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Excalibur (1981)

Director: John Boorman Cinematographer: Alex Thomson
 Excalibur (1981) on IMDb

John Boorman’s 1981 Arthurian epic should at the very least be applauded for it’s sheer audacity and stunning cinematography. It was unappreciated by most film critics at its time of release, but is now considered by many to be at least a flawed masterpiece. Originally, in 1969, Boorman and writer, Rospo Pallenberg were trying to make a film about Merlin but this proved too expensive and they were given The Lord of the Rings instead. They worked on a script for a year but were eventually turned down by the studio. So instead they turned to an adaptation of Malory with many of their ideas for LOTRs finding their way into Excalibur.

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Original Movie Soundtrack
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Poster – 120 x 160 cm – Nicol Williamson
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Nicol Williamson Merlin
Nigel Terry Arthur
Paul Geoffrey Perceval
Patrick Stewart Leondegrance
Gabriel Byrne Uther
Liam Neesom Gawain
Nicholas Clay Lancelot
Cherie Lunghi Guinevere
Helen Mirren Morgana
Robert Addie Mordred 
Keith Buckley Uryens
Katrine Boorman Igrayne
Corin Redgrave Cornwall
Clive Swift Ector
Niall O’Brien Kay
Ciaran Hinds  Lot

The storyline of the film follows ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ by Thomas Malory, although due to time restraints some parts were missed out while some of the characters were merged together. We are shown the legend of Arthur from his conception to his eventual death at Camlann and in many respects Boorman succeeds in what he was setting out to do. He managed to complete a visually beguiling sword and sorcery Arthurian film including an allegory of the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration edited down into two and a half hours, which is a feet in itself.

When first released the film was criticised for the way it used the epic music of Richard Wagner and Carl Orff, which some felt failed to emote in the film’s most important scenes. Yet there are tantalising moments of brilliance where music and image come together to create some of the most lyrically mesmerising sequences in cinema.  The scenes in which Perceval witnesses the death of Gawain (Liam Neeson) and later when he survives drowning to find the Grail (shown in the video above), to the music of Wagner – Parsifal (Prelude), are perhaps the most visually stunning.

  • Alan Campbell’s 2009 Article on Director John Boorman
  • ‘Behind The Sword In The Stone’ is a 2013 documentary on the making of Excalibur by Alec Moore and Mark Wright. It looks at how the film was a starting point for the careers of a number of now famous actors. You can also visit the IMDB page

There was also contemporary criticism of the acting, dialogue and characters in Excalibur. It is an overly theatrical film but when you consider the Malory source material, this was probably a deliberate ploy by Boorman. One of the intriguing elements of the film for the modern audience are the early performances by future acting talents like Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds. Praise should go to Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as Merlin and Morgana, who Boorman pushed together because of their mutual dislike for each other, as they provide far more tension and chemistry than the central love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.

Ultimately the maverick Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank, Hope and Glory) has delivered a film rich in hypnotic imagery and true to the traditions of Arthurian romance. sjb

Directed by John Boorman
Produced by John Boorman
Screenplay by John Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Alex Thomson
Edited by John Merritt
Running time 140 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

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