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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Clay’

Odd to think that the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films will be twenty years old in less than six months (the same is true of the first Harry Potter adaptation, of course). Or, to put it another way, it’s now very nearly equidistant in time between the present moment and the appearance of another great fantasy film of decades past – I speak of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.

The comparison is a pertinent one as Boorman tried for many years to mount his own adaptation of Lord of the Rings, never quite managing it (given one of his ideas was for the Hobbits to be played by children being dubbed by adults, perhaps it’s just as well). But apparently a lot of the Rings prep work ended up informing Excalibur, and you can perhaps trace a connection between the syncretic Arthurian mythology, built up over a thousand years, and the primal European myths which inspired Tolkien’s legendarium.

Boorman puts his own spin on the Arthurian cycle, as everyone who approaches it ends up doing, focusing the story on the titular blade. The film opens in the Dark Ages (real-world history and geography is more or less elided), with ferocious warlord Uther (Gabriel Byrne) intent on becoming king, assisted – sort of – by the enigmatic, and eccentric, figure of Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson). It is Merlin who procures the sword of power for Uther, and Merlin who is most dismayed when Uther seems intent on simply using it to satiate his own lust for power, and other things.

One of the other things is Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (she is played by another of the numerous Boormans to appear in the film; he is Corin Redgrave). But Uther’s deal with Merlin whereby he can enjoy a night of passion with Igraine (Uther keeps his suit of armour on throughout, surely the hallmark of any sensitive lover) has unexpected consequences: Merlin takes the ensuing child, and while pursuing the magician Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before he can drive Excalibur into a block of stone, from which only the rightful heir can draw it…

This first section of the film unfolds very naturally and satisfyingly; from here on things get a bit choppier, as Boorman has to start picking and choosing which elements of the Arthurian legend to focus on. So we get the sword in the stone, the struggle faced by Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he tries to claim his throne and unite the country, the coming of the invincible Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the founding of Camelot, Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the begetting of Mordred, the Grail Quest, and so on and so on…

Even for a film that’s pushing close to two and a half hours in length, this is a lot to handle, and Boorman omits many of the peripheral elements of the story – the May Babies are omitted, as is the story of Tristram and Isolde, along with that of Balin and the Fisher King, while the importance of Gawain (Liam Neeson) is downplayed, and Galahad is left out entirely (most of his role is given to Perceval, played here by Paul Geoffrey).

Doing the entire Arthurian legend in detail would be an undertaking beyond the scope of any sane movie – you’d be thinking in terms of a series (much as Guy Ritchie recently did), or perhaps a multi-season TV series like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Crown (this is such a patently brilliant and obvious idea I’m surprised no-one’s doing it already). So the flaws in the narrative structure of Excalibur, the jarring shifts in time and space, the odd changes of tone, are to some extent inevitable given the nature of the film.

However, the decision to frame the film almost solely as mythic fantasy is Boorman’s own: there’s relatively little grit or dirt in the world of the film, and not much sign of the common folk, either: on the rare occasions when they do appear, it’s slightly reminiscent of another great Arthurian film of roughly the same period, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You could definitely argue that the Python film has a greater sense of reality about it than Excalibur; Boorman’s film always looks good, but it’s strangely heftless and is often easy to snigger at (Uther isn’t the only character who spends all his time lumbering around in full armour, even at feasts and weddings) – the balance of otherworldly mysticism and quasi-historical grit was handled much better by the Robin of Sherwood TV show (which possibly shows hints of an Excalibur influence on occasion).

Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount the film gets right, or at least does interestingly: the central thesis of the connection between king, land, and sword is a splendid innovation, and the film handles many of the incidental moments of the story extremely well: Merlin’s mentorship of the boy king, Arthur winning the loyalty of the barons who initially refuse to acknowledge his right to the throne, and so. It is, of course, helped enormously by what history has proven to be a really impressive supporting cast – Helen Mirren doesn’t chew the scenery as Morgana, a young Liam Neeson is sweaty and energetic as Gawain, and there’s a cracking turn from Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance. When this film was made, Stewart was still best-known as an RSC stalwart: he gives his declamatory scenes and sequences where he gets to whack people with a battle-axe the full Shakespearean beans, and you come away wishing he was in the movie more.

Perhaps the fact that it’s mostly the supporting players you think this of is another flaw in the film; Terry, Lunghi and Clay are all right as the central trio, but not exactly captivating. As a result, it’s really Williamson who ends up walking away with the film – given Merlin’s disappearance from the story, this might be a fatal flaw, but Boorman contrives things so he makes a vital contribution in the climax.

In many ways the director makes sensible choices about how to bring the King Arthur story to the screen, and occasionally inspired ones (the Wagner- and Orff-heavy soundtrack, for instance). If he ends up eventually making a film which is at best flawed, that’s because the task itself is an impossible one; ‘flawed’ is still a significant achievement given Excalibur‘s sheer ambition. Nevertheless, this is still the yardstick when it comes to movie treatments of the Arthurian legend, even if it is a bit too hectic and breathless to be much more than an introduction to the cycle.

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