Excalibur (United Kingdom, 1981)

February 25, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Excalibur Poster

Over the years, there have been countless cinematic tellings and re-tellings of the Arthurian mythos, ranging from the sublime (Robert Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake) to the ridiculous (by intent: Monty Python and the Holy Grail). There have been parodies, musicals, and animated films. Few are as well-known, however, as John Boorman’s 1981 epic, Excalibur. Released during an early-‘80s surge of fantasy-themed movies (which also saw, among other titles, the criminally underrated Dragonslayer and Conan the Barbarian), the film attempts to pull together as many strands of Arthurian lore as possible and cram them into 140 minutes. Watched as a silent film, with the sound turned down, one might be tricked into thinking this is a momentous motion picture. It looks great and seems important. Unfortunately, in putting so much effort into the film’s visuals and aesthetic, Boorman forgets basic elements like character development, narrative momentum, and coherent storytelling. The closer one pays attention to Excalibur, the more frustrating the experience is.

It’s notoriously difficult to make a good King Arthur movie. Most of the films that fail (and that’s most of the ones that have been made) do so because they can’t figure out which aspect of Camelot to focus on. Trying to encapsulate the entire story is impossible in roughly two hours. Excalibur illustrates the problem – characters age precipitously and occasionally disappear altogether, the story lurches from Big Moment to Big Moment without pausing to take a breath, and relationships aren’t given enough screen time to gel. The whole thing feels more like an outline than a screenplay. Today, one could see this expanded into a ten-part mini-series and maybe working. That assumes the ponderously pretentious tone could be lightened and the dialogue could be reworked to eliminate all the downright bad and unintentionally hilarious passages.

Excalibur has its defenders. It is one of the sincerest attempts to resolve many of the conflicting aspects of the various Arthur/Merlin myths and come up with something resembling a credible chronology. It takes the story seriously and isn’t afraid of bloody battles, nudity during sex scenes, and killing off characters. In fact, so many key figures are dead by the end that the movie must rival Hamlet for its death toll of important people. Even Excalibur’s detractors have begrudgingly acknowledged Boorman’s success in crafting a memorable setting. With its misty forests, shadowy corridors, and nightmarish tableaux, Excalibur is never anything short of visually arresting. The sex scene between Lancelot and Guenevere is erotic and artistic. The battles are short and brutal. Boorman invested so much in crafting the look of every scene that he forgot that there’s more to a movie than stunning the eye. The director’s decision to mix classical/operatic themes with Trevor Jones’ original score is less successful than the visual aspects in establishing a mood. The sudden introduction of something written by Wagner or “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana can be disconcerting.

Roger Ebert wrote the following in his 1981 review, and it encapsulates what’s wrong with Excalibur: “What a wondrous vision Excalibur is! And what a mess. This wildly ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur is…rough going for anyone determined to be sure what is happening from scene to scene.” I know a thing or two about Arthur so I was generally able to follow the plot even though it took a fair amount of concentration, but the characters never come alive – at least not the way the scenery does. Everyone – Arthur (Nigel Terry), the enigmatic magician Merlin (Nicol Williamson), the great warrior Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the beautiful Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the duplicitous Morgana (Helen Mirren), and the unprepossessing Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) – looks like they belong in the movie, but none of them leaps off the screen to capture our heart. They are cardboard cut-outs – impressive pop-ups deposited in the midst of one of the most evocative fantasy worlds created to this point in movie history.

Excalibur opens with a brief account of the reign of Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and how, with the help of Merlin, he is able to unite the kingdoms under one ruler. The film later picks up with Arthur removing Excalibur from the stone and proving his legitimacy as Uther’s heir. After defeating those who dispute his claim, he fashions the round table, develops a friendship with his fiercest and most loyal knight, Lancelot, and marries Guenevere. Meanwhile, Merlin takes on Morgana as his apprentice, perhaps heeding the precept about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. An affair between Guenevere and Lancelot causes things to unravel. Arthur loses his mooring. Merlin leaves. And, with Morgana and her offspring (sired by Arthur), Mordred (Robert Addie), in ascent, the kingdom is in peril. To save the land, Arthur sends his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail. This is the prelude to the final confrontation between father and son.

One can’t review Excalibur without mentioning Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Star Wars, both of which came out during the decade preceding the arrival of Boorman’s movie. Excalibur seems designed to emulate Star Wars in many key aspects (Lucas has acknowledged borrowing elements of his space-based saga from the Arthurian legends); however, in terms of execution, there are instances when the approach is closer to that of the Monty Python movie. The film’s dour tone is at times unintentionally comedic; on more than one occasion, I half-expected an appearance by Brave Sir Robin. In addition, Nicol Williamson’s wit-drenched turn as Merlin feels like it would be more at home in The Holy Grail (which didn’t have a Merlin) than Excalibur.

Back in the 1960s, Boorman – whose future successes would include Hope and Glory and The Tailor of Panama – hoped to make a movie based on the legends of King Arthur but was instead steered in the direction of The Lord of the Rings by then-rights-holder United Artists. By the time the studio rejected Boorman’s screenplay, some preproduction and set design work had been completed. Once the director was given the green light to work on Excalibur, he repurposed bits and pieces of The Lord of the Rings’ sets for his new production. (For example, the trial by combat set was originally designed to be the Rivendel counsel chamber.)

The cast list looks more impressive in retrospect than it appeared in 1981. The only universally recognized names in Excalibur were Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren. However, secondary roles were filled by up-and-coming future stars Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, and Gabriel Byrne. (Cherie Lunghi was established at the time but primarily in television. This was her first major theatrical role.) Nigel Terry, who plays Arthur, was also relatively new to the silver screen, although he had previously appeared as John in The Lion and the Winter.

Despite its numerous problems, Excalibur has retained the affection of many fantasy film fans. As good as it looks, however, it’s impossible to ignore the scattershot, uneven screenplay; atrocious dialogue; and often-wooden acting. Excalibur’s incomprehensible storytelling will maroon the viewer in the mists of Avalon.

Excalibur (United Kingdom, 1981)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 1981-04-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1