Monday, October 08, 2007

Random Movie Report #36: Excalibur

Earlier this year- or more accurately, for much of this year- I read Sir Thomas Malory’s LE MORTE D’ ARTHUR, the long, rambling, confounding, but often beautiful definitive rendition of the King Arthur epic. As I read it I first thought it might be interesting as a film, but continuing decided it probably couldn’t be done. It was too long, too episodic, too repetitive; it worked because of some indefinable alchemy in the prose and the weird, misty, fairytale quality of it all. Nobody could really do it justice.

EXCALIBUR comes damn close. It changes a lot from the story (not really a flaw because myths are fluid to start with), but its flaws are close to Malory’s flaws, and its strengths are close to Malory’s strengths. It is by turns stilted and unnatural and feverishly intense. The film came out in 1981, when fantasy and science fiction movies were in ascendance, and the trailer makes an attempt at selling this like the next STAR WARS, which is amusing when you consider that this is a John Boorman film we’re talking about. It’s an art movie, loaded with symbolism and thematic passages that don’t necessarily advance the story- and needless to say, again, this is perfect for Malory, who wrote in an age before plot coherence and economy of storytelling (well, sure, there was Aristotle, but nobody was listening to him.) It’s also one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a while, and is worth catching for that alone.

The story begins when the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) presents the legendary sword of Excalibur to Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) in hopes that he will use it to unite the troubled kingdom and bring England out of the Dark Ages. And for a while Uther seems set to do exactly that, forging a peace with the King of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave), but at a victory celebration he falls for Cornwall’s wife Igrayne (Katrin Boorman) and convinces Merlin to work his magic to set up a rendezvous (during which Cornwall himself is killed). Merlin’s price is the “issue of your lust”, meaning the child which Igrayne bears- Merlin spirits the babe away from Uther, who is killed in the forest shortly thereafter, lodging it in a rock from which nobody else can pull it. Years later, the child, Arthur (Nigel Terry) is a squire to his older brother, and in the midst of a festival and tournament wherein knights compete to see who gets the right to try and pull the sword from the stone, hence becoming King of England, Arthur loses his brother’s sword and decides to substitute one that he sees sticking out of the ground in the middle of the woods. After another pulling-of-the-sword for demonstration (and somehow I never realized how Freudian that was until now), Arthur is crowned King, and Merlin comes out of the shadows to teach him leadership. Which is good, because he first has to rally all the knights of the land in support of a boy king, and even when that’s been established and the Round Table set up, his half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) turns up with a knowledge of magic and witchcraft that rivals Merlin’s, and she’s out to hurt Arthur for what Uther did to her mother. Meanwhile, Arthur has taken a wife, Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), but a certain romantic tension is developing between her and Arthur’s strongest and most trusted knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay.)

People familiar with the “standard” Arthur myth will notice a lot of weird rearrangement of events. To be sure, it never had a rock solid structure to begin with, cobbled together from a wide range of stories. (Mostly from Welsh myths, by way of French embellishment, from whence come the knights and jousts and so on.) The conception and birth of Morgana’s son Mordred (Robert Addie) takes place late in the picture, but early in the book, and the famed love triangle of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot crops up very suddenly and without a lot of buildup, and the Grail quest is redefined from a Christian salvation allegory to a quest to heal both the king and England. What’s interesting is that even with these changes we don’t exactly have a clean linear narrative, and Boorman seems more interested in working with the themes of the mythology. Which is fair enough, but following it can be difficult, especially if you know the story beforehand because all the minor changes are just enough to make you wonder where they’re going with this.

Fortunately it is pleasant just to sit back and watch; the film’s visuals are lush, colorful, and composed like medieval paintings. It’s a study in contrasts- during Uther’s day everyone wears clunky, ugly black armor, while at the height of the Round Table Arthur’s men wear shining silver and the walls of Camelot are so metallic as to be reflective, while Morgana’s lair pretty much resembles Snake Mountain. The music is also good, with original material by Trevor Jones sitting alongside quotes from Wagner and Carmina Burana before it became a horrible, horrible cliché.

Neither the dialogue nor the acting are terribly natural in this film, as is to be expected somewhat, as both seem to exist simply to convey some difficult thematic material that I haven’t quite worked out. There’s some business about “The Dragon”, some sort of Force that Arthur has to master, which may represent the land, and of course it ties into the Pendragon family name; Merlin’s magic and the grail quest end up enveloped in this as well. The performances are inconsistent- neither Lancelot nor Mordred make much of an impression, but of course Helen Mirren is wonderful, while Williamson’s Merlin vacillates between believably threatening and over the top. Nigel Terry is strong throughout and provides a solid anchor. (The dialogue in this movie appears to be at least 60% post-production looping- presumably the locations were all next to major airports.)

There’s something rather wonderful about the film despite all these little problems. It’s a staggering technical achievement, of course, and artistically ambitious to boot, and if it doesn’t quite hit all the targets it still accomplishes a lot. There’s always been something chaotic and uncertain about the Arthur legend- we still haven’t narrowed down its precise origin and maybe never will- and so the messy craziness of EXCALIBUR does it more justice than a coherent narrative would. It’s by no means the definitive film of the King Arthur story, if such a thing can indeed exist, but it comes the closest so far to capturing that weird mystery and power. This is something special.

From "Le Morte D' Arthur" by Thomas Malory
Screenplay by Rospo Pallenberg and John Boorman
Directed by John Boorman

Grade: A-

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