United Kingdom, United States, 1981
Directed by John Boorman
With Nigel Terry (Arthur), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot), Paul Geoffrey (Perceval), Robert Addie (Mordred), Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Liam Neeson (Gawain)
A woman on her knees caringly, and perhaps with too much love, hugs her little boy of a son, who is still disturbingly haughty and mature for his age, shot in a slightly high angle. Then the camera lowers a little, pans a little to the left, and as the woman bends away, releasing her son, he is now as a sour teenager.
In the wink of an eye, years have flown by – once again. This new version, and fresh vision, of the myths of King Arthur, the Round Table Knights, and Merlin the magician, first written in the 12th century, at least six centuries after the reign of the real king, strikes by the rush of events it forces upon the audience, either in blunt, unapologetic terms that do away with continuity and comfortable development, or, as depicted above, through clever and elegant tricks of shooting and editing. A long and elaborate legend is tackled in barely 140 minutes, a breakneck speed that still gets slowed to feature stunning fantasy scenes expanding the more realistic events defining the narrative arcs into a supernatural dimension. The whole life of Arthur is dealt with, providing the clear narrative line around which plots emerge, from the barbaric context of his birth to his death after he killed in a battle a new nemesis, Mordred, the son his half-sister Morgana, who has grown into a wicked witch, delivered after she duped Arthur to make love with him, mirroring how decades earlier, at the start of the film, their mother has been deluded, thinking she was making love with the king she married but actually getting raped by Uther Pendragon, the king who has fought to conquer her kingdom, owing to Merlin’s magic.
The long, bitter, harrowing battle Uther Pendragon led to conquer this new kingdom, which involves a truce and peace accord he very reluctantly accepted only to tear them apart as he gets blinded by his desire to have his rival’s wife, opens the film and decisively illustrates another principle this adaption of the legend intents to follow unwaveringly – stunning in another way the audience. It is shot, not without difficulty but still with awesome skill and real tenacity, by night, relishing in the darkness of the forest, highlighting the confusion of a battle involving fighters whose armors are as much a hindrance as a protection, and the horrific wounds and ugly death their arms cause. This is not just painted in black, but as much in red, with fairly gory shots focusing on maimed bodies, bodies getting savagely pierced, bodies lying disarticulated. This is definitely not a tidy old Hollywood affair: blood is unremittingly splattered, barbarism systematically exposed, brutality showed as it probably was, natural and inescapable in those Dark Ages.
Camelot would not even be spared: the bright and magical castle a triumphant Arthur, king of a thriving and peaceful land supported by committed, brave, and gentle knights, looks at first as a haven and a luminous place where the story can take another start. But Gawain’s wickedness, egged on by Morgana, soon brings back blood and terror, as Lancelot must fight with his own guilty love for Queen Guenevere, who is also in love with him but has done nothing wrong yet, and then to joust to defend her honor while Arthur’s faith in Guenevere is shaken lastingly and ultimately for a good reason. The poison of doubt and the fear of untruth has been injected and has begun to undermine the idealistic reign. Morgana would exploit to her own, cruel advantage the spreading despair destroying Camelot’s magic. The increasingly darker cinematography and powerful visions of a forest turned into a spiritual battleground fully express the swift decline of Camelot.
The lush forest is also mired in the gloom and doom so tragically shaping the lot of men. It is a battleground where knights on their own or commanding armies mercilessly clash, unless they are fighting bitterly and bloodily with their own soul, like Lancelot, where crimes are committed, where dangerous animals lurk. But it can as easily be a far more ambiguous locus, a wider and wealthier place: the natural home of Merlin, it is where decisive encounters happen, distrust and defiance giving way soon to strong loyalty and amity, for instance between Lancelot and Arthur or between Lancelot and Perceval, where a happy wedding is celebrated, where people can love and entertain themselves. However, once Morgana has upset and ruin the state of the world with her incestuous love and by making Merlin a prisoner, the wild becomes a dismal and hopeless universe too. The quest for the Grail, the only remedy Arthur can imagine to the dire straits of his kingdom and his own failure, unfolds in an increasingly nightmarish environment – no more hope, not even an ambiguity, but a total disaster sweeping away the Round Table members, with Perceval a rare survivor exhausted and hurt by his gruelling odyssey but eventually the one able to conquer the Grail.
Inside that nature teetering on the edge of nothingness as much as men and yet holding so much beauty and grace as them, water keeps streaming, a life uninterrupted but above all the way leading to the supernatural world doubling the real one human passions make so hard to enjoy. Water quietly carries the symbol of purity and power: emerging from of a lake, set to get thrown in another one, mended in a river after getting broken foolishly by a vain and obstinate Arthur, the magical sword named Excalibur would enable Arthur to fulfill his destiny and water would carry to the hereafter, in a moving and stunning finale, Arthur, under an eerie glowing sun, a red spot that looks like as much a dawn as a dusk.
That finale is the last-minute flourish and reminder of how gorgeous, carefully crafted, technically amazing most of the cinematography and the camerawork of “Excalibur” have been. It is, at least for the British cinema of the 1980s, an exquisite entertainment, a wonderful exhibition of what can be achieved with the techniques to convey the harrowing as well as spellbinding elements of a reinvented world caught between grisly realism and the highest sentiments or the wildest fantasies. The limit, of course, is technical: as decades pass and special effects keep evolving, the images feel increasingly dated, with the realistic details raising questions (do food or clothes really could be like what is shot?) while the rest of the imagery gets a cheaper quality.
Another surprise in this adaption not only directed but also produced and partly written by John Boorman is more pleasant and still solid food for thought: the first character to be named in the film, in the initial title cards, Merlin is not quite the grumpy but wise old man that could have been imagined. He cuts not only a younger but also a wittier and more awkward figure who does not always project certainty and strength, quite reluctant to grant humans all their wishes and not at all dupe about the world. Merlin would actually inject a strong melancholy note among the clang of the armors and the many cries of despair or for victory: as he tells a Morgana far more interested in her power and vengeance than in facing truth and bowing to good, he is among the last of his kind as new beliefs and new visions of nature and spirituality arise.
With Merlin, the legend bears testimony to the rise of a Christianity that the governments of the coming German invaders of Britain would only strengthen. Below the bravery and the prowess, beyond the eternal fight between good and evil and the magic, there is the sense that things are changing and that what the characters live cannot be reproduced but is to set to be consigned in books – Arthur himself, in a final conversation with Guenevere (now a nun – what a symbol), would explain how he feels deeply that his fight would only make sense for a future country and then would beseech Perceval to get rid of Excalibur because the kingdom that was and the battles it took to create it and keep it intact are adventures that no one should imitate. The legend is shot again, brilliantly, but through a dark glass – and it is claimed at the same time as just that, a story to charm and to thrill but that belongs to a past never to be retrieved for the world keeps changing as much as water keeps flowing.