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"Guards! Knights! Squires! Prepare for battle!"

After failing to get his version of Lord of the Rings off the ground, John Boorman set his sights on another big fantasy adventure without any of those pesky copyright issues to worry about.

It's a bit of a stretch to say that Excalibur is the definitive big screen version of the Arthurian myths. I honestly don't think there has ever really been one. The fact that the most acclaimed and beloved film based on the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is Monty Python and the Holy Grail kind of says it all, really. It is often difficult to watch this film and not think of Python. I kept having flashbacks to Galahad at Castle Anthrax during the scene with Perceval in Morgana and Mordred's cave. Despite being released six years prior, Holy Grail feels like a razor sharp piss take of Boorman's film, which is far too serious for its own good. I get that he wanted to make a grown up version of Arthurian myth, with lots of blood and sex (most of it without the knights ever taking off their bulky armour), but did it really have to be quite so stiff and humourless?

Excalibur may not be the definitive King Arthur film, but it is certainly the most comprehensive. All the major events are covered here: the birth of Arthur, the sword in the stone, Lancelot and Guenevere, Merlin's imprisonment in the crystal cave, the quest for the Holy Grail and the final battle with Mordred. Boorman's original cut was three hours long. Scenes cut included a sequence where Lancelot rescued Guenevere from a forest bandit. By cramming the entire thing into just over two hours, Excalibur comes across as a very episodic work, with few of the chapters being allowed the room they need to breath.

This also means that none of the characters ever get to feel like living, breathing people. The most impressive thing I can say about Nigel Terry is how convincingly he ages throughout the film as we see Arthur go from a young boy to middle aged man. Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi make for a very pretty Lancelot and Guenevere, but their love affair is love at first sight and nothing more. The only ones who leave any lasting impression are Nicole Williamson and Helen Mirren. Williamson is my probably favourite Merlin; one third political manipulator and two thirds total madman. Helen Mirren plays Morgana. That's it. That's all that needs to said on the subject.

The film looks great, thanks in no small part to Alex Thomson's lush cinematography (which earned him the film's only Oscar nomination), even if it does have the unfortunate effect of instantly dating the whole thing. Despite being set in the dark ages and being released in 1981, the film just screams 1970s. It is also painfully obvious that Boorman didn't have that much cash to splash. Camelot seems to consist of just a drawbridge and a wall. There never seems to be more than twenty knights at any given time. Merlin's fog during the final battle doesn't just conveniently conceal Arthur's army, but Mordred's as well. Boorman often compensates for this lack of spectacle by playing 'O Fortuna' as loudly as possible.

Notes and Quotes

--The prelude from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is used repeatedly as a love theme for Lancelot and Guenevere.

--Boorman's daughter, Katrine, played Igrayne. That must've made filming her sex scene really awkward.

--The film features many short appearances by future stars including:

Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain
Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon
Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance and CiarĂ¡n Hinds as Lot
--Boorman cast Williamson and Mirren because he felt that the tension on set would come through in the actors' performances.

--Kid Mordred slaughtering knights in his golden armour was seriously creepy.

--I do like that Terry does nothing to hide his Gloucestershire accent. It is nice to have a king who doesn't sound like he went to Eaton.

Merlin: "You're not listening. Your heart is not. Love is deaf as well as blind, that's it."

Arthur: "Merlin! What have I done?"
Merlin: "You have broken what could not be broken! Now, hope is broken."
Arthur: "My pride broke it. My rage broke it! This excellent knight, who fought with fairness and grace, was meant to win. I used Excalibur to change that verdict. I've lost, for all time, the ancient sword of my fathers, whose power was meant to unite all men... not to serve the vanity of a single man. I am... nothing."

Merlin: "When a man lies, he murders some part of the world."

Merlin: "You brought me back. Your love brought me back. Back to where you are now. In the land of dreams."
Arthur: "Are you a dream, Merlin?"
Merlin: "A dream to some. A nightmare to others!"

Morgana: "Your eyes never leave me, Merlin."
Merlin: "Can't I acknowledge beauty?"
Morgana: "Can't you acknowledge... love? Perhaps you ache for what you've never known."
Merlin: "Perhaps you lust for what you cannot have."

Two and a half out of four shiny knights in armour.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig


  1. For me, it really is the definitive non-comedic adaptation of the Arthurian mythos. It may not be a perfect film, but its investment, passion and sheer scope of what it covers makes it one of my favorite movies of its decade.

  2. One of my all time favorites! I own it and still re-watch it every now and then. 2 1/2 ??? Come on man!


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