Thursday, March 3, 2011

Retro View: Excalibur


It's been a while since the last "retro view" so let's take a trip to Camelot (and no we won't be eating ham, jam or spam a lot).

It is a period of civil war between two factions, one led by Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and the other by the Duke of Cornwall. In order to end the conflict the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) brings forth the sword Excalibur from the sacred Lady of the Lake which ends the fighting. But Uther's lust for the Duke's wife causes trouble as he forces Merlin to help him get one night with her. Merlin uses the "Charm of Making" to change Uther into the Duke and he get his night but there are problems-the real duke is killed. Uther becomes king and the lady bears his son Arthur who is taken by Merlin as payment. Afterwards Uther is killed but not before driving Excalibur into a stone. Years pass and at a tournament a young Arthur (Nigel Terry) unaware of his heritage pulls the sword free and is declared king. Merlin also returns and if you know your mythology you can guess the rest-the formation of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table; Arthur's marriage to Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and the fall of the kingdom due to Guinevere's love for Lancelot (Nicholas Clay); the quest for the Holy Grail and Arthur's last stand.

By 1981 when Excalibur was released the last few attempts at the Arthurian legend ranged from the overblown movie musical Camelot, Disney's The Sword and the Stone and Monty Python's take. In this case director John Boorman decided to stick to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur for his film and we get all the familiar elements story wise. There are some notable changes-the combining of the characters Morgause and Morgan La Fay into Morgana (played by a young and really hot Helen Mirren) and a borrowing from the Tristan and Isolde story when Arthur thrusts Excalibur between the sleeping bodies of Lancelot and Guinevere after their night of infidelity. Even with those changes it still sticks to the legend-no attempts to remove the fantasy elements like the abysmal Clive Owen/Keira Knightley version. Nor is there an attempt to tone it down for kids-we get violent battle scenes, infidelity, incest and Guinevere nude. In short things that would have made Walt Disney flinch.

The film also looks fantastic with lush design and camera work, all shot around Boorman's home in Ireland. Boorman also uses classic music by Carl Orff and Richard Wagner to give the movie an epic feel. Where the film seems a little off is in the performances. As Arthur Terry gives his all and Lunghi makes for a sweet and in the end sympathetic Guinevere but both of them are upstaged by Williamson's eccentric take on Merlin-part wise sage, angry old man and comic clown-and Mirren's sexy Morgana. They both dominate the film leaving the leads little to do but try to keep up. You can also spot a young Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, Patrick Stewart as Guinevere's father Leondegrance and Ciaran Hinds as a member of the Round Table named Lot.

Is this the best movie based on the legend? Probably. Or at least the best without the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Rating: **** out of 4.

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