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You will be the land, and the land will be you.




John Boorman’s Excalibur is a work of fearless magnificence, utterly unyielding to concerns it might be held up for ridicule due to its unstinting embrace of every fully-fledged flight of Arthurian legend. And it has been. You’re probably equally likely to find those who love it for its romantic-mythic excesses – Zack Snyder, although don’t hold that against it – as those who mercilessly mock the same. In some respects, the tack is all the more surprising, as it comes in the wake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; every time a limb is chopped off or a previously unseen knight appears or some filthy peasants ask for help, there’s a new prize opportunity for derision. And that’s without the spooky-eerie siren’s call heard intermittently, straight out of The Goodies and the Beanstalk. None of this can diminish Excalibur’s lustre, however, any more than anyone who knows quality, unchecked fantasy when they stumble across it can do other than fall at the feet of Boorman’s early Zardoz in stunned/ bemused admiration.

The picture is actively inviting incredulous responses from the off, though. Either you’ll go with – and bask in – its operatic excesses or you’ll retreat scoffing scornfully. Gabriel Bryne’s Uther Pendragon, sporting the gnarliest armour you ever did see, has no sooner been made king via Merlin’s (Nicol Williamson) patronage and the mighty titular sword, than he’s recanting his truce with the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) after seeing his wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) dancing a very lithe and lusty dance. Gaining access to the bedchamber thanks to some Merlin incantations, Uther, appearing as Cornwall, carnally conquers Igrayne. All very unseemly, not to mention the director’s daughter taking the starring part of the sequence (“I’ve always said that once you’ve been raped by Gabriel Byrne and Corin Redgrave in armour, watched by your father, you’ll never look backsuggested Katrine breezily. Such are the joys of a bohemian upbringing). That’s not the extent of it, however, since the full-bore rutting occurs with Uther fully enarmoured (as opposed to enamoured, which he is too, highly and evidently). As such, Boorman’s obligingly setting out his store upfront. If you can go with that, where the imagery confounds basic common sense, Excalibur is sure to be a feverish delight.

Soon thereafter, we’re introduced to the product of their union under false pretences, Arthur himself, and Nigel Terry, 35 going on 15. His not being age appropriate isn’t such a big deal; the real clanger is that his youthful naivety is emphasised by a local yokel Cornish accent. It’s a shorthand for how this nobody (albeit, obviously, a somebody) rises to the ranks of regent. But given his adopted father (Clive Swift as Sir Ector) and brother (Niall O’Brien as Sir Kay) are pretty much RP, and it evidently wasn’t as if Sir Ector consigned him to the stables (“Merlin the magician brought you to me when you were newly born, and bade me raise you as my own. At first, I did so because I feared Merlin, but later because I loved you”), the choice is a dubious one.

Elsewhere, Nicolas Clay’s Lancelot, having banished himself for his beatific forest romp with Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi), remerges, looking for all the world like the wolfman incarnate. Throughout, Boorman offers an eccentric take on looped dialogue, such that you might be mistaken for assuming you were watching a foreign language film. Although, for my money that rather adds to the heightened quality. 

Because Boorman’s achievement is a picture that revels in myth like no other, with none of the fidelity to “realism” and “authenticity” that blights later attempts at Arthurian legend (be it “historical” take King Arthur or hotchpotch Legend of the Sword). Excalibur is one of the very few – from any era – that successfully conjures a sense of visual and thematic transportation, where the emboldening at every turn doesn’t so much add to the whole as suggests a vibrantly altered state and time. The visuals testify to the legitimacy of the introductory text and more (“Out of the lost centuries rose a legend of the sorcerer Merlin, of the coming of a king, of the sword of power…”) The impossibly shiny armour (especially Lancelot’s), the impossibly inviting landscape (will you just look at that cherry blossom and the greenest of green of the forests), the impossibly Wagnerian soundtrack (except when it’s the impossibly Orfish Carl Orf, trumping him for the moments of triumph). As Pauline Kael suggested of the ravishing images “Each, in some weird way, seems to be on its own. This may help to account for the film’s hypnotic effect; the events keep gliding into each other”.

As does Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg’s treatment of this legend. Ostensibly adapting Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – the go-to for most these days in the Arthurian stakes – they style Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) with facets of sister Morgause (most notably son Mordred – Charlie Boorman/ Robert Addie – born of incest with Arthur). Arthur is identified with the Fisher King, the last in the line of Grail-protecting regents, in his sickness and blight (and that of the land). Perceval’s (Paul Geoffrey) quest straddles the line of the metaphysical vision quest of Le Morte d’Arthur and the more literal embodied cup of, for example, Wagner – or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This blurring of lines – he attains it through a couple of NDEs, basically – is doubtless infuriating to any requiring clear delineation, but it provides the perfect kernel of the Arthurian landscape: of fantasy, magic, ethereality, flesh, blood and clanking armour. 

It’s been noted that the Grail has its antecedents, in particular the Horn of Brân or Horn of Plenty. Boorman is perhaps reticent of the more explicitly Christian Grail legends because, being steeped in Celtic traditions (and also in the layering of the past with rewritten histories and religions – see Zardoz), he has no truck with it. Certainly, this envisioning of Merlin, at once mischievous, wise, devious and amoral, and with an overview that tends to reduce short-term considerations to dust, finds his evident sympathy, not quite mourning the passing of the old ways, but clearly seeing it as the loss of something essential in favour of the decidedly less exotic stone and mortar of the incoming industrial, organised society of kings, subjects and serfs. 

Perhaps Boorman was reckoning more than he knew. The idea that Arthur wasn’t positioned half-a-dozen centuries after Christ but before him (fifth-sixth century in most favoured accounts, so approximately a millennium before Mallory documented him, if you go by such chronology) would be just the kind of confusion of history that would delight the Elite and their masters. Thus, if we are to take as read that about a thousand years of the last two millennia are made up, Jesus (1160 years ago), isn’t far from the actual AD. Arthur meanwhile (1340 years ago) would be firmly in the “BC”. Both are found prior to Khazarian/Ashkenazi rule (from about 1100 years ago, although their advent occurred closer to 1900 years ago). Which, in the terms we consider it, puts Arthur firmly in “pagan” times (Stonehenge is further back still, more than 2000 years).

Even if you dismiss such alternative dating out of hand, it’s useful in terms of the timeless realm Boorman conjures. He offers the Dark Ages – a time of godless, rulerless immorality gripping the land – as couching for the movie, but there’s no sense this is a time that had seen Roman rule a few centuries prior. Indeed, there’s only a flavour of the eternally untamed, of a land ruled by magic that is, in its own way, attempting to guide lawless men. Merlin is celebrated by all as a venerated saint or sage. 

Morgana recognises that she is a “creature” like the magician; just as Arthur, from an unnatural union, will rule the land, so Merlin, as the guide to kings, is a cambion, a half-human/ half-demon hybrid (his mother was a mortal woman and his father an incubus demon). He is the avatar of old ways, of pre-Christian superstition and incantation, and for all the status of that comes with a god-chosen king, Arthur’s rather boring by comparison (amusingly, Boorman gives us about two minutes of peace, with knights wondering just what they are to do with themselves, before courtly lust throws a spanner in the works). 

In this environment, King Lot barely gets a second glance – the feud between his and King Pellinore’s family is identified as one of the three main themes of Mallory’s work (the others being Lancelot and Guinevere, and the Grail Quest). These plots would contribute to the downfall of the Arthurian Kingdom, through failures in love, loyalty and religion. Lot’s played by Ciarán Hinds, not yet thirty and decidedly lacking the sense of stately gravitas he’s since grown into. 

Others here – Patrick Stewart (less composed, more hair), Liam Neeson (less somnambulant) and Gabriel Bryne (coarser) – are identifiably those same thesps, just younger. Nigel Terry’s performance is a curate’s egg. There’s the reason I outlined above, but he does a convincing job of one who grows into the countenance of a king. If there’s a problem, it’s more that both he and Geoffrey’s Perceval have a similar trajectory, from humble nobody bumpkin to mythic figure, that could have withstood the drawing of greater distinctions between them. That said, I’ve always warmed to Perceval’s mission the most, in particular his encounter with Morgana and plight upon the hanging tree. Less so, his final errand with the sword; it’s something that may work on the page, but visually flounders (he fails to cast the sword into a lake, and Arthur has to send him back again). I think Terry Gilliam may have pointed this out, albeit without suggesting it was Python-esque.

It seems Clay went conspicuously unmentioned by Boorman on the commentary track (I listened to it years ago, but I’m not minded to fact check the trivia point); he’s fine as Lancelot, looking the part of the absurdly perfect knight, just as Lunghi is impossibly pretty and Mirren unswervingly libidinous. The latter comes equipped with a metal bodice/ breastplate and playful chemistry with Williamson (they were exs, initially of concern, but it seems they became good friends during the shoot; Mirren embarked on a relationship with stripling Neeson that endured for a number of years). 

Williamson is tremendous casting, quirkily offbeat in his every line reading but summoning the necessary gravitas where required. He’s the resounding rebuff to any idea that Boorman’s film is entirely po-faced and humourless (how it would have worked with Sean Connery is less certain, even more so Lee Marvin). Inevitably with such a role, you entirely miss his presence when Morgana consigns him to oblivion (and so exult in his non-corporeal return). 

Elsewhere, young Charley Boorman is as sinister as any child not played by Haley Joel Osment could be. His older self is a somewhat perfunctory presence, by comparison, but does have a super-shiny suit of armour, even by the movie’s already flash standards. Perhaps most impressive of all is that you don’t laugh at the idea of Clive Swift playing a knight. Some achievement. 

Excalibur is entirely, and rightly, unapologetic in its celebration of myth, and it crucially sees no onus to make an Arthurian film for family (I always hoped such an approach might be taken for Greek myth, but when it has been – Troy – it was shorn of overtly fantastical elements, such was the knuckle-headed mood of the time). Kael, as she did a surprising number of genre pictures of the early-80s, came out guardedly complimenting the production. Or rather, for all her criticisms – common with her treatment of Boorman, as Exorcist II: The Heretic evidenced – she couldn’t disguise an overriding admiration for the unbridled achievement. 

Under the title Boorman’s Plunge, she slags his action scenes, grasp of suspense, melodrama and humour. And yet “his skills are eccentric and his ideas ponderously woozy. But I don’t know of any other director who puts such a burnish on his obsessions”. Thus, she relished the “crazy integrity” of Excalibur. “At first, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, a serious, R-rated fairy tale”. She applauded that, while the picture was evidently made off the back of Star Wars’ success, “He doesn’t bring a comic-book sensibility or make the narrative easy to understand”.

It’s with the visual sense that Kael is most beholden: “The imagery is impassioned, and it has a hypnotic quality… a tactile life of its own”; there is “One lush, enraptured scene after another”. But she condemns the dialogue as “near atrocious”: “If we’d been able to imagine that the words were as lyrical and hallucinogenic as the images, we might have acclaimed Boorman instead of falling on the floor laughing” (I’d argue the cod phrasings only add to the appeal). She contrives to turn the themes to ashes by attempting to expose them to the harsh light of day (“He thinks he’s showing us the primal harmony of man and the magic forces of earth and air, and then man’s loss of magic, which passes into the unconscious”). Still, there’s a sense that, on balance, she’s been seduced by this “virtuoso looniness”. 

There’s probably something to her complaint that, while Boorman “tries to build in Jungian interpretation, so demonstrate what man lost when he gained modern consciousness”, he is “so caught up in his theory of the lost magical Oneness that he leaves a gaping hole… Where’s the chivalry?” I think it’s less that, than there’s occasionally a sense he’s beating you with “This is symbolic” (Perceval and the drawbridge). But yeah, it’s fair to say that Boorman cuts to the chase every time. 

I’m less convinced by her remonstrance of the “almost chaste” adultery between Lancelot and Guenevere; that surely is the intent, that it has its own “purity”.  Similarly, the charge that Boorman chose to “populate the screen with the kids next door” (rather than men and women as large as gods). It’s the compare-and-contrast of events of scale and scope and those emboldened by the legend arising. I think that part works, because you recognise these are men – even Merlin, with his pratfalls, and Morgana, with her petty potions – yet in a manner that never diminishes the mythologising. Kael concludes “If Excalibur is a lame brainstorm of a movie, it’s at least a genuine storm”.

It’s been suggested an extended three-hour director’s cut exists somewhere, with those who even claim to have seen it. Lancelot can be seen saving Guinevere from a forest bandit in the trailer, while Boorman claimed most of the cut material was from the wastelands section of the film and Perceval’s quest, and it felt better trimmed. Others have suggested there was a Merlin/ Morgana sex scene, and longer lustiness between those copulations we do see (so Uther/ Igraine and Arthur/ Morgana). 

It’s possible all this adds something, but legendary outtakes often fail to pass muster (Apocalypse Now) in the cold light of day. What we do have is an extraordinary film. We were spared a Bryan Singer remake – mercifully – although what’s the betting Snyder would love to get his hands on it (come on, he’s a perpetual adolescent, of course he’d love to)? We also saw the recent, pompous and wretched The Green Knight, a kind of alt-psyche demolition of lore (and superwoke with it). Excalibur is unfettered and wholly glorious, and whatever its faults, its majesty will surely never be eclipsed.

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