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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Excalibur”

  1. “Indeed, the actors visibly strain under the weight of their weapons and armor.”

    It was 30 years ago, but I seem to recall a sex scene in full armor that was hard to take seriously.

    1. Was that the only part you couldn’t take seriously? Seriously?

      That said, Williamson was fantastic, the photography was gorgeous, and Helen Mirren was Helen Mirren.

      1. Well I thought the armor looked like it was made of stainless steel, and the blood was the wrong color, but I didn’t want to pile on.

  2. Lunghi and Gray were the weakest part of the film, aside from all the camp, so it’s not particularly surprising their careers tanked.

  3. The Management and I watched Point Blank and it was great! So this is in the netflix queue too.

    We both have been in love with Helen Mirren for a quarter century, having absorbed all of Prime Suspect back in the day. It looks like TC,TT,HW,&HL is finally coming down soon. Hooray!

    The kid, in college, loved RED. Well, it’s a start.

    1. I am going to recommend Prime Suspect someday…perhaps Mirren’s greatest work.

      1. Prime Suspect 3 (the one about the murdered rent boy) deserves a Friday Recommendation all by itself.

  4. The film was shot in Ireland and the country looks well. I lived for a while about 10 miles from one of the medieval castles used as a location (Cahir, Co Tipperary), though not when the film was in production. It was a favourite Sunday drive with the family.

    Most risible moment – Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) bellowing “I must have her!” as (I think it was Lunghi) does a sexy dance – Arthur is the product of Uther’s lust. Quite OTT, there are better ways to symbolise a stirring in the loins, though I think the scene may have been meant to capture pre-Arthurian barbarism.

    Best moment – there are a lot of them, including the country coming to life again as the King must die so the people can live.

    Good choice, as good a sword-and-sorcery epic as was ever made.

    1. I checked and it was Katrine Boorman who played Ygrayne, Arthur’s mother. She must be a daughter of the director, perhaps?

    2. I didn’t like Byrne’s work in this film. I did like the scene of Ygrayne dancing as the drunken knights lustfully pounded on the table with their swords. It was one of the many over the top moments that worked.

      1. I should have mentioned that Boorman lived in Wicklow around this time, so his choice of location may not be a surprise. It is also not a surprise to see him giving opportunities to the likes of Byrne and Neeson. I have also noticed the excellent Ciaran Hinds among the cast, maybe even Brendan Gleeson is in there somewhere!

  5. Williamson and Mirren had no love for each other, which is why Boorman cast them in their respective roles, believing that their offscreen enmity would add to their onscreen struggle against each other. And Boorman always gives his family work in his films. Katrine is his daughter and his son plays the child Mordred.

  6. I recall seeing it when it came out, and finding it bewildering and incomprehensible.

    Maybe I’ll try again.

  7. “…with bloody battles, plenty of sex.” As I recall, my reaction at the time was “more humping, less hacking, please”.

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