Weekend Film Recommendation: Excalibur

Excalibur, John Boorman’s full-blooded, personal take on the King Arthur story, is a highly original and enjoyable movie

screenshot-med-14As a filmmaker, John Boorman really goes for it. He has an idiosyncratic perspective on the diverse material he films, and carries it to the limit. Sometimes this has led to abject disaster (e.g., the incomprehensible, pretentious and unintentionally risible Zardoz). But more often than not Boorman’s courage as a filmmaker has resulted in fresh, exciting cinema, such as Point Blank, one of the very best films I have reviewed at RBC. This week’s recommendation is almost as strong and every bit as original as that classic: 1981’s Excalibur.

Excalibur re-tells the hoary tale of King Arthur, his wizard/mentor Merlin, his knights of the round table and his tragic love triangle with Guinevere and Lancelot. Boorman keeps roughly to the classic Malory version of the story, but tells it in his own inimitable way, with bloody battles, plenty of sex, and even at times a bit of camp (some of the over-the-top moments may have drawn a few chuckles that Boorman didn’t intend). Excalibur illustrates beautifully how a talented artist can breathe new life into familiar material.

The most memorable character in the film is Merlin, played with gusto by Nicol Williamson, who gives the most eccentric portrayal of an Arthurian Wizard since John Cleese assayed Tim the Enchanter. His Merlin is a cranky, cryptic, wise and powerful oddball who alternates between helping his human charges (First Uther Pendragon and then his son Arthur) and upbraiding them for their frailties. The film develops his rivalry/romance with Morgana le Fay more than has any other Arthurian adaptation, which was a wise move given that the ageless and subtle actress Helen Mirren is on hand to play the enchantress who longs for King Arthur’s downfall.

The production values are spectacular and the battle scenes feel real. Rather than people leaping around in plate mail whilst nimbly fencing with longswords, the combat is often slow and clunky. Indeed, the actors visibly strain under the weight of their weapons and armor. Also to admire: Future superstars (Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson) giving solid performances as knights. Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Gray also register as the doomed lovers Guinevere and Lancelot, and it’s a shame their film careers didn’t take off after this movie was made.

Ultimately of course, this is Boorman’s movie, and whether it captivates you or not depends directly on whether you are willing to travel along with him as he develops his personal vision of Le Morte d’Arthur. Most viewers will find that while there are a few bumps on that journey, it’s an immensely rewarding trip with one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Point Blank

John Boorman’s Point Blank melds 1960s film experimentalism with the gangster film with unforgettable effect

lee-marvin-in-point-blank22 The above is one of the many memorable shots (accompanied by even more memorable sound!) in this week’s film recommendation, Director John Boorman’s outstanding 1967 US debut film: Point Blank. Point Blank weds the style and techniques of 1960s experimentalism with the traditional gangster/crime melodrama, with unique and unforgettable results.

The film begins with a literal bang, pulling us into a world of brutality and revenge. And then a strange, almost unbelievable story begins as a criminal named Walker who by all rights should be dead (Lee Marvin, in a powerhouse performance) somehow overcomes his fate and launches a ferocious, violence-filled pursuit of former navy buddy Mal Reese (John Vernon, in a strong cinema debut) and his own faithless wife (Sharon Acker, also very good) who betrayed him during a stick-up. He is aided by the mysterious Mr. Yost (Keenan Wynn) who appears at odd moments to provide advice, speaking to no one but Walker. Is Yost a ghost? Is what we are seeing all the fantasy of a dying man, or is it real? I’ve seen this film multiple times and I still can’t decide; I also can’t stop re-watching this magnetic piece of art.

1280_point-blankAdding to the atmosphere is radical use of color that recalls Red Desert. Watch carefully the progression of monochromatic scenes in this film (at left is one of the “yellow” scenes with screen siren Angie Dickinson playing Walker’s sister-in-law), which resonate with Walker’s emotions and the state of his quest. Distorted microphone effects, camera shots and the like are also used to tremendous effect, as are dreamlike scenes without any dialogue (or in one case, only half of a conversation, an amazing improvisation by Marvin). Phillip Lathrop contributes many moody, lonely camera shots that further accentuate the film’s tone. The story, which was based on a Donald Westlake novel, also pushes the boundaries of the period, with graphic violence and the strong suggestion of a sexual link between the two male leads.

The studio executives hated the movie that their young director had created, but Lee Marvin used his enormous star power to ram it down their throats as is. There was clearly more to the man than his drunken brawler image. I can’t say enough good things about what he and Boorman created…don’t miss this one, and have fun analyzing it afterwards!

p.s. Recent interview with Boorman about his career available here.