Excalibur (1981)
By: Mr Intolerance on September 5, 2009  | 
Warner (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, French DD 1.0. English, French Subtitles. 140 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Boorman
Starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williams, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne
Screenplay: Rospo Pallenberg, John Boorman
Country: UK
External Links
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The Dark Ages. The land was divided and without a King. Out of those lost centuries rose a legend… of the sorcerer, Merlin, of the coming of a King, of the Sword of Power…Excalibur.

Plenty of people have had a crack at filming the legend of King Arthur – most have been a dismal failure. John Boorman's Excalibur kind of succeeds, kind of… It annoys me when a story has existed for the better part of a thousand years, and some arsing screenwriter thinks he can tinker with it and make it better, obviously missing the point that what made the story so good in the first place, and made it stand the test of time, is the story itself – it doesn't need to be fucked with. And it's that fucking with the story that weakens Excalibur and makes it miss the mark on more than one occasion.

There is no one definitive version of the story of the Once and Future King. There's Chretien de Troyes' Conte du Graal, a number of anonymous associated tales (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example), and of course the one that's taken as canon, and which I studied at Uni, Sir Thomas Malory's La Morte D'Arthur. Written in middle English not long after the Middle Ages, this tale of feats of glory and derring-do is part inspirational tale of comradeship and valour, part "how to" manual for aspiring knights, adhering as closely as it can to the codes of chivalry (ironically enough, this tale of a great English King and his equally pukka knights was written by a man who ascribed to French notions of chivalric behaviour). Ultimately, it's a tragedy, Wagnerian in scope (probably why Wagner half-inched the story of Parsifal for one of his own operas), although it certainly takes its time getting there – but you can see it unwinding almost like a daytime soap opera.

Appropriately enough, the film starts off in darkness, chaos and battle. King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne in a very early role) is trying his damndest to unite the land, by sheer dint of brute force, aided by the sorcery of Merlin (an over-acting Nicol Williams). Uther knows he needs the Sword of Power, Excalibur, to be the undisputed King of England, and Merlin has promised it to him, albeit with some misgivings it seems. Uther, y'see is altogether too much led by his cock – at the risk of losing the Kingdom he's trying to forge, he wants to have a crack at Ygraine's crack – Queen and wife of his rival, Cornwall. He gets her, but only via sorcery, while besieging Cornwall's castle, taking on the form of Cornwall thanks to Merlin's magic.

An interesting side note: as you watch the film, watch the armour. It's a clever visual motif I didn't notice the first few times I watched the film. It starts off looking brutal and ugly – Dark Ages armour – and gets progressively more schmick as the film progresses, the dull black replaced by an almost chromatic sheen, progressing again to rust as the film moves to its conclusion (a motif examined further to great effect in T H White's tetralogy The Once and Future King) – it all makes sense when you watch the film, in terms of the narrative.

Ygraine (played by the director's daughter – there are quite a few Boormans in the film) gives birth to a boy, Arthur (who grows up to be Nigel Terry), who Merlin gives to Sir Ector for safe-keeping, Uther having proven himself unworthy of being the One King. Cornwall's daughter, and therefore Arthur's half-sister, Morgana Le Fay (later in the film played by Helen Mirren) is introduced at this point too, and we can already see she's going to be a fly in the ointment. Uther is ambushed by Cornwall's men, but before he dies, thrusts Excalibur into a boulder, only to be drawn by the future King of England. It's worth mentioning at this point that when this film was released, it was heavily criticised for its portrayal of sex and violence, especially violence (I can clearly remember the Mad magazine parody of it, called, I think, "Yecchscalibur" drawn by Don Martin, and with bodily organs aplenty adorning the page) – it's kind of mild by today's standards, albeit with a nasty moment or two – there was more serious violence in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films.

Time passes and Arthur has been raised to be a squire to his 'brother' Sir Kay, tutored in all the knightly virtues. At a joust, Kay's sword has been stolen, and so Arthur has to find one ASAP. He sees this one lying about in a stone that no-one's been able to draw, unbeknownst to him, and draws it, signifying his divine right to be King. Arthur replaces the sword and other knights try to draw it, but the pesky thing just won't budge – only Arthur can remove it. Immediately there's a shit-fight and a commotion and a general hullabaloo, because a whole bunch of knights errant are unhappy about taking orders from a boy with a rather pronounced West Country accent (this initially irritating feature of Arthur's characterisation mercifully fades), and Merlin again turns up like the proverbial bad penny, to remind Arthur of the indivisible links between the King and the Land. When the King thrives, so does the Land, but if things should go amiss… Merlin also informs Arthur of an all-powerful being that grants him his magical powers, which he refers to as "The Dragon". It's one of those moments in the film that seems rather hokey and a trifle embarrassing, hammily over-acted by all concerned.

Arthur and co immediately go to the aid of those knights who initially believed in him (and are possibly ruing that decision, under siege and doing it tough), and wins over the bad guys, after a great deal of violence and carnage, Arthur proving himself in battle. It's here he meets Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi), daughter of Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart) later to become his Queen and eventually his downfall. Merlin foresees disaster, but like father, like son, Arthur's brain is lurking in his pants, and he doesn't listen. Later on in the film, I'll bet he wishes he had.

While out "quelling the Land", as Merlin puts it, Arthur and his knights come across a strange knight who none of them can beat in single combat, Lancelot du Lac. Arthur is equally defeated, and has to resort to a dirty trick to win, and one that nearly robs him of Excalibur for good. Merlin is of course incensed, as Excalibur represents hope for the Land, and Arthur proving himself again his father's son has fucked it up for one and all in the course of his passion (this time rage born of pride, and not for the sake of a quick knee-trembler), but there's a surprise in store for them when the Lady of the Lake returns the sword intact – an obvious recognition of the fact that the sword and Arthur are needed to heal the land. Lancelot becomes one of Arthur's posse, his champion, no less, and events are set in motion, grinding inexorably towards that tragedy I mentioned before.

Arthur and Guinevere are married, and Morgana reappears on the scene, trying to prise secrets out of Merlin (on the commentary track, Boorman reveals the fact that the actors playing Merlin and Morgana were on less than friendly terms due to a falling out following a troubled production of Macbeth some years before – he claims that he thought it would create an interesting tension) and generally becoming a salty pain in the arse to all and sundry, threatening to ruin the peace and tranquillity for the land that Arthur has worked so long to achieve. Arthur's crib Camelot is built of silver and gold (hardly practical, you'd think), and the knights, now that there's no more fighting to be done, chill there for a while. Meanwhile Lancelot cannot find peace there, conflicted by his duty to Arthur and his love for Guinevere, and spends more time than not out cruising. It's here he meets Percival (Parsifal, for the old school Arthurian-types), a common lad who aspires to be a knight. Rather oddly, he ends up fulfilling the role Galahad plays in the traditional tales (Sir Bedevere, too, at one point) – Galahad not being present in this film – a strange choice, seeing as how Galahad is a more well-known knight of the Round Table, and there could have been a fair amount of tension built up around the Siege Perilous, but that whole story arc is dispensed with, as is the dalliance between Lancelot and Elaine.

Morgana notices the sexual tension between Lancelot and Guinevere – you'd have to be blind or an idiot to not – and uses this to get Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) to insinuate at the Round Table that Guinevere is a skanky ho, doing the dirty behind Arthur's back with Lancelot. Arthur can't fight this slander on her behalf and so it must be Lancelot, who isn't present, who champions Guinevere, or she'll be put to death. Morgana spreads dissent like a disease, and the unity of the Round Table starts to fall apart like a wet cake. Lancelot and Guinevere are innocent, although as Lancelot states, "but not in our hearts", and in a frenzied dream of guilt manages to shish-kebab himself on his sword. Not good pre-match tactics.

Percival, showing admirable bravery, offers to champion the Queen, the other knights not having a bar of it, and Arthur makes him a knight, in what would appear to be an act of almost pure desperation. At the last moment, you-know-who appears, and after a pretty nasty joust, Lancelot, grievously wounded before the fight even begins, triumphs, but while he wins, the Round Table ultimately loses. Lancelot realises that the knights have lost their way, but then so has he, shacking up in the forest with Guinevere, in the turning point of the film. As Arthur finds the lovers in the forest, so Morgana tricks Merlin into revealing the secrets of the Dragon, and his magic, encasing him in a wall of crystal. Arthur cannot kill his best friend or his wife, but leaves Excalibur with their sleeping bodies (symbolising the abandonment of hope?) to let them know he knows, and is promptly tricked by Morgana (much as Ygraine was before) into sleeping with who he thinks is Guinevere, but is really his half-sister. The resultant off-spring is Mordred, a right bastard in every meaning of the word.

Everything rapidly turns to shit – the people are starving and Arthur has been struck down by God, it would appear, broken by his experiences. Lancelot turns into a total mental, and Guinevere goes into a nunnery out of the shame they feel for what they've done, and the realisation that they've contributed to the general ruin of the kingdom. Much like Scotland in Macbeth, once there's something wrong with the King, the Kingdom itself suffers, pathetic fallacy writ large. Arthur is still King, though and realises that something must be done, and so sends the knights out on a quest to find the Sangraal (that's the Holy Grail for the heathens out there, the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper), the only thing that can heal the land. Not even knowing where to start, the knights ride forth, loyal to their King to the very end.

For ten years and a day Percival has searched for the Grail in the desolate wasteland England has become, finding nothing but the corpses of his comrades, and gaining nothing besides a reasonably impressive beard. He comes across a strange young boy dressed in a suit of gold armour – Mordred – who leads him to Morgana under the false pretences of taking him to the Grail, and the film takes a sharp turn into nightmare territory; a tree hanging with the bodies of dead knights being eaten by crows, and Morgana's troop of undead knights, who string Percival up as well. He manages to escape his fate, but it's a double-edged sword, as in what he perceives to be his final moments, he almost manages to achieve the Grail, but fails as he luckily survives. Bummer.

More years pass and England has fallen into rack and ruin. Mordred is all grown up, and much like Achilles in The Iliad, his mother has made him impervious to mortal weapons. She sends him to Arthur to claim his birthright as the King's heir, and Arthur is a sad and decrepit looking specimen these days, not looking terribly kingly at all. Arthur greets Mordred as a father should, offering his love, which the ungrateful brat rejects, stating categorically that he's going to return and take Camelot by force. On the way back home to his mum, he slays Uriens, the second last of the quest knights (in a spectacularly unchivalrous manner with a spear through the back), while Percival watches on. With his dying breath, Uriens convinces Percival to continue on the quest for the Grail.

Percival perseveres, but comes across a degraded Lancelot, now a nutcase with an army of rabble – sort of a Lenin of the Dark Ages, very anti-knight, and anti-King. Percival gets his arse kicked to the curb, and in another near death experience achieves the Grail, this time by remembering what Arthur had forgotten, that the land and the King are one. Bringing the holy schooner back to Arthur, he gets the King back on his feet, and ready for the final battle against Mordred and his hordes. But Arthur has reclaimed Excalibur from the cloistered Guinevere, and despite the fact that most of the knights of the kingdom have rallied to Mordred and he's vastly outnumbered, he's determined to make a stand.

Who will win? Well, you'll have to watch the damn thing and find out won't you? The ending is a supremely bloody deathmatch, with more than a few surprises in the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film.

The special effects are pretty good – there's some nice mainstream gore on display, the fight scenes are very well choreographed, the acting is a little on the hammy side (I'm looking at you, Nicol Williams), and the script's not the best (leaning very heavily on The Once and Future King and La Morte D'Arthur in equal parts, with some excruciatingly annoying anachronistic and otherwise intrusive inserts, again, mainly from Merlin), but somehow he whole thing works. It's no Conan The Barbarian, but what film is? It does trace a similar line of comic book metaphysics, but is a little too pompous to fully engage with. Still, it's worth your time.
Aside from a few dips in quality, this anamorphic widescreen (it says on the back cover that the original aspect ratio has been preserved, but I'm not too sure – it just doesn't look right in 1.85:1) presentation is really quite good. Picture quality's tip-top.
Also good – the 5.1 sound makes it feel like you're in the middle of a battle – and having been in a medieval re-enactment society who used real weapons rather than those kendo staves many such societies use, I can tell you that this sounds pretty authentic.
Extra Features
Not the best package of Extras you've ever seen – there's a full-length commentary by director John Boorman (informative, but he's a bit of a ditherer), a crappy page telling you who played whom, and the original theatrical trailer. Warner Brothers could have tried a little harder than that, I think.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Excalibur is a film that succeeds on many levels, but like Paul Verhoeven's Flesh and Blood, fails on more than a few. It's very pretty looking, and while it does have some brutish violence, it doesn't fully deliver on the nasty, and has an element I can't identify that robs it of verisimilitude that many other fantasy films have. Too much money was thrown at this – once the knights are romping about in very shiny armour it affects a level of glitz that simply jars you out of credulity. I was hoping for the grit and in-your-face nastiness of the director's prior film Deliverance, but never got it. Still, if you like a bit of sword and sorcery fare, this will easily sate your appetite, if you can take the nearly two and a half hour run-time – the original cut was nearly a full three hours long.

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