- Directed, Produced, and Co-Written by John Boorman
- April 10, 1981 (US)
Merlin works to help Arthur unite Britons even as human weaknesses and dark forces conspire against them.
Excalibur is such a great movie. This is a literate film that is visually stunning and just great to watch. This film itself is based on the 15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. It dumbs nothing down and presents its characters as complex individuals. This is not a light and fluffy adventure like a Disney movie. This plays in my mind a lot like a serious book with strong characters.
Nigel Terry, though 35 at the time, stars as King Arthur from his teenage years into his old age. And he does a much more convincing job than most of the original 90210 cast did, and they were about the same age playing kids. Terry’s Arthur is a mortal being with lofty ideals and can be neglectful of those closest to him or blinded by his destiny to the realities of what is occurring.
Merlin (Nicol Williamson) is a mercurial and impetuous individual. He can also be rather serious and stern when needed. His goal is to bring about a golden age for the Britons, but his plans are consistently undone by the weaknesses of those he chooses as well as his own. While Merlin portrays himself as very powerful and very insightful he is not truly all knowing and all powerful. This is demonstrated in a moment when Arthur surprises even him, a man they can see the future, by kneeling before one man who would kill him in order to be knighted by that man. This bold move ends the fighting he is involved in and brings about a momentary peace in the land.
Cherie Lunghi is Sir Leondegrance’s (Sir Patrick Stewart) daughter Guenevere. Guenevere is as attracted to Arthur as she is to him but I get the feeling that her attraction is also mixed in with his obvious celebrity and his clear ascent to power. It is a strong love but not one based just on the man alone.
Otherwise Guenevere would not have fallen so easily for the dashing Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). Lancelot is the best of the best and a knight without equal. He knows his attraction for Guenevere is wrong and a betrayal of not only his ideals but of his closest friend. He fights his desires as long as he can but he cannot do so forever. Lancelot’s reasons for being attracted to Guinevere first are equally as shallow. Arthur is not drawn to Guinevere for any reason initially other than lust much like his father was to his mother. Lancelot is perhaps the true love of the two. She is a pretty face that appears to be pure. Their initial feelings for her have nothing to do with her as a person.
The story of Excalibur is about how human frailties can undo the best laid plans and are often at the heart of the failure of good things. The foundation for Camelot is strong but those that run it and maintain it are merely men. It starts with Arthur’s father who has achieved peace and prosperity in the land but is undone by his lust and lack of self-control.
And then there is Morgana (Helen Mirren). Morgana is corrupted by anger and a need for vengeance as well as the desire for power for herself. She has had a special gift from a young age as shown by her being able to see through the illusion cast by Merlin that allowed Uther (Gabriel Byrne) to impregnate Morgana’s mother with Arthur.
In the film Morgana tries to get Merlin to spill his secrets, but Merlin understands that she is unsuitable for the power he could pass on. Morgana comes up with a grand plan that involves sleeping with her brother (this movie did medieval type incest before Game of Thrones ever got around to it) and conceiving a son she names Mordred (Charley Boorman as a child/ Robert Addie as an adult).
Liam Neeson (Gawain) and Patrick Stewart appear in relatively small rolls. It is interesting to see them here knowing that they went on to significantly higher levels of stardom. The young Neeson and Stewart could never have imagined then how looked up to and idolized they are now.
The script for Excalibur is very dialogue heavy with language more likely to appear in something Shakespearean than in a feature film-at least these days. Great music highlights the intense and beautiful imagery here. It elevates everything to a grand scale. You feel as if you are watching the legend unfold.
Boorman wanted to do a Merlin centered film as early as 1969 but garnered no interest in the idea. He was offered instead a chance to direct an adaption of The Lord of the Rings that ultimately never happened. Bits of that project were used here in a film that was originally three hours long. I think the longer cut might of helped at a few points such as clarifying the attraction between Lancelot and Guinevere. It was rather abrupt and rushed as was the friendship between Lancelot and Arthur. Weak points but the overall strength of the film helps cover for them.
Excalibur is a grand and epic film with strong characters in a story about the weaknesses that undo our good deeds. It is a cinematic classic and a must see.