This is, for me, the absolute quintessential film of any film dealing with Arthurian legend. Besides the fact it is almost strictly and painstakingly accurate to the source material of Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", the very combination of Boorman's keen atmospheric attention to detail, sprint-paced editing, simplistic special effects, and the dedicated performances of Shakespearean trained thespians makes for an entertaining epic fantasy film. Coming on the heels of Hollywood's "Star Wars" mania, which sent producers in search of any and all science fiction and fantasy property they could get their hands on, the legend of King Arthur was bound for a serious special effects-laden film adaptation. In decades before, we had stuff like "Camelot", "Lancelot and Guinevere", and Disney's animated "The Sword in the Stone" (actually based on a book by T.H. White), but never an adaptation capable of effectively capturing the mysticism, beauty, and magic of the legend. Director John Boorman (Deliverance, Zardoz), set out to do just that.
Owing some inspiration to Roger Christian's now lost short film "Black Angel", Boorman set out to create an updated true-to-form Arthurian film directly based on Malory's epic tale. Shot entirely on location in Boorman's home of Ireland and utilizing the pick of the litter of both English and Irish film communities, "Excalibur" weaves the mythologic tale of Arthur Pendragon. In true fantasy tradition, it opens on the violence of his own father Uther (debut film role for Gabriel Byrne) in battle with a warring faction. In his possession is the legendary sword, Excalibur, but his use of it displeases the wizard Merlin (played by Nicol Williamson), whom it was gifted from. Uther was given the sword to form an alliance with Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. However, Uther soon has designs on Gorlois' wife Ingrayne. He beseeches Merlin to have Ingrayne for his wife, using the Charm of Making spell, which would disguise Uther for a time as Gorlois in appearance. Merlin begrudgingly agrees under the condition that whatever becomes of his lustful affair would belong to him. What becomes of the affair is the boy child Arthur, in which Merlin soon after the birth comes to collect. Uther is angered and follows Merlin into the woods, but is ambushed and stabs the mystical sword of Excalibur into a rock. Merlin then proclaims the only one would will be able to release it will be the one to be king - it is only meant for Arthur.
Years later, when Arthur is but a squire, he comes across the sword himself. This after a tourney between several knights vying to pull the sword from it's enchanted locked state. When his knights sword comes up missing, the boy Arthur easily pulls the sword out to replace his knights. Merlin, then appears to them to tell all who witnessed that the boy is to be the king as he promised. Arthur's first action as leader is to rescue Leondegrance's (Guenevere's father) castle from an invading seige. After leading a successful attack against the invaders, they too join the boy king as he sets the stage for his knights of the round. Arthur takes Guenevere as a wife and celebrates with his knights. First, however, he must get one more respectable gifted knight on his side, Lancelot, who has beaten most all of the knights in his army. In fact, in a one-on-one battle, he is only able to defeat Lancelot with the power of Excalibur, and even going so far as to misuse the weapon causing it to break in two. The lady of the lake restores Arthur the enchanted sword and Lancelot gladly joins his army as Arthur's trusted second in command.
All is well, in the newly founded Camelot, so Merlin sees his fate to step into the shadows and allow the lot of man to fall where it may. However, he espies deception and ruin on the horizon as Morganna Le Fay (played by Helen Mirren), Arthur's half-sister, begins to have designs on Merlin's power with her own selfish ambitions. She soon enacts her own plot to uncover the affair between Lancelot and Guenevere, trap Merlin, and seduce Arthur to give birth to her own child for the throne. Before long, Arthur realizes the only way to restore life to himself and the kingdom is to find the Holy Grail. He sends his knights out in search of the Grail, and some of the knights fall victim to the son of enchantress Morganna, Modred (wearing a "Zardoz" mask?). Perceval too succumbs to the wiles of Morganna's trap, but is the one knight to escape and finally reach the Holy Grail, realizing that Arthur and the land are one. He returns to Arthur with the Grail and life is restored to the land, as Arthur prepares one final battle with his own "sinful" illegitimate son, Modred.
King Arthur has always been an allegory of both King David and of course Jesus Christ and his disciples. Having been written in the time of the Crusades, it very easy to see the influence and of course the very fact that the characters too search for the Holy Grail. Even though this is a mythic Dark Ages, the film's setting comes off the heels of the Crusades and the hope of a future in the Lord. The Christian symbolism is everywhere from the idea that the "king" is the land and the land is the "king", representing spiritual Jerusalem, to the visual cues of Perceval submerged/ baptised in water to find the Grail.
Can you imagine a "Lord of the Rings" film like this? Well, this film had it's origin somewhat in that when the studio at the time (United Artists) wanted Boorman to helm an adaptation of that. Luckily, Boorman stuck to his guns for a 3 hour epic film in the script stages, chronicling Merlin, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. Though the only versions out there are a 140 minute R-rated cut and a 119 minute PG-rated cut, apparently Boorman did shoot 3 hours of footage but the rest are deleted scenes properly awaiting arrival of a possible Blu-ray director's cut or something. The sets, however, were designed to with "Lord of the Rings" as inspiration.
Though I feel Boorman should have consulted the guys at ILM or other special effects wizards at the time to accentuate the mysticism in the film, he did a good credible job. He took certain liberties that the passerby Arthurian fan would not notice anyway, yet for the world of the film they are accepted only in the fact that the story is told so concisely well. Nigel Terry should be commended for playing both the adolescent and adult Arthur with success and believability in both stages. A rare feat that I have ever seen in cinema. Nicol Williamson's Merlin is interesting to watch as he goes a little too schizo in scenes. I'm sure he was trying to stay away from being too "Obi-Wan Kenobi", but his character could have used more grounding. The costuming is perfect, and the production design is excellent throughout. "Excalibur" also features the epic sweeping score of composer Trevor Jones and spotlight's Wagner's original classical pieces as well. If you have to see one Arthurian film, start here as anything else is pretty much bland compared to this one.