As I’ve detailed somewhat on this blog, I love Arthurian romance and medieval literature more generally. This has not translated into a love for modern pop cultural adaptations thereof.
John Boorman’s 1981 flick Excalibur didn’t exactly seem like a promising candidate to bridge that gap, existing as it does in the glut of cheesy sword and sorcery movies that flooded the 80s. The only other film directed by Boorman that I can claim any familiarity with is the rather awful Zardoz, and I’ve rarely heard much of Excalibur aside from an acknowledgement of it being a thing that exists. But there’s a bit of a tell in how the credits specifically state that it was adapted from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.
And it is, indeed, a most eccentric adaptation of that 15th century tome. Given that some of the material is reworked, it can’t be described as the most literalistic movie adaptation ever. But it is an adaptation which has zero interest in molding the Arthurian mythos into something resembling a modern blockbuster. It attempts to be true to the spirit of the older romances even to the point of being an almost incoherent film, deliberately lacking as it does a lot of the exposition, connective tissue and character arcs that we expect from this sort of epic. Enjoying Excalibur really depends on the degree you’re ok with this tradeoff. As for myself, while I’d concede that the film is a pretentious mess, I loved almost every overwrought moment of it.
A good example of what I mean is in how the movie handles time: the span of the movie stretches from Arthur’s conception all the way to his death, but the passage of time is never noted. There are no title cards that say “Ten Years Later…” and little to no long fade outs as the end of an era approaches. Long expanses of time simply just pass by as the film cuts between scenes. This, of course, mimics the terseness of a lot of older storytelling. But in film it gives the narrative a sort of surreal, dreamlike quality. Time doesn’t matter here – what we are watching is not history, but rather supra-historical myth and legend.
Much of Excalibur’s artistic choices tend in this direction. The story is fragmentary, with characters and plot points drifting in and out of focus. Visually, the film leans towards the surreal and otherworldly, and is often strikingly beautiful to look at (it wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that the developers of Dark Souls often had the movie in their DVD players). There’s a lot of Richard Wagner on the soundtrack – Siegfried’s funeral march from Gotterdammerung is practically Excalibur’s theme, underscoring Arthur’s tragic trajectory. I could complain that using Tristan und Isolde as a motif for Lancelot and Guenevere’s adulterous relationship is a tad on the nose, but it’s effective nonetheless.
(I haven’t bothered to recap the plot. The basic beats – the sword in the stone, the knights of the round, Lancelot, Mordred, etc are as iconic as you can get, and the movie isn’t interested in shaping these into a film narrative anyway. You get the basic Arthurian package here.)
The film’s refusal to make concessions to the mainstream also shows up in its matter-of-fact treatment of the story’s religious aspects. While its Christian themes are not as developed as they are in the later portions of Malory’s text, this is still a story where Guenevere ends her life as a nun, and where sacramentalism, sin and repentance are realities that the characters live in. It’s also a story where the older world of paganism and magic hasn’t quite receded, as represented chiefly by Merlin, who is correctly interpreted as an ambiguous holdover from that era. The final conflict between Arthur and Mordred symbolically pits paganism against the emergent Christendom.
If there is one area where Excalibur is lacking, it’s in the dialogue and performances. Everything is in that declamatory style that older epics are fond of, with sometimes hammy acting and hokey lines. It completely fits the subject matter, but is an acquired taste, to say the least. There are some interesting faces, though: a young Hellen Mirren and Liam Neeson, a young(er) Patrick Stewart…
Anyway, the short story is that it’s a movie that unexpectedly mixes up some of my obsessions (Arthurian romance, Wagner, pretentious surrealist filmmaking) and so by the end of it, I was completely floored and just knew that it belongs somewhere on my top ten list. I can nevertheless understand someone who doesn’t share those obsessions just being baffled by the film’s essential weirdness. But it does serve as a reminder that contemporary cinematic fantasy need not be a binary choice between very streamlined fare like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the gritty cynicism of Game of Thrones.
(Content warning wise, it’s worth flagging a couple of things: Excalibur does depict the sometimes brutal combat that Malory recorded to the point of tedium, while on a couple of occasions depicting the characters’ more amorous sins in somewhat more detail than that chronicler would)