”. But the book that forms the basis of most of the legends — not the oldest rendition, nor the only written one, but by far the most famous of the older works — is Le Mort D’Arthur, which translates as “The Death of Arthur”. The writers of Excalibur kept in mind the various acts of the original book, and remembered the fact that it’s marching inexorably to a tragedy.
“Look at the great knight! Peace and plenty they promised. But what did they give us instead? Famine and pestilence.”
Le Mort D’Arthur can be viewed as having four distinct parts. There’s the time before Arthur. There’s Arthur taking the crown and solidifying the kingdom. There’s the era of peace and prosperity and the great deeds of the knights. And there’s the fall of Camelot, as Guenevere and Lancelot betray Arthur’s trust, and Mordred betrays his reign. Most adaptations focus only on Arthur taking the crown, and sometimes the adventures of the knights. And the love triangle is a popular subject, of course. But the full rise and fall, the cyclical nature of the tragedy, is missing from most adaptations. They start without showing the dark ages before Arthur, and in most cases end before any heavy tragedy befalls the kingdom. Excalibur shows it all. It starts off with knights in matte black armor fighting each other, with Uther Pendragon trying to unite the land but failing due to his own lust for the wife of another lord. An entire story could almost be told of Uther by himself, and the section ends with Merlin claiming Uther’s child for his own, and Uther being beset by the men who feel betrayed by their “king”.
“Nobody shall have the sword. Nobody shall wield Excalibur… but me.”
With the coming of Arthur, the armor is still black but the masks tend to be less grotesque, and it has a bit more of a shine to it. When Lancelot arrives on the scene, his armor is shining silver — and when the Round Table is established, all the knights have shining armor. When Arthur abandons Excalibur in despair over Guenevere and Lancelot’s affair, the decay of Camelot is likewise reflected in the armor, which is then rusted on all the knights.
It’s not the only symbolism in the film. There’s a constant theme of the new ways pushing out the old, particularly of Christianity forcing out the Pagan religions. Boorman chose not to specify a time period for the film, making it somewhat anachronistic and going strictly for a mythic quality, but the sense of historical progression remains. Merlin speaks of “the dragon” that forms the world, and how all things are a part of it. But Arthur’s wedding ceremony is presided over by a Christian priest, and crosses adorn much of Camelot. And most tellingly, the day that Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone is Easter: a date that is simultaneously a Pagan recognition of the renewal of spring, and the most holy of Christian holidays, honoring the resurrection of Christ and the redemption of man’s sin. By pulling the sword from the stone, Arthur renews the land, resurrects the dream of a unified kingdom, and redeems his father’s rash actions.
“Swear faith to me and you shall have mercy. I need battle lords such as you.”
There’s a nice moment after Arthur acquires Excalibur that establishes the difference between him and his father. Uther wrecked his own treaty for his own selfish desires. Arthur rides to the defense of Leondegrance, his first supporter, against Uryens (Keith Buckley), a knight who refused to accept Arthur’s legitimacy. During the battle, Arthur manages to get Uryens at sword-point and asks him to swear fealty. Uryens refuses, on the grounds that he is a knight, and Arthur is a mere squire… and Arthur sees the validity of his argument. Arthur then hands Uryens Excalibur, and asks that Uryens knight him. Arthur is the picture of calmness throughout the exchange. Uryens had been dead calm when his life was threatened, but with the sword in his own hands and Arthur at his mercy, he’s visibly trembling.
“In the name of God, Saint Michael and Saint George… I give you the right to bear arms and the power to mete justice.”
The primary characters are filled with dichotomies. Arthur as a youth is filled with insights such as the one exhibited with Uryens, but also a degree of naivete — his first act when drawing Excalibur is to offer it to his step-brother Kay for use in a tournament, even though he knows just what Excalibur is. Guenevere is charming and kind, but tempted by her feelings for Lancelot. Lancelot is so conflicted over his feelings, he literally battles himself in his dreams — even giving himself a wound in real life that never heals. And Merlin is both sombre and wisecracking as he tries to establish a peace for a world that will soon have no place for him.
“The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It’s the way of things. Yes. It’s a time for men and their ways.”
There is something of the feeling of a compressed storyline to the film, even though it runs two and a half hours, as it has to cover so much of the legend in one film. It makes one wonder what could be done today, when a fantasy epic is permitted to stretch to as many as three films of that same length. But this is not to say Excalibur feels lacking; rather, it feels as though it moves at a brisk pace, showing the highlights of the Arthurian myth without getting bogged down in the side stories.
And despite its modest budget and novice actors, Excalibur feels like a big-budget fantasy epic. Filmed on location in Ireland, the scenery is lush and green and primeval — Boorman cordoned off sections of the forest to ensure the local plant life would not be trampled by the crew before filming. The musical selections are suitably impressive, drawing from classic operas, particularly the works of Orff and Wagner. The scenes with Guenevere and Lancelot are backed up by prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — appropriately enough, as Tristan and Isolde were the other pair of adulterous lovers in Le Mort D’Arthur. The prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal is used, naturally, for the scenes of Percival questing for the Holy Grail. And battle themes are set to the impressive and majestic “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana — establishing that song as a constant in fantasy epics. The darker edge to the story is likewise represented, with “Siegfried’s Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung acting as the main theme of the film.
“What do you see?” “Oh, Guenevere. And a beloved friend who will betray you. You’re not listening. Your heart is not. Love is deaf as well as blind.”
Though critical reception was mixed, audiences embraced Excalibur immediately upon its release. It took the top spot at the box office its opening weekend, and earned three times its budget over its lifetime. Cinematographer Alex Thomson, who had once been fired from Jesus Christ: Superstar and was hired by John Boorman after his first cameraman quit, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Boorman was nominated for a Palmes d’Or at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, and was given the award for Best Artistic Contribution. The film currently has an 80% critical rating and 73% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been a successful seller on the home video market, including as one of the earliest widescreen DVD releases. There have been discussions of a remake, but it was shelved in 2011. Currently, a documentary on the making of the film is being produced; John Boorman, Nigel Terry, and many of the cast are participating in interviews.
“Are you just a dream?” “A dream to some… a nightmare to others!”
There are many films that tell part of the tale of King Arthur. Excalibur is one of the few that tells the story from beginning to end. It’s also one of the best. It’s a movie that showed Hollywood that high fantasy could be respectable, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“There are other worlds. This one is done with me.”