½*/**** Image B Sound D+ Extras C+
starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Nicol Williamson
screenplay by Rospo Pallenberg and John Boorman, adapted from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur by Pallenberg
directed by John Boorman
by Walter Chaw Anyone with an answer for what the good fuck is going on in John Boorman's Excalibur is the forgiving sort who already has a working conversation with the Arthur mythos--who's already read T.H. White or at the minimum watched The Sword in the Stone. Maybe said scholar was also a fan of Winston Churchill and likes to think that the great British PM was the very reincarnation of the 1st-century figure; maybe in a fit of frustration at the film, WIKIPEDIA was consulted. But most likely, the person who finds not only coherence in but also affection for Excalibur was nine or ten when they first saw it, enjoyed the tits and swordplay, didn't notice the acting and the screenplay and the green light "special effect," and was probably just as happy with any other contemporary fantasy that provided the same (Ladyhawke, Clash of the Titans, Legend, Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer). Really, the picture Excalibur most resembles is legendary stinker Krull (which likewise features an embarrassed-looking Liam Neeson in a tiny secondary role), complete with deplorable special effects, identical central plot, incomprehensible execution, and from-outer-space choices everywhere else. It probably shouldn't be as big a surprise as it seems, given that Boorman has been obsessed with, and essentially retelling, the Arthur myth for the bulk of his career and, at the point at which Excalibur was made, had been working on the project in some form for nearly two decades. The film meant the world to him--and that romance with it appears to have drowned out the warnings of his better nature.
Beginning with the impregnation of Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) by a marauding Uther (Gabriel Byrne), Excalibur fast-forwards to plotting, capering Merlin (Nicol Williamson) running off with the baby, then reappearing when said baby has grown up to be pop-eyed dolt Arthur (Nigel Terry--great with Derek Jarman and nowhere else), the world's worst squire, who accidentally unsheathes the titular sword from a giant rock. Curiously, this momentous event is badly fumbled by Boorman, who, despite lathering veneration and rapture on every other second of the film, for some reason decides that this pivotal event in the legend is worthy of just a Gomer Pyle-esque "well, gaw-lee!" gag and reaction shot. In its defense, the scene does offer the first of dozens of unintentionally-hilarious exchanges as adopted brother Kay (Niall O'Brian) first takes credit for freeing Excalibur before weakly admitting that, no, it was the clearly developmentally-challenged Arthur. Fast-forward again to Arthur becoming a king, falling in love with fetching Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), earning the respect and fealty of French knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and talking like something translated from archaic French into stilted English while everyone in the film agrees to act like no human being has ever acted before. Oh, and Jean-Luc Picard plays Guenevere's dad.
The problem isn't the too-reverential, pontificate-y style of speech nor the unspeakable stiltedness of the words themselves. It's not the survey-style approach to the piece nor the lack of understanding afforded it by a director so zealous about the subject that his objectivity is akin to one who has his face pressed up against whatever it is that one is trying to parse. (Apropos of this, Boorman's nagging propensity to get in so close that he cuts off the tops of his actors' heads is so pronounced in Excalibur that it proves an insurmountable distraction once noted.) No, the problem is that in addition to all the obvious stuff, Excalibur suffers from the same strain of holy madness that Arthur himself suffers in the third act: chasing grails, getting bored, and not realizing that the real story is happening in all the florid margins. It's obviously a work of passion--there's too much detail in its mounting for it not to be--but it's also a work of hideous myopathy, betraying this irresolvable tension between what Boorman's keyed in on in his favourite story and what he vainly believes everyone already knows. This is a film with unbreachable gaps that it begs you to fill in on its behalf. And it's a film so obfuscating to Boorman's legacy that it colours appreciation of good Boorman like Deliverance and Point Blank.
Excalibur is actually not unlike Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but the special effects aren't as good. The special effects, in point of fact, are pretty awful and, more than awful, the main one doesn't make any sense. It's a green spotlight that announces where "there's magic"--like in creepy woods, or when something equally stupid is about to happen. In the pantheon of bad ideas poorly-executed, it's right up there. The predominant response to the rest of the picture (the direction, the screenplay, the editing, most of all the acting) is one of pity, really. Ultimately, Excalibur is the kind of chimera--this mixture of high-culture and sword & sorcery--that doesn't work until Kenneth Branagh's blood-and-eloquence version of Henry V. It has only Nicol Williamson's peculiarly fey performance to defend it, and then only as a camp curiosity. At least it's also got a super-hot Helen Mirren in a sheer body stocking. That's enough to almost wash the "ick" out of one's mouth after Boorman has directed his daughter in a topless domestic rape scene to kick it all off. Sword in the stone, indeed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Excalibur docks on Blu-ray courtesy Warner in a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer so faithful to the godawful source that the pea-soup fog effects, the shitty green-light stuff, and the overall attempt to in-camera a seriomythic feel to the whole benighted (ha! See what I did there?) thing put one at the disadvantage of praising a transfer that preserves, as well as one imagines it could, something that was designed to look like shit. Shots don't match, interiors are darkly gauzy, and the much-examined and self-appreciated opening battle sequence has so much incidental smoke in it as to suggest spare ribs in armour battling it out over a nice side of slaw. There's not much evidence of edge-enhancement, though, and the colours are surprisingly vibrant considering the generally washed-out nature of the movie's palette. Terry English's gleaming armour, every nick and burnish, is realized with brilliance; it's almost worth the price of admission. Well, that and Mirren's lack of shyness, put on display with a naturalness of skin tone that brings the harsh unnaturalness of the rest of the colour schemes into contrast. A shame that most of the 'best' scenes sporting Mirren are in half-light--which, in Excalibur's visual vocabulary, means "shitstorm."
The presentation's 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, on the other hand, lacks for any evidence of TLC, meaning the whole thing is a jumbly, confused mess of jangly musical cues and badly-matched levels. What should be majestic sounds treacly, and it's likely to startle the poo out of you more than once with its sudden jumps in volume during otherwise mundane dialogue. When Arthur realizes for the umpteenth time that he's a flawed man and not a LEGEND as he prepares to fight his incest-born son/archnemesis, listen as his monologue climbs the entire scale on your equalizer. Slightly better is Boorman's feature-length commentary, a monument to self-effacing retrospection married unhappily to self-aggrandizing delusion. His commentary over his daughter's icky-sex scene is, "Well, it's not really rape, right, because it looks like her husband and besides...um...she didn't mind shooting it." And though he recognizes that the film looks bad for long stretches, he does give plentiful clarification that it was largely due to the awful obstacles placed in his way by people who didn't understand his vision. Count me among them, John.Originally published: May 5, 2011.