John Boorman’s Excalibur is a wonderful oddity, even in the context of the British director’s varied career. It’s an epic fantasy like no other and stands out from the long list of lesser movies that tried to put their own spin on the legends of King Arthur. It’s dismissed by detractors as a piece of cheesy 1980s hokum, yet loved by many as a definitive retelling of timeless legends that hold profound ecological wisdom we sorely need, now more than ever. In recent interviews, Boorman cites it as his personal favourite and believes it to be his greatest cinematic achievement. That’s certainly saying something, coming from the director of Point Blank (1967), his superb second feature and ‘calling-card’.
Tales told of King Arthur, Merlin the Mage, and the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, had fascinated Boorman since childhood, and he sees his career as a lifelong quest to make mythic movies. He was already pondering his Arthurian epic while busy on his third production, the unusual and intense war film Hell in the Pacific (1968), in which Lee Marvin starred again, this time with Toshirô Mifune making up the two-man cast. Boorman was also working with writer Rospo Pallenberg on an adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory’s sprawling literary classic, Le Morte d’Arthur.
The following year, they approached United Artists with an ambitious three-hour movie screenplay. The production company was in transition, having just been absorbed by Transmedia, and balked at the implied budgetary requirements. Instead, they offered Boorman and Pallenberg a shot at what they must’ve thought a more modest project: The Lord of the Rings! Their adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s classic was completed by 1970 but, of course, the production never got off the ground. A likely blessing for several reasons, not least the plan to cast none other than The Beatles as the four Hobbits. Apparently, Pallenberg wanted Paul McCartney as Frodo Baggins!
They’d got as far as scouting for locations and intended to shoot mainly in Ireland, attracted by the tax incentives. This is something Boorman remembered when making his camp dystopian science fantasy film, Zardoz (1974), shot mainly in County Wicklow. The lush, unspoiled landscape of rolling hills, lakes, verdant woods, along with the well-preserved castles, would draw him back there to make Excalibur.
Before any light hits the screen, we hear a phrase from Richard Wagner’s epic opera The Ring—it’s “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and adds instant gravitas. These notes will also be the last we’ll hear before the end credits and effectively bracket the cyclic narrative, where an ending is also a new beginning. For any subsequent viewing, they’re an instant mood anchor to immerse the viewer in the richly imagined version of a medieval world.
Apparently, prior to production, Boorman sat through the entire 15-hours of the opera to take him to the mythic landscape in which he hoped to set his film. Indeed, there are strong parallels between the two legends of a young man chosen to lead their world from primitive barbarity into a new era of structured culture. Both are aided by a magical item—for Wagner, it’s the same ring from Norse mythology that inspired Tolkien. Both are really telling the same, eternal tale.
The opening captions tell us the setting is, ‘The Dark Ages,’ when ‘The Land Was Divided And Without A King.’ It’s fitting that we don’t have a date, and the land remains nameless, for the mythic is universal and deals with archetypal characters and motifs that still lurk in the human psyche.
The first scene is a brutal and chaotic battle. Silhouettes of horses and armour-clad foot soldiers clumsily stagger through smoke and mud, wielding battle axes or hefty broadswords. An arm is severed, a burning spear impales another man, pinning him to a tree. It’s immediately clear we’re not in a romanticised world of sword and chivalry. A figure in tattered robes emerges, backlit by fire until we see his face and hear his name being called. This is Merlin (Nicol Williamson).
“The sword!” shouts Uther (Gabriel Byrne), astride his armoured warhorse, “You promised me the sword!” and Merlin assures him, “…you shall have it. But to heal. Not to hack.” In a matter of minutes, the whole premise is set-out and Boorman keeps up this fat-free storytelling throughout, making every shot count for the next 140-minutes.
The production title had originally been Merlin, and this character is really the narrative backbone. Everything that occurs is set in motion by his actions, or lack thereof. In many ways, he’s fulfilling the role of the villain. Propp’s Morphology describes ‘the villain’ as the character who drives the story by taking actions that incite the other characters to respond. Merlin does some questionable things and without his various interventions, we would have no story…
The truce he forges between Uther and the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) is short lived because Uther can’t contain his lust for his rival’s wife, Igrayne (Katrine Boorman). In the battle that ensues, Cornwall is drawn out of his castle. Merlin casts a glamour so Uther takes on the semblance of the Duke and can have his, rather raunchy, way with the fair Igrayne. But only after Uther promises that whatever issues from his lust will be handed over to the wizard.
It all seems a bit immoral, but Merlin is simply manipulating what was likely to happen, anyway, in the hope of a more advantageous outcome. Bear in mind, we’re in a pagan hinterland for this first act, when the Christian notion of morality had yet to catch on. There’s a conspicuous absence of the religious iconography that will gradually assert itself throughout the remainder of then film.
Nicol Williamson strikes a brilliant balance between camp theatrics and mesmerising mystery. Merlin comes across as an otherworldly creature pretending to be human whilst finding our foibles both amusing and bemusing. If it wasn’t for this remarkable performance, Merlin would not be so likable and the whole film would fail to engage.
An established Shakespearean actor, Williamson was no stranger to reimagined British history and had also dabbled in the mythic past playing Little John in Robin and Marian (1976) and Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976). The rest of the cast seem energised by his presence when they share a scene, not least Helen Mirren as his counterpart, Morgana, the half-sister of Arthur (Nigel Terry). Apparently, there was some ill will between Mirren and Williamson stemming from a falling out on the Shakspearian stage shortly before filming. Both were reluctant to take the role, if the other was also cast. Boorman stood his ground, believing their off-screen antagonism would add an extra frisson to their onscreen chemistry. He wasn’t wrong!
Excalibur is a collection of quirky performances that showcase considerable range and really help create its unique and complex flavour. Some critics taste a hint of ham. True, some of the lines are blurted and exchanges are often theatrical, especially those made on the battlefield where snap decisions are put succinctly. Most, if not all, the dialogue was redubbed in the interest of clarity. Mainly due to that real metal armour being so clanky along with the logistics of freeing the camera without worrying about where the mike would be hidden. On occasions this lends a sort of Spaghetti Western vibe, which I enjoy. It also seems to be in keeping with Aubrey Beardsley’s fine illustrations for the beautiful 1893 edition of Le Morte D’Arthur, which present captions within boxes, not unlike comics.
The cast does have some familiar faces, but no big stars, apart from Williamson and Mirren. Boorman didn’t want a star vehicle and thought too many recognisable faces would snap audiences out of the spell he was weaving. It wasn’t a question of budget as he had around $11M—which may be small by today’s standards, but was respectable back then. He decided to spend it elsewhere and cast mainly newcomers. Among them you may spot Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart, all of whom had only made a handful of big screen appearances. Not counting a small uncredited role in Zardoz, it was the debut for Katrine Boorman, and Charlie Boorman had only previously appeared in his father’s harrowing hillbilly thriller Deliverance (1972).
The money can be seen on the screen in the beautiful production design by Anthony Pratt, who’d already worked with Boorman on Zardoz and they would collaborate again several times, for Hope and Glory (1987), Beyond Rangoon (1995) and Queen & Country (2014). Props and costumes must’ve sunk a huge portion of the budget with amazing armour by Terry English, whose work can be seen on permanent exhibition in the Royal Armouries and on screen in pretty much any film with armour in it!
He started making props in the 1960s, with Doctor Zhivago (1965) among the first notable films he worked on, and had made the armour for epics like The Lion in Winter (1968), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), and Jabberwocky (1977). He’d return to Arthurian legend for Sword of the Valiant (1984), First Knight (1995), King Arthur (2004), and most recently, Transformers: The Last Knight (2017).
The plate armour is anachronistic, as it wasn’t developed until the late-13th-century, but when Malory wrote his classic it was fashionable to recast historical characters in the contemporary mode, and his descriptions of knights would’ve been what people of his day recognised. Much of Excalibur’s imagery was inspired by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, a prominent British movement of the mid-19th-century that typically portrayed their paradigm of a lost English idyll they were desperate to reclaim. The Arthurian myths fascinated them. It was nostalgia for a time that never existed.
Likewise, Excalibur isn’t a historical drama. It’s a fantasy and a brilliant rendering of Mallory’s work. In keeping with his approach, Rospo Pallenberg translated the flowery French dialogue into straightforward contemporary English and follows the source material structure, which does make the film feel like a compilation of vignettes from a much bigger story. Which is exactly what it is.
They never had a cohesive central narrative until Thomas Malory first attempted to make sense of these disparate stories in his epic work, first published in 1485. To make it an even more difficult task, the author embellished the stories by adding elements from 13th-century French romances written in Vulgate, a precursor to modern French-language. He was translating and writing against the tumultuous historic backdrop of the War of the Roses and was in prison for much of the time, accused of a succession of serious crimes.
The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table originate in an array of separate stories that have been merged and confused through innumerable retellings, even before they were first written down. Some aspects were borrowed from the Viking Eddas. Many of the tales are reworked from Celtic mythologies collected in the Mabinogion. Others stem from real historical events that have been morphed to fit popular mythic characters from older legends.
On a recent research tour of Pembrokeshire, I visited at least three of King Arthur’s graves. This is possibly because there was more than one Arthur! The name is believed to be derived from old Welsh, Arth Fawr—meaning ‘Great Bear’—a title reserved for fierce warriors and powerful clan chieftains. There are also several versions of Merlin: there’s a Scottish one and two more from Wales—one a sane magus and the other a mad wizard, often combined as aspects of a single chaotic individual. Merlin also has roots in two characters that feature prominently in the Mabinogion: Gwydion and Taliesin and aspects of both their stories are woven into Excalibur.
Nigel Terry was 36 at the time he was cast as Arthur, so he had to act a good 15 years younger as ‘the boy king’ and mature as the story unfolded, eventually becoming haggard and grey. Though the young Arthur is perhaps a little too wide-eyed and bewildered, he handles the transition well, adding extra layers as the character matures, letting Arthur grow though his experiences, including those implied in the passing years we don’t witness.
Of course, it’s really a ‘biopic’ of the most famous sword of all time and Boorman chose to focus on the section that starts with its appearance—a gift from the Lady of the Lake (Hilary Joyalle) and ends with its return to her. Some Arthurian scholars will argue that Excalibur, the Sword in the Stone, and the Divine Sword of Kings are all distinct entities. Though proof is hard to come by! Just like Arthur, there were certainly more than one.
I like the notion that the original Excalibur may have been a Viking sword. At one time, they were the best blades in Europe in terms of strength, balance, and overall quality. They also came with an almost magical reputation and were always give names by their wielders. If a non-Viking brandished such a sword, the implication was that you had either gained the respect of a high-ranking Viking warrior or had taken his weapon in in battle—both impressive feats.
Bronze Age and early Iron Age blades were cast in moulds of carved stone. Perhaps the original ‘Sword in the Stone’? Admittedly, this would rely on a confusion of legendary proportions as, by the time Viking blades earned such respect, they were being forged using a method akin to Damascus steel and an iron sword on a medieval battlefield would be useless.
Apart from the numerous historic inaccuracies, which are wholly intentional, some critics argue that Excalibur is fundamentally flawed as a remnant of outmoded gendered cinema. They may argue that the myth itself is overtly masculine. True, the women mainly support and motivate the men here. Except Morgana, who’s a strong woman who repeatedly outwits the main men, albeit through deception, manipulation, and her male heir, Mordred (Charlie Boorman/Robert Addie), born of incestuous union with Arthur… but she could be dismissed as the ‘evil temptress’ archetype, finally undone by her own vanity.
So, on the surface, I can appreciate where the argument originates, but the crux of the mythic narrative is the (f)ailing of the masculine and its subsequent healing by feminine forces. Excalibur is a mighty sword, it’s even called ‘the sword of kings’, not ‘of queens’. It’s a clear phallic totem if ever there was. Yet it’s the Lady of the Lake that imbues it with powers beyond the physical. Lakes are generally symbolic of feminine fertility and also feature in Celtic myth as portals to the realm of fairies.
The Grail is the feminine vessel that carries the knowledge and power from one generation to the next. The blood of Christ becomes eternal in the Grail, surviving beyond his bodily absence after the Ascension. On the magical altar of the magus, as those of you who watch Hammer films or have a Tarot deck will know, are the items of power. Among these are the pentacle, the wand, the chalice and the athame (a dagger or sword). As part of ritual theatrics, the blade is often dipped into the cup, to represent the act of sacrifice and of (pro)creation.
The first half of the film tracks the rise of Arthur as he matures and manages to unite the warring clans as a single nation. One land under one king. We see the fellowship of the Round Table form and Camelot, with its gilded halls and silvered ramparts, rise. This is the Arthurian ideal the Pre-Raphaelites hankered for. But, of course, it’s too good to last.
Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) cannot resits the charms of the arrogant Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and the knightly fellowship is sundered as a result. Even Merlin falls victim to the womanly wiles of the revenge-fuelled Morgana, tricked into revealing his all-powerful ‘charm of making’. Arthur falls ill, Lancelot goes mad, the knights go their separate ways to seek the Grail in the hope that its healing powers will restore the kingdom.
When Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) eventually learns the secret of the Grail, it’s not quite as Christian as one might be expecting! After his dreamlike, metaphysical experience, he presents the Grail to the King and it certainly does the trick. We are then treated to one of the most memorable moments of cinema as Arthur and his Knights ride to battle wearing their dazzlingly shining armour. The ravaged countryside around them is reborn as they pass and trees burst into bright white blossom to the rousing strains of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”, from Carmina Burana. Though it’s since become familiar, this was the first time the classic cantata was used in a film.
Decades have passed and, after making amends with the estranged Guinevere, Arthur must embrace his inescapable destiny. Morgana has raised Mordred to lead an army of the dead against his father and the resulting descent into darkness leads to a spectacular finale that reputedly required the entire supply of Kensington Gore—the fake blood used for SFX. The bloody battlefield merges with the red of a sunset sky.
Boorman has explained the main driving narrative as a critique, and a fairly damning one, of the ‘three ages of mankind’ which can be applied to the life of the individual or to the history of our species. The stories of Arthur are rooted in a pre-agricultural period long before the medieval setting of their most famous retelling. A time of transition from hunter-gatherer migrants to settlers who began to grow crops and domesticate animals. This profound societal change tied the survival of the clan to an idea of territory, meaning that they were reliant on their particular patch of land. Clan leaders became chieftains. Chiefs became lords. Lords became kings. The land was thus divided.
The Arthurian myths deal with those ancient times when the ‘world of mankind’ became separate and distinct from the ‘world of nature’. The human religion, set out by the bureaucracy of the Church, shunned the pagan philosophies of nature and spirits. Bodily existence and the life of the soul parted ways. As Merlin puts it, “the one god comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It’s the way of things. Yes, it’s a time for men and their ways…”
Surrounded by the trappings of power and success, the nobility loses the connection with the world outside their shining citadel of Camelot. The walls of their man-made environment are not only a palace, but also their prison. The distance from the common people, and the deeper disconnect with nature, does not bring them happiness. What’s more, this dysfunctional social structure will eventually, inevitably bring about their doom. As a result, Mother Nature turns on her human tenants. The land is ravaged by famine and plague… sound familiar?
Excalibur remains relevant and still bears-up well to repeated viewing. Perhaps this is because we still need to hear those tales retold. Boorman maintains that we are again stuck at that juncture and have yet to relearn that, “The Land and the King are One!” Today’s politicians could learn a lot from taking a long hard look at these age-old myths—reconnect with the common folk and stop destroying the natural world around them for short-term gains.
UK | 1981 | 140 MINUTES • 119 MINUTES (EDITED) | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: John Boorman.
writers: John Boorman & Rospo Pallenberg (based on ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ by Thomas Malory).
starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey & Nicol Williamson.