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Excalibur (1981)

by on 2012/02/27

“The future has taken root in the present.”

* * * *

Set in Europe’s “lazy medieval” Dark Ages, Excalibur interprets the Arthurian legends through the prism of an unrealized Lord of the Rings. John Boorman directs The Lion in Winter’s Nigel Terry in this strangely similar, yet inversely paced, feature which splits the difference between fantasies high and low.

More a sequence of leap-frogging vignettes than a fluid continuum, the experience might well be equally known for its early career genre players: Gabriel Byrne (2005’s Assault on Precinct 13), Patrick Stewart (X-Men), Helen Mirren (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and Liam Neeson (The A-Team).

They, and a host of others, portray kings, jousters, witches, and knights in this violent, explicit take on Thomas Malory’s source material. Spanning roughly the life of Terry’s King Arthur, we see the beginnings, rise, and eventual fate of the legendary sovereign. I found it a decent compromise of academics and action, though it faltered after the midpoint when Camelot’s occupants became self-indulgent.

From time to time I felt the effort of shoehorning in requisite elements, For example, the speech to introduce the Round Table seemed obligatory, not organic. Characters speak learned lessons aloud, and know things “just because”, as with Arthur’s instant leadership, or his decision to seek the Grail. These aspects are poorly motivated — or inadequately demonstrated — serving only audience expectations.

Nonetheless, the movie is sometimes willing to challenge those expectations. Its casting of the role of Merlin is such a unique stroke. Nicol Williamson, now dead two months as of this writing, portrays the mythical figure, not as an elderly wizard in a pointed hat, but as a stout, acerbic provocateur, middle-aged, in a chrome skullcap. While his theatrics upset my preconceptions, I quickly came to accept him, despite the over-the-top, yelping, bug-eyed affectations I normally hate for their goofiness.

Somehow, against all odds, it fit together. Like a sword in a stone, one could say. Inexplicably, counter-intuitively, I accepted this world and its people. It shares the visual grandeur and grit we have seen in Highlander and Holy Grail. The grainy stock fails to diminish the spectacle of panoramic setups. Even too-deliberate choreography and extra-close-up photography can’t sap the sense of wonder throughout it all.

If any part of the filmmaking process most threatened my immersion, the disjointed audio synching would be the culprit. I’ll dare to hope its persistence was a video mastering issue. Were it resolved, however, I’d still find imperfections. The clanging of swords, initially exciting, soon grew wearisome, like the clattering of so many pipes and bottles. Similarly, the rousing classics used to score key scenes, toward the end sounded distracting, nearly parodical.

But now I’m reaching a bit for, overall, I enjoyed it. Notwithstanding production nits and occasional plot point assumption, Excalibur acquitted itself with a bracing energy. A standout performance by Williamson, and the heft of historical fiction give it an air of originality I’ve been missing in recent fantasies.

At the least, it makes for a brilliant entree leading into Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

* * * *

Rated 18A (Canada) / R (United States)

140 minutes

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