by Burl Burlingame
April 14, 1981
By all accounts. Sir Thomas was something of a scalawag. After a lifetime of fighting in third-rate Crusades and numerous border skirmishes — often changing sides — he was busted for armed robbery. stealing cattle, taking liberties with the wife of one Henry Smyth, and, worst of all, “insulting an abbot.”
In 1468. King Edward IV tossed Thomas Malory into Newgate prison. It was the eighth and last place the knight would do time; he died there three years later.
In the meantime, Malory’s pal William Caxton had set up his own printing press and was making a recycling the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. To while away his time in prison. Malory wrote “Le Morte d’Arthur” for Caxton. It was first printed record of the legendary tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.
Malory put together all the old stories that he knew, all the tales that had been handed down through the ages as part of European oral tradition. He was the first hack writer. and the first one to get ripped off by his publisher.
“Le Morte d’Arthur” was, for those days, a best-seller, but it didn’t do Malory any good. After the errant knight died in prison. Caxton tried to take credit for the whole thing
Other writers have mined the King Arthur motherlode ever since. Lord Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” T.H. White’s “The Once and future King” and, more recently, Mary Stewart’s “Last Enchantment” trilogy all have had their inspiration from the original Malory work.
Malory got his inspiration from barely remembered exploits of barbarian kings who used England. Ireland and France as stomping grounds after the Romans pulled out and before Charlemagne set up house. It was a period called the Dark Ages.
Chief among the real “Arthurs” was a cavalry general named Arturius who commanded the remnants of the British legions after Romans departed. Arturius was Christian warrior with Roman pretensions; he routed pagan Saxon and Pict invaders and set up London as his capitol.
Arturius died in 538 and his knights secretly buried him at Glastonbury, which became a Christian shine. During the 13th century. Glastonbury monks discovered the gravesite and the spot is now popularly known as King Arthur’s last resting place.
Another inspiration for the Arthurian legends was an ancient British hero called Bran the Blessed, possibly because he bore the Welsh title Arddu (pronounced Art-too), meaning “The Dark One.” (And another deep Star Wars R2-D2 reference.)
So why go into all of this in a movie review?
Because the so called Legends of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table are the foundations of Western story-telling. and as such have colored the arts ever since. Everything from the literature listed above to opera (Wagner’s “Tristan und Isold” and “Parsifal”), to stage musicals (Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot”), to comic strips (Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant”), to pop music (Rick Wakeman’s “Myths and Legends of King Arthur” and movies (Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot of the Lake,” Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” and certainly “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”).
Jung said the great myths of the world represent powerful, early moments in human history that have been sealed into the unconscious. In this way. myth is a hidden truth to be revealed dramatically or poetically—and that’s what basic storytelling is all about.
John Boorman’s “Excalibur” goes back to the basics in his version of the Arthur legends, his main source is Malory’s best-seller of the 1400s. The film divides up rather neatly into four parts, comprising the main sections of “Le Morte d’Arthur.” The first covers Arthur’s magical birth and Merlin’s involvement with Uther Pendragon, who comes across as a rather nasty sort of fellow. The second deals with the sword in the stone, the creation of the Round Table and Arthur’s courtship of Guenevere (as the film spells it). The third part introduces Lancelot and his and Guenevere’s fall from grace.
The fourth and last part of the film deals with Arthur’s kingdom torn asunder by wars, the quest for the Holy Grail to patch things up and Arthur’s death and apotheosis.
It’s a lot of ground to cover.
Any one of the four parts would have made a good dramatic piece, and “Excalibur” is quite amazing in the way it manages to keep all its elements coherent. Boorman uses metamorphosis the way other directors use a simple jump cut: One frame it’s winter, the next it’s spring. Clean-shaven boys suddenly sprout beards, a kiss on a baby’s head dissolves into an adult embrace.
Boorman also uses metamorphosis to indicate the passing of real-time action into history, and thence into legend. Arthur the King makes a judgment between two men. and later in the film the same action is repeated in a puppet show, the medieval world’s version of “60 Minutes.”
Boorman is more interested in themes, anyway, than in specific action, and “Excalibur” bursts at the seams with themes. One to the notion of the passing of the old gods, the deities of pagan Britain (represented by Merlin) and the coming of the Age of Man, of rationality, of laws — of man controlling his universe.
The price Man pays for this is a loss of harmony with nature, including magical forces. Nature is represented in the film as cool and inviting as soft filters and green lights can make it, while the man-made retreats are reddish, harsh and — you get the drift — hellish-looking.
The only way for Man to regain harmony is through some form of transcendence, which the quest for the Grail represents. It’s a quest for a spiritual solution.
This attitude permeates Boorman’s work. In “Deliverance,” “Zardoz,” “Hell in the Pacific” and even “The Exorcist: The Heretic,” the characters face forces with which they have lost touch, primal violence and lust that demand expression, despite the dampening influences of civilization.
Boorman is quite serious about all this, and therefore “Excalibur” doesn’t snigger at itself the way a campy Hollywood feature might be expected to.
It is a story told primarily in visual terms. It opens with snorting, smoking horses carrying knights encased in dull, brutish armor, confused armies crashing into each other in smoke-filled woods, hacking and butchering with clanging broadswords and bloody axes. The titles state this is the dark ages, and it is lower-cased so the point is not lost: It is not the Dark Ages of history, it is a dark age of the soul.
When the sword Excalibur is introduced, leaping like a gleaming salmon from the hand of the Lady of the Lake, the violent forces of nature and man’s conscious desires for civilization are given graceful form.
Excalibur is the symbol of Arthur and all he represents. but it seems at times Arthur is the tool of Excalibur rather than the other way around. This is carried out in simple, but quite effective, visual terms: All that is affected by Excalibur’s aura are given a subtle sheen or halo. Armor gets shinier, walls get cleaner, faces seem more scrubbed. By the time Camelot is established, the knights are positively radiant in their armor, gleaming like great. chrome-plated lobsters.
The armor acts as an extension of the bearer’s personality, another visual dramatic device. The metal skins are only doffed in cases of extreme emergency, like to escape drowning or for sex (and only occasionally in the latter case). The armorless knights seem naked even when fully clothed. And next to the bulky, gleaming armor, the women are made to appear vulnerable in their flimsy silks and scarfs.
For example. Arthur is first introduced as a loutish youth in a quilted jerkin. Given Excalibur. he suddenly has a regal bearing. It is as if the sword has become his backbone. Thrust into the midst of a particularly vicious battle. Arthur — still wearing no armor — manages to turn the tide with Excalibur. The sword, it appears, is all he needs to vanquish his foes, both by brute power and by out-psyching.
It is also the first time Guenevere is introduced: entranced by Arthur, she moves through the battle unscathed, though she is dressed only in some sort of gypsy-minstrel outfit. The power of Excalibur protects them both.
Nigel Terry is an intense Arthur, but manages to leaven the role with humor and a shot of pathos. His transformation from a young bumpkin to an aged king is astounding, easily as good as Robert DeNiro’s aging boxer. Cherie Lunghi is a coquettish Guenevere. perhaps too much like a maid-in-waiting than a queen. Nicholas Gay’s Lancelot is a quarterback forever getting pummelled in the Big Game.
The most brilliant performance is by Paul Geoffrey as Perceval, the saintly knight whose quest for the Holy Grail echoes Arthur’s dreams of peace. Helen Mirran (last seen playing the saxophone in “The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu”) is a ripe Morgana, an understudy in sorcery.
Nicol Williamson plays Merlin with a silver skullcap that seems to brim with emotion and ideas, but like the skullcap, he only reflects what goes on around him. Merlin is the last of the old, magical ways; he is lost and bumbling in the world of humans. Williamson conveys this by accentuating each word as if it comes from a different source; a bundle of contradictions.
Boorman’s only major error is in his choice of music. He uses snatches of Wagner for most of it — “Tristan” and “Parsifal” — which fall flat in the theater. Wagner’s corny pretentiousness actually works against some scenes, making them unintentionally funny. Perhaps Boorman should have used Rick Wakeman, whose records have always been accused of sounding too much like movie soundtracks.
“Excalibur” is the first of a whole cycle of sword and myth epics about to descend on us from Hollywood, with titles like “Dragonslayer,” “Knightriders,” “Clash of the Titans” and “Conan the Barbarian.” Perhaps it’s about time. There has always been a sort of cultural myopia in the West concerning our common mythic heritage (“A movie about King Arthur? C’mon, what is it, some kinda cartoon or what?”), while other countries’ filmmakers, in particular Japan, India and Russia, have been mining this rich vein for some time. There is no real difference between “Kagemusha” and “Excalibur” except for our inability to savor our heritage as much as the Japanese appreciate theirs.
We can only hope the other films measure up to the vision of “Excalibur.”