Excalibur (1981, 1999)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (IEWA).

Asher Black’s review of Excalibur is intelligent, insightful, original and beautifully written. You could say that about any of Asher’s reviews… — Stephen Hunt, for The Green Man Review

Here is a tale of human folly — “Whatever the cost, do it”. Of a noble dream – “One land, one king!” Of magic – “Can’t you see all around you the Dragon’s breath?” Of its passing – “There are other worlds. This one is done with me.” And of memory – “For it is the doom of men that they forget.” Excalibur is arguably the most exciting film version of the myth of Arthur to date.

Nicol Williamson is magnificent as Merlin. His first appearance, coming out of the dragon’s breath at the film’s beginning, says clearly “this is the stuff of legends”. This Merlin is a creature of great comedy, tantalizing mystery, and doom-riddled maxims. His voice is ethereal but not disembodied and merely spiritual. The erotic tension of his love for the evil Morgana lends a sophistication to the atmosphere and fills in the portrait of the Dragon. Merlin has the best lines of the film: Are you a just a dream Merlin? “A dream to some. A nightmare to others!”

The rest of the casting is exquisite, with Gabriel Byrne as King Uther and Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, Guenevere’s accuser. Patrick Stewart as Sir Leondegrance is marvellous. His Shakespearean acting talent really pays off, his subtle expression accomplishing defiance without arrogance as he answers the challenge “Are you with us or against us?” with a look to each face and a heroic “Against you,” spoken as only Stewart could. Nigel Terry makes a fine Arthur, suitably bewildered as squire and student of Merlin, and perfectly regal as ruler. Right along with the knights that oppose him, we are made by his dramatic flourish to really believe him an appropriate casting as king, when he agrees that his opponent should not yield to a mere squire and hands Excalibur to him so he can be knighted.

A cherubic Cherie Lunghi (with a long list of credits, the most unfortunately titled being “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” ) is all right as Guenevere. She manages well the first exchanged glance with Lancelot, so that you can almost hear the “Oh!” and when he swears eternal platonic love, her wordless attraction is perfectly expressed. Lancelot (Nicholas Clay I) is just too Dudley Do-Right pretty and plastic until his excellent bludgeoning hairy man return for the last battle.

This version of the Arthurian myth is based on Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. There are even the parallels to King David (Uther) and King Solomon (Arthur) that Malory saw in Templar lore. Uther indeed becomes King but like David, having slept with another man’s wife while the husband died in battle against his army, he receives the prophetic words (from Merlin), “You are not the one.” It is Arthur who will build Camelot, which signifies the temple, and bring about the golden age of the future led by a brotherhood of esoteric “knights”. Similarly, the occultism of the grail quest, with the grail as a talisman of power, is plainly Eschenbach’s Parzival.

Throughout the film is chanted the charm of making, invoking the Dragon: “Anal nathrakh, urth vas bethud, dokhjel djenve!” The best interpretation seems to be “Serpent’s breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making.” The Dragon is to Excalibur what the goddess is to Mists of Avalon, also reviewed byGreen Man, an underlying force of being contained in the principle of opposition, the dialectic of deity:

“Shall I tell you what’s out there… A beast of such power that if you were to see it whole and all complete in a single glance it would burn you to cinders. It is everywhere. It is everything…”

As Arthur realizes, “Excalibur… is part of the dragon, too.”

The iconography of the film is fascinating. Some of the most powerful totems are selected, from the animal shapes of the armor of Uther and Cornwall’s armies to Merlin’s serpent-headed staff. It creates a mood in the film that fantasy filmmakers often forget is possible. The firelight on the bronze-colored armor of Uther’s rule contrasts with the daylight on the bright silvery armor of Arthur’s rule, with blood seeming natural on the one and shocking on the other. The arm of the Lady of the Lake emerging in slow-motion from the parting waters with Excalibur held vertically straight represents well the fertility in the link between the sword of kings and the land. Similar to it is Igraine’s dance, one almost sure to raise Uther’s blood. In all ways the film is a baroque tapestry of visual ornaments, but propwork is also gorgeous and thoughtful. Minimalism had no place in the making of Excalibur. Sure it’s odd that the armor is always gleaming, but it’s part of the glory. Filmed in the Republic of Ireland, the scenery has the whiff of legend already.

There is some over-dramatized 80’s sex and gore, with the perverse penchant of that decade’s cinema for combining lust with suffering and death. The contests are realistic, and most of the battle scenes are fine except for the final battle, with one-handed sword strikes cutting through heavy armor.

The music is perfect: Wagner, specially recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Norman Del Mar, and “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s musical adaptation of The Carmina Burana, from Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Herbert Kegel. “O Fortuna” has become a standard in film soundtracks, but in 1981 it was a fresh application and, coupled here with fast action and brilliant photography, the most thrilling one yet. This is illustrated by the common practice of calling it “Excalibur’s Theme”, but the LRSO performance of Carmina Burana (Polygram Records) is certainly worth listening to in its entirety. A pre-pubescent “Kyrie” with drum and throaty background chant at the royal wedding is much more solemn and splendid than one gets in most fantasy films. The sound in general is lovely, with hoofbeats thundering marvellously, but still sounding like real hoofbeats rather than canned effects, and the clash and clang of armor sounding like real fighting.

The DVD version is mostly just the film. There is the theatrical trailer. The hype on the front isn’t true to the contents, “Forged by a god. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a man.” But seeing the 140-minute film again (and again) on my flat-panel display makes it better than I remembered. The DVD is a dual-layer version in widescreen format.

For those interested in other Arthurian material, Green Man has also reviewed: Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes The Mabinogion The Arthurian Trilogy of Mary Stewart Arthur the King by Maddy Prior Merlin’s Bones by Fred Saberhagen The Iron Lance by Stephen Lawhead Mad Merlin by J. Robert King Lancelot du Lethe by J. Robert King Merlin and the Dragons by Jane Yolen and Li Ming The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart Celtika: Book One of the Merlin Codex by Robert Holdstock Merlin’s Wood by Robert Holdstock The Once and Future King by T.H. White The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White I am Mordred: A Tale from Camelot by Nancy Springer Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock Kingdom of the Grail by Judith Tarr

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