DVD, Blu-Ray Review
Directed by John Boorman, Written by John Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg, and Thomas Malory (book), 140 minutes, Rated PG.
By our guest blogger, Matthew Schimkowitz
A King Arthur tale without romantics isn’t much of an Arthur tale, but perhaps John Boorman’s retelling of the legend in “Excalibur,” now out on Blu-ray disc, goes too far. The enthused and decidedly hyperbolic actors ham it up; the smoky sets and purple- and green-lighting design date the production; and Boorman’s epic structure covers so much ground and time, it never fully engages the viewer. It has all the makings of an epic adventure -- it’s just not a very exciting one.
“Excalibur” features a remarkable amount the Arthur legend in its two-and-a-half hours. Beginning with the sheathing of the mighty sword into stone by the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson), who prophesizes the coming of the king, the film follows that prediction’s coming to pass.
After claiming the sword, King Arthur (Nigel Terry) follows Merlin through several trials of virtue before forming his own court. There, he enlists the knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the Squire Percival (Paul Geoffrey), and his queen Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) to take seat at the Round Table of Camelot. Arthur muses of the prosperity of Camelot, but wicked deeds are afoot. Morgana (Helen Mirren), Arthur’s sorceress sister, lusts after Merlin and the crown, plotting to claim both by to outsmarting Merlin, and birthing a son to dethrone and kill the king.
Boorman and his screenwriting partner Rospo Pallenberg give themselves to the legend, recounting Camelot’s greatest trials with haste and diligence. Each scene contains one story, delivering one aspect of the myth, before moving on to something entirely different while adding to the bigger picture. “Excalibur”’s episodic structure allot Boorman the time to cover most of the story, from the sword and the stone, to the formation of Camelot, and finally, the search for the Holy Grail.
Unfortunately, this structuring is a double-edged sword--Boorman breezes through the legends but he doesn't engage with his audience. The director strives to make “Excalibur” the most romantic epic possible, demanding exaggerated performances from his cast. But the facial gymnastics don’t bring the audience any closer to the Roundtable -- they alienate them. The story’s epic and the character’s are mythic, but the film’s production design and acting may be spoiled on a generation raised on Medieval Times commercials.
The lack of engagement and spotty scripting make “Excalibur” a slow-moving and messy endeavor. Boorman’s ambition stands in his way as he teaches us what Arthur does, but never who the man actually is. The idea and story are there--they just don’t lead to anything particularly entertaining.