by Brad Nelson
Perhaps the best movie that delves into the Arthurian legend continues to be John Boorman’s 1981 “Excalibur,” a full two hours and twenty that seems to slip by in but a minute. It is, to my mind, the gold standard for the myth. A close second is the comic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for sheer entertainment value. There have been a few other movies of note touching on this story, including “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and Sam Neill in the 1998 miniseries “Merlin.”
But in terms of story and splendor, I don’t think any other touches “Excalibur.” Just consider a few names from the cast: Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds (you may know him as Caesar from HBO’s fabulous “Rome” miniseries). This was pre-Star Trek for Stewart when, as Boorman notes, he was simply a well-known Shakespearean actor. And this is one of Neeson’s first films. You might not recognize him at first — I didn’t — but you can easily spot the talent.
“Excalibur” captures some of the grandeur and the tragedy of the Arthurian legend (the movie is based upon the 1485 “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory). Boorman directs some wonderful high points, including the speech by Merlin (played mercurially by Nicol Williamson) where, now that the battles to unify the empire are now complete, he waxes poetic on times they should all remember and that are all too fleeting.
The depth of despair comes when Lancelot (played nobly by Nicholas Clay) betrays his king and beds the queen, the demurely saucy Guenevere, played by Cherie Lunghi. By the time the movies ends, you too may be pining for “The fellowship [that] was a brief beginning, a fair time that cannot be forgotten. And because it will not be forgotten, that fair time may come again.” You, too, may wish that someone would “Defend what was, and the dream of what could be.”
The story is aptly named “Excalibur,” not “King Arthur,” because the movie concentrates on the mystical elements of the legend, not necessarily the person. The king and the land are one. This was a time before Christianity was ascendant. The old gods still held some sway in the affairs of men. The sword, Excalibur, is not forged by man but was offered up by the hand of the Lady of the Lake, from the very primal powers of the earth, a sword “whose power was meant to unite all men, not to serve the vanity of a single man.” And the ever-present “dragon” is the mystical element that gives that bygone age power…and danger.
The Merlin character, played by Williamson, is, other than the sword, the real anchor of this film. Williamson portrays this wizard far beyond the weak and predictable confines of the stereotypes. But that is not to underrate the solid performance of the little-known Nigel Terry as King Arthur. He plays him steadily, and believably, from the young man who pulls the sword from the stone to the old and worn down Arthur who has within him the energy for just one last glorious battle wielding Excalibur.
When Arthur is separated from his sword, both he and the land wither. And this is when he sends his Knights of the Round Table off on the quest to find the Holy Grail in order to restore the kingdom and to give his knights purpose in these dark times. The movie could have easily been four hours, or a mini-series, as we followed one or two of these quests. And the role of Lancelot — such a central character in the legend — is all too peripheral.
But the movie wraps up splendidly with Perceval returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake where “One day a king will come and the sword will rise again.” This is one of the grandest scenes of any movie that I can think of. This is a movie that knew how to end itself. And speaking of rising again, so does the pixel count in this glorious widescreen Blu Ray high definition version which also features superb sound. It’s simply the only way to view this movie. It’s a bit violent in places, and there’s a tad bit of T&A, but generally speaking, very tame by today’s standards. This is a grand adventure movie, and if you haven’t seen it in Blu Ray, this would be a great rental or purchase. • (983 views)