Excalibur (1981) – Review by Pauline Kael

Boorman doesn't bother with episodes that don't stir him; there’s no dull connective tissue. The film is like Flaubert’s more exotic fantasies—one lush, enraptured scene after another.

Boorman’s Plunge

by Pauline Kael

John Boorman is an intoxicated moviemaker, with a wonderful kind of zeal—a greed to encompass more and more and more in his pictures. His action scenes are rarely comprehensible. He can’t get any suspense going. He doesn’t seem to understand the first thing about melodrama. He has no particular affection for humor. And 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. Moviemaking is clearly the first of them, with mythology a close second. I would never have imagined that I could enjoy a retelling of the Arthurian legends which was soaked in Jung and scored to themes from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Wagner, but Boorman’s Excalibur has its own kind of crazy integrity. At first, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing: a serious, R-rated fairy tale. Boorman had been trying to get this project financed for the past decade, and he’d been mulling it over for much longer than that. No doubt he got the go-ahead because of the success of Star Wars, which is essentially the Arthurian story set in “a galaxy far, far away,” but he has done the legends straight. Children may be enthusiastic about Excalibur, but it hasn’t been made as a family movie, and though Excalibur is clearly The Force, symbolized in the magic sword, which is effective only when used for good purposes, Boorman doesn’t linger on that. He doesn’t bring a comic-strip sensibility to the material, and he doesn’t make the narrative easy to understand, in the manner of the Hollywood Knights of the Round Table (1953), with Robert Taylor as Lancelot and Ava Gardner as the Queen. What Boorman has in mind is probably closer to The Seventh Seal.

He just plunges into the Dark Ages, smiting us with raging battles, balls of flame, mists of dragon’s breath, knights with horns and tusks jutting out of their armored heads, and battle axes that hack off limbs, which seem to ricochet off the armor. He sails through the Arthurian stories, from Arthur’s conception and birth to his death, without pausing even for the awesome, triumphant moment when the boy Arthur pulls the sword from the stone where his dying father had placed it. This scene is staged with townspeople gathered, some saying that his pulling out the sword means he’s the King, some saying that it doesn’t and he isn’t, and with all this clutter and dissension there’s no tingle at seeing the visualization of one of the high points of fairy lore. Something in Boorman must rebel at the thought of a dramatic climax. The film is almost all action, with very little at stake for us, because we hardly have a chance to meet the characters before they’re off and running. The hackings aren’t any more upsetting than the hackings in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in fact, the ones in Monty Python may have been more disturbing, because they were funny and gruesome at the same time. In Excalibur, they’re neither. You don’t see the limbs or heads that are lopped off; you see the red-stained armor. The hackings are part of the visual texture, along with the spiked elbows and the jutting metal earmuffs that look as if they could kill a stag at bay.

The imagery is impassioned, and it has a hypnotic quality. You feel that there’s something going on under the narrative; you’re very much aware of shine and glitter, of hair and skin—the imagery has a tactile life of its own. Boorman doesn’t bother with episodes that don’t stir him; there’s no dull connective tissue. The film is like Flaubert’s more exotic fantasies—one lush, enraptured scene after another. The images are crystal-clear, gold-tinted, jewelled; it’s a stained-glass movie. But, of course, the Flaubert exotica—such as Salammbô, which, as Francis Steegmuller writes, covers a great literary canvas with “the colors of violence and physical suffering, and above all with the color of blood”—are the ones that many readers find too rich.

The dialogue in Excalibur is near atrocious; written by Rospo Pallenberg and Boorman, it reveals what Boorman thinks he’s doing. 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. Jung believed that his investigations carried on the work of Merlin and the alchemists, and Merlin (Nicol Williamson) is the presiding spirit of this movie—its resident pundit and ironic relief. He’s presented as the peacemaker: he counsels first Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and then Uther’s son, Arthur (Nigel Terry), against violence, and makes deals with them, granting them magical favors in exchange for their behaving peaceably. Wearing a silver skullcap with an encrusted jewel—a third eye—in the middle of his forehead (the cap could be a leftover from Max von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless head-gear in Flash Gordon), Merlin is both seer and jester. He’s always threatening to disappear for an aeon or two, or for eternity, but he keeps showing up to tell us how despondent he is about men’s brutality and his own ineffectuality. He’s a soft touch—he does favors that he knows he shouldn’t, and they have fatal consequences. He’s also a real talker, Mercutio-style, and he informs us of the meaning of what we’re seeing. “The one God comes to drive out the many gods,” he announces, thus presaging the ascendancy of Christianity, and soon King Arthur dispatches his knights on the quest for the Holy Grail. Merlin’s speeches are wisdom droppings. Nicol Williamson toys with them; he uses a lilt and his deepest basso growl, but he’s better off when he gets to do Gaelic incantations and we can just enjoy his vocal purring. It’s as sensual as a love aria sung in a language that we don’t know a word of.

Boorman’s last two movies—Zardoz and Exorcist II: The Heretic—were also attempts at mythmaking, and we might have considered them classics if we hadn’t known English. 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 (as a friend assures me he did when he saw Zardoz) or throwing things at the screen (which happened at some theatres showing The Heretic). Boorman is telling the Arthurian legends straight, all right—as straight as he can ever do anything. One of the great things about modern movies which distinguish them from the pictures that used to be made by the studio factories is that the artists’ nuttiness comes out now. If they’re mediocrities, their nutty movies can be much worse than the movies that used to be patched and smoothed. But if they’re giants, their work may have a virtuoso looniness all its own. Boorman is a giant. But he’s a sensualist with images and a pedant with words. It isn’t enough for him just to present an immensely complicated series of legends; he also tries to build in a Jungian interpretation, so that the movie, adapted from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, will demonstrate what man lost when he gained modern consciousness—how he has never been “whole” since, and all that jazz. Boorman’s self-seriousness gets in the way of his artistry. In The Heretic, the dialogue and how it was directed were ruinous; Richard Burton’s recitatives were theological gibberish. Merlin’s fanciful remarks are far more entertaining, though the central role that Boorman gives him takes time and emphasis away from Arthur and his knights.

Boorman appears to have got so caught up in his theory of the lost magical Oneness that he leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the Arthurian stories. When Arthur has become a man of peace and his kingdom (roughly, Europe) is flourishing and his court at Camelot is the center of culture, where’s the chivalry? We get only a few glimpses of Camelot in long shot, and when we’re inside, the knights look bored. (There was more even to the Kennedy Administration—they gave a few good parties.) We don’t experience the realization of the paradisiacal dream, and so we’re not horrified by its collapse. But the Arthurian stories support Boorman’s visual style much more gracefully than his last two films did. I loved watching The Heretic, but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone without starting to grin shamefacedly. Excalibur is much simpler: it spans three generations—first Uther and his feuding with the other Celtic lords, then Arthur’s reign, and, finally, the challenge to Arthur’s power by his demonic son, Mordred. The movie might have been clearer still if the knights had had their names embroidered on their chain mail or painted on their foreheads. (Who is to say that this wasn’t sixth-century practice?) Since the actors are almost all new to movies, it takes a while to sort the knights out.

The actors become more attractive and much more impressive as they age and we get to know them better. This is particularly true of Nigel Terry’s Arthur and of Perceval (played by Paul Geoffrey)—undistinguished youths who grow shaggy beards and develop presence and depth. (When Paul Geoffrey, who gives perhaps the most affecting performance, is bearded, he resembles Francis Ford Coppola.) Boorman seems to be caught in a bind, though. He can visualize what the men were doing in the sixth century— jousting, riding, and, no doubt, polishing their armor. (Lancelot’s has such a silvery-white gleam that he can’t have had time for much else.) But what were the women up to? Nothing but mischief, apparently, and Boorman can’t seem to get them matched to the same century as the men. How do you get pretty women to look like barbarians? Boorman’s Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) is a hot chick with a mop of gorgeously dishevelled curly dark hair; she’s like the young Susan Hayward wearing a Pre-Raphaelite gown to a disco joint. The Lady of the Lake floating in the water might be Bo Derek. And as the treacherous Morgana (who in Hollywood versions used to be called Morgan le Fay) Helen Mirren is such a slinky witch that she looks as if she were practicing to play opposite Snow White in gay-bar theatricals. (Nobody in the movie seems to have any fun except Merlin and Morgana when they’re huddled together talking about potions and spells. There’s a conspiratorial intimacy between them; he’s like a master cook imparting the secrets of the kitchen to a guileful apprentice.)

Somehow—maybe by sheer force of will—Boorman keeps the women’s scenes from collapsing into camp. He needs the women; they’re essential to the stories, because they’re the source of evil. The Arthurian legends, like the stories of Helen of Troy and of Adam and Eve, are repositories of a peculiarly male mythology: woman the temptress causes man to fall from grace, to fight and kill. Yet though Boorman is in love with images and the whole movie has an erotic sheen, the adultery that shakes the kingdom is almost chaste. When hot little Guenevere follows Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) into the forest and chums up with him, they look so innocent, curled up together naked, like babes in the wood, that you can’t accept the idea that this trivial frolic destroys the Golden Age of Camelot and brings starvation and pestilence on the land. The effect is altogether disproportionate to the cause, and you feel that something is off, that something is missing. No matter how this adultery was presented, it might be difficult for modern audiences to accept it as earth-shaking, but Boorman makes it just about impossible. What’s off, I think, is the scale of the characters.

The film’s Germanic-Byzantine Celtic style often suggests Fritz Lang’s Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, which were also serious dream-world epics. There’s no problem of disproportion between action and consequences in Lang’s movies, though, because the characters are scaled heroically. Boorman is telling magical, heroic tales about men and women as large as gods, but he has populated the screen with the kids next door: they’re not big enough in spirit, in aspirations, in dreams, or in passions for the myths built on their adventures. The stories are of characters who are sorcerers or part phantom, part man, or who assume different guises. Arthur is himself born of magic: Uther persuades Merlin to transform him into the likeness of the husband of the dancer Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), so that he can sleep with her. Arthur’s son, Mordred (Robert Addie), is conceived through a similar magical deception, concocted by Morgana, who is Arthur’s half sister as well as the mother of his son. When Mordred is fully grown, he wears golden spiked armor and, on his head, a gold gargoyle mask that his own sneering mouth completes. This apparition of evil comes closer to mythological scale than Arthur or Lancelot or Guenevere or any of the others do.

Love and lust are so human that they’re easy to forgive; the picture doesn’t seem to have a real issue. You think, Is that what the Arthurian legends come down to—not gods, just these little people with their warts? Boorman denies us the elation that we expect to experience at the end of a heroic story. He has made the characters so small that the myths themselves shrink in his telling. The picture gives us a different kind of elation, though. The Dark Ages section, with its armored brutes—they’re like crustaceans tearing each other apart—is a thrilling piece of moviemaking. The second and third sections don’t have the same concentration, but they do have shots—such as the one of the aged Arthur and his aged knights riding through a Klimt-like grove of flowering trees—with the mystic ambience of silent movie fairy tales. If Excalibur is a lamebrainstorm of a movie, it’s at least a genuine storm. There’s a stubborn, freakish discipline in the way Boorman refuses to hold the iridescent images for the extra beat that would make an audience exclaim at their beauty. Even when there’s an effect that might make the audience’s flesh tingle—like the scene on a hill when the knights stand in the ring that will soon become the emblem of their fellowship—Boorman barely waits for you to take it in. Where Fritz Lang would let you bask in the imagery, Boorman has so much he wants to do that he hurries you past. Was there really an iron snout protruding from someone’s face armor? Those slimy creatures that crowded around Merlin as he rested in the shadowy foliage—were they his familiars? And when his eyes turned that dark, evil red, what tricks was he up to? Which were the knights hanging on the tree, where Morgana had trapped them? The picture moves along so inexorably, with lances going through chests in barbaric, orange amber landscapes, that there isn’t time to absorb all the components of the shots. When Merlin leads Morgana down into some dank rotten place—a grotto in the netherworld—the set could almost be an homage to Fritz Lang and his great designers. Boorman’s cinematographer, Alex Thomson, his production designer, Anthony Pratt, and Trevor Jones, who prepared the score and conducted it, must have given him their fealty as well as their talent, because, amazingly, he does this kind of spectacle on the (relative) cheap. Using the Irish landscape and the Ardmore Studios, near Dublin, he is able to do for ten million dollars what would probably cost at least twice that if it was attempted here. At times, I was aware that there weren’t quite as many extras as we’re used to seeing, and there’s a little joke near the end: the dragon’s breath comes out of the old hag Morgana, and Arthur, who is leading his handful of surviving knights in a battle with Mordred’s men, says, “In this fog, they won’t know how few of us there are.” It sounds like a reproach to the production manager.

Boorman’s medieval battles don’t have the same kind of impact as the great battle in the mud in Welles’ Falstaff; every shot in the Falstaff battle scenes registers in your mind and helps to build the sequence. Boorman doesn’t build. Excalibur is all images flashing by—ravishing images—and though we can’t retain them, we drink them in. Each, in some weird way, seems to be on its own. This may help to explain the film’s hypnotic effect: the events keep gliding into each other. We miss the dramatic intensity that we expect the stories to have, but there’s always something to look at. The images keep coming, and the cadences are bizarrely even. Every now and then, there’s an inchoate swelling—as in the royal-wedding sequence, where the sensuousness of metal and flesh makes you feel that something might be about to explode. Boorman sets an aestheticized mood, and by quivering, wiredrawn control he sustains it. At times, he’s doing something close to free-associating visually. It’s as if he were guiding us down a magic corridor and kept parting the curtains in front of us.

New Yorker, April 20, 1981

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Further Reading:

EXCALIBUR: Is This The Best King Arthur Movie?


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