Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Retro Review: EXCALIBUR

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review director John Boorman's take on the legend of King Arthur, 1981's EXCALIBUR.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. The legend of King Arthur is well travelled in popular culture, with adaptations, modernizations and re-imaginings of the story having been produced in one form or another for over one hundred years. Some of these are footnotes in the history of film, largely unknown today. A great many are meant for children. Even Monty Python had a go at it once; I'm sure you've seen that one, Occasional Reader, since you're a person. But for me, John Boorman's Excalibur stands apart from the crowd, with a majesty and ambition that interpretations of the Arthurian Legend don't typically enjoy.

If King Arthur had been a real person, it wouldn't be incorrect to call Excalibur a biopic. The film tries to include every major event in the legend. Uther Pendragon's night with Igrayne, resulting in Arthur's birth; the freeing of Excalibur from the stone; Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Gwinevere, Morgana, Mordred, and yes, even the Holy Grail all make appearances in Boorman's epic. This is both the film's strength and its weakness. Because it has so much ground to cover, Excalibur doesn't get to waste a whole lot of time on expository or filler material, relying instead on subtle interactions between the characters to fill in the minor details of the story. This is done very well, but unless you pay attention to what's going on throughout the story (as you should be doing anyway) you may miss some clue to help you understand later events. Even if you do pay attention, you still might miss something. Excalibur is one of those movies that reveals more and more secrets with repeated viewings.

This need to tell so many stories from King Arthur's legend sometimes results in disorienting narrative jumps. Following his betrayal by Lancelot and Gwinevere late in the film, for example, Arthur falls ill and sends his knights out on the quest for the Holy Grail, believing it can restore him to health. The knights ride out, the scene cuts, and suddenly ten years have passed, though we don't learn that right away. At first it seems as though the knights have suddenly started dying off for no clear reason, and it takes a moment more than it should have done to get us back up to speed.

Because the way the story is told in the film requires so much of the audience's attention, Boorman cast the movie with unknowns. Most of these will likely still not be recognized today, like Nigel Terry as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi as Gwinevere, or Nicholas Clay as Lancelot. Others will be immediately recognizable, such as Liam Neeson as Gawain, or Patrick Stewart as a knight named Leondagrance.

But the great star of this movie is Nicol Williamson as Merlin, who plays the character by turns as a world-weary cynic, a foolish old man, and a powerful mystic. There's even a moment when I sense something of the geek in the wizard, the moment when he's introducing Excalibur to the Duke of Cornwall and his men. I hear a particular lilt in Williamson's voice as he gives that little speech that suggests a barely-contained giddyness. There's a part of Merlin that thinks Excalibur is just the coolest thing ever, and I love that about the character. This is the portrayal of the wizard by which I judge all others.

In spite of its many redeeming qualities, it's hard to ignore the performances of much of the remaining cast as you watch this movie. There are some strong performances, like Nigel Terry, who plays an excellent Arthur, especially since has to carry the character from adolescence through to old age. Some of the others chew a fair amount of scenery, though. This is partly forgivable: these actors are playing knights, fighting men, and fighting men are not known for their passivity or self-restraint. That said, there are other ways to show a fighting man's intensity besides screaming most of your lines. Fortunately the screamy bits mostly come at appropriate times.

There is a lot one can use to endorse Excalibur, and there's a fair bit to oppose it. For me, Boorman's ability to create such a broad, beautiful film, and the compelling performances that are given make the movie's shortcomings tolerable. More than just another King Arthur movie among others, Excalibur is both a parable of what people can achieve, and the deadly menace that complacency can be to that achievement.

Excalibur is rated R.
Robert's Score: 8/10

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