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Excalibur at Forty

It's hard to believe forty years have passed since I watched Excalibur rise from the lake. It was Sunday, July 5th, 1981, around 2.45 in the afternoon, and I was in the ABC Cinema in Brighton. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

In paintings and illustrations Excalibur often emerges from the lake at an angle. Sometimes it's in a scabbard and the Lady of the Lake grasps it by the middle; you can imagine her waggling it about to get Arthur's attention. But in Excalibur it rushes straight up, the misty water parting with a ripple around the eerily green-lit blade until at last the hilt breaks the surface, scattering slow-motion droplets like seed pearls.It's like watching the launch of an Apollo rocket. From the trees at the water's edge, mission controller Merlin looks on in awe. What he's probably wondering is, what happens next? Does he have a little boat moored among the roots to get him out to the middle of the mere where the sword is waiting for him? Or will he have to swim?

But this is a movie, not a novel, and a mythic, operatic movie at that, so these pettifogging practical questions can easily be waved away. We just jump to a new scene, a river plunging between mossy rocks, where Uther Pendragon is negotiating a truce with his enemy, the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin has given Excalibur to Uther as a symbol of his right to be king. The onlooking knights wear grey-green armour as gnarled as the rocks and trees they stand among. Uther's horned helmet and punkishly spiked pauldrons make him look like a dinosaur. This is 'The Dark Ages', according to the title which flashed up as the film began, while the opening chords of Seigfried's Funeral March rumbled on the soundtrack like distant thunder. But it's no period any historian would recognise. It feels like a far older era, primaeval, unmapped, and inhabited only by these saurian knights. There aren't even any buildings in Excalibur, apart from three or four castles - everyone else lives in tents. The only place-names ever spoken are Cornwall, Camelot and Cameliard. It's a film of the Matter of Britain in which Britain never gets a mention - Arthur's realm is simply called 'the Land'. 

‘What we wanted, at the beginning, with all those sombre colours and forests and suits of armour, was to express the reptilian nature of man,' says John Boorman. 'This is man emerging from nature.' Nature is where the Sword of Power seems to draw its power from. Merlin says it was 'forged when the world was young; when bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream'. 

Maybe Excalibur is a dream too. It moves like one, and with a dream's strange logic. It rushes us from the truce at the river to the celebrations at Cornwall's castle, then cuts straight to the same castle under siege when Uther's lust for Cornwall's wife Igraine outweighs his desire for peace: the rhythmic thump of armoured fists on tables as the knights at the victory feast beat time to her dancing blends into the thud of a battering ram against the castle doors. Uther begs Merlin for help: Merlin gets him to withdraw his besieging troops and, when Cornwall leads his men out in pursuit, transforms Uther into the likeness of the Duke. As Uther rides across the mist-filled gulf which separates the castle from a neighbouring headland we see him change into Cornwall. Nowadays this would be all CGI morphing, and spectacular shots of the airborne charger. Here it's achieved by simpler means: cuts between the two actors, a sea of dry ice across a hidden floor. Excalibur's best special effects are camera tricks and theatrical techniques which could have come from the silent era.

The whole film becomes almost silent as Uther/Cornwall enters the castle. Trevor Jones's eerie music underscores the magic with echoing ambient shimmerings and then rises in intensity towards the bizarre, flame-lit scene of Arthur's conception: Uther in full armour, Igraine naked, intercut with action on a nearby battlefield where the real Cornwall has just been impaled on a whole rack of spears. "The future has taken root in the present,"mutters Merlin, in the dark outside. "It is done." 

Excalibur claims to be an adaptation of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, but in Malory the magic sword is not given to Uther Pendragon. The Lady of the Lake gives it to Arthur after he has proven himself to be Uther's heir by drawing a different sword out of a stone. The legend is crammed with these odd echoes and duplications, awkward in a modern retelling. In Excalibur, Boorman and his co-writer Rospo Pallenburg find a solution so elegant it feels as if they've stumbled on an earlier, truer version of the story: Merlin gives Excalibur to Uther: Uther, dying, drives it into the stone. Eighteen years later, Arthur pulls it out again.

Further simplifications and conflations follow. Morgana is amalgamated with Vivien, Perceval with Bedivere, and Arthur with the Fisher King. In an interview with the critic Michel Ciment, Boorman says, ‘Fusing two characters in this way… helped to create a far greater simplicity …when you find such a solution to a dramatic problem, you feel you’ve discovered a fragment of the legend which had been lost. In any event, it’s in the nature of myths to be so powerful, so indestructible, that you can change and modify them, and yet they remain essentially the same. It’s like a movie star who can play several different characters and yet it’s always the same person you’re watching.’ 

From Uther’s death we leap forward a generation to young Arthur drawing the sword from the stone and becoming king. Then another time-jump carries us on to an older, bearded Arthur meeting Lancelot in a duel which ends up with them both in the pool below Powerscourt waterfall (it's a rare Boorman hero who doesn't end up dunked in a river at some point). The kingdom is united, the heavy, dark suits of armour are replaced by shiny silver ones, Arthur marries Guinevere in a forest glade, and Merlin plans the construction of Camelot.

Here, for some critics, Excalibur starts to wobble (some think it wobbles from the start; they are fools, and we can ignore them.) The middle part of the film never really shows us the golden age which Merlin and Arthur spent the first part striving for and Arthur will spend the last part mourning. But how could one film hope to contain all the Knights of the Round Table and their various quests and feuds? The Arthurian narrative splits off at this point in so many directions, following so many different heroes, it would need a whole other film to tell it. But even if he had the time and budget, I'm not sure Boorman buys into the dream of Camelot. Arthur's court here feels a bit like 'the Vortex' where the Immortals live in his earlier and even madder fantasy, Zardoz: these idealists have built utopia, but they have shut themselves off from nature in the process, so it cannot last.  

Excalibur jumps us past the golden years to a point when the fellowship of the Round Table is endangered by two burgeoning relationships, between Lancelot and Guinevere, and Merlin and Morgana. As for Arthur himself, he is older, sterner, no longer the wide-eyed hero we identified with while he was winning his kingdom. Soon, when the quest for the Grail takes centre stage, he will step back from the story altogether. So a new hero is introduced; Perceval, who will guide us through the second half of the film. They even look alike: raggedy dark haired boys who grow into bearded knights, as if they are two versions of the same character, or Perceval is Arthur's second chance.

Lancelot and Guinevere finally enjoy a tasteful arboreal snog in a mossy arbour. Surrounded by ferns and fawns, they seem at one with nature in a way no one has been since Arthur spent a night in the forest being trained by Merlin at the beginning of his reign. But Arthur is laid low by their betrayal, and since ‘the land and the king are one’ we are plunged back into winter - a ten year winter, where the corpses of murdered knights dangle from bare trees and Lancelot has become a crazed prophet leading a ragged band of peasants. In another of the film’s temporal shimmies Morgana’s son Mordred turns from a boy (Charley Boorman) to a young man (Robert Addie) in a single dissolve. Meanwhile, an increasingly rusty Perceval keeps searching 'the labyrinths of the forests, to the edge of within' for the Grail. Not the Holy Grail: it’s no Christian relic here, more a Jungian symbol of some mystic lost union between man and nature. Like the sword, the Grail seems to belong to the unconscious world. Only when he is plunged into a river and kicks off his armour in a dreamy underwater sequence can Perceval get hold of it - at which point he magically finds himself back in Camelot, proffering the Grail to the ailing Arthur, as if his whole quest has been a dream. 

My first viewing of Excalibur made me feel as if I’d been plunged into the unconscious world myself. I surfaced dazed, overwhelmed by the torrent of story that I’d been submerged in. What stuck in my memory as I wandered home were chiefly the colours and the landscapes. I’d not noticed a film use colour schemes to tell its story in this way before; the fire and shadows of the opening sequences giving way to the lighter, brighter tones of Camelot, then moving through the sere wintry tones of the Wasteland and back into shadow again. And the landscapes were the very cloud-capped mountains, tangled woods and boulder-choked streams I imagined when I read The Lord of the Rings. Boorman's knights rode through the sort of scenery I’d seen in Wales and Cumbria and Dartmoor and in the paintings of Brian Froud and Alan Lee, but had never really  seen done justice on a big screen before.

In fact, had I but known it, Excalibur sits comfortably in a minor cinematic tradition. In the 1970s films like Polanski’s Macbeth, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, and Roger Christian’s odd short Black Angel had all stressed the grit and grime of the Middle Ages by grounding their stories in the wild landscapes and changeable weather of upland Britain. Excalibur was shot in the very similar landscapes of County Wicklow in Ireland, presumably between late winter and early summer, allowing the seasons to shift in sympathy with the mood of the story. "It is dark in these woods," Boorman writes in his autobiography, Suburban Boy. "I told my cameraman, Alex Thompson, not to consider them as exteriors. I wanted to light them as if we were inside a building. We used green filters on the lamps. We pumped green light onto green moss to make it luminous. We shone emerald light at the oaks and the swords and the armour, to enhance the mystical sense of the forest as a palpable living thing."

(The documentary-maker Mark Wright once took me to visit the locations of  Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding and the sword in the stone sequences, in woods only a five minute drive from John Boorman’s front door. In some ways, Excalibur is a home movie.)

Landscapes and colour schemes alone would not have made such an impact on youthful me unless they had been populated by engaging characters, but luckily they were. The actors who portray them work wonders, rapidly establishing their characters so that they all stand out in the swirling onward rush of the narrative. It probably helped that the actors themselves were all unknown to me. Most of them were unknown to most people, of course: Helen Mirren was already becoming a big name by the time the film was released, and Nicol Williamson had starred in films before, but the rest were largely new to cinema, and came primarily from theatre. Looking at the cast list now, it’s notable how many future stars are clustered at its lower end - Gabriel Byrne as the shouty, brutish, Uther, Liam Neeson as a rather short-changed Gawain, Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance, Ciarin Hinds as Lot. But it’s also notable that the upper end is full of names who never went on to other big films after this. Nigel Terry and Cherie Lunghi returned to theatre and popped up on TV from time to time. Nicholas Clay died young, alas. Paul Geoffrey sells real estate in California (although he did make a surprise cameo as a tailor in Better Call Saul). It’s a shame, because they’re all excellent, and all deserved bigger careers. But it also means that, in the intervening decades, while Patrick Stewart turned into Captain Picard and Liam Neeson into That Bloke Out Of Taken, those four remain forever Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Perceval.

And Nicol Williamson remains Merlin. Dressed in shabby black robes, and wearing a silver skullcap apparently improvised by armourer Terry English at the last moment when Williamson chickened out of shaving his head, Merlin dominates the first half of the film, sometimes sinister, sometimes kindly, sometimes broadly comic. I’d never seen a wizard like him before, and nor had anybody else. If you’re put off by his eccentric performance you probably won’t like Excalibur. But, as with all the tonal swerves and time-shifts which characterise the rest of this great, strange film, you just have to go with it. If you do, it will lead you to wonderful places.

Healed by the Grail, Arthur leads his knights out to a final terrible battle in the fog against Mordred’s army. The fog clears to reveal a landscape made entirely of armoured corpses in which only Arthur, Perceval and Mordred remain standing. The film has cut the last of its always-tenuous ties to realism now: you’d probably have to be standing on the surface of Mercury to see a setting sun as huge as the one which looms behind Arthur and Mordred’s final confrontation, flooding the screen with blood. Arthur, dying, tells Perceval to return Excalibur to the waters. Perceval rides to a handy lake, but can’t bring himself to throw the sword in, and returns to tell Arthur so.

I remember reading a book by the screenwriter William Goldman in which he singled out this scene as an example of How Not To Do It. 'Cut to the chase,' seemed to be the gist of his argument. (He obviously didn't know his Malory - in Le Morte d'Arthur the designated sword-chucker comes back twice to ask Arthur if he's completely sure). In 1981 the movies were changing, and the future belonged to film makers who followed the advice of Goldman and other screenwriting gurus: there wouldn't be much room in mainstream cinema for pictures as eccentric, personal, and crammed with strange ideas as Excalibur. Perhaps that's why, despite doing good box office and selling well afterwards on video and DVD, it seems slightly neglected now. It's never had the restored, re-mastered, bells-and-whistles Blu-ray release it deserves, and I haven't seen many articles marking this fortieth anniversary.   

Anyway William Goldman was wrong. Perceval's hesitation on the lakeshore comes as a perfect, relatable, human moment just when the rest of the film is turning all abstract and legendary on us. He can't cast Excalibur away, and nor could we if we were in his metal shoes. But Arthur understands what myth and destiny demand, and sends him to the lake a second time. ‘Excalibur will rise again,’ he promises. 

And it did: I watched again the following weekend, and twice more before its run ended, and again and again over the years… 

‘It’s normal…’ says John Boorman, ‘…for the spectator to feel, on occasion, the absence of many of the usual spatio-temporal guidelines. He has been struck by the horror, the blackness, of the opening scenes; then he has been seduced, enchanted by the sunnier scenes at Arthur’s court, by the romantic elements and also by Merlin’s sense of irony; and I hope that, when he reaches the deepest waters of the quest, he won’t any longer be able to resist, he’ll allow himself to be carried along, even if, sometimes, he may lose his footing.’ 

Excalibur is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be streamed at Amazon (and other services). It's rated Certificate 15, and rightly so, since it’s full of sex’n’violence.

The quotations in this post are taken from the book John Boorman by Michel Ciment, on which I blew the last £25 of my student grant in my first summer at art college. (I had to live on scraps for the last week of term, but it was worth it.) It's long out of print, but worth tracking down if you're interested in Boorman's career, as it has intelligent analysis and discussions of his films from Catch Me If You Can to The Emerald Forest.

There's a typically excellent Cinephilia article on Excalibur here, including an essay, several good interviews, a PDF of the script, and many stills.

The documentary Behind the Sword in the Stone by Mark Wright and Alec Moore is available on Amazon Prime and full of fascinating interviews with Boorman and many of Excalibur’s cast and crew.

There's a nice, recent-ish interview with John Boorman here, including this photo by Johnny Savage:

All other images © Warner Brothers




Timbo said…
I saw this as a fresher at a student film club with an audience who delighted in poking fun at every absurdity, while I, as an over-literal Arthurian nerd, baulked at the liberties taken. I must watch again a more open mind. I am enjoying this series of blogs.
philip reeve said…
Thanks! I imagine a student film club would be the worst possible place to see it…
Lee said…
Always one of my favourite films since a kid. Agree with pretty much everything here. I personally love merlin’s relaxing humour. But it’s the visuals and the music that hooked me. I’ve not watched many films where the music drives the emotion. Gotterdamerung was an inspired choice.
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Unknown said…
Very nice!
I work as an informatician at Porvoo City Library, my main task is to promote reading (children/youth/ya). Your books are staples among the material I promote.
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flanks57 said…
I really didnt like the film but I really enjoyed what you did with the story. I couldn't believe how well you took on this genre.Id read all your other books first and was eager for more of the cyberpunk stuff but this retelling really grabbed me.
This might not be the right place but ever since I read Railhead I am desperate to see it made into a film. Is there any news on that front? I have such powerful images in my mind from the book and I'd love to see it done on the big screen. I didn't feel the got Mortal Engines quite right .In the book the images were much more atmospheric. I was mesmerised by the scenes you created but I just felt too aware of special effects in the movie
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