The land was grand when Arthur reigned,
The fields no longer scarlet-stained,
The crown no longer coveted
By lesser men who ruled the dead,
And all who saw their shining king
Would prize the sight till their deathbed.
The sword he wore pronounced him king,
Announcing it with every swing,
And even though it left his keep,
It waited till he woke from sleep.
Though Arthur’s glory now has waned,
His reputation yet runs deep.
MPAA rating: PG or R, depending on the version
For the last of my VC’s birthday picks, she chose a film very different from the others (all romances: The Lake House, The Goodbye Girl, and A Star Is Born), instead delving into the Arthurian legend brought to life in Excalibur. As is often the case, I didn’t care for this film at first but appreciated it far more upon a second viewing.
The story of King Arthur has been presented in countless different ways, from Disney’s kid-friendly The Sword in the Stone to Guy Ritchie’s action-packed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, to be released later this year. Yet with all the partial retellings of this classic British myth, shouldn’t there always be one definitive version that others copy or draw from? Excalibur tries to be just that, and while it takes license with historical details (plate armor wasn’t used in the Dark Ages), it still comes off as the most faithful to the traditional source material, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and various other accounts. There’s obviously far too much for any two-hour movie to cover comprehensively, but all the most familiar elements are here: young Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulling the sword from the stone, his gathering of the Knights of the Round Table (which looks suspiciously like a giant DVD), his betrayal by Lancelot and Guenevere, and his family issues with his half-sister and their son Mordred (Robert Addie). Terry is an especially convincing Arthur, playing him both as a scrawny squire and an aging monarch, and Nicol Williamson’s Merlin brings some much-needed wit to the proceedings.
It may seem strange, but the film that Excalibur kept reminding me of was David Lynch’s Dune (another VC pick), mainly due to the serious quality of the acting and palpable adherence to source material. Plus, both served as prime outlets for many actors before they were famous: Patrick Stewart is in both films, but Excalibur also features a young Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, Gabriel Byrne as Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon, and Ciarán Hinds as King Lot. In addition to the cavalcade of stars to be, Excalibur also boasts some exceptional cinematic moments, particularly when it employs the classical opera of Wagner and Orff; anytime I hear Orff’s “O Fortuna,” it brings me back to the gloried sight of Arthur and his knights riding out to battle.
For all its strengths, however, there’s a reason Excalibur didn’t appeal to me on my first watch. For one, the characters have all the depth of a children’s book of myths, and the actors play them with such Shakespearean solemnity that no one but Merlin actually has a personality. Another comparison to Dune might be warranted too, when the search for the Holy Grail verges into a Lynchian dream sequence, which manages to both be meaningful to the plot and make no sense. Not to mention, the latter half of the Arthur story is quite the downer, as Arthur degrades into a ruler not unlike King Théoden when we first meet him in The Two Towers. In addition, the R-rated cut doesn’t shy away from certain scenes of nudity and battlefield violence; the worst love/rape scene toward the beginning is made worse by the fact that the woman involved was the director’s own daughter.
Excalibur may be an inconsistent iteration of the tales of Merlin, King Arthur, and his knights, but for the most part, the lavish production design, shiny costumes, noble music, and mostly solid acting come together in grand fashion. It brings to life the glory of medieval myth and the destructive danger of men following lust and greed, and though it has its flaws, it’s the most definitive version of King Arthur I’ve seen so far.
Best line: (Merlin, upon Arthur’s final conquest as king) “Remember it well, then… this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, ‘I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!’ For it is the doom of men that they forget.”
VC’s best line: (Arthur) “Which is the greatest quality of knighthood? Courage? Compassion? Loyalty? Humility? What do you say, Merlin?”
(Merlin) “Hmm? Ah. Ah. Ah, the greatest. Uh, well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword.”
(Arthur) “No poetry. Just a straight answer. Which is it?”
(Merlin) “All right, then. Truth. That’s it. Yes. It must be truth above all. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. You should know that.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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