Nov. 17th, 2008
Since the BBC are currently doing to King Arthur what they did to Robin Hood (which pretty much involves taking legendary characters and giving them a PC 'Hercules' treatment which makes my teeth ache), I decided to go back to practically the only adaptation of the Arthur stories that doesn't make me want to punch myself repeatedly in the face. (I know people love "A Once and Future King", but I was never able to get beyond a few chapters in).
That being Excalibur, John Boorman's adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the original collection of the Arthurian legends (first published in 1485 and the second book to ever be published, after the bible, no less). By going back to this original text (and in turn the original legends which were set down by Malory from far older stories), the movie recaptures the epic romance but gritty feel of those original stories.
Although a lot has been pared out of the story, it's still impressive what Boorman manages to cram into his two hour and a bit epic. The birth of Arthur, the sword in the stone, the uniting of Britain under one king, his marriage to Guinevere, the rise of Lancelot and the subsequent adultery with Guinevere, the collapse of the kingdom and the betrayal of Morgana and conception of Mortdred, the search for the Holy Grail and the final battle and death of Arthur.
One thing that the movie has going for it is the sheer beauty of the cinematography. It looks utterly beautiful and legendary throughout. From the gritty and bloody opening battles, to the beauty of the mountains rising above a duel between the dazzling Lancelot and Arthur, to the harsh and bitter quest for the Grail, the imagery tells as much of a story as the dialogue. Another thing to recommend it is the realism of the fight sequences - while the period detail may be questionable, seeing Arthur and his knights encased in Tudor period armor, the brutality of the battle sequences is made all the more powerful by the lumbering way the knights are forced to move in their inflexible suits. It's hard and hard and deadly. Every movement requires effort and you feel every swing of the sword, every blow on the armor. After years of effortless swordplay, the realism is refreshing.
The main thing to recommend it, however, is the performances. Taking a largely (then) unknown cast of British thespians, the rich performances ensure the realistic tone never descends to soap opera, all the while balancing between the character's humanity and their legendary status. Nigel Terry as Arthur puts in the performance of a lifetime, developing from soft spoken, simple squire to powerful, sincere king. He's ably supported by a gaggle of actors who went onto greater things - Cherie Lunghi as Guinevere, Patrick Stewart as Leon de Grance, Gabriel Byrne as Uther, Liam Neeson as Gawain, Corin Redgrave as Cornwall, Clive Swift as Sir Hector, Helen Mirren as Morgana.
It's Helen Mirren's chemistry with Nicol Williamson's wonderful, enigmatic, witty Merlin which makes one of the highlights of the movie. The actors apparently had a strained relationship after an earlier affair whilst working together on stage and loathed each other at the time and every bit of that friction is used on screen to create the magicians' rivalries. If anyone is the star, however, it is Nicol Williamson's Merlin, gleeful, comical and sinister by turns, he's far from the Disney portrayal, a trickster god sliding through the movie. It's the later act where both Terry and Williamson are absent from the screen which is the weakest before both get their chance to shine once more.
As an epic retelling of the Arthurian legends it succeeds on almost every level. There is magic, but it's grounded in pagan lore. And the magic fades as the age of men with their lusts and violence comes to the fore. Dark, grand, brutal, violent, spellbinding, intelligent and mesmerizing it deserves its place as one of Boorman's masterworks.