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Excalibur (1981)

Courtesy of Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.

Main image of Excalibur (1981)
35mm, colour, 140 mins
Directed by John Boorman
Production Company Orion Pictures Corporation
Produced by John Boorman
Screenplay Rospo Pallenberg
 John Boorman
Photography Alex Thomson
Music Trevor Jones

Cast: Nigel Terry (King Arthur); Helen Mirren (Morgana); Nicholas Clay (Lancelot); Cherie Lunghi (Guinevere); Paul Geoffrey (Perceval); Nicol Williamson (Merlin)

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The story of King Arthur, his Queen, her adulterous love for Sir Lancelot, the wisdom of Merlin and the treachery of Mordred, Arthur's son by his half-sister, Morgana.

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Released during a rough patch for British film production, Excalibur is a surprisingly lavish epic. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, distributors and financiers were eager to cash-in on the fantasy cinema boom heralded by the Star Wars franchise and its injection of finance into British studios, producing a wave of sword-and-sorcery films such as Hawk the Slayer (d. Terry Marcel, 1980) and Krull (d. Peter Yates, 1983).

Unlike its contemporaries, however, Excalibur transcends its generic trappings by harnessing the structure of myth, the source template of the fantasy formula. The Grail quest narrative was already a hallmark of director John Boorman's work, emerging as early as his BBC TV drama, The Quarry (tx. 27/2/1966), which followed an artist called Arthur King. Excalibur would mark the culmination both of this fascination, and of his fantasy film work that had begun a decade earlier with an unfilmed adaptation of the Lord of the Rings, taking in Zardoz (1974) and a maligned sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (US, 1977), along the way.

With its fantastical sets and striking costume design - particularly the radiant armour - Excalibur constructs a shimmering mythological realm adrift from any specific historical era, yet this is unmistakably an ancient England, drenched in the kind of mud and blood that evokes Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Jones, 1974), an impression reinforced by Nicol Williamson's almost absurdist performance as Merlin. Overall, though, the treatment is gritty and serious in intent (verging on portentousness) as illustrated by the calibre of the cast, many of whom - such as Nigel Terry, Liam Neeson and, arguably, Helen Mirren - were then better known for their work in the theatre.

Boorman's insistence on condensing the entirety of Arthur's life into the film upset some Arthurian scholars, who were particularly frustrated by screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg's poetic licence with some of the story's traditional elements. Excalibur subverts Star Wars' quasi-Oedipal themes of intergenerational conflict by portraying rape as both a primordial magical weapon and a curse upon a king's dynasty. In a departure from his source, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, Pallenberg has Arthur's malevolent half-sister, Morgana, using enchantment to dupe her brother into fathering the son, Mordred, who will becomes his nemesis. This distortion, and the dwelling on Guinevere's betrayal with Lancelot, exposes the film to accusations of misogyny, but Excalibur remains perhaps the most successful and convincing screen rendering of Arthurian mythology.

Stuart Heaney

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Video Clips
Boorman, John (1933-)
Byrne, Gabriel (1950-)
Hinds, CiarĂ¡n (1953-)
Mirren, Helen (1945-)
Neeson, Liam (1952-)
Williamson, Nicol (1938-2011)