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EXCALIBUR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Paul Geoffrey
Director:  John Boorman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1, Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Director’s Commentary
Length:  140 Minutes
Release Date:  September 21, 1999

Film ***1/2

Out of the Dark Ages, where little to no recorded history survived, sprang some of the most popular myths and legends of the Western Hemisphere.  Perhaps none are more famous than England’s tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  This morality tale has proved popular substance for artists throughout the years, including poets, novelists, and of course now, filmmakers.  For me, no movie has ever captured the passion, the wonder, the mysticism and the drama of this story as well as John Boorman’s Excalibur.  Named after the legendary sword of Arthur, and based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s epic poem “Le Morte D’Arthur”, I believe this film still stands as the definitive screen version…and is a terrific piece of filmmaking in its own right.

The tale of King Arthur drew much of its inspiration from Judeo-Christian texts.  His father, Uther, like King David, was a monarch who had it in his grasp to bring peace and unity to his divided nation, only to lose it all to satisfy his lust for the wife of another.  Like David’s son Absalom, Arthur’s child Mordred grows up to wage war against him.  And like Jesus of Nazareth, Arthur left this world and his subjects with the promise that one day he would return to restore peace and power to England (hence the title of T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King).

Boorman skillfully blends all of the best story elements with a visual look and style that really brings the experience to life.  His Dark Ages England teems with color, life, and mist, brining a feel of enchantment to the settings.  You fully believe this is a world where anything can happen.  The knights, with their polished metal armor, appear as a nice balance between Medieval and science fiction.  Boorman also pays equal attention to the drama, of which there is plenty, and to the potential for action.  There are many good battles and jousting sequences, placed at just the right intervals to help maintain the dramatic intensity of the story.  Both aspects of the film serve each other well.

The key role is not that of Arthur (Terry), but that of Merlin, played to such perfection by Nicol Williamson that to this day, I can’t read a poem or story about Merlin without picturing Williamson in my head.  He is the wise and powerful magician who aids Arthur in fulfilling his destiny, though he might just know more about the waiting tragedy than he lets on.

Rounding out the cast is the beautiful Helen Mirren (Mrs. Tingle, in the flesh!) as the enchantress Morgana.  And look for a trio of talented actors near the beginnings of their careers in Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Liam Neeson.

The story of Arthur has remained popular throughout the ages because of the morality play at its heart.  Here was a king who was good, strong, and fair, and brought peace into his troubled land…yet he couldn’t vanquish temptation and strife within his own household, and eventually, it led to his undoing.  Lust is a destructive force in these stories; no mistake about that.

But despite Arthur’s downfall, his story is still one of hope for the future, as he left the people of England with the promise that one day, their shining island would be a peaceful paradise again.  And if lust is destructive, hope is certainly a force that is just the opposite.

Video ***1/2

Bravo once again to Warner for a terrific transfer of an older title to DVD.  Though I’d say this disc overall is slightly lower quality to Warner’s other recent Boorman movie Deliverance, that’s not a complaint.  If we could say that of all discs, we’d be better off for it.  Color rendering is excellent and well defined throughout, and although occasionally images appear a little soft, I believe that’s more the reason of the misty and ethereal look Boorman was striving for in certain scenes.  There’s no evidence of grain or compression to be noted, and with much of the filming involving natural light, that’s remarkable. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is terrific as well…loud, lively, and dynamic, with a bevy of jousting and fighting scenes that really open up the audio experience.

Features ***

The disc includes a theatrical trailer, and a commentary track by director Boorman.

Summary:

Excalibur truly is the one Arthurian film you must see.  Well, okay, that and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  But seriously, this is one powerfully dramatic and visually splendid retelling of the legend of King Arthur, and the magic and mystery that surrounded his reign.  No human emotion is sacrificed for the sake of the visuals, and vice versa.  This is a terrific film presented on a terrific disc.