Cult Classics: Excalibur

24 Dec

Watching John Boorman’s Excalibur was an interesting experience.  I don’t really know how else to describe it.  I had always heard great things about the movie.  And I enjoyed watching some of the movie, but I also did not think very much of it was any good.  How do write about a movie you slightly enjoy, but ultimately decide is mostly rubbish?  That is the task that lies ahead of me.  I almost feel like one of the knights that are sent on the quest to search for the Holy Grail.  The obstacles before me seem insurmountable.

John Boorman made Excalibur after the massive failure of Exorcist II: The Heretic.  He had originally wanted to make a film version of The Lord of the Rings, but, failing to gain the rights, he went with something that had been in the public domain for hundreds of years.  With the King Arthur stories selected he began transferring the sets he had already built for Lord of the Rings into places in England.  I have to say that here that I’m glad he did not make Lord of the Rings.  It would have been heartbreaking if Gondor had been entirely built out of aluminum (like Camelot is).

I think everyone knows the story of King Arthur, so instead of spending time telling you what we’ve all known since childhood, let’s start with the good things in Excalibur.  The music is fantastic.  The soundtrack is a combination of selections from different Wagner operas, some Carl Orff, and mostly Trevor Jones (who later did half the soundtrack to The Last of the Mohicans).  Boorman used all of this music to perfection.  Another small success the film has are the costumes.  The armor that all of the knights wear throughout the film is incredibly ornate.  It actually looks, to my untrained eye, like they are wearing full plate armor.  We also have a handful of really good actors here.  Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Helen Mirren all shine through the bad dialogue and poor acting around them.

This brings us to John Boorman himself.  I can’t honestly call him a strength of the film because the movie is so very bad.  And he made it.  But there are some shots and a couple of scenes that undeniably beautiful.  Most of this is probably due to Alex Thomson, the cinematographer, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work at the 1982 Academy Awards.  But in these few moments you can see the Boorman who made Deliverance, Hope and Glory, and Hell in the Pacific shining through.  Specifically there is a scene towards the end where a reinvigorated Arthur and his knights are riding to attack Mordred.  They ride through a field of small trees all blooming with flowers.  It was one of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen.  The sun shining off their armor as they rode through flowers floating through the air.  It was gorgeous.

Do these few moments of beauty make up for the rest of the movie?  No.  I absolutely hated Nigel Terry (King Arthur) and Nicol Williamson (Merlin).  Nigel Terry was just a terrible actor.  Nicol Williamson has a little more of an excuse because I don’t think Boorman ever really decided if Merlin was supposed to be mysterious or funny.  Half the time he was scaring all the other characters, the other half he was the comic relief.  That only works in Disney cartoons.

There were also an incredible number of scenes that didn’t make sense.  In any way.  Sometimes it was what happened (I still don’t understand how Percival recovered the Grail and then got back to Arthur).  Sometimes it was the dialogue (nothing Arthur said to Guenevere when they were reconciling made any sense at all).  I can only take so much of the story not making sense.  And Excalibur crossed that line by leaps and bounds.

There are other problems as well.  Why are there huge, tropical snakes all over England in the Dark Ages?  What is the story with that cave and the dragon alter Merlin gets trapped in?  How did Lancelot become an insane, bearded monk?  When all of this in combined into one movie it becomes terrible.  And as much as I hate to say it, that is what Excalibur is.  Terrible.

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3 Responses to “Cult Classics: Excalibur”

  1. Ads August 10, 2010 at 8:43 am #

    I strongly disagree, I love that the film has this dreamlike quality to it throughout. It is almost as though the audience are being given glimpses of a story at different points through visioins. The acting isnt THAT bad. Youre going a bit OTT with this. Its a great little romp and you will be cheering for Arthur at the end!

  2. A Watcher September 27, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    I don’t know if the reviewer is American, but the review sounds it. I have read so many US Amazon reviews of various non0Hollywood films and again and again it’s obvious to many people that the reviewer just didn’t get it. While Hollywood films are, mostly, made to one of a number of prescriptions circumscribed by many ‘musts’ and mustn’ts’, the formula barely scratches the surface of symbols and subtlety and the multi-layered nature of art. This review sounds the same: the reviewer seemed not to get it on a number of levels and was, unsurprisingly, disappointed by what he did get.

    • iamhrothgar October 1, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

      Yes, I am American. But I’m very curious what exactly you’re defending here. True, Excalibur was made in Ireland, not Hollywood, but I’m failing to see where that argument goes. Warner Brothers produced the film, on a gigantic budget. John Boorman is not always an independent director either. The Tailor of Panama, Exorcist 2, Zardoz, Deliverence, Boorman was especially huge when this movie came out. This was not a small independent film that an unknown Irish filmmaker made.
      Also, I’m failing to understand your argument. As I said, I loved the way this film looked. But the acting is awful. And how terrible acting “scratches the surface of symbols and subtlety and the multi-layered nature of art”, I just don’t know.

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