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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 10/1/99



Excalibur
1981 (1999) Orion/Warner Bros. (Warner)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Excalibur Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C+/C

Specs and Features


140 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:25:57, at the start of chapter 28), Snapper case packaging, audio commentary with director John Boorman, theatrical trailer, director's bio, film-themed menu screens, scene access (45 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) & French (DD mono), subtitles: English & French, Close Captioned


Ahh... the good old days. When men were men, and whole empires fell for the love (or lust) of a woman. Okay, maybe they weren't so good. I mean, there was the odd chance of getting your head lopped off in battle, and then there's the Black Plague, and I bet those deep bruises from jousting smart like a dickens... Okay, forget what I said. Better that we get to experience the fun of swords and sorcery on film. And few are better than John Boorman's classic, Excalibur.

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. It's a semi-fictional tale, set at a critical moment in history, just before the death of mysticism and magic, and shortly before the dawn of Christianity and modern civilization.

The story starts with the sword, Excaliur, 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. He's been raised by a knight, and 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, and 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, and comes across the lovers asleep in the forest. 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. And when he is unable to recover from his grief, Arthur knows there is but one hope for the future. He sends his knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail, whose elixir is the only thing that can cure Arthur and restore England.

John 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, or shots of castles at night (with goofy-looking lightning flashing all around) - some of this seems right out of an old Universal horror film, or 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, riding through a blizzard of apple blossom petals, is an incredibly stirring film image). The soundtrack is equally good, with pieces of Wagner and Orff, as well as original music by Trevor Jones. And the acting performances have an odd, stilted quality to them, full of bluster and pomp. But that's not to say they're bad - in fact, they're perfect here. Terry is absolutely magnificent as Arthur, 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 Neesen, Patrick Stewart and the aforementioned Gabriel Byrne.

This was clearly a labor of love for Boorman, as he explains in the commentary. It's a film he had 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 I'm not sure what to make of this: one of his daughters plays a character who gets raped onscreen, 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 ever captured on film.

So does Warner's new DVD version of this classic live up to the film itself? Well... no, but it isn't actually bad either - just average. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (Boorman didn't shoot scope to keep the effects budget down), and it's enhanced for anamorphic displays - a BIG plus in my book. The film never did look crisp and clean in theaters, given all that soft focus and the use of filters to impart a magical quality to the film. The film element itself shows medium (and occasionally coarse) film grain, some of which was there to begin with, but some of which is unique to this particular print. Still, as at least some of this is a result of the director and cinematographer's vision, it isn't worth fretting over. There is, however, some edge enhancement to deal with, and a good deal of dust and dirt as well (a simple cleaning would have been a smart idea). I think that a state-of-the-art, high-definition transfer of this film would have done wonders - much of the dust and dirt could have been digitally "cleaned" away, for example. But I'm sure Warner Home Video wasn't about to spend the money to get that done, so we have to make do. The overall contrast and color exhibited here ARE excellent, however, with very good shadow detail seen in dark picture areas. This isn't reference quality by any means, but it's generally very good overall, it does satisfy, and it does look better than previous laserdisc and VHS releases.

The audio doesn't fare quite as well sadly. The sound has been remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1, but very little use is made of the rear channels, with the exception of very occasional ambient fill. The mix is definitely biased to the front hemisphere of the sound stage. Additionally, there are moments throughout the mix, where the audio takes on an oddly muffled quality. Conversely, there are also points where the audio sounds tinny - for example, listen to the sound of the stream in chapter 34, as Percival is carried away by the water. The dialogue presentation is only fair, but it's adequate. And the soundtrack by Trevor Jones suffers somewhat in the mix. All in all, very average audio.

The extras are also disappointing. Aside from the commentary track, there is only a trailer of so-so quality, and what purports to be a page of cast & crew bios. However, when you open the page, only director John Boorman's bio is accessible - what a waste. And while the menus use film-themed artwork, there's no attempt made to use animation or even sound to heighten the presentation. The one bright spot IS the commentary track with Boorman. It starts off slowly, but after he gets going, Boorman really has some interesting things to say about the actors, the production, and the legend itself. You really get the sense that he loves this material, and he's very respectful of it. Just be sure you keep listening through the end credits, because Boorman continues talking well into them. One last note - I'd like to see the studios always opt to use a film's original theatrical one-sheet artwork on a DVD's cover, instead of creating new artwork. Enough said.

This classic film definitely deserved better. This is as obvious a title for DVD special edition treatment as any Warner has in their library. After the disappointing Kubrick Collection, the American President and this... I just have to shake my head. Warner seems very haphazard about their DVD work - some titles seem to get all the production resources needed to produce a great DVD (like The Matrix), while other important titles just get the old heave-ho-out-the-door treatment. The thing that irritates me most - you just know that a crappy film like Wild Wild West is gonna be a special edition. I'm really hoping Iron Giant passes muster, because that could be a great disc. But I'd rather have an Excalibur: SE any day. Still, it's not like this DVD is bad (it isn't)... it's just frustrating. The video, at least, is anamorphic. And it looks and sounds decent, if not nearly as good as it could have. I love this movie, and for the price, I'd definitely recommend this disc. I just really wish Warner would be a little more even-keeled in their DVD work. I'm losing too much hair over some of their discs, and judging by the e-mail I get, so are a LOT of other DVD fans out there. I know Warner does a lot of this to keep DVD prices down. But I'd pay a little more for better quality any day. That is, after all, what DVD is supposed to be all about.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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