John Boorman, Excalibur (1981)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Movies
January 22nd, 2005 • 7:53 am

I saw this movie in a French movie theatre in the 1980s, while I was still a university student — and I remember being quite taken by it, especially because of my original attraction to the Arthurian legend, and also because of the way music was used in this movie. I think it was one of the first times — if not the first time — that I heard Carl Orff’s famous Carmina burana, and the use of that piece in the fighting scenes was quite striking. That was, of course, before I read about Orff’s affinities with the Nazi regime

I found a rather inexpensive DVD of the movie at, so I thought that it would be a nice addition to my DVD collection. And so I recently got a chance to watch the movie again, after nearly 20 years.

In these 20 years, my grasp of spoken English has also improved somewhat. I am pretty sure that the version I saw in that French movie theatre 20 years ago was already in the original English (with subtitles). (I have always avoided dubbed movies like the plague.) But at the time I must admit I didn’t notice what is indeed quite striking in this movie — i.e. the rather theatrical (as in, artificial) nature of the play-acting.

It is particularly noticeable with Helen Mirren (Morgana) and Nicol Williamson (Merlin). But it is also quite obviously intentional. It certainly gives the movie a rather unique character, although it also reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois — which was a rather painful watching experience, if I remember correctly.

Fortunately, John Boorman’s Excalibur is nowhere near as painful to watch. On the contrary, it could very well be that this theatricality helps create the unique atmosphere that gives the movie an enduring impact. Rather than just an entertaining “fantasy” or “adventure” movie, this is a movie that actually tries to tackle the life-defining dimension of myth and legend. From the historical to the spiritual, there are many ways to read the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail. Watching this movie again reminded me of the reasons why I used to find the whole thing so enthralling in my youth, and helped me rediscover the universality and timelessness of myth.

I won’t deny that some aspects of it can be perceived as rather camp — but again, I am also quite sure that it is deliberate. While it is never goofy, the campiness prevents the viewer from taking the movie too seriously as escapist entertainment, and helps keep the focus on the allegorical dimension of the legend.

This is not to say that the movie is not an audiovisual feast. But at least, unlike many recent movies of the genre, you don’t feel that the money spent on visual effects and epic scenes is a waste. It actually serves a purpose, tries to convey something.

What that thing is is, of course, up the individual viewer. But it most definitely has to do with the fundamental forces that made and continue to make the history of the human race.

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