Monday, December 19, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Excalibur (1981)

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...

John Boorman's epic Arthurian legend, Excalibur (1981), begins with that on-screen legend (above), and for 140-minutes thereafter, we - the audience - are held enthralled by the stylistic storytelling of a master filmmaker at work. Held by visions of white horses, gleaming armor, and clanking swords. By the epic battles, in which blood flows like water and limbs get hacked off in a single blow from the sword of power. By the forbidden love of Guinevere and Lancelot, wherein love is described as a "mad distemper that strikes down beggar and king..."

Excalibur recounts the birth of Arthur (after the seduction/rape of his mother, the wife of a contentious Duke), the method by which Merlin spirited him away and gave him to an adopted father, and then, at last, the young squire's ascension to the throne of England after pulling the sword, Excalibur, from a stone in the forest. From there, we marvel at the heroic deeds of the "boy king," as he and his loyal knights bring peace and prosperity to the land, and share tales of their handiwork at the "Round Table."

The film takes us through Arthur's first encounter with the most noble and powerful knight in the world, Lancelot, as well as the King's marriage to the maiden Guinevere. After learning of his best friend's indiscretion with his wife, Arthur spirals into a decade-long depression, and since he and the land are always "as one," England suffers crops will grow, and pestilence sweeps over the countryside.

Desperate and searching for purpose, Arthur sends away his best knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail...a momentous failure. Meanwhile - under the King's nose - Morgana, Arthur's perverted half-sister, bears the King's evil child, Mordrid, who upon manhood wages a campaign to destroy Camelot once and for all.

Finally, when the chips are down, Arthur can count only on those whom he once considered betrayers. Guinevere (now a nun...) has sheltered the sword of power, knowing her king would one day return for it. Merlin, who was trapped in limbo long ago by Morgana's powers, is brought back to fight a final battle through the auspices of Arthur's love. And even Lancelot, now a wild man...but still a warrior dedicated to his king of long ago, returns to protect the glass and silver towers of Camelot one last time.

When I screened this film last night, I was a little shocked to see how just about everybody in the cast had gone on to become a major star. Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek) plays one of Arthur's first knights, seen initially during a joust. A very young Liam Neeson portrays the disloyal Sir Gawain. In a dastardly but memorable turn, Gabriel Byrne plays Arthur's lustful father. And then there's Helen Mirren (in kinky bra/body armor) as Morgana Le Fay, looking positively radiant. It's a strong cast, but my favorite character is Merlin, played so memorably by Nicol Williamson.

Merlin is just an amazing character...the only one of the film's dramatis personae who seems to have a wise perspective on life (and the events of the tale...) throughout. Come the climax, Arthur understands how the age of Camelot was a special time...but it is Merlin who understands all along how great men can fall, how evil can appear where it is least expected.

I know there have been other re-tellings of King Arthur's legend, from First Knight with Sean Connery and Richard Gere to last year's bomb, King Arthur, with Clive Owen, but for me, that world of knights, damsels in distress and sorcerers has never seemed more real, more tangible, than in Boorman's Excalibur. The film shines (and holds up today...) because it reveals the best of our nature (in Arthur's heroic, kingly temperament), as well as the worst (the unceasing violence, the petty jealousies, etc.), but more so because Camelot's world is rendered so convincingly. From the lady in the lake to the jousting contests, to Merlin's magical world, everything seems strangely authentic and believable.

There's something else I like too: the depiction of this Arthurian world as the new "Age of Man." Magic has a presence in this film, no doubt, but Merlin realizes his time - the time of the Gods, of dragons - is at an end. The Earth will become the ward of man. And one must hope that our leaders are always wise men like Arthur. So there's a melancholy in this work that is quite wonderful and poetic. That feel of one world passing to another is captured well.

We all understand what "Camelot" is. What it represents. The time of President John F. Kennedy, for instance, we refer to as Camelot...a special time in our country's history that didn't last nearly long enough. In our private lives, we might have a "Camelot" too...holidays spent with loved ones, time with family, and so on. The reason, I believe, that Camelot is such an important concept to man is that as a creature, man is acutely aware that great things (and indeed, all things) are fleeting. You can be living in a City on a Hill one moment, only to learn that your King is spying on your international phone calls the next.

But Excalibur - run red with the blood of the slain - is a film for the ages, because it also points out that even heroes fail sometimes in their endeavors. And those who have failed us before can still win a last battle, even after making terrible mistakes. By trying and fighting we can all create another Camelot.

Which, of course, will also be fleeting...

1 comment:

  1. I love this movie too. My favorite incarnation of the legend and mostly its because of its style. It's fantasy done in a dreamlike way. We can accept the imagery because it never gets too real, or to fantastic, but hovers in that grey area, kinda like a David Lynch film.

    When I was a kid I saw this film and it scared the heck out of me. The knight hanging from the tree getting his eye pecked out, the creepy music when the Lady of the Lake appeared and the goblet pouring blood. My parents brought it home because I loved knights and dragons, little did they know the nightmare fuel it turned out to be.

    I revisited the film years later and was surprised how much that dream imagery worked not only in a primal way (which is why it frightened me as a child) but on a deeper level - getting the heart of the story of Arthur and his connection with the land.

    I hear lots of people say how corny this movie is, how over the top, how much scenery the actors chew. But I think they miss the point. This movie isn't about reality - its about legend.

    Great review!