EXCALIBUR
(Dir. John Boorman 1981)

More people telling me their favourite film, have named Excalibur, than have chosen any other film. People tend to feel strongly about this film. I can remember that when it came out, a film magazine reviewed it twice, feeling that it had to do so, since its two reviewers had such contrasting opinions. In short, people who don't adore it, tend to hate it.

Those who hate it have failed to understand something very important: that it is set in the land of dreams. Excalibur makes no attempt to be realistic. It is the film of a legend, and it tries to create a world of legend, and it succeeds. Once one has realised that this is not the real world, then the film is internally consistent and works splendidly. Merlin, towards the end of the film, even says the line "Your love brought me back to where you are: in the land of dreams." If anything, this makes the film even more tragic, because all of Arthur's sufferings have been not for his world, but for ours.

The Arthurian legend is probably the world's best legend. It has been told a thousand different ways, but is so strong, that no retelling can harm it. The story is familiar, but this telling of it is not. The screen starts blank, with the distant drums of Seigfried's Funeral March playing, and after a few captions, the curtain lifts to reveal a stunning opening sequence with horses breathing fire-lit breath into the night air, as Uther's men do battle with those of the Duke of Cornwall. The armour is dark, and greenish, and the movements slow, making this seem like a scene of battling dinosaurs. It is brutal and bloody. These are the dark ages. This is the time of chaos from which Arthur's kingdom must come. Into the scene, in a cloud of swirling fog, comes a figure who will be present throughout the film, ageless and mysterious, Nicol Williamson's Merlin, whose voice carries over the din.

I remember how suddenly I found myself immersed in this world when I first saw the film, and even now the hairs stand up on the back of my neck thinking about it. Allow yourself to become involved with the film, and you will be rewarded.

The costumes are magnificent. Special mention must go to the shining armour, and Morgana's (Helen Mirren) ever-increasingly impressive series of outfits. The music is stirring (it uses "O Fortuna" from Carima Burana before this had become a cliché). The acting is theatrical and good. Each of these characters is on a stage, to be examined. This is not a film of quiet intimate moments. It is a legend, and legends are public.

Excalibur distills the Arthurian legends into one film of watchable length very cleverly. At several points during it, a clever cut tells the viewer that several years have passed. Single characters represent many things. At one point Sir Percival represents all the questknights, at another Morgana is all that is evil. In telling the story quickly, the film uses simple direct speeches. In one scene, Arthur visits Guinevere, the woman he loved deeply, whom he hasn't seen for many years. He spends just a minute in her company and leaves, and yet the speech he delivers to her is so complete and so moving, that you do not feel robbed. He says his piece and leaves, needing to say no more.

It is true that the film has dated a little. It does also suffer from some ill-advised nepotistic casting (Igraine is played by the director's daughter, and she sticks out like a giraffe in a paddling pool). Some of the hair-styles and special effects are not quite what they would be today, and the quality of the dubbing is not first-rate, but this is still stunning. Everything seems to have come together to help this film look and sound good. The skies over the castles are spectacular, the Irish landscape (it was shot there) looks the part. The visual imagination and daring to have Camelot as a castle literally made from silver, and to have Arthur's final battle fought in fog with a huge blood red sunset behind it, makes this a feast for the eye.

I am writing about one of my all-time favourite films. I cry every time I see the land burst into blossom as a reborn Arthur gallops through it, and I feel the heavy warmth of tragedy as he is carried off towards the sunset to the Isle of Avalon. I am spoiling nothing by telling you that Arthur dies in the end. Everyone knows that he dies in the end. The whole film is leading to that moment. When you reach the end of the film, ask yourself this: where did he go wrong? What was it he did to lose his wife, his son, his sister, his best friend, all his questknights, Merlin, his kingdom, his life - everything he held dear?

"The one god of the many comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stone grow silent. It is a time for men and their ways." That's it.



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