Excalibur (1981)
January 23, 2018 6:14 PM - Subscribe

The movie of the legend of Merlin, Arthur, and a whole lot of blokes in chromed armor. Accept no substitutes.

"He must be king."
"He doesn't got shit all over him."
sorry, wrong movie

The cast includes the then-relatively unknown Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Ciarin Hinds, and Patrick Stewart.

Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson holds the entire contraption together with his wry depiction of Merlin.

Directed by John "Zardoz" Boorman, who employed enough of his family that this movie was dubbed "The Boorman Family Project." Getting "Excalibur" made was a decadeslong pursuit for Boorman, who after shopping around his Arthur script was given a chance to direct a film version of "Lord of the Rings," which was eventually scrapped for budget reasons.

Critical reception was mixed, with Roger Ebert calling it "a mess" and "maddeningly arbitrary." Pauline Kael said it was "all images flashing by." Vincent Canby said it was "humorless, which is not the same thing as being serious."

Previously on the blue, Alex Cox introducing "Excalibur" as a cult movie.
posted by computech_apolloniajames (37 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I adore this movie. I somehow saw it in the theater when I was, checks date, 9 years old. Thank you, dad! It’s bonkers in all the right ways.
posted by Eddie Mars at 7:29 PM on January 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha.
posted by valkane at 8:20 PM on January 23, 2018 [9 favorites]

My memory of this film (which I saw when it first came out) is that at first it's a mishmash of different takes on the Arthurian legend, but picks up momentum and direction when Perceval shows up.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:52 PM on January 23, 2018

Much like Zardoz, if Excalibur has a problem it is this: if you watch it, and you LIKE it, you have created an itch within yourself that will never again be scratched.

"Oh, I kind of liked that. What else can I watch that's like it?"

Nothing. For better or worse, the answer is nothing.

Beastmaster? Ladyhawke? Krull? Willow? There's a whole library of 80s fantasy. Some arguably better, but just not the same, in the end.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 9:21 PM on January 23, 2018 [17 favorites]

Deathstalker? Sword and the Sorcerer, with the sword that had swords on it and it could shoot its swords at you?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:37 PM on January 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think the trick is that none of the other ones manage to combine sword-fu, a modicum of gore, and acres of skin with the throbbing, overwrought portentousness of an early-70s progrock album.

Most of the other ones (ie Deathstalker, or Sword and the Sorcerer which had the sword with swords on it and when you sworded the sword it could shoot swords at the bad guy) just delivered Joe Bob Briggs's three B's in heapin' quantities in a direct and enthusiastic manner.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:41 PM on January 23, 2018

I think the point isn't that it's a Sword and Sorcery movie, but that it's a John Boorman movie, and what it resembles most are other John Boorman movies (and only some of them at that - not really Hell in the Pacific, or The Tailor of Panama or Hope and Glory, though I hope there's an imaginative film critic somewhere trying to make a coherent oevre of Boorman's career). I'd even go so far as to posit a genre of movie - the Ludicrous British 70s Movie - which would put Excalibur and Zardoz alongside Lisztomania, Tommy, The Devils (Russell is the king of the LB70sM), The Wicker Man, possibly The Final Programme and The Abominable Dr Phibes, with side mentions out to Clockwork Orange, Nic Roeg, Dennis Potter, Ken Campbell and The Rocky Horror [Picture] Show. It was an extraordinarily creative time if you like totally bonkers - no idea too bonkers - something that seems to have been totally subsumed by images of the three-day week and bin-men strikes and grainy super-8 footage of the Sex Pistols.

It's my favourite genre, possibly because I associate it with furtive early-teenage opportunities to see representations of violence and ladies' breasts.
posted by Grangousier at 2:23 AM on January 24, 2018 [24 favorites]

Look into the eye of the dragon and despair.

I read that Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren despised each other and refused to work together, so naturally Boorman cast them together.

I offer Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm as a "you might also like..."
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 5:41 AM on January 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

Much like Zardoz, if Excalibur has a problem it is this: if you watch it, and you LIKE it, you have created an itch within yourself that will never again be scratched.

I think Ridley Scott's Legend sort of does. Or maybe Excalibur scratches a Legend itch.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 6:44 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Arthur's resurgence at the end, after he drinks from the Holy Grail, and is riding off with his knights through the orchard with petals flying through the air,and O' Fortuna blasting, is one of my all time favorite cinematic moments. I also lovingly recall Lancelot's freak out when he wakes up next to Guinevere to find Excalibur plunged into the earth beside them. So many fun moments in the film that border from over the top to ecstatic.
posted by Atreides at 6:54 AM on January 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I love this movie. I was 14; the older kid that DMed our D&D group took a bunch of us to the movie theater on the local Air Force base to see it.

So many brilliant cinematic moments. When Uther attacks Cornwall to get to Igrayne, there's a shot that starts tiny, in the middle of the screen, of men using a battering ram and, as they swing it, the image swings forward to fill the screen and I LOVE LOVE LOVE that kinetic motion.

Nicol Williamson's voice modulation was incredible. I may have practiced and practiced sounding like him for a long time.

Lest we forget, a decade later we Americans got to see Nigel "King Arthur" Terry and Cherie "Guinevere" Lunghi together again in the ABC-broadcast fantasy/comedy "Covington Cross", also starring Ione Skye.
posted by hanov3r at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I read that Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren despised each other and refused to work together, so naturally Boorman cast them together.

Yes, Boorman says so in the director's commentary track of the old DVD I have. I think he describes it as Mirren in particular only agreed to the part if Williamson wasn't in it, so Boorman lied about it. Anyway, whatever the issue was between them, it seems likely the problem was on Williamson's side, since he was famously problematic, culminating in an incident on Broadway where his co-star in a play quit the show in the middle of a performance.

Other bit from Boorman's commentary: at least as of the time he recorded his comments, he still owned the metal breastplate Mirren wears at one point. I think he says he's willed it to her when he dies.
posted by dnash at 8:43 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

A thoughtful review from 1000 Misspent Hours:
Excalibur is a real oddity, a movie that fails miserably by most of the normal standards of cinematic storytelling, yet succeeds, sometimes brilliantly, at what it specifically sets out to do. What’s more, its successes on the one scale are often the direct result of its failures on the other. It all comes back to what I called the mythographic sensibility. Myths (and their goody-two-shoes little brothers, fables) differ from other kinds of stories in that the surface-level narrative is rarely if ever the point. The myth of Apollo’s fight with Python, for example, is only trivially about a god killing a dragon. Its true purpose is to explain why Delphi is a holy place, and why you should listen to the benzene-huffing crazy lady in the basement of the temple there. It may also encode a symbolic account of the Doric Invasion, in which the forebears of the Classical Greeks overran, displaced, and ultimately assimilated the serpent-venerating Mycenaeans. Similarly, Excalibur presents the story of Camelot as if it were only trivially about a man chosen by mystical forces to unite Britain, only to lose his kingdom to internal discord sown by a vengeful witch. For Boorman and Pallenberg, the Arthurian legends are about how a knight must be more than just a warrior, a king more than just a dictator, and they encode symbolically the passing away of Celtic paganism before the rising tide of Christianization. [...] As in a genuine myth, this stuff is sitting out on the surface, tangled up with all the simple “who does what, when, where, and why,” instead of skulking in the shadows to be teased out by attentive viewers and/or their English teachers. Movies don’t normally work like that, and in order to make this one do so, it was necessary for the filmmakers to disregard some very basic expectations about how movies do normally work...
posted by Iridic at 8:59 AM on January 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

"A dream to some. A nightmare to others!" :D

I had the joy of introducing this to some friends of mine recently, age really hasn't dulled just how bonkers it is.

In would also like to nominate Sir Patrick Stewart playing Leondegrance as MVP partly due to his depiction of jousting as knights hitting each other with sticks and then eventually just punching each other while on horseback.
posted by invisible_al at 9:40 AM on January 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

"Oh, I kind of liked that. What else can I watch that's like it?"

According to some fan theories, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
posted by radwolf76 at 10:11 AM on January 24, 2018

I remember renting this during the summer when I was nine or so. I just wanted to see a fantasy movie, you know, about King Arthur. It started off with the sex-have pretty much right away and my mom was in the room and I wanted to die. Especially because my mom wasn’t scandalized because she was super mature and advanced and oh man it’s a good thing you can’t melt from embarrassment.

More about that LOTR movie Boorman never made but sublimated into this one. It would have featured a kenning battle between the wizards and Galadriel/Frodo sex.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:24 AM on January 24, 2018

Sex whilst still wearing your plate armor is... *probably* not quite as fun as it looked in the movie.
posted by hanov3r at 10:27 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

My greatest joy with this bonkers film was catching it on cable for a rewatch some decades after first seeing it and realizing that Patrick Stewart was in it. And Liam Neeson. And Helen Mirren. And on...

“The king without his sword! The land without a king!”
posted by nubs at 11:26 AM on January 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

And the absolutely most bonkers scene of all for me, that I somehow almost forgot - Arthur, after having drawn the sword, goes quickly to battle to get the reluctant to join him. Holding his sword at a man's throat he demands his allegiance only to have the guy refuse because a knight can't swear fealty to a squire...whereupon Arthur hands him Excalibur, kneels in front of him, and asks to be knighted. The bravery (foolishness?) of this so overawes the knight that he does as asked and then swears fealty to Arthur as king.
posted by nubs at 11:40 AM on January 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

"Oh, I kind of liked that. What else can I watch that's like it?"

According to some fan theories, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Doubtful. I still haven't seen Beeves, and probably won't unless I end up at home on prescription painkillers and am seriously bored, but all that the Cracked guy is saying is that Zach Snyder stole from a better artist's work, which, hello--it's Snyder, who got much of Beeves from the end of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and whose films of 300 and Watchmen were practically motion comics of the original graphic novels.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:04 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Love to put a green light on shiny things.
posted by fleacircus at 12:57 PM on January 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Such a weird movie. In the nineties it was on French CBC a lot, uncut. Young me probably saw it three times but never in one sitting, just furtive snatches of viewing, because, y'know, sex & boobs. I bought the DVD at a thrift store not too long ago, and if I were a younger man, I would rip it and reedit it. Weirdass movie.

Doesn't help that at times Nigel Terry sounds a lot like Ardal O'Hanlon.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:26 PM on January 24, 2018

I saw it in 1981 as a teenager and immediately loved it. It was part of these movies made from the mid-70s to the mid-80s that redefined visionary filmmaking, such as those made by Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, Francis Coppola, David Lynch, Peter Greenaway or the last Kurosawa epics (Ran and Kagemusha). It was magnificent and crazy, an true epic fantasy that didn't look cheap, and the first movie to use Carmina burana on its soundtrack. When I saw it again a couple of decades later, I was a little bit... disappointed. Too much soft focus that made it look like a David Hamilton photo shoot (with bearded guys in shiny armour instead of half-naked teenage girls), too artificial looking ("green light on shiny things" indeed), and even though it's full of experienced actors, none were particularly remarkable. In some ways it's not unlike Star Wars Ep. IV: flawed in many aspects, but incredibly bold and pioneering for its time.
posted by elgilito at 2:29 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I used to have a box set of umpteen LPs of Nicol Williamson reading The Hobbit. Probably my favourite The Hobbit, and it would be perfect if it was unabridged.
posted by Grangousier at 2:42 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Grangousier, was it this?
posted by hanov3r at 2:47 PM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It was. I thought it took days to listen to, but then I suppose my metabolism was a lot faster in those days, and three and a half hours was a long time to pay attention to anything.
posted by Grangousier at 3:31 PM on January 24, 2018

I recently rewatched this movie and my main takeaway was that John Boorman was just distressingly enthusiastic about filming his daughter naked.

A nightmare to others, indeed.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2018

I know we watched this in my 9th grade Western Civilization class, although it may have been an edited version (as to why we watched it ... well, it was sort of related to what we were studying and it was probably before winter break and our teacher was a weird stoner and I think he just liked it).

I only have the vaguest memories of it, other than thinking "well, this is kind of ... OK." I may or may not like it more now.
posted by darksong at 4:22 PM on January 24, 2018

Sex whilst still wearing your plate armor is... *probably* not quite as fun as it looked in the movie.

So, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren were recently both guests on the Graham Norton show together; and as a result, their prior relationship, which dates back to them both appearing in Excalibur together, came up. They mentioned their own love-scene-in-armor from the film (they claim it was cut, though?) after Jamie Dornan tells a story of trying on modesty pouches for Fifty Shades of Gray.

Liam Neeson also has an adorable story about first meeting Helen Mirren on set and how bowled over he was by her from the very beginning.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:35 PM on January 24, 2018 [10 favorites]

I love this movie and all its staginess, and its heavy score, and veering close to corniness over and over.

One of my favorite moments is when young Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone and gives it to his brother, then the people arrive on the scene and ask the brother if he pulled the sword out. He says, "Yes......... No." The true hero of the movie! Barely half joking because over and over again the movie shows people struggling to do the right thing eventually.
posted by fleacircus at 6:15 PM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I love this film. What I really love about it is that Boorman didn't give the slightest crap about attempting to make any of it historically accurate, whatever that might mean for a story about wizards and magic swords.
posted by octothorpe at 7:29 PM on January 24, 2018

Oh god. The Apotheosis remix of O Fortuna, intercut with the battle scenes from this movie formed a very important part of my life. I can't hear it without remembering all the crazy little goth club kids who would scream and storm the dance floor like a sea of black. All the screens in the club would then play the fight scenes and we'd flail like maniacs.

If nothing else, I love the movie for that gift alone.
posted by teleri025 at 10:23 AM on January 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

Sex whilst still wearing your plate armor is... *probably* not quite as fun as it looked in the movie.

Oh, sex in plate armour is still probably okay. Sex with someone in plate armour is probably less than maximum fun. Lot of unexpected pinching, I should imagine.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:43 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

"A dream to some. A nightmare to others!"

I still quote this all the time. It is a perfect movie line.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:25 PM on January 28, 2018

I've read that Boorman wanted to film Lord of the Rings, but couldn't get the rights. Excalibur feels like it kind of wants to be LOTR in spots, especially in the way Arthur loses his mojo like King Théoden in the middle.
posted by zadcat at 9:39 PM on January 28, 2018

We watched this in history class.
posted by phunniemee at 9:03 AM on January 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

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