Science fiction and fantasy                                            


directed by John Boorman

Excalibur poster  
Sticking quite close to the plot of Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur from which it is adapted, Excalibur is a visually distinctive movie. It tells the story of King Arthur (Nigel Terry), from the misdeeds of his father, Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), through to the end of Arthur's reign. Through it all there's Merlin (Nicol Williamson), a cynical old wizard who doesn't seem to grow any older. He has plans for the kingdom.

Merlin sports an unusual metal skullcap rather than the more traditional pointy hat, and his clumsy pratfalls offer a hint of slapstick. His magic is powerful, although the special effects that are meant to convey this are decidedly unspectacular. However, everything goes wrong when he opens his mouth. Not only does he have an abrupt, almost jerky way of talking that conveys all the passion and acting ability of a toaster, but what he has to say is terrible. The script is full of the most pompous, flowery drivel. Nicol Williamson doesn't seem to be able to act in this movie, but the corny, overly wordy lines he has to spout don't help matters.

Uther wants to unite the kingdom, and the magical sword Excalibur is central to his plans. It has a kind of green shine to it that shows us how magical it is, but no-one really explains why the sword is so important, other than that it's shiny and sharp. Presumably it has some kind of symbolic power, because the knights get behind whoever wields it. When Uther proves that he's not such a good king thanks to his weakness for attractive women, Merlin decides to pin his hopes on the next generation and takes the infant Arthur away from his mother.

When we first encounter Arthur as a young man he's a squire with the accent of a country bumpkin. Few take him seriously, and he has to fight to convince the other knights that he is a worthy leader. There's no shortage of fighting in this movie, although the battles and jousts are gritty, bloody affairs rather than elegantly choreographed action. The Arthurian knights go about encased in heavy, shiny plate armour, so it's no wonder they don't move very well.

The plate armour is part of this film's mythical medieval look which sets the story outside of any genuine era and into an imaginary, ideal time. So as far as costumes and settings go Excalibur is an attractive movie, enhanced by some stirring classical music. Arthur and his knights do tend to wear their armour almost all the time, even in situations where it's not very appropriate. They even keep it on at the table.

However, they end up looking a lot less polished after the knights embark on their largely futile quest for the Holy Grail. The director doesn't shy away from grossing us out in some scenes, as the knights reach their lowest point.

Morgana (Helen Mirren) is eager to learn what she can from Merlin, in spite of his warnings about the dangers of magic. Yet Merlin recognises that the old ways are dying, making way for the new Christian age. And it's a Christian notion, that of original sin, that's at the heart of the tragedy that underlies this story. Many of the characters are fatally flawed. Both Arthur and Mordred suffer from the sins of their conception. Mordred is even described as Morgana's "unholy child". Even that most perfect of Arthur's knights, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), is ultimately brought down by his sinfulness.

Excalibur does make the essential spirit of Malory's tales more accessible. It's just a shame that the story is portrayed in such an unappealing way. The acting is dire, in spite of the presence of cast members who would go on to do much better things, and the dialogue was written by someone with no sense of embarrassment. Although parts of it look good, the overall presentation is poor. As a result the movie seems over-long, and watching it is more of a chore than a pleasure.

Film Details

Decade: 1980s

Categories: Films


Classification: 15

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2 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson