Sunday, August 11, 2013


screenplay by rospo pallenberg and john boorman

the film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth. (john boorman)

i've long since given up trying to keep track of how many times i've watched the movie excalibur. maybe there's a better example of a movie attempting to encapsulate the entire arthurian legend in less than two and half hours but i have yet to run across it.

which is perhaps the only major flaw that i've ever been able to find with excalibur - that it tries to cram just a bit too much into too short of a running time. if there was ever a great candidate for a four or six hour mini-series i'd say this would be it. or perhaps turn it into three movies like peter jackson did with tolkien's lord of the rings. interesting to note that in his pre-excalibur days director/writer boorman tossed around the idea of doing that very project.

as excalibur gets underway merlin and king uther connive to get the latter hooked up with the lady igraine, despite the fact that she's already the wife of one of uther's key allies. they pull it off and a child is conceived, but merlin has already made the condition that since he assisted in the subterfuge the child will be his. that child is arthur, of course. after merlin takes him away, uther follows and is ambushed and killed, but not before he drives the sword excalibur into a large stone on a hill in the woods.

which, if the viewer hasn't already figured it out, is a pretty good indication that this is going to be a "traditional" retelling of the arthurian legend. by which i mean that it presents the tale with most of the parts that were added in layers over the course of many centuries and none of this stripping out of the magical and fantastic elements that some recent writers have attempted, thank you very much.

from here the story hits many, if not most, of the major points of the legend. there's young arthur pulling the sword from the stone after older and much burlier knights have all failed. there's camelot and a quite impressive round table. there's the good and noble (and rather skilled) warrior lancelot, who becomes arthur's loyal friend, but of course that loyalty gives way in the face of guinevere's charms.

and, of course, there's morgana le fay, arthur's half-sister and nemesis to both merlin and the king. she connives to have a son by an incestuous relationship with her brother and it's this son, mordred, who will be the downfall of arthur. but not until many of the knights of the round table have been done in on a lengthy quest for the holy grail.

all of which is sufficient to keep me on or near the edge of my seat even after numerous viewings. no need to keep heaping on the superlatives, but i will point out a few things that especially contribute to the success of the movie.

that would be the music, for one. while there's an original score in there somewhere (by trevor jones) it's overshadowed by the many well-chosen snippets of wagner. there's also a key excerpt from the o fortuna segment of orff's carmina burana, and correct me if i'm wrong, but this was before the use of the latter became something of an action movie cliché.

the other standout here are the visuals, which flip back and forth between pastoral scenes set in landscapes so lush and green that one suspects trickery on the part of the cinematographer. these are offset with numerous scenes that are so dirty, smoky and gritty that one almost wants to pause the action and go take a bath.

for whatever reason i find myself without one of those snappy closing paragraphs one is supposed to use to cap off a review. about the only other thing i'll say is that it's hard to watch any cinematic work of arthuriana without having it spoiled just a bit by flashbacks to one of the other great king arthur movies. you know the one.