FILM (1981)
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LIFE

John Boorman's Excalibur - a wonderfully mythical realisation of legend

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm

Excalibur 
Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi
Director: John Boorman

Castles don't get any more magnificent than King Arthur's Camelot, home of the mythical British king and his Knights of the Round Table. That towering edifice is beautifully rendered in British director John Boorman's rendering of Thomas Malory's medieval romance tale Le Morte D'Arthur. Boorman locates the castle somewhere between reality and dream: it's solid enough to appear worldly, yet strange and shimmering enough to evoke the realm of the supernatural.

That dual approach permeates this exemplary piece of magical-realist filmmaking. Arthur and his knights have made many appearances on film and TV, but nothing expresses the mysterious, magical heart of Malory's tale like Excalibur. A superior cast, which includes Helen Mirren (as the evil Morgana) and stage actor Nigel Terry (as Arthur) play it for real, eschewing camp and irony, and bringing a modern human dimension to a spiritual piece of filmmaking.

Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg's script makes minor changes to Malory's story, which is itself based on folk legends of the time, but generally sticks close to the text. Arthur is a good king who reigns by virtue of the magical power - part pagan and part Christian - of the sword Excalibur. The king, who dotes on loving wife Guinevere and champion knight Sir Lancelot, rules wisely with the aid of Merlin, who is skilled in the magical arts of pagan Britain. Honour abounds in the court, leading to peace and prosperity in the kingdom.

Dissension arises when Lancelot and Guinevere can't withstand their passion for each other. This forbidden love leads to the demise of the court, and a famine grips the land. Arthur seeks to reclaim goodness by finding the Holy Grail, which, according to myth, once held the blood of Christ. But Morgana, Arthur's half-sister, is determined to exploit the ruinous situation to steal the kingship.

Excalibur is much more than a sword-and-sorcery film. Although the knights wear armour and uphold medieval codes of behaviour, the movie is set in the earlier Dark Ages, when a king such as Arthur may have existed. This allows Boorman to delve into ancient Anglo-Saxon beliefs, specifically those contained in Jessie L. Weston's 1920 classic book From Ritual to Romance, which explains how the Anglo-Saxons believed the king to be the physical embodiment of the land.

If the king lived an honorable life, the land would prosper; if the king was dishonorable, he would fall ill and the land would wither. The idea tied the prosperity of the king to his kingdom and was intended to ensure just rule.