Warner Home Video
Starring Nicol Williamson, Nigel Terry, Nicholas Clay,
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Fantasies of swords and sorcery are generally aimed at 13-year-old boys with stacks of dirty comic books and pockets crammed with many-sided dice. The early 1980s witnessed a brief upsurge of such fare, reaching critical mass in 1982 with the release of Dragonslayer, Conan the Barbarian, and The Beastmaster, among others, and fizzling into pure silliness the next year with Krull.
Amid all this lazy pandering to an undemanding target market (formula for success: blood, beasts, and breasts) emerged an incredible film - perhaps the best the genre will ever inspire, and one of the purest cinematic efforts to be found: John Boorman's grand and engrossing Excalibur.
Excalibur, of course, tells the familiar story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Adapted from Thomas Mallory's definitive Le Morte d'Arthur, Boorman's film is pure legend, parts elegy, camp, adventure, and soap opera, infused with poetry and stunningly visualized.
Boorman captures as much of the full myth as he can fit into his brisk two-and-half hour running time. Uther Pendragon spurns peace for lust. Young Arthur pulls Excalibur from a stone and as king unites the people of the land. Betrayal disrupts Camelot and turmoil consumes the kingdom. Merlin summons the dragon's breath. The Knights quest for the Holy Grail to restore peace and prosperity. It's what they call an epic.
From the very beginning, as Wagner's grim and inspiring "Siegfried's Funeral March" rolls ominously under the opening title, there's a hint that Boorman is taking a more mature, sophisticated approach to typically popcorn material. But this is in no way a dullard's telling. It's a style befitting a legend. Every moment is full of pomp teetering on the edge of camp, but with not one whiff of deflating self-consciousness. This is the story of kings and courage, after all, in a time when subtlety didn't carry as well growls and warfare. The film's advertising tagline sets perfectly its exclamatory tone: "Forged by a god! Foretold by a wizard! Found by a king!"
The film's anchor is Nicol Williamson as Merlin. Not a man, not a god, Merlin wanders between the two, offering wisdom to men who'd prefer magic. Williamson's rich, unpredictable intonations of Merlin's cryptic quips highlight the thoroughly bold, colorful, and memorable dialog, often repeated ad nauseum by die-hard fans.
As rich as the scripting and performances (try Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, and Liam Neeson in the supporting roles), is Alex Thomson's gorgeous cinematography, mixing shades of rough reality with glowing fantasy, and capturing battle scenes with the grim lyricism of Kurosawa.
In all his more serious films, Boorman has never recaptured the rapturous skill with which he painted this one. It may be because the overt fantasy set his dynamic style free, while still leaving him plenty of room for grave meditations. Although Excalibur excels within the genre formula, delivering blood and breasts in good and graphic measure, it's also a fond and moving rumination of a time when men aspired to chivalry, chased and achieved ideals, and, yet, through all their power and heroism, respected the value of humility.
With Nigel Terry as Arthur, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, Paul Geoffrey as Perceval, and, oddly, Boorman's daughter Katrine as Arthur's mother Igrayne - directed by her father in a violent scene.
Warner presents Excalibur in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital. Includes commentary by director John Boorman, trailer, textual supplements, snap case. It's a shame Warner opted for dull new cover art; it doesn't come near to capturing the energy of the original painted poster found on the VHS tapes.
Gregory P. Dorr
- Anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (French)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Commentary by director John Boorman
- Theatrical trailer
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