Excalibur: John Boorman’s Once And Future Movie Myth


John Boorman’s 1981 fantastical retelling of Mallory’s Le Mort D’ Arthur is, to quote Nicol Williamson’s Merlin in the film, “A dream to some. A nightmare to others!” What some see as an episodic and hammy sword and sorcery tale is a clever and satisfying retelling of a mythical truth, an abstract approach that shows us Arthur’s (unnamed) Kingdom, a place out of time, in several stages of transition; from dark to golden age, through loss of innocence, and bloody rebirth. It is the film Ridley Scott’s Legend  fell so far short of.

Boorman and collaborator Rospo Pallenberg’s script and pre-production work on Excalibur benefits from it being his fallback project after he was asked to (unsuccessfully) adapt The Lord Of The Rings for United Artists ten years earlier, especially in its poetic mood. While Excalibur’s closing scenes are mostly wordless, the visual imagery of King Arthur being borne away by maidens to distant shores echoes thematically their scripted Rings ending, as Bilbo and company leave the shore of Middle-Earth forever. Legolas, watching from the shore, remarks upon seeing a rainbow, “Look – only seven colours. Indeed the world is failing.” Pallenberg said ” From a physics standpoint it’s incorrect to say that there could be more than seven colours, but what he’s saying is “We live in a diminished world.”” With Arthur gone, the age of myth and magic has finally passed too.

Boorman himself said “What I’m doing is setting it (Excalibur) in a world, a period, of the imagination. I’m trying to suggest a kind of Middle-Earth in Tolkien terms. I want it to have a primal clarity, a sense that things are happening for the first time. Lands and nature and human emotions are all fresh.”

The film almost plays like a screen Opera – it is a heightened reality, a world anew. One where sex, jealousy and pride threaten to undo the mystical balance and ties between the King and the land. A powerful aid to that feeling is the superb score which utilises music such as Siegfried’s Funeral March by Wagner, and O Fortuna, a medieval poem set to music by Carl Orff, which the X-Factor has been ripping off for years.

Boorman was determined to squeeze as much of the legend into his film’s running time as possible, chopping and condensing characters, and switching acts to others. He created a three-act saga – the dark ages and the birth of Arthur, a period of brutality and superstition; the rise of Camelot and an age of reason and law, a dawning of Christianity; and the final descent into chaos and wasteland, where Arthur commands the Round Table knights to seek the Grail, before a final battle for the soul of the land and the people, and a promise of a new age to come. Boorman called it the “past, present and future of humanity.”

When Uther, driven by lust, has Merlin transform him into the likeness of Gordois, Duke of Cornwall, so he can have his wife Igrayne (in full armour, in front of a raging fire!) , Merlin agrees, on condition he takes the resulting child, Arthur. As Uther pursues Merlin after the birth, he is ambushed and drives Excalibur, the symbol of his rule, into the stone, rather than Merlin does in Mallory’s telling.

Boorman said “When Uther thrusts the sword into the stone and then dies, we cut straight to the same scene eighteen years later. I shot the first in Winter; then I shot it again in Spring, when all the trees were in leaf. Boom! Though it was only a seasonal change, it’s a startling one, and then I panned around with the camera, and you see that all this encampment has grown up around it (where champions joust for the right to draw the sword). That’s a passage of eighteen years in one cut, and it gave the story enormous dynamic power.”

Other quick cuts suggest more passage of time – a scene of young Arthur and Guinevere cuts straight to  a now bearded and older Arthur meeting Lancelot for the first time in combat, and acting rashly and proudly like Uther, destroying Excalibur, which is cast back in the lake to be reforged.

Lancelot, who becomes “the best” of Arthur’s knights, is a cataylst for change, an age of chivalry, and unwitting chink in the armour of Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage. From this point on, the armour becomes more gleaming and resplendent, as opposed to the blackened, ugly armour of before (almost Uruk-Hai like, as in The Lord Of The Rings). Camelot grows and develops into a shining beacon of prosperity and knowledge – little details in the background also suggest this, such as a puppet show re-enacting an earlier law, and an Orrery, with the stars and planets revolving around Camelot.

Later, Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, who has tricked Merlin into giving her the “secret of making”, and transformed herself into Guinevere to seduce Arthur and conceive a son, Mordred, kisses her boy on the forehead. When the camera pulls back as their heads part, you realise ten years have passed, and Mordred is now a young man.

Merlin, portrayed by Nicol Williamson, and Helen Mirren’s Morgana are very interesting characters. Neither actor wanted to work with the other, because, according to Boorman, each stated they wanted to sleep with the other on the set of Macbeth, and were rebuffed. Naturally, Boorman gave them plenty of scenes together to clash with enmity. Williamson based his portrayal on an old English teacher, and plays him as alternately sage and buffoonish, completely ignorant of the ways and passions of humankind. Mirren’s Morgana is of course a sensous, scheming vamp, but subtly so within the world around her – she sees Merlin’s ways as a means for a woman to have power in a man’s world. Merlin says with melancholic insight to her upstart “Our time is passing, and the time of man is coming. The one God is driving out the many Gods.” Boorman said of it “ The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.”

Excalibur is a ravishing film, full of lush and strange visuals, fantastical sets, and clever model photography. Boorman filmed Camelot in the countryside as simply a model placed  in the distance. To suggest an air of magic in the forests around his home in Ireland where he filmed, green gel filtered lights gave it a luminous, dream-like quality, especially any time the magical blade Excalibur is drawn. During the Grail quest, the grim wilderness is easily captured in the “wild” west of Ireland. Local Travellers, hardened to an outdoor life, portray Arthur’s people, fallen on hard times. The Grail Knights armour is now rusted and pitted. Sir Percival is hung up to die by Mordred on a tree and is saved by another Knight’s spur slowly, agonisingly, sawing through the rope. The stages of the film’s look suggest a war between design and nature, one age struggling to be born from another, a golden age from murky, earthy nature, and the eventual corruption of that.

Excalibur is a cautionary tale, rather than a simplistic retelling of an age “of old when Knights were bold” etc.  The characters are all struggling to find their place in the world, to maintain harmony with nature. Merlin says poignantly of Excalibur to Arthur, ” It was forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.” The film is a longing for a golden age, and the struggle to balance the warring natures of honour and goodness with human greed and jealousy. Surely the most rousing image is when Percival has returned the Grail to Arthur who, rejuvenated, rides out with his knights through a re-blossoming countryside to do battle with Mordred for the soul of the land, to Carl Orff’s stirring music.

Originally posted 2012-11-09 17:41:50. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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