I’ve watched Excalibur before, a long time ago. I remember it being a bit slow-paced. I was also, perhaps, unduly influenced by a review in Starburst magazine which complained at Nicol Williamson’s strange voice for Merlin, such that I can’t watch it without hearing the weird tone and phrasing in everything he says.
The opening scenes do it no favours. It looks sensational, the photography all backlit orange and foreground fire, and the armour looks amazing. When the fight choreography works, there’s a viscerality to the scenes that works well. And it’s all scored to Wagner’s music from the Ring cycle.
But then it all goes a bit south at a moment when Merlin, watching the huge battle from afar, calls to Uther Pendragon, who replies that “I am the strongest. I am the one.” while riding around on his horse with a huge battleaxe. This would be fine except what we then get is a scene of him riding amongst the other warriors, barely tapping them with his huge axe, accompanied by the weediest ‘clang’ sound effect you can imagine.
In a world where Monty Python and the Holy Grail can do a more convincing swordfight (“It’s only a flesh wound”) this isn’t a great start.
Gabriel Byrne plays Uther, clearly not the kind of king material Merlin was after. He forges a truce with the Duke of Cornwall, then buggers it all up because he fancies the king’s wife. I didn’t recognise Byrne at first. Or rather, I did think ‘That looks like Gabriel Byrne’ but assumed it couldn’t be him as I thought he was too young. He has the look of a young Robert Shaw here.
He rapes Ygraine, wife of the Duke, while disguised as the Duke (who is killed the same night by Uther’s men). She has a baby boy, Arthur, whom Merlin takes as his price for setting up the date with Ygraine. Then Uther is killed, but before he dies he puts Excalibur into a rock, setting up the Sword in the Stone story.
We cut to a later time, and clearly the sword has become a determiner for kinghood. Here’s Patrick Stewart giving it a good old try.
We meet the grown up Arthur, played by Nigel Terry with a West Country. He’s the squire to his older brother, with no idea of his heritage. So when he loses his brother’s sword before a tournament, he’s rushing around looking for a replacement, and he comes across the sword in the stone, and before he really thinks, he pulls it out. Pretty soon there’s a crowd there, rather unhappy that a nobody has done what great knights could not. So Arthur puts the sword back to show he really was the one who pulled it out, and another knight pushes him aside to pull it out. Obviously he fails, but Arthur still pulls it free easily.
Then his father, played by Clive Swift, reveals that he’s not really his son, but was given to him as a baby by Merlin. And up pops Merlin to tell Arthur his real father was the old king.
His first act as King is to go to the aid of Patrick Stewart’s Lord Leondegrance, the only one of the knights who accepts Arthur’s right to rule. He persuades the other knights to follow him by giving one of them Excalibur and asking him to knight him – since he isn’t already a knight.
Pretty soon, he’s spending time with Leondegrance’s daughter Guinevere (played by Cherie Lunghi (off of The Manageress), against Merlin’s advice. Merlin doesn’t seem to trust relationships.
Arthur bests Lancelot in single combat, who then swears allegiance to his King. The round table is established, Camelot is built, and Arthur and Guinevere are married.
At the wedding, Merlin meets Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, played by Helen Mirren, who says she’s “a creature like you”.
The round table is very impressive.
Liam Neeson also turns up. This is a great cast.
Lancelot and Guinevere fancy each other, but Lancelot’s noble nature forces him to stay away from Camelot to avoid temptation. Lancelot is having weird dreams, one of which contains an effect that impressed me the first time I saw it, and still looks amazing. Lancelot is naked, and has a sword stuck through his side. He rolls over slightly and pulls it out. I’m guessing it’s a retractible sword blade, but it’s beautifully done.
At least, it looks like a dream, but when he then turns up at the contest to prove he’s not having an affair with Guinevere he’s bleeding badly, so I’ve no idea what the film’s telling us at this point.
Lancelot wins the challenge and proves Guinevere’s innocence. But then she messes it all up by going after him and sleeping with him, which Arthur discovers.
All this leads to a decline in Arthur and the whole Kingdom. Arthur decides they need a quest, so he sends his knights out to find the Grail.
There’s some pretty bad print damage on this print. Did the film companies just ship out whatever print they had sitting around when a TV company wanted to show a film? I think we’d be astonished to see damage this bad on a film that’s barely ten years old today.
The quest goes on a long time – long enough for Morgana to have a child (Arthur’s Child, for that matter) and for him to grow into a young Charley Boorman.
More time passes, Mordred grows up, Perceval eventually finds the grail and brings it to Arthur, there’s a big battle and Arthur kills Mordred. And As he lays dying he asks Perceval to take Excalibur and throw it into a lake. He rides off, then doesn’t throw it and goes back to Arthur, only to be told he has to, so this time he obeys and the lady of the lake takes Excalibur back into the water.
This is a faintly ridiculous film. It takes itself so seriously, but the strange accents and voices, the disjointed, episodic nature of the film, and the fact that Monty Python genuinely did it all better makes this not much more than a curiosity.
With great armour.
After this film, there’s the start of a Peter Lorre film, Thank You Mr Moto.
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