The 1980’s had it’s fair share of medieval, fantasy films and it all started in 1981 with Excalibur, a retelling of the legend of King Arthur. John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory) adapted Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur into an epic, visual masterpiece. Boorman was coming off his box-office flop, Exorcist II: The Heretic, but was still a respected director due to his previous movies including the 1972 Academy Award nominated movie, Deliverance.
Boorman planned an adaptation of the Merlin legend as early as 1969, but the 3-hour plus movie script was rejected. United Artists offered Boorman The Lord of the Rings, which they recently purchased the rights from J.R.R Tolkien. Boorman’s script for The Lord of the Rings ended up being too expensive to film in the late 1970’s and was scraped.
We had a script that we felt was fresh and cinematic, yet carried the spirit of Tolkien, a spirit we had come to admire and cherish during those months… The valley in the Wicklow hills outside of Dublin where my house sits is as close to Middle-Earth as you can get in this depleted world.~John Boorman
United Artists would go on to make The Lord of the Rings, although it turned into a animated movie.
The Lords of the Rings script laid the ground work for Boorman to create Excalibur and Orion Pictures bought the script and gave Boorman an $11 million budget to make the movie.
Boorman decided to use mainly unknown actors for Excalibur to not detract from the legend with a famous face. The one exception was Boorman’s one and only choice for Merlin, Nicol Williamson. There was a problem, the movie studio forbid casting Williamson due to his terrible reputation. Not as an actor, he was an exceptional actor, but behind the scenes he often clashed with directors and other actors.
Boorman’s next bit of casting was even more inspired, he cast Dame Helen Mirren to play Morgana opposite Williamson’s Merlin. At the time Williamson and Mirren weren’t on speaking terms. They had a falling out after working together on a disastrous production of Macbeth. Boorman thought their hostility towards each other would play well in the movie.
According to Helen Mirren, she and Williamson became good friends during the filming of Excalibur.
While Williamson was an established actor and Mirren an up-and-coming actress Boorman picked other actors with little to no experience. Actors whose names are common place today but relatively unknown in 1981; Nigel Terry, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson to name a few.
All of these actors came from a Shakespearean background and brought their stage experience to the movie. The seriousness they brought to the roles help make the movie a masterpiece. Williamson is terrific as Merlin, controlling every scene. Nigel Terry as King Arthur exhibits a great range of emotion as we watch him transition from a young squire to a powerful king.
New(ish) actor Patrick Stewart (did he ever have hair) and Liam Neeson are fun to watch, knowing that in a few short years they will be A-list actors .
Boorman’s vision and Alex Thomson’s cinematography give the movie an other worldly atmosphere. Green and orange hues bath every scene. Thomson achieved an Oscar nomination for his work on Excalibur.
The fight scenes are a chaotic dance of bodies and weapons. Boorman wasn’t interested in choreographing the fight scenes, giving the actors only minor instructions and letting them improvise as they went, which adds to the gritty realism and overall chaos of battle. In today’s CGI fueled super movies it’s refreshing to see actors and stunt men falling from their horses and swinging swords.
When Excalibur was released in 1981 it was a box office success, even if the critics had mixed reviews. Roger Ebert called it a “wondrous vision” and “a mess,” while Variety said it was “a near-perfect blend of action, romance, fantasy and philosophy”
Critics be damned, Excalibur is one of the best movies in the genre and is the best movie about King Arthur. Many movies have tried to top it over the years and all have failed to live up Excalibur.
I was too young to watch Excalibur in the theaters. I saw it a year later on HBO at a friends house. I was completely mesmerized by the storytelling and the visual impact of the movie. Whenever I would spend the night I looked to see if Excalibur was playing. It remains one of my all time favorites.
Excalibur ingrained in me a love for the Middle Ages and fueled my desire to study medieval history.
Medieval Archives gives Excalibur 4.5 out of 5 stars
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