Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 7 of 7): Final thoughts
Normally when I talk about a film, I start with background on the movie and then end with my thoughts. But in the case of Excalibur, there was so much for me to unpack that I couldn’t imagine trying to shoehorn my feelings into just a few paragraphs. Fantasy films didn’t come along often back then, and while I could barely remember Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings from 1978 by this point, I was very much into Dungeons & Dragons, and Excalibur’s trailer fueled my imagination. Sadly, since it was rated R, I wouldn’t get a chance to see it in the theater. It wouldn’t be until Conan the Barbarian the following year in ’82, which my Dad was even more excited about than I was, that I would get to see my first R-rated film on the big screen.
That same year, however, my family got cable and Excalibur aired on HBO, and I was beyond excited to finally catch the film, and it was one of those few times when expectation equaled reality. For John Boorman, who produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay, this was one of the most important and difficult films of his career, and he first tried to get this movie made way back in 1969.
What I find crazy is his initial three-hour treatment was considered too expensive, and United Artists tried to get him to do Lord of the Rings instead. How that franchise would somehow have been less expensive to produce with elves, orcs, hobbits, dwarves, and all the technical challenges they would have presented, I have no idea.
The screenplay’s roots are based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte de Arthur, but changes were made to “streamline” the story. For example, Morgana is a combination of the characters Morgause and Morgan Le Fay as well as Nimue, who in the story is the one who traps Merlin. While purists might find this literary alchemy to be blasphemous, I can’t imagine how you could have given justice to so many antagonists (although, to be fair to the ladies, depending on the source materials they could be Arthur’s allies, advisors or antagonists) in so short a time, even if the film had kept its original three-hour runtime. And yes, when I heard that there are some forty minutes of Excalibur that have largely not seen the light of day (outside of some brief clips in the original trailer; Lancelot rescues Guinevere from bandits, for example), I almost wept. It reminded me of the Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which had originally been three hours and twenty minutes in length and was savagely edited down to just a little over two hours—a move which supposedly broke Wilder’s heart, as he was a diehard Holmesian. And in an interesting bit of trivia, Nicol Williamson was considered for the titular role for Wilder’s film and would later play Sherlock in The Seven Percent Solution.
Perhaps it may sound a touch hypocritical for me to have criticized Warren Beatty’s Reds and its run time earlier, but I think when you’re the producer, and the director, and the star, then you have zero objectivity and the specter of self-indulgence is felt. This is straying from the point at hand in regards to Excalibur and that is, would a three-hour run time have made this a better film? I’m forced to conclude that, yes, it probably would have.
If you love this film as it is, then more power to you. I love this film as-is too, but so many characters are introduced and often little time is given to flesh them out because Boorman has taken on this massive task to tell as much of the King Arthur legend as he can, far more than any other director before. He covers the story of King Uther, Arthur and the sword in the stone, the illicit romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, the quest for the Grail, and the final battle against Mordred. That’s a whole lot of story to tell, and it feels like it sure could have used the full 180 minutes to tell it.
As to how accurate the story is compared to Sir Thomas Mallory’s work, let’s be real; nobody who’s made a King Arthur movie—Boorman included—has ever been 100% faithful to the source material. Directors tend to look at Mallory’s book like a literary buffet table, putting whatever they want on their plate and leaving the rest. And frankly, it’s good that some of that stuff is left untouched; for example, to prevent Mordred from being born, Merlin has Arthur slay every newborn boy in the kingdom, which Arthur does. And Mordred still miraculously survives that. So it’s bad enough we have to contend with the rape of Igrayne; just imagine watching our hero commit mass infanticide! Heck, in some ways the musical Camelot (my second favorite Arthurian film, by the way) is more accurate, with the trial of Guinevere and her rescue from being burned at the stake, and the conflict between Lancelot and Arthur prompted by Mordred uncovering the adulterous relationship between queen and champion.
And as bad as you might think Richard Gere and Sean Connery’s First Knight is, Malagant is an actual character in Le Morte d’Arthur, and there’s a story where Lancelot rescues Guinevere from him. Hmm, I wonder now if some of the cut runtime from Excalibur involved that chapter, and it was decided that was one bad guy too many? One can only hope the forty minutes of deleted footage still exist somewhere and in my lifetime we get an Excalibur director’s cut.
So what makes a good King Arthur adaptation if nobody strictly follows the source material? Principally, I think it’s how faithful you are to the characters, or at least as the public at large imagines them, as well as the themes the book represents. Me, I see Arthur as being both noble and idealistic, which is used against him when he’s forced to choose between wife and the law. In fact, when you look at Excalibur, Arthur catches the pair in the act of the crime but neither actually faces state punishment; part of Arthur’s downfall is he fails to live up to what he believes.
Likewise, I see Lancelot as noble and loyal, but who ultimately betrays his friend as he too fails to live up to his ideals. Merlin has to be wise and mysterious; like Wolverine, once you know too much about him, he ceases to be interesting. Guinevere? Um… she has to fall in love with Lancelot, and I guess that’s it? Frankly, I can’t think of a single adaptation where that doesn’t happen. Boorman hits these notes well with the time he’s been given.
For me, the casting is spot on. Yes, I still have issues with Nigel Terry playing a teenage Arthur, but honestly, when I first saw the film I had absolutely no issue with it, perhaps because by then I was used to that sort of thing.
I like Terry’s take on Arthur as novice, then becoming a bit of a hot head, and in the end a man who finds it in him to forgive his wife and friend.
Helen Mirren as the chimerical Morgana is delightfully evil, manipulating Gawain and then stealing Merlin’s power, then laying with her brother to craft the super-weapon that is her son. One aspect of this interpretation of the Arthurian tale that I especially like is that Morgana has a legitimate grievance against Merlin and his own creation, Arthur.
As for Mordred, Robert Addie does the best with what little’s he’s given, as a young man weaponized by an embittered woman bent on revenge, raised to loathe his father and to take what he sees as his birthright.
As for Cherie Lunghi, I like her, I just wish she had been given more. As I said earlier, we caught this wonderful glimpse of just how much she could have done with the character.
Paul Geoffrey is perfectly cast as the noble and innocent Percival, and I’m very glad that Boorman chose Terry to play Arthur instead. Geoffrey is a fine actor, but I think he lacks the intensity and passion Nigel brought to the role.
Nicolas Clay’s Lancelot is a bit restrained at first, but man, when he goes mad (and this too is from the Arthurian legends) in the third act, he goes all out and it’s wonderful. The restraint is intentional, as Lancelot is a man who has to bottle up his passions, because to give them free reign would spell the doom of both his friendship with Arthur and the kingdom… which ultimately is what happens.
Gabriel Byrne does well as Uther, and even as a villain there’s pathos there; he’s a man who on the eve of his death realizes too late his shortcomings and sees the impending end of his days. I’m not whitewashing what he did, but there’s a tragedy here of a potentially great man brought down by flaws too great to overcome.
And of course Patrick Stewart is wonderful in his supporting role as Leondegrance.
Finally, there’s Nicol Williamson.
Man, what a performance. No one… and I mean no. one. Has ever come close to playing the iconic role of Merlin to perfection as he did. When people think wizards, they might conjure up Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Gray/White, or Harris and/or Gambon’s Dumbledore. But for me, Nicol’s scheming, wise, and yet flawed Merlin is just perfect in every way, as a being who strives to do good but discovers his moral compromises spell his own downfall. In allowing Uther to rape Igrayne, he creates his own arch nemesis.
In writing this recap, I looked at more recent attempts to adapt the Arthurian legend, namely Netflix’s Cursed and Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword…
…and I think where they both fail is there seems to be this attempt to make Arthur more “grounded” and “relatable”. It’s like the filmmakers really want to avoid the “chosen one” trope, and instead try to make Arthur into something very different. Or it’s just an attempt to make all fantasy dark and gritty. “Lord of the Rings is so early twenty-first century!” they seem to say. “A quest for a Christian holy relic? No way, we might offend somebody!”
Personally, I think there’s more than enough room in the current fantasy landscape for a traditional Arthurian tale, and if you want a different sort of hero, then go watch The Witcher or Game of Thrones. Give me the shining beacon of hope that is Camelot. Give me the doomed love affair and betrayal, the noble knights’ fall from grace, and the quest for the Grail. Give me… Excalibur!