Thirty years ago the Arthurian myth first grabbed hold of me when I saw Excalibur on its initial release. Prior to that, I’d encountered King Arthur only through the Disneyfied Sword in the Stone, or the bloodless Technicolor epic Knights of the Round Table. John Boorman’s 1981 film was different: limbs were hacked off, breasts were bared and there was a timeless sense of a blood-and-thunder past throbbing with life. Sure, it was stiff in places, and the acting was stylized to the point of ridiculousness, but it was still a movie in the pure sense, loaded with unforgettable images.
Thirty years on, I still love the film, and not just for sentimental reasons. There’s a sure hand at work, one that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish with every shot and sequence. Boorman, who’d once tried to wrangle Lord of the Rings onto the screen as a live-action epic, is a fearless filmmaker as notable for his daring successes (Deliverance) as his audacious failures (Exorcist II: The Heretic). He depicts Arthur not as a neat or elderly monarch, but with the long hair and scruffy beard of a biker. Guinevere is an earthy princess who knows herbal remedies as well as courtly dances. Lancelot, in gleaming silver armor, has the curls and square jaw of a laid-back surfer. Boorman uses green backlight to give even the metal armor a hint of the organic, most beautifully during the emergence of the sword from the lake. The actors don’t perform so much as embody their roles, as the film tends to show them only at moments of high emotion.
But the wild card is Nicol Williamson as Merlin. Whatever the behind-the-scenes process that arrived at this interpretation, Williamson is both the focal point and the most entertaining thing in the film. Using every possible range of his voice, clad in a silver skullcap and black ragged robes, he’s a buffoon one moment, a sage the next, and never less than enthralling. Whenever the film seems about to take itself too seriously, Williamson saves the day with a pratfall or a goofy line reading.
I can understand why contemporary viewers might find it overblown and silly. In an age of ironic detachment, when everything has a wink-wink element, the worst offense is to take something seriously, and to unapologetically present a unique vision.
Excalibur does exactly that. And if you let it cast its spell (which goes something like, “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha”) I think you’ll find yourself watching it again in another thirty years, too.