Blasts from the Past: Exhibit A Excalibur

‘A dream to some…A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!’

Eighties power dressing invades the dark ages and comes the closest we’ve seen so far to bottling the magic of the Arthurian myth. That’s a big definition for a film that some might know as the Arthurian film that may be known by some…


• Or starts muddy, get’s shiny, then get’s muddy, has a bit more shiny ending up muddy and bloody.

 • Or has a more Vaseline on the lens that a man doing glamour shots above newsagents.

• Or for spiky armour on Igraine action.

… And all that mockery is absolutely true. This is not a slavishly loyal adaptation of an ancient text. Neither is Excalibur a down and dirty ‘this is the real legend’ piece of ‘historical Arthur that you see in Bernard Cronwell’s Winter King trilogy or attempted and failed in that Clive Owen film. Perhaps it’s closest genre equivalent is the original Star Wars trilogy, which took the elements of myth and weaved them together to cast a spell on audience. If you can cope with the lack of ray guns and spaceships Excalibur might do the same. There’s even a bit of Helen Mirren foxiness.

What the film does is distil the essence of the story – so it starts in ‘The Dark Ages’ with 14th – 15th century armour but the moody, misty and bloody feel emotes the feel of the chaos and misery of the dark ages, a post-apocalyptic Britain reeling from the departure of the Romans . Likewise there’s no in depth examination of Church and Pagan politics just a few lines of dialogue well delivered by Morgana and Merlin over the passing of divinity’s baton. The hated Sais (Saxons) aren’t even mentioned just the enemy’ and the wars of unification are not dwelt on in fact I think the name of ‘The Land’ is never specified. Costume and lighting sufficiently give glamour to the golden age of Camelot and their dimming denotes the failing of the king and the wasting of The Land.

As it’s core story it focuses on the elements of the Arthurian story which Joesph Campbell would be most comfortable with. With it’s cycles of death and rebirth, together with the ‘Wickerman’ and ‘The Devil Rides Out’ it probably launched many a sitting room druid on their path. It does also not avoid the sexual and sexualised essence of the myth. The Igraine scene has been mentioned and the only other way to shoot it properly would have been to go all ‘Last House on the Left.’ In the film Guinevere and Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur and Morgana , Morgana (standing in for Nimue) and Merlin and perhaps Morgana and Mordred is all there and clear to be seen (without being all Caligula – were the producer filmed hardcore scenes on the set at night and edited them in behind the director’s back!) The best thing about the sexual elements of the film is the right and proper weight given to Lancelot and Guinevere’s love which in a few short scenes with a lot of help from Wagner’s score for Tristan and Isolde set;’s up a love which you can believe would break a kingdom espically when contrasted with the other relationships in the film.

If I haven’t made it clear this is a film you feel rather than watch. The acting follows that. It’s not ham, but it is ‘large’ the British and Irish cast employ theatrical style which suits the general design and way the film is shot. Gabriel Bryne as Uther, Liam Nielsen as Gawain and Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance, all have terrific fun and their performance fit the setting very well. Nicol Williamson who I’ve only seen elsewhere as a cocaine haunted Sherlock Homes i the ‘7  perscent solution’ and Little Jon in the superb ‘Robin and Marion’ puts in a blinder of a performance -unstereotypical but feasible as  a wizard of power. 

 Now I am an Arthurian nut. I’ve lapped up Cornwell, TH White, Steinbeck, Mallory, Pendragon RPG and I absolutely adore Geoffrey of Monmouth*. I haven’t got into the latest Merlin but give it time. But I’m not an Arthurian obsessive who likes Excalibur I’m an Arthurian obsessive because of Excalibur and some late night BBC2 showing that lit up my tiny mind and left it burning.

And it’s a time for man and his things, the time of the old gods is passing…but somehow John Boorman, still brimming with some of bat-shit craziness left over from ZARDOZ manages to reach back onto the Morte d’Arthur and distil the essence of the legend. Apparently Boorman was planning to do Lord of the Rings – but I think we were blessed that he did Arthur.

* I’m 65th generation Trojan to borrow from ‘The Streets’

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