Title: Excalibur (1981)
Director: John Boorman
Cast: Nicol Williamson, Nigel Terry, Nicholas Clay, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart
I’ve always found the legend of King Aurthur and the Knights of the Round Table interesting because it is a layered story that branches out into many themes. It covers many aspects of the human condition and augments how selfish we can be, how imperfect we truly are and how uncontrollable human emotions can be. This is exemplified in the story by the raging passions that permeate throughout every generation portrayed in the film. From father to son, to grandson, wild passions overtake logic and reason, leading most of the time to tragedy. It is a story that urges us to control our passions and listen to reason, because often times uncontrolled passions can destroy entire lives. This is demonstrated through the character of Lancelot, one of King Arthur’s most trusted knights. Lancelot falls in love with King Aurthur’s wife, Lady Guenevere. In this story, Lancelot cares not for the catastrophic results of his secret love affair, he only cares for satisfying his passions and lust. Every time someone falls in love in Excalibur, the results are catastrophic. In many ways, love, lust and passion are demonized in this story, which of course demonstrates how this story is meant to propagate Christian ideals and mentalities, which of course rubs me the wrong way. I’ve always hated how the bible demonizes sexuality; at the end of the day sexuality is one of humanities strongest and most natural traits. But what the hell, I still love this story, I always root for Merlin the Magician who always comes off as the wisest of the bunch. He tells one of the passionate lovers “You are not listening. Well, your heart is not. Love is deaf as well as blind” Funny how it is Merlin, a follower of the old ways, a magician, who ends up being the wisest character in the film.
This battle between the old religions and Christianity is at the crux of Excalibur. This is a story of the battle between pagan religions, which are centered around magic and old gods, and the new ways of Christianity which are centered around the teachings of the bible. It’s true, this story can be seen as Christian propaganda in some ways, yet, I find it fascinating how it has always demonstrated that Christianity wasn’t always there, it had to shoehorn its way into society. Once upon a time things weren’t about Jesus and going to heaven, a whole other slew of beliefs comforted people. Fascinating how humanity has always needed that psychological support in life, something to make us think we are not all alone in this universe. It’s the idea that something is watching over them that humanity has always found themselves lulled into. At one point in the story, when Arthur’s kingdom is in shambles and going through a particularly rough time, the solution is to go and find “the holy grail” the cup that Christ drank from during the last supper. Supposedly, this cup will bring peace and happiness to the kingdom. But of course, we all know what this cup really exemplifies: the idea that society needs religion and its established morals to function properly. The idea being that without Christianities values and ideals, we are lost. I of course don’t agree with this side of the story because as the story demonstrates, no matter how much you have Christ in your lives, human passions are always stronger, the human side dominates. Mistakes are made, but these are mistakes we can learn from. And call me old fashion, but I like to believe we are better then that, I like to believe humanity is essentially good at heart, with the exception of a few rotten apples. But, I also recognize that no matter how idealistically we look at humanity, there’s always the ideal of what we want to be, and then there’s what we are. A continually learning, evolving race of beings.
This is also a story that deals with politics and power, and the importance of learning to hone that power properly, not abuse it. The sword, Excalibur, represents power that when used wisely is meant to “unite all men”. I thought it was so interesting how in this film, John Boorman’s Excalibur, King Arthur actually breaks the sword in half because of his uncontrollable rage, his abuse of power. Merlin tells him “You have broken what could not be broken. Now hope is broken” showing once again what happens to people when they see their leaders abuse power; a feeling of hopelessness takes over the land. This is also exemplified in the story with King Uther, who was also obsessed with owning the sword of power. At one point Uther tells Merlin “The sword, you promised the sword! I need the sword to be king!” and Merlin tells him “And you shall have it, but to heal, not to hack” letting us know that the true nature of power is to bring peace to its people, not to obliterate them or abuse them which is what often times happens with those in power, they end up using it against those they are supposed to protect and serve.
The story of Arthur and his knights has been told many times, each version focusing on whatever part of the story they want to focus on, some focus more on the magical side of things while others focus more on the romance between Guenevere and Lancelot, for example Jerry Zucker’s First Knight (1995) is like that. It stars Richard Gere as Lancelot and Sean Connery as King Arthur and it was more of a romantic story of how the passion between Lancelot and Guenevere destroys a kingdom. One of my personal favorite versions of this story has always been Merlin (1998). On this television mini-series Sam Neil plays Merlin the Magician and Miranda Richardson plays The Lady of the Lake and an extremely memorable Queen Mab. In this mini-series directed by Steve Barron, the story is told from the perspective of Merlin himself; we actually get to know the magicians origins. This time around, it’s his story and since it’s a mini-series, the filmmakers really elaborated on the tale and even expanded it. Merlin is an extremely fun film with great visual effects and amazing performances from an equally great cast, highly recommend you check that mini-series out. John Boorman’s Excalibur is one of the best versions of the story as well, it’s an epic and lush production, hell, it even gets a bit surreal with its dream sequences and visions. But knowing Boorman, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, this is the director who gave us Zardoz (1974), one of the trippiest movies ever made. On this version of the story Boorman chose to diminish the focus on the magical aspects. If there is magic, it is a subtle thing and handled through the use of practical effects, which is a breath of fresh air in this CGI dominated world. A lot of the magical aspects were handled through the use of imaginative lighting and old school effects, it was a smoke and mirrors type of production.
I have to give props to John Boorman for the look of the film, an aspect of it that got many accolades from critics when it was first released. Excalibur also gave Liam Neeson his first shot at acting in a full length feature film. Patrick Stewart also plays one of Arthur’s knights. And speaking of the knights, they all wear these shiny armors that give them a god like feel which by the way, is one of the other themes that the film also touches upon, man thinking themselves gods end up needing Christ because they couldn’t handle the power of godhood. As you can see, this is a story and a film that touches upon many relevant themes dealing with the human condition, but above all it augments the ugly side of human nature, our worst qualities, it does this to hopefully stimulate us into being better human beings.
Rating: 5 out of 5