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Excalibur: King Arthur's Sword And Story Of The 1981 Film

Entertainment | April 10, 2021

Helen Mirren as Morgana and Nicol Williamson as Merlin in 'Excalibur.' Source: IMDB

John Boorman's 1981 medieval fantasy epic Excalibur provides a bleak and gruesome telling of England's most beloved folk tale. Based on the 15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory, Excalibur owes just as much to The Lord of the Rings as it does the legend of the once and future king. The film featured Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren in main roles and future stars Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart in supporting ones.

Sexy, grim, and unrelentingly violent, audiences had no way of knowing what they sat down in the theater for Excalibur. Boorman's career is centered in the off kilter but this is less a movie and more an experience.

John Boorman started working on 'Excalibur' in 1969

source: orion pictures

John Boorman had been trying to get a film about King Arthur onscreen as early as 1969. The Arthurian legend is a beloved folk tale the world over but it's especially important in the United Kingdom. There, it's not just the story of a boy pulling a sword from a stone, it's the key mythology behind the birth of their country and the connective tissue between Britain's pagan past and its Christian present. 

For all of Boorman's directorial ADHD (he directed Deliverance and The Exorcist II in the same decade) his storytelling compass turns him time and time again to stories that metaphorically place England at the heart of the narrative. 1969 was just the wrong year for Excalibur, and Boorman's version of the script translated to a three hour film.

When Boorman and his co-writer Rospo Pallenberg pitched the gargantuan script to United Artists the distributor passed, and instead offered him The Lord of the Rings. The offer was a surprise and not what they wanted, but Boorman and Pallenberg spent six months working on a script for their Tolkien adaptation. United Artists eventually gave the project to Ralph Bakshi, but the DNA Boorman's film remained intact. He explained:

We had a script that we felt was fresh and cinematic, yet carried the spirit of Tolkien, a spirit we had come to admire and cherish during those months… The valley in the Wicklow hills outside of Dublin where my house sits is as close to Middle-Earth as you can get in this depleted world.

The early '80s were the right place and right time for 'Excalibur'

source: orion pictures

Star Wars changed everything. The space opera's success meant that everyone wanted their own big fantastic story that appealed to children and adults. Suddenly people wanted swords, sorcery, and magic. Orion Pictures was no different. They gave Boorman the go ahead to make his hallucinatory take on Morte d'Arthur. Incorporating elements of other versions of the legend, Boorman and Pallenberg cut and paste from the overall mythology as they saw fit.

There's a lot packed into a movie that could have just been a hero's journey with some magic tossed in to keep the kids happy. It could have been Krull or Star Crash, but Boorman wanted to show viewers how essential the Arthurian legend is to England and western culture in general. To paraphrase the film, Arthur and the land are one.

The resulting film isn't just a story about England, and it's not just a rags to riches story. The film shows the rise and fall of a great nation. It begins with Arthur's naïve early days in a world of magic and wonder before showing the audience the beauty of Camelot born from a noble leader. But there's also the downfall that comes with hubris and jealousy. Excalibur culminates with the fall of Camelot and the end of the era of magic. By the final moments of the film, when Arthur is floating away to Avalon there's a sense that the modern world has lost something intangible. Boorman once explained the film's grand sweep, saying, "The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth."

Building the round table

source: orion pictures

To create the world of Camelot, Boorman looked to Ireland to film the entirety of the project. In an effort to make Excalibur feel as real as possible Boorman cast mostly unknown actors from Ireland to play his leads. Even if English audiences recognized Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson, there was no way that American audiences would be able to pick them out of a crowd (after all this is 1981 we're talking about here).

To play Merlin, Boorman brought in a ringer. Nicol Williamson was a revered Scottish theater actor who was known for being as mercurial as he was talented. One anonymous cast member who worked with him on Broadway told the New York Times, “You don’t know if he’s going to be nice to you or punch you in the mouth." That's the raw nerve energy that Williamson brings to ExcaliburHe makes a meal out of every line, word, and syllable, not to mention the serpentine movements he makes when he's not speaking. His weirdo camp take on Merlin feels strangely at home in this film. If the whole thing is meant to be a dream in the shape of a metaphor why wouldn't a freaky Axl Rose acting Merlin be in here?

As powerful as he is in this film, Williamson almost wasn't cast in the role. Not only did producers not want to work with him because of his attitude, but he and Helen Mirren had some kind of toxic sexual tension hanging over them from a performance of Macbeth a few years earlier and almost everyone involved wanted to avoid that kind of energy.

Watching the film today, it's hard not to gawk at the raw talent on display in the film, especially when future stars like Liam Neeson or Patrick Stewart pop up to do some medieval business. Studios would kill to have all of these BAFTA and Golden Globe nominees in a film today, but in 1981 it was just a happy accident. Stewart is especially Shakespearian in his small amount of screen time, but Neeson's giant pony tail is really the star of the show.

Ireland is 'Excalibur'

source: orion pictures

The soft focus and dreamy haze of Excalibur isn't just achieved through soft focus and interesting framing choices. Much of the look of this beautiful film comes from the countryside of Ireland itself. Cinematographer Alex Thomson uses color and light in fascinating ways. He makes the beautiful more beautiful, and the violent much more visceral. Boorman and Thomson used the greens and the browns of the world around them as a color palette for the overall look of the film, merging the organic and mechanical. Everything is of a piece thanks to old world beauty of Ireland.

As gorgeous as the countryside is, Ireland isn't exactly known for being a temperate climate. Boorman says that it rained every day of the film's five month shoot, which only added to the nearly impossible nature of bringing Camelot to life.

Through a combination of amazing production design and the genuine grandeur of the countryside Excalibur has this hypnagogic glow that fades and diminishes as realm of magic disappears, but it never really goes away. This look that resembles something of a fog machine left on overnight (albeit the fog machine of the gods) helps to keep the audience locked in to Excalibur's otherworldly sensibility.

It all goes back to the 'Lord of the Rings'

source: orion pictures

When Boorman went into production for Excalibur he finally got to pull out that Lord of the Rings script from a few years earlier. Boorman and Pallenberg admit that their script for the film cribs heavily from their Tolkien adaptation, specifically the relationship between the world of magic and the world of man.

One thing that filmmakers strived for in both films was to show a more subdued form of wizard battle. They were tired of banging staffs and bombastic displays of special effects. Their nuanced approach to this concept is present onscreen in the exchanges between Morgana and Merlin, and Pallenberg says that it would have been even more pronounced between Gandalf and Saruman if their version of Lord of the Rings had come to fruition. He told Outre Magazine:

There’s a duel between the magicians, Gandalf and Saruman. I was inspired by an African idea of how magicians duel with words, which I had read about. It was a way of one entrapping the other as a duel of words rather than special effects flashes, shaking staffs, and all that. I tried to keep away from that a lot, and Boorman did too.

'Excalibur' remains essential

source: orion pictures

Upon its release Excalibur was successful at the box office even if the critical consensus was that the film is a bloated but beautiful mess. Looking back on the film today it's easier to see Boorman's genius in every frame. It's as if he was able to harness technology and nature to create the film's lush visuals in the same way that Arthur brings together the old world of magic and the new world of man for a brief period of happiness. Even with its breathtaking visuals and fantastic elements the film still manages to tell a moving story about the loss of our halcyon days and the internal struggle between greed and goodness.

As cheesy and over the top as the film can be, it's achieved cult status for a reason. It's one of the few Arthurian adaptations (aside from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to actually nail the feeling of the story of the once and future king. Now that we're 40 years away from Excalibur's release it's easier to remove the film from its context as a Star Wars knockoff and see it for what it is, an amazing telling of one of western culture's most important myths.

Clocking in at more than two hours, the film never feels like a slog which is a testament to Boorman and Pallenberg's cut and paste of the mythos. Boorman feels that the reappraisals and reconfirmations of love for his film aren't because the visuals or so cool or because of its before-they-were famous casting. He believes that people continue to love Excalibur because it's touched something deep in our psyche. He said:

I think it’s fascinating to see how the great European myths reemerged in the American genre film, particularly the Western. I believe that the popular, lasting stories are really about great deep psychic events in human his­tory that have bitten themselves into the racial memory and which we remember in our unconscious. The retelling of these stories is like the rediscovery of them—it ‘catharizes’ and then gives solace.

Tags: 1980s Movies | Helen Mirren | The Lord Of The Rings | Excalibur | Nigel Terry | Nicol Williamson | John Boorman | King Arthur

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.