With Guy Ritchie’s hyper-stylised bombastic take on the legend of King Arthur just days away from hitting cinemas, it seems almost preordained to return to a film of the past which almost appears as a reflection of this shiny new blockbuster: An adaptation of the legends of King Arthur by a British talent who had found acclaim in Hollywood with a keen eye for style. Yet, the film in question, John Boorman’s 1981 fantasy Excalibur, reflects the work of a very different cinematic mind, and stands as one of the most audacious and rewarding fantasy pictures from an era that stands as a high watermark for the genre.

The project was formed from the death of the passion project Boorman was sadly unable to achieve, another legendary fantasy tale that has since become one of the most successful cinema franchises of all time: The Lord of The Rings. As fascinating as it is to imagine exactly what Boorman would have brought to Tolkien’s epic, the film he was able to produce in its place is one of strange enchantments, marked by Boorman’s trademark inventive vision and eye for dazzling composition. Excalibur plays almost as an abridged voyage through the story of King Arthur, focusing on the iconic narrative moments that punctuate these ancient tales, from the sword in the stone to the quest for the Holy Grail. Somehow this approach, rather than limiting, seems to only enhance the sense of epic grandeur as if the pace Boorman moves through the markers of the legend reflects the very beating heart and spirit of adventure and excitement past down from generation to generation.

Ethereal in style but never compromising integrity of vision, the visual palette of Excalibur is rich and blessed with a multiplicity that is at once quirky but also perfectly reflects the variety of the narrative itself, in particular the battle between good and evil. Boorman and his cinematographer Alex Thomson utilise the sharp visual contrasts between darkness and light throughout the film through both the stark separation and the caustic collision of these tones. Scenes in Camelot are marked by gold and silver, with warm lighting reflecting and pouring off these surfaces; while the paths of necromancy and ill intent, represented by Morgana Le Fay (and to some extent Merlin who flits between in the light and dark even in his costume: a black ragged gown of darkness, with a shining skull cap of silver upon his head), are ominous in their omnipresence of blacks, purples and leering greens, heavy with shadow and laced with malicious atmosphere. The battle sequences bring these two worlds together as the clash of light and darkness has each palette meld with an almost opulence to the grit and grime, and haunting malevolence to the glistening on blood on armour.

Equally as important as the craft of the visuals is the swell of the soundtrack. Boorman took the approach of combining original music composed by Trevor Jones, with iconic classical pieces from Orff and Wagner. This injection of grandeur reinforces the operatic quality and serves to enhance the compositions and dramatic impetus; the image of Arthur and his knights riding into battle with the force of “O Fortuna” resonating, driving them on with the breathless fury and energy creates an immersive passion whose symbiosis elevates the artistry into operatic spectacle as the soul of man is torn between good and evil.

This movement between light and darkness is reinforced through the distinct willingness to embrace both the gentle fantasy and mature themes of sex, death and violence to create a film that truly understands the resonance of mythology goes beyond mere iconography, and into the legacy of ideas: the weight of power, the cost of violence and the durability of the human spirit. These ideas spiral within the quiet tempest of Arthur, the man destined to be king. Actor Nigel Terry plays Arthur with a vulnerability and emotional honesty, traits that make him somewhat foolish at times; yet through the course of the film, it’s the commitment to the humanity that helps the character’s strength of heart grow along with the film’s own majestic gravity.

Excalibur moves with poetic balance, never feeling frenzied for all of its pace, but rather measured and poised with the elegance. In this sense, the rhythm of momentum with the deliberate style seems to represent the perfect marriage between the associative editing that marks Boorman’s earlier cinema (particularly the urban fantasia of Point Blank) and the compositions of romantic art, never more opulent than in the film’s breathtaking finale. At the climax of the grand clash between Arthur and Mordred, Boorman opens the landscape of the battlefield as a tableau of broken bodies, posed and lit almost in the style of romantic painting (which in itself was resplendent with a sense of medievalism). Overloading the foreground with the mass of fallen knights, Boorman holds the warring father and son at the very centre, the heart, of the image, with the burning late evening sun looming with an orange fire as if the golden glow had been corrupted by the hue of bloodshed it has been spectator to. It’s an image that holds more in common with the exquisite and heavily constructed artistry of Derek Jarman’s cinema than that of mainstream adventure cinema; and in that devotion to the heritage of art, the real magic of Boorman’s Excalibur burns brightly, shimmering in the darkness like the glistening surface of the eponymous sword of power itself.

Of course this boldness of style doesn’t come without its drawbacks, and in truth, the sheer excess in the operatic sometimes overwhelms the balance of the film, making the rough edges of budgetary restriction feel all the more pronounced and jagged. However, as Merlin states within the film itself, “it’s easy to love folly,” and the charm of grand ambition truly exceeds any of the film’s practical shortcomings.

Excalibur might not be the most satisfying Arthurian adaptation in terms of being a comprehensive tome; however, through its eccentricity and lilting soul, it is unquestionably it’s most bold, mythic and transcendent realisation.

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk