By Peg Aloi
Excalibur – 1981 – dir. John Boorman
John Boorman’s lush treatment of the Matter of Britain, Excalibur (1981), is awash in color, magic and eroticism. Viewers who were of a certain age when this film was first released may recall its popularity among a certain college-age element, namely, the weirdos and geeks (not me, of course, but I, um, knew some of these people) who played Dungeons and Dragons, attended Renaissance fairs, and belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism. This film may in fact have single-handily ignited a Celtophilic obsession in America, with medievalism becoming a romanticized, nostalgic window to Ye Good Olde Days. The Dark Ages, stinking and pox-ridden though they might have been, were suddenly revered and became a cultural phenomenon. The lead actors playing Arthur and Guinevere in this film (Nigel Terry and Cheri Lunghi) even starred briefly in a short-lived medieval-era television series…broadcast on an American network. Boorman’s film inspired a love of this period not merely because of the exciting scenes of swordplay and sex: rather, his expression of this period captivated audiences because his film imbued this far-away era with sensuality and mystery.
Boorman’s creation of a unique mythological landscape (as discussed in Michel Ciment’s interview in his retrospective book on Boorman’s early films) considers several versions of the story, melding the visions of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal. The common element among all these stories: the unwilling boy king who is fated to rule the people and heal the land. This eclectic but deeply-considered adaptation (co-written by Boorman with Rospo Pallenberg) possesses a complex and intricate production design. Boorman opted to film most of the exterior shots near his home in Ireland, and the forest scenes in particular have a bucolic, mystical appeal. The production team decided to forego adhering to one specific historical period, and so the film’s visual details span a period of roughly 400 years in terms of sartorial, military and architectural design elements, which makes a logical complement to the eclectic literary source material. This eclectic approach may offend some historical purists but does nothing to lessen the film’s richly detailed mise-en-scene.
Excalibur is thematically complex yet also simply-structured, combining a number of visual and conceptual binary opposites. These will speak to those of us even casually familiar with Jung, or alchemy, or The Golden Bough, or, let’s say, Mircea Eliade’s Rites and Symbols of Initiation.? We’re talking the Western Mystery tradition here: magic and occult symbolism. Male and female, magical and mundane, fate and choice, fire and water, metal and stone, night and day, forest and castle: all these opposites play against one another, and at one point Merlin (the superb Nicol Williamson) refers directly to the synthesis of opposites when he explains magic to Morgana (the beguiling Helen Mirren in one of her earliest cinematic roles), “All things and their opposites exist here” he says of the crystal cave they enter, “desire and regret, knowledge and oblivion.”
Excalibur is nothing if not elemental: each character seems bound to earthly mysteries and ethereal dreams, and Boorman renders their narratives in complex color palettes. Uther’s brief reign is dark and martial, defined by fire, blood and soot. Arthur’s youth is all forest and homespun fabrics, his wedding and kingship wrought in gold and silver. Merlin and Morgana are seen in occult shades of purple and green, Lancelot is clad in stainless silver and true blue, and Guinevere wears an intriguing assortment of white or multi-coloured patchwork gowns. That Boorman pays as close attention to costume and color structure as he does to cinematography, script and music, results in Excalibur being the most sophisticated and dramatic cinematic expression of this story in the cinema today.
Boorman’s king is conflicted by myriad influences: moral, sexual, familial, magical, spiritual. Arthur’s sovereignty is usurped by Morgana’s evil magic, Lancelot and Guinevere betray the royal marriage and go into hiding, most of the Grail knights are destroyed in the quest for the Grail that might heal the dying king, and Merlin admits that Christianity is usurping paganism: “the One God comes to drive out the many gods.” Boorman’s blending of the Fisher King myth with that of Arthur’s reign allows him to draw parallels with Christ’s myth of death, resurrection and rebirth, stunningly portrayed in the final moments of martial violence involving Mordred in golden armour against a surreal backdrop of blood-red flame. This final battle holds the very future of the earth in the balance, or so Boorman would have us believe. And we do believe. The land and the king are, indeed, one, as Merlin says, but Boorman posits that legend and film may also become one. Steeped in myth, magic and religious symbolism, and drawing upon one of the world’s most enduring legends, Excalibur is an enduring work of cinematic artistry, and certainly one of Boorman’s most ambitious and accomplished works. This film reminds viewers of the cinema’s power to embody the deepest, most universal aspects of the human experience. It reminds us that some of us are born to do great things, whether we like it or not.