14 March 2011

Blu-ray Debut of Excalibur (1981)

Excalibur (1981)
Directed by John Boorman. Starring Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne.

“One land! One king! 1080 lines of resolution!”

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Did you know that there is a re-make of Excalibur in pre-production? Apparently, the lawyers at Legendary Pictures have forgotten that Le Morte d’Arthur and its associated characters are in the public domain and have been since the bleeding Dark Ages. No more about the re-make (for now).

The original, Once and Future Excalibur, is a crowning piece of high fantasy from the 1980s. It is also my favorite film version of the Arthurian legends. (Apologies to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Most movies about King Arthur, especially those before Excalibur upped the ante, are tatty costume dramas lacking magic, either cinematic or literal, and which feel like they were adapted from children’s editions of the story. (Apologies to Howard Pyle.) None of these movies connect to the sensations that the original telling of the legends, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, to Chrétein de Troyes, to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, create in me when I read them. A sense of dark mysticism pervades through the oldest versions of King Arthur’s myth: a mixture of paganism and early Christianity, a connection to Faerie, the eternal struggle between chaos and civilization. Excalibur, ignoring attempts to either look “realistic” or to resemble the generic expectation of a Hollywood costume drama, drives into the spiritual heart of King Arthur and emerges with something fantastic and often breathtaking.

Although a major catalog title for Warner Bros. with enduring popularity, Excalibur has suffered on home video for years. It got released on DVD in the young days of the format, but the problem with such an early adoption is that the technology wasn’t developed enough to do the film justice. Warner Bros. Home Video maintained the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, but the picture quality was shoddy with bad contrast and extensive print damage. Adding to the insult was the cover, which abandoned the art gallery-worthy painting of Bob Peak—one the greatest movie posters ever (which I’ve used here)—with a horrendous Photoshop chop befitting a made-for-television movie. Excalibur languished in this form for over a decade, never giving DVD owners the chance to double-dip.

When Excalibur at last made it to high definition in 2006, it was in the HD DVD format, which was already sliding off to its grave. Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of the movie’s release, Excalibur gets a proper treatment on the Blu-ray format. Warner Bros. has provided no special features aside from the commentary John Boorman recorded for the DVD release. I don’t expect we will see any more extensive edition; at least we have the film’s majesty preserved in the best format possible. Unfortunately, the Bob Peak artwork has still been mysteriously ignored. The current cover is a metal-sheen version of the bad Photoshop job; it looks much better, but does Warner Bros. marketing think this image will sell more units than Bob Peak’s stellar painting?

Excalibur was a dream project that director John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank, The Emerald Forest, Exorcist II: The Heretic) tried to get made for twenty years. He finally secured the money from Orion Pictures, which released their movies through an agreement with Warner Bros. at the time. Boorman wanted to present the Arthurian legend as three acts that he felt contained the essential appeal of the myth. The first is the birth of Arthur, which is a period of brutality, of “man emerging from the swamp.” The second part is the rise of Camelot and the creation of order through Arthur’s rule. The final part is the collapse of civilization into the wasteland, with the promise—far distant—of a glorious return. Boorman calls it the “Past, Present, and Future of humanity.”

What is amazing about the film he created is that it comes near to achieving this enormous end through its two hours and twenty minutes. It would be difficult for any filmmaker to capture such an epic theme, but Excalibur is almost as good as one could hope it to be. This weird and beautiful movie is both transporting fantasy and deeply human drama.

Boorman wrote the script with his long-time collaborator Rospo Pallenberg, using Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century work Le Morte d’Arthur as their primary source. The screenplay excavates Malory’s immense text, the culmination of many earlier literary traditions, to weave the highlights of the Arthurian legends as the lay public knows them into a singular story. The amount of material Boorman and Pallenberg have to work with is gargantuan: Arthur’s conception and birth through Merlin’s sorcery with Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne); the Lady in the Lake presenting Excalibur; Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulling the sword from the stone at a tournament; Arthur and Guenevere’s (Cherie Lunghi) romance and marriage; the challenge with Lancelot of the Lake (Nicholas Clay); Guenevere and Lancelot’s forbidden love; Morgana’s (Helen Mirren) incestuous conception of Mordred with Arthut; Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) and the quest for the Grail; the final battle at Camlann; the return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake at Arthur’s behest; Arthur’s departure to Avalon. The only major piece missing is Tristan and Iseult, and that itself is most likely a separate Cornish legend grafted onto the Arthur cycle, and influenced the Guenevere-Lancelot story. Tristan and Iseult make an appearance, of sorts, through the use of Wagner’s music from the opera Tristan und Isolde as the theme for the tragic love between the queen and her knight, and in the image of a sword thrust between sleeping lovers.

To make the massive story work in the confines of a film length—this could easily have run four hours—the screenplay condenses many episodes and characters. For example, Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) also takes up the part of Sir Bedivere. The movie also uses elision to leap across sequences covering many years. This makes the introduction of some elements abrupt. For example, the Grail, which is never referred to as “The Holy Grail” in the script and seems to reach back to the pagan mystical aspects of the legend, enters the story in a sudden fashion when Arthur announces that his knights must seek it in order to heal him after the betrayal of Lancelot and Guenevere. However, Boorman makes this apparent flaw into an advantage, giving the film an air of the unknown. The Grail-hunt sequences, which take up much of the last forty minutes of the movie, are among the most harrowing and strange in the film, especially Sir Perceval’s dual encounters with the offering of the Grail, and his gruesome near-death by hanging among of tree filled with the corpses of failed knights.

Although the film covers an epic canvas, it had to do it with a modest budget. The seams only show in sequences that require large crowds: the masses of knights and spectators tend to look thin. The final battle hides this with an effective layer of fog. Otherwise, Arthur’s kingdom seems woefully under-populated.

But budget be damned: Excalibur bursts with astonishing visuals, costumes, and sets. The production design purposely puts the action in an unreal time, a mixture of the brooding Dark Ages with High Medieval weapons and armor. Some of the armor takes on a near science-fiction quality, such as the polished silver of Sir Lancelot and the golden cherub casing of Sir Mordred. Early castle interiors have heavy and ponderous stone design, while the idealized Camelot appears to be made of silver. Some sets take on a deliberately artificial appearance, such as Merlin’s cavern where Morgana imprisons him with the charm of making.

Alex Thomson, who received an Academy Award nomination for his photography, came onto the picture at the last moment when the previous cameraman had, according to John Boorman, “a nervous breakdown” over his inability to get any useable footage from the first two days of shooting the opening night battle scene. Thomson’s work is astonishing, and goes against the grain of the crisp and clear imagery associated with the historical epic. One of his most interesting devices is to project green filtered lights onto the oak forest foliage of Ireland to give it an even more luminous, ethereal quality that melds with the soft and dream-like quality of the movie. (Watch the reflections on the armor and swords and you will sometimes see the green glow from the lights.) Boorman’s movies often display his love of nature and fear for its destruction, and what he and Thomson capture on their Irish locations is the essence of a pristine wilderness that must inevitably be lost. This is a perfect complement to the Three Acts of Arthur envisioned in the script.

One of the remarkable feats of Excalibur as a story is that it avoids swinging violently toward the two poles of how Arthurian legends are often presented: On one side, making the Knights of the Round table into a bunch of boring Boy Scouts caught up in ludicrous courtly love. On the other side, presenting Camelot cynically as a hollow covering for the reality of the ugliness of medieval life. The knights in Excalibur are heroes, they stand for justice; the convictions of Camelot and the Round Table are presented as worth pursuing and saving. But the world is also shown as violent (quite explicitly so; the movie earns the R-rating) and the goodness of the knights swayed with human jealousy, greed, and folly. Excalibur is an ethical story: audiences appreciate the goodness of a hero like Perceval for his unflagging pursuit of an apparently hopeless quest to save his king, and they cheer the restoration of nature when Arthur at last rises to cast out the poison that has sapped the land, and Lancelot seeks forgiveness for his affair with Guenevere. (It does help that “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana blasts under the final battle scene; the movie and its trailer turned “O Fortuna” into a piece of pop music.)

The film features a superb ensemble cast, but the standouts are the two pagan sorcerers, Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana. At the time the film was shot, neither actor was speaking to other because of bad history on a production of Macbeth. John Boorman thought the antagonism might work well for two opposed characters, and indeed the tension between Morgana and Merlin is prickly and vivid. Williamson’s Merlin is a strange entity, with unusual voice rhythms and intonations. It almost approaches unintentional comedy, but hits the right point before going over the edge, making Merlin a truly inhuman and uncanny figure of a pre-Christian era, just as Boorman intended. Mirren attacks her role with a sensuous ferocity, and makes the most of the screenplay’s brave decision to keep the incest between her and Arthur, turning her into a completely otherworldly force.

The film was a fertile ground for fresh actors who would make huge impressions in film and television. Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Liam Neeson (Sir Gawain), Patrick Stewart (King Leodegrance), and Ciarán Hinds (Sir Lot) were known only as British stage performers at the time of the film’s making, and have gone on to greater fame than most of the principals.

Excalibur is a film I find almost unbearably moving. Right from the start the sense that one of the great stories of all time is unfolding rumbles through the images and the soundtrack. At the conclusion, with the swell of Wagner’s music from Siegfried’s Funeral March following Excalibur flipping end-over-end across the screen to the waiting hand of the Lady in the Lake, the feeling is exactly what Boorman wanted: the story of human history, its rise from the primeval, its triumphs, its failures, and the promise that one day King Arthur will sail back from Avalon when he is needed. A fantasy, yes, but Excalibur makes the fantasy seem—for two hours and twenty minutes—a necessity.