Excaliburrecommended viewing

Crazy integrity
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
John Boorman
Starring: 
Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay
The Setup: 
Very sparse retelling of Arthurian legends.
Discussion: 

It's a pain to carry a big heavy book around with me, so for a while now my reading choices have been determined by which small, light paperbacks I have around or buy. I was casting around through my selections when I thought "What the hell, I'll read Le Morte D'Arthur." Soon after I happened upon the Pauline Kael review of this film, in which she says "the images have a crazy integrity," and suddenly it hit me: I need to see Excalibur RIGHT NOW. In retrospect, and upon re-reading the Kael review, it struck me that I had ignored the rest of her review, which says the rest of the movie is so much unconnected garbage, vignettes in search of a connecting narrative, and so overblown as to be "verging on camp." I also discovered that the qualifier "verging on" is one of the rare instances of Kael employing understatement.

We open in the middle of this fiery nighttime battle in which knights in armor are chopping at each others' limbs. We never really find out who's fighting who and why, but it does display what will become this movie's strength, which is suddenly knights in armor are real and dirty and visceral, and their battles are vicious and bloody. The next morning (I guess?) Nicol Williamson as Merlin goes to a lake and zoom, here comes the sword Excalibur out of the water. No context, no explanation, just a sudden sword out of a lake. Maybe you can go to this lake to get all sorts of things, like toasters and food processors. Maybe I could go there and get an iPhone 4s. It's sort of like a giant watery vending machine, I guess. Nevertheless, the sword looks amazing coming up out of the water, and that's all you need to know. Suddenly the current king, Gabriel Byrne as Uther, negotiates a truce because he had this sword. Okay, we didn't know who was fighting, but now they've got a truce. Okay, sure.

So Uther and knights are invited to dinner at their new bud's castle, when their new allies' wife dances for them, and Uther gets all lusty, saying "I must have her." He makes a deal with Merlin to get her, if he makes promises to Merlin, who has his own ends. Merlin lets the king ride across the water, take on the appearance of the other king, go into the queen's chamber and schtupp her while still wearing his armor, witnessed by her daughter, Morgana. Next thing you know, she's given birth to his male child, and Merlin shows up to claim the boy. Here's the first time I thought "Boy, this movie just isn't taking enough time for its own good," because we are to understand that Uther started having fantasies of giving up all that fighting and becoming a family man, and is devastated when Merlin shows up and demands the newborn. This could have been incredibly powerful, but it's going to take more than just a line or two to get it across. Before you know it, some other knights, whoever they are, chase Uther through a forest and kill him, but not before he shoves Excalibur into a stone.

Now suddenly it's years later and we see there is a small town where knights joust for the right to try to withdraw the sword, knowing whoever can draw it will be king. As only seems inevitable, Patrick Stewart is on hand. In wanders some dude with two sons in tow, and one of them is bumbling assistant Arthur. His sword gets stolen, so he grabs the nearest one, and pulls it out of the stone. In Kael's review, she finds it emblematic of the entire film that this, one of the most satisfying dramatic climaxes in all literature, is quickly run through with a minimum of fanfare. I can see that, but the casual, straightforward way it happens here also has its own effect. By the way, this movie has classic mob rabble, meaning that if someone in the foreground shouts "Let the boy try!" you will hear voices from the distant mob shouting "Let the boy try! The boy!" Anyway, so Arthur is now king, which some support and some oppose.

Arthur is played by Nigel Terry, who is called upon to be a wide-eyed, callow youth and later transform into a powerful, wise king, while also centering this entire film, and is a disappointment from moment one. He has an emotionless way of blurting his lines that say them without giving them any weight or conviction. You may have heard that Lord of the Rings is a fantasia that reprocesses Arthurian legends, and now can see that Aragorn has a similar arc of slowly growing in confidence and power, until he assumes the mantle of king. Of course, that story takes the time necessary for that transformation to be believable, and that's exactly what this movie doesn't do: take time. We have a few moments of him wandering after Merlin, amazed at suddenly being thrust into the role of king, then he's storming some castle(?), catching the eye of Guinevere, refusing to slay this guy, which causes the guy, and all the knights, to swear allegiance to him. You ever notice how the hero always refuses to slay one special guy, and gets all this credit for being noble and just, but then indiscriminately slays dozens of other faceless enemies in further battles?

Suddenly, boom, Arthur wants to cross a bridge, but Lancelot is there. No backstory on Lancelot and why he is there. Arthur wants to cross. Lancelot won't let him. Arthur says he'll give him a $5 iTunes gift card. Lancelot still says no. So they battle, and we are to understand that Lancelot is undefeatable, because of some reason or such. But Arthur calls on the power of Excalibur, saying do me right, baby, and he defeats Lancelot! But, he broke Excalibur. Whoops! Then he has a MORAL CRISIS. He gave it all away for his pride! He is weak as a MAN! Then poof, the Lady of the Lake (and a serious disco mama) pops by to hand it back to him, all superglued and shit. So the you go, the serious, life-changing moral crisis that takes all of fifteen seconds. No wonder these guys have all that time left over for armor-polishing.

WOAH, now another sudden battle. These things just creep up on you. Repeatedly. At the end of this one Merlin holds up a lighter and makes a speech, and all they knights are standing in a circle, and Arthur says "What hey! I'll build a round table!" And while you're still saying "Damn right! Round table!" BOOM, Arthur is marrying Guinevere, whom he has only exchanged passing glances with, as far as I can tell. And right the at the altar she gets a look at Lancelot and you can tell she's thinking "Let's get physical, physical," and he's all like "DANG! I gotta hit that shit," and he leaves and goes to repose with his, I mean IN THE, wood, where we are to understand that he is enduring the agonies of a lust unfulfilled, though he looks quite placid to me. Soon he is confronted by a knight, and they fight, and holy shield the knight is HIM. Lancelot gets run through in his abdomen, shredding just a few organs, you know, nothing important, but he's a trifle bloody a bit later. So wait--did he really have that battle? I thought it was a dream. Maybe he did it in his sleep? Anyway, it would seem Lancelot's absence has been noted at the shiny new round table, where he would have to sit right next to Guinevere's heaving plump ones. Liam Neeson--come now, you KNEW Liam Neeson MUST be here, right?--as Gawain is tempted by Morgana to come out with the news that there's hot steamy infedelious lust goin' down in Camelot (Oh, there's a Camelot now too, by the way), which causes Guinevere to be all like "Why you low-down, dirty-stinkn', mealy-mouthed LIAR! You're gonna FUCKIN' DIE, man!" And now it seems because of some code or whatnot Gawain has to battle Lancelot, as though this will prove anything.

But wait, you say, what of this Morgana who was mentioned a while back? That name sounds familiar, right? Well, she was the little girl that was there as Uther popped her mom right in front of her back in the day, conceiving Arthur, and it would hap that she has some lingering resentments. She has somehow convinced Merlin to make her his apprentice, and after a while gets annoyed and traps Merlin downstairs in his melted-candle room, while she gets Arthur to schtupp her, conceiving Mordred. Meanwhile, After Lancelot defeats Gawain, which somehow means he did NOT lust after Guinevere--I don't get it--he and Guinevere say dang, look at all the trouble we're getting into, and we haven't even hidden any sausage yet. So they run off to the wood to do so forthwith. Arthur rides out and finds them, and we see him slam his sword downward, as if he's planting it in one of them, but we soon find he actually just put it between them, so when they wake up they're like "Awwww shit!" Lancelot shouts "King without a sword!" or something, which is your only clue that this infidelity is supposed to have led directly to the awful blight upon the land that occurs just after. If you hadn't read some other source, you'd be forgiven for thinking "Okay, suddenly the land is thrown into chaos for no reason. Alright--makes about as much sense as anything else."

Okay, so obviously I've been a little ironic about this movie, maybe more than a little, and it IS a total mess that jerks from major event to major event without taking time to set things up or really give us a decent sense of what they mean. Yet, somehow, it kind of WORKS. Somehow, against all odds. In a way this is because, as Kael said, Boorman's images have a "crazy integrity." The movie succeeds in creating a totally immersive virtual world that contains one's romantic ideas of what knights and ladies on horseback are supposed to look like, but also contains really grim and gruesome men-in-armor warfare. It also gains immeasurably by being shot primarily outdoors in all these primeval forest locations with tons of moss and unspoiled landscapes. Then the way Boorman handles the integration of the magic into the story on a basic, everyday level, so it's just another part of the fabric of life here is a bit enchanting, as is the fact that the special effects are quite low-fi in a charming way, and we don't stop the entire film to gape at them, as we would in a Harry Potter movie. And then, of course, the stories are compelling. And you already know the stories well enough that one can fill in the gaps yourself, and don't really NEED to see every tiny thing explained. So in spite of itself, in spite of being such a total mess it should be a complete failure, it somehow manages to work. A little bit.

This was Boorman's film after the twin debacles of Zardoz and Exorcist II: The Heretic, and one can certainly see that he hasn't mended his ways, it's just that his total wingnut style is a bit more suited to this. In the first scenes, one says "My God, this is just straight-up camp," but soon you kind of adjust to its level of over-the-top drama and somehow he convinces you to go with it in a way neither Zardoz nor Exorcist II could, and it gains from existing within a context of massive, operatic, overblown emotion, which suits the mythic material well. And underneath it all, it's just kind of fun.

Okay, to be honest I had about an hour of this film left when I wrote all of that. And the reason I did that is I thought there was nothing that was going to happen in the last hour that was going to make any difference. So I let about two weeks go by while forgetting the story, and when I returned I found that this was actually a great help, as now I looked at these images separate from the concept of them trying to tell a coherent story and--what images they are! I have to give it up for this film, because the idea to put this story with these hallucinatory images is just pure genius. What struck me is the tale of Percival, told toward the end. He is looking for the grail when he encounters Mordred, dressed as a creepy golden child knight. He has a vision where he enters the castle against night trees in a strong green light--CRAZILY effective--then finds a tree with the bodies of knights hanging from it like fruit. And this is only the beginning. Now that I was barely paying attention to the story and how poorly it is told, I was blown away by these images.

Back to Pauline Kael, she is often pointing out which filmmakers have a visual imagination, and which have a literary imagination. A visual imagination is of much more use to film, seen primarily as a visual medium, and she is often pointing out filmmakers who are using literary means to tell stories in film, which often results in static, lifeless films. Boorman is an extreme example of the opposite: a filmmaker who can put together exciting images, but has a bit more trouble telling a coherent story. The deficiencies of this approach can be seen in the messes of Zardoz and Exorcist II, but here his approach works in spite of itself. Perhaps because the scope of this story is way too much to pack into a two-and-half-hour film, so we're already glossing over several details and connecting tissue. Also because these stories operate on a mythic level and contain so much magic. For this reason the loaded images here have to fill in for so many story details, and so we in the audience are invited to load them all with meaning--and it works. In doing so they become more exciting and evocative than they are. And to Boorman's credit, he is able to create images that stand up to it. From the mere setting of these tales in wet, mossy forests, the storybook images of women in medieval dresses riding horses through the landscape, literal knights in shining armor... it all brings images from childhood interest to castles and knights to life, and successfully overcomes the limitations of the storytelling. I'm not sure I can remember such an outrageously BAD movie that is quite so legitimately good.

Should you watch it: 

Pretty much.

Comments

When I did a podcast on this, we described it as "important scenes from Le Morte d'Arthur filmed, rather than a complete story". Sort of like Ender's Game; it's not really *for* people who don't already know the story by heart.

Why don't you provide a link to your podcast? If you're showing familiarity with Le Morte d'Arthur, I want to check it out!

Le Morte d'Arthur is a super-fun read... I was really into it for a while and thought it would make an excellent series, but then I thought that with Game of Thrones giving people all the fun and cool parts all the time, it probably wouldn't stand a chance...

Have you read The Once and Future King? It adds a lot of context and clarity to Le Morte d'Arthur and has great moments of drama, fantasy, and tragedy, although the humor is not to my taste. It would make a great miniseries. The first book was adapted by Disney not too succesfully and the musical Camelot was based on it. Camelot was JFK's favorite musical hence his era being referred to as Camelot. I love Excalibur more than life itself! The cinematography the music, the over the top dialogue and acting, all of it. Some other really good Arthurian novels are Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliffe and Firelord by Parke Godwin. Don't bother with the Mists of Avalon, the author was a horribly abusive monster.

Hmmm, no, haven't read those others. I kind of love EXcalibur, too... you wish there could be a long dircetor's cut that really pulled it all together. I'll look into Once and Future King... I often thought Le Morte d'Arthur would be a great series, but then I thought, with Game of Thrones on, which is able to mash in all the good parts [monsters, dragons] without having to wait... would there be any place for it?

On his commentary Boorman said he did have a longer cut that had more of the wasteland and Grail Quest. I don't think he's ever made it available to watch though. I read there's a documentary being made about the making of Excalibur so maybe that will have some never before seen footage.

Thanks, I was not really looking for it, more just daydreaming of a version with the same lushness and wild vision, but with the ability to take time and really unfold all of these stories in the epic and nuanced treatment they deserve....