Excalibur

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Feb 21, 2011
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

John Boorman

Release Date(s)

1981 (March 8, 2011)

Studio(s)

Orion/Warner Bros. (Warner)

Review

John Boorman’s classic Excalibur is a fairly faithful retelling of the Arthurian legend, based on its most popular and well known form, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.  Malory’s classic was one of the first books ever published after the Bible (in 1485), based on stories that had been handed down orally for generations.

The film starts with the sword Excalibur falling into the hands of a would-be king, Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne).  The wizard Merlin (played by Nicol Williamson) helped him to get it, and its power should unite the warlords of the Kingdom under one flag.  There’s just one problem: Right after Uther strikes a deal with his enemy that makes him king, he falls in lust with the man’s wife.  The truce, of course, crumbles to pieces, and Uther demands Merlin cast a spell, allowing him to have the woman for one night.  The act is Uther’s downfall. Merlin takes possession of the child that results, and the kingdom falls into disarray, with the warlords again vying for control.  As his last act, Uther plunges Excalibur into a stone, to keep it from falling into the wrongs hands.  Only the true, rightful king will be able to remove it, and thus claim the throne of England.

Years pass, and Uther’s son Arthur (played by Nigel Terry) has grown into a young man, having been raised by a knight.  When he and his father and brother attend a jousting tournament (where warlords compete for the right to try for Excalibur), Arthur accidentally pulls the sword himself.  An amazed crowd can’t believe that a boy has succeeded where powerful men have failed, and no one is more surprised than Arthur.  But Merlin appears and confirms that Arthur is the rightful king.  After a short dispute, the kingdom unites around him.  Arthur creates the round table, and the glorious days of Camelot ensue.  But that pesky love thing – something which Merlin doesn’t grasp – is going to be trouble for Arthur as well.  He takes as his Queen the lady Guenevere, but soon after the wedding, she falls for Arthur’s best friend (and greatest knight) Lancelot.  Lancelot prides his virtue, but he’s only human and can’t resist his own love for the Queen.  Arthur finds out about their affair, but he loves them both too much to kill them, so he plunges Excalibur into the ground between them, bereft.  Arthur falls into a deep despair, Lancelot and Guenevere go their separate ways in shame, and the kingdom decays.  When Arthur is unable to recover from his grief, he knows there is but one hope for the future.  So he sends his knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail, whose elixir is the only thing that can cure him and restore England.

Boorman’s version of the fabled legend is a visually lavish and stylish production, mounted on little more than a shoestring budget by today’s standards.  But it’s a little quirky as well.  The campy title font, the filtered soft focus, the pools of colored light in some scenes, the shots of castles at night with lightning flashing all around – some of this seems would be right at home in an episode of the original Star Trek.  Still, it all just works, and the film remains an absolute feast for the eyes.  The shot of Arthur and his knights, clad in shining armor and riding through a blizzard of apple blossom petals, remains an iconic and incredibly stirring film image.  Excalibur’s soundtrack is equally good, with pieces of Wagner and Orff, as well as original music by Trevor Jones.  The cast performances have an odd, stilted quality to them, full of bluster and pomp.  That’s not to say they’re bad – in fact, they’re perfect here.  Terry is absolutely magnificent as Arthur, deftly portraying his life from a bumbling teen to a war-weary old man.  Nicol Williamson couldn’t have been more perfect as Merlin.  And the film boasts a terrific supporting cast, including Helen Mirren (as Morgana), and some of the earliest film appearances by Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and the aforementioned Gabriel Byrne.

Excalibur was clearly a labor of love for Boorman, as he explains in the commentary.  It’s a film he’d been talking about making for years before he finally attempted it.  A student of the legends’ many forms, he collaborated closely with Rospo Pallenberg on the screenplay.  Much of the film was shot within a few miles of his home in Ireland.  And several of his children appear in the film, although it’s hard to know what to make of this: One of his daughters plays a character who gets raped onscreen, while another is made to lie underwater (posing as the Lady of the Lake), and his son plays the young Mordred, who dies later in the film.  Still, for all of its quirks, one must ultimately acknowledge Excalibur for what it is – the preeminent telling of the legend of King Arthur captured on film to date.

Warner’s long-awaited new Blu-ray release delivers a solid upgrade of the previous DVD edition, probably using the same source master as the HD-DVD version from a few years ago.  The 1080p high-definition image is of generally good quality, offering plenty of refined detail and texture.  Colors are true to the original presentation, and contrast is decent too.  The image is softer than most – a result of the filmmaker’s intent and also the film’s age, the era in which it was made and the choice of film stock and optical process.  In the end, though, this is a solid high-definition presentation that serves the film fairly well.  Audio is available in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format, in a big, wide mix that’s mostly front-biased but remains true to the theatrical presentation.  Dialogue is generally clear, with good bass and dynamic range.  Jones’ terrific score benefits most from the lossless upgrade.

In terms of bonus content, you get everything that was on the previous DVD and HD-DVD versions, including the film’s theatrical trailer and audio commentary by Boorman.  Yes... it’s not much, and I think I speak for all fans of the film in wishing Warner would deliver a true Excalibur special edition one day.  Still, the new Blu-ray offers a good picture and sound upgrade over standard-definition.  Best of all, its retail price is a very affordable $19.99, which means you can get it for as low as $13 on sale.  Pretty tough to complain.  As such, the disc is recommended, especially for fans of the film.

- Bill Hunt

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