The Dark Ages. The Land Was Divided and Without a King...
A look at John Boorman's 1981 film, Excalibur
EXCALIBUR is in some ways a film full of contradictions. It had a very low budget and many critics seem to have been expecting a film aimed at a select 'art' audience. Instead, it was greeted by most of them with disdain or contempt, yet garnered large amounts of money in the United States, and it endures today as perhaps the most accessible piece of Arthurian cinema.
The film was directed and co-written by John Boorman, whose previous directing credits had included Exorcist II: The Heretic, and the science fiction film Zardoz. Since Excalibur his work has included The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory. Excalibur had been an unrealized project of Boorman's for twenty years before Orion Pictures finally allowed him to commit his version of the story of King Arthur and his knights to celluloid.
The credits of the film claim that it is an adaptation of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, but if so, John Boorman and his collaborator Rospo Pallenberg gave themselves a very free hand, to the extent that the acknowledgement of Malory is redundant and misleading. The writing partnership clearly drew from a wide range of Arthurian material, and although in some ways this is commendable they performed their task in such a way that they left the screenplay open to serious charges of muddle. One critic, John Brosnan of Starburst, wrote at the film's release in 1981 that "you can see... why Pallenberg and Boorman get on so well as a writing team - neither likes their work to be hampered by such things as dramatic structure". In a later issue of the same magazine a letter from Charles Gunther added that Boorman "twisted Malory's story into the shape of a shillelagh". Indeed, Excalibur does progress through the events of Arthur's engendering and life in such a way that important highlights are not given the emphasis one might expect, and the narrative does seem to lose direction at times.
Boorman and his team clearly spent a lot of time researching their subject. Excalibur is a hybrid of different elements of the Arthurian legend, both in its storyline and its design. The execution of the final blows at Camlann seems to have been strongly influenced by Arthur Rackham's painting 'Arthur and Mordred in Mutually Fatal Combat' (which can be seen in the introduction to Ronan Coghlan's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends) as the production artist's sketches (which were reproduced in Starburst) show. The relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot takes on some of the Tristan-Iseult tale, neither of the latter being present in Excalibur. Arthur's act of dividing the two lovers with his sword while asleep in the forest is an act usually attributed to another king, Mark of Cornwall. Details matter, too. Perceval, outside Morgan's lair during the quest for the Grail, encounters the corpse of a knight whose eyes are being eaten by a bird; Chretien de Troyes has Perceval's mother tell of her eldest son "how the ravens and crows pecked out both his eyes, which was how people found him, dead."
The Grail is highly important to Excalibur's portrayal of the legend, but the story is different to that presented in Malory. Arthur himself is now the maimed king; Galahad, hero of Sir Thomas's Grail romance, is not included in Excalibur, and Perceval assumes his earlier role as the Grail hero. The Grail of Excalibur is not a Christian one. Joseph of Arimathea is never mentioned. Arthur's kingship is barely Christian, owing more to Merlin's sorcery. Although he and Guinevere are married to the sound of a Kyrie Eleison, they do so before an image of Christ which could easily be that of some sort of tree spirit. Arthur is admittedly at one point struck by lightning through a window in the image of a cross, but the intervention of a Christian God is perhaps out of context.
Indeed, the whole exercise is very 'green'. The message that Boorman seems very concerned to get across is that the King and the Land are One, that for the Land to flourish in fertility and the people to live in prosperity, a King must rule, armed with his sword; without these elements dissension will be rife, the crops will fail and folk will starve. Thus the amalgamation of the Sword from the Stone with Excalibur to form one sword of power. The sword is a sort of magic talisman whose power can only be applied by a King who knows how to use it. Uther does not; Arthur does until he effectively suspends his kingship by striking Excalibur into the Land itself, turning the power against itself. Boorman's use of Irish locations and actors were probably intended to contribute towards a Celtic colouring, but the Irish accents sound very artificial, particularly the yokelish one adopted for Arthur by Nigel Terry when the monarch he plays is in his youth. By contrast, Nicol Williamson's Merlin speaks in a magisterial voice, but with the oddest intonation. Of the critics, John Brosnan wondered whether Williamson thought he was playing Fagin in the musical Oliver! ; Gavin Millar in The Listener, however, speculated whether Williamson had in fact escaped from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Whatever, Williamson's Merlin is the most interesting performance in the film, even if only because Williamson's methods are mystifying.
John Boorman seems to have been very self-consciously putting forward Legend. In his effort to show how his interpretation of the Matter of Britain is a faithful reflection of what lies at the centre of human experience, he makes a number of creative decisions of questionable effect. His use both of modern New Age music and familiar nineteenth century composers may have been intended to say something about how the tales of King Arthur have inspired people through the ages, but we end up with scenes that resemble television adverts. Nevertheless, the attempts to move between bloodily realistic battle scenes and pre-Raphaelite tableaux sometimes result in very evocative screen imagery.
Whatever the faults of Excalibur it is nonetheless a highly watchable film and at least brought Arthur back to the attention of the wider public. The Oxford Arthurian Society began in Trinity Term 1982, within a year of the film's release, so the Society could be said to have followed in Excalibur's wake. Indeed, in Excalibur Arthur's knights are dubbed in the names of God, St Michael and St George, and those who have attended our mediaeval banquets will find the knightings of Excalibur familiar...
Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 29, Michaelmas 1994