Credit: Warner Bros.
by Matt Lynch Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Excalibur | John Boorman

April 12, 2021

After releasing notorious flop/secret success Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, director John Boorman turned to an attempt at producing a Lord of the Rings film. When that failed to coalesce — sadly, as it was allegedly floated that the Beatles would play the four hobbits and that the film would feature such sights as Frodo boning down with Galadriel — Boorman and writer Rospo Pallenberg couldn’t let go of their desire to create a simultaneously protean and psychedelic myth, and so they set their sights on an even more seminal work of fantasy: Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur. The movie that eventually emerged, Excalibur, is disjointed, episodic, gory, stunningly gorgeous, and occasionally silly, and it remains one of the most demented epics ever to be bankrolled by a major studio.

Narratively, it uses the King Arthur story as mere backbone for its broader ideas. Arthur (Nigel Terry) goes from orphan to regent by pulling the sword from the stone as usual, with Merlin (Nicol Williamson) as a mentor/manipulator. Eventually, his reign is brought down by his queen Guenivere’s (Cherie Lunghi) infidelity with the virtuous Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). Also crammed in are the quest for the Holy Grail and a final confrontation with wicked witch half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren). But Boorman is ambivalent about the usual Arthur/Christ dichotomies, of which this is almost an acid freakout rejection. Instead, he laments a sort of bygone age of natural harmony, with the King physically tied to the land and Judeo-Christian religion slowly creeping in the door to take the place of pagan magic. As Merlin says, “The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It’s a time for men and their ways.”

Of course, it all bears little resemblance to actual history, and what’s more, all of its depictions of courtly romance and pre-Druidic mysticism and perfectly shining plate armor are even more anachronistic. It’s as if the film takes place less in a made-up spacetime than in some sort of pocket universe without a firm grasp on time itself, whiplashing back and forth. Episodes bleed into each other, decades pass with simple dissolves, everything enveloped in this fog, the frequently mentioned “dragon’s breath” that remakes reality before the characters’ eyes.

All that’s setting aside the purely physical charms of this mashup of robust British production design and audiovisual phantasmagoria. Filmed mostly in Ireland, it rained nearly the entire duration of shooting, which not only drenched its poor actors, but lent the entire production a gauzy, soft-focus haze, punctuated by bright blasts of glowing light, particularly the spooky in-camera green glow of Excalibur itself, created by aiming a reflected green gel at the sword prop. The violence is as wet as the landscape too, with blood oozing from every hack and slash, chunks of flesh peeling off impaled knights, and rotting corpses piled everywhere. The fights themselves make good use of all that anachronistic armor; enormous dudes seem to struggle with every last move, and a single swing of a sword takes almost superhuman effort. It’s the sort of rugged, muddy, lumbering fight choreography you got from Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian or his Musketeers movies — rambunctious, dirty, hard.

And then there’s the Wagner, with pieces from Tristan and Isolde, Die Gotterdamerung, and Parsifal practically wallpapering the aural landscape, with assistance from Carl Orff’s O Fortuna during a particularly stunning sequence of Arthur and his Knights of the Round table reconstituted after the Grail quest, speeding through a cherry blossom orchard on horseback. Put all these elements together, and it suggests something as deeply, specifically, and culturally ingrained as, say Kwaidan, mixed with a Hammer studios psychedelia and a provocateur’s lust for shock and awe, a brand of idiosyncratic, zeitgeisty mythmaking that simply doesn’t get made anymore, so radiant in its artifice that it not infrequently verges on camp. It’s worth noting that this is reportedly Zack Snyder’s favorite movie, an anecdote that is as succinct and illustrative of Excalibur‘s character as it gets.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.