Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, Robert Addie, Gabriel Byrne, Keith Buckley, Katrine Boorman, Liam Neeson, Corin Redgrave, Niall O'Brien, Patrick Stewart, Clive Swift, Ciar�n Hinds
Written by: Rospo Pallenberg, based on a book by Thomas Malory
Directed by: John Boorman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 140
Date: 04/10/1981

Excalibur (1981)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Knights of the Round Tales

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The King Arthur legend has been adapted many times into many movies, though usually they focus on certain facets of the unwieldy tale. Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974) looks at the period toward the end of the search for the Holy Grail. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) offers a humorous look at these characters. Eric Rohmer's Perceval (1978) focuses on just one character. Disney's animated The Sword in the Stone (1963) showed a young Arthur. Even Merlin got his own TV miniseries. But many consider John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) to be quintessential because it tries to distill all these stories -- and more -- into one movie.

Excalibur is both sober and laughable. Its dialogue sounds a little too stiff, and some of the images wobble between spectacular and ludicrous. The same thing happened to Boorman's sci-fi spectacle Zardoz (1974); it was intended in all seriousness, but it was so bad that it became a cult item. Excalibur begins with Arthur's illegitimate birth, and when he's a teen (played by Nigel Terry), he pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king. He fights Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and makes him a knight. Lancelot falls in love with Arthur's betrothed, Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), and she with him. They pine for each other and eventually give in to their lust, posing together naked in the woods (the scene will make most people laugh, in an Austin Powers kind of way).

Meanwhile, Merlin (Nicol Williamson) says enigmatic things and eventually trains sexy Morgana (Helen Mirren) in the ways of magic. Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) becomes Lancelot's squire, and then, eventually a knight. Those that look hard will spot Gabriel Byrne as King Uther, Arthur's father, Liam Neeson as Gawain, and Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance. It's too bad that some of these more commanding actors couldn't have been cast in the more powerful roles, though Mirren is delightfully wicked -- and gorgeous -- as Morgana.

Boorman gives everything a shiny glow, especially the sword Excalibur and the knights' armor, though as the search for the Holy Grail wears on, the armor grows duller. It's all mildly captivating, but since too much is crammed into one movie, there's not much time for depth. (If you're fans of either Galahad or Gawain, you're out of luck here.) Nonetheless, it's far better than Antonie Fuqua's King Arthur (2004).

Warner Home Video released the movie on Blu-Ray in 2011, and the picture quality is glorious, especially in sequences like Merlin's "dream chamber." There are no new extras, but it does include Boorman's previously recorded commentary track and a trailer that perfectly manages to explain the film's cult appeal.

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