Excalibur (1981) – John Boorman

Like a series of pre-Raphaelite paintings brought to life, director John Boorman infuses the screen with magic and beauty as he delves into the myth of King Arthur and delivers what would become the gold standard for cinematic interpretations of the English legend.

Each frame is a work of art as the story follows the story of Arthur (Nigel Terry), from his inception to his passing, from the claiming of Excalibur, the sword in the stone, to reclaiming it from the Lady in the Lake, and returning it to the waters, for the once and future king.

Boorman’s film touches on all aspects of the Arthurian legend from the sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson) to the betrayal of Guenevere (Cheri Lunghi) and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), to his scheming sister, Morgana (the stunning and talented Helen Mirren – I think this is where my crush began) and son, Mordred (Robert Addie) to the quest for the Holy Grail.

With an iconic score by Trevor Jones which also incorporates some recognisable Wagner, the film is a stunning event, and features a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Gabriel Byrne, and Patrick Stewart.

A slow moving tale of magic, sorcery and combat, the film is enthralling in its scope and production. The shine of armour stands out against the lushness of the greenery that permeates the film, lending more to the idea of paintings being brought to life.

Refusing to be grounded in reality, the film contends that magic exists, living alongside the old gods before they were replaced by one. And Merlin is there to remind us of that, almost every step of the way. Williamson’s performance is interesting, he’s often humorous, and is aware of more than even the audience is – it’s never quite explained if he’s more than man or not, or if he ages backwards as in The Once and Future King – but through it all, it’s something to watch.

The cast are stunning and capable, the production design is top notch, and the effects work within the realm of the film, bringing art to life.

I remember seeing some of this film (Helen Mirren) when it aired on television, but I don’t think our VCR recorded it, I know I saw part of it, but not all of it, and I’m not even sure I dug it when I first saw it. I’d been anxious about going back and trying again, as I’ve never really been a fan of Boorman’s work.

That being said, I really enjoyed this one, how it was brought to life, its imagery, and the way the myth was adapted. A fantastic piece of work, and also makes me think it is time to read The Once and Future King.

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