There had been a number of tentative cinematic stabs at the Arthurian legends prior to Excalibur the ponderous non-fantastical Cinemascope spectacle Knights of the Round Table (1954), Disneys The Sword in the Stone (1963), the equally ponderous musical Camelot (1967) and arthouse variations such as Eric Rohmers acclaimed Perceval Le Gallois (1977). (See below for other filmed variations of the Arthurian legends).
Enter John Boorman, the acclaimed director of the likes of Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974). John Boorman had wanted to make an adaptation of the Arthurian legends for fifteen years prior to this. Indeed, Boorman made the interesting claim in an interview that every film he has made has been some reflection of the Arthurian legends, from the grail quest, to the concept of chivalry to the relationship between man and nature. Intriguingly, Boorman also attempted during the 1970s to mount a production of J.R.R. Tolkiens Lord of the Rings (1954-6) but could never find a means of scaling the books down to tell as a single film. (Excalibur makes interesting comparison to Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and sequels and it is intriguing to speculate what Lord of the Rings might have emerged like had it instead come under John Boormans hand).
There is certainly enough material here for two or three films and Excalibur seems to be straining in trying to pack the entire Arthurian cycle into 140 minutes. Boorman plays around with Thomas Malory a little Perceval takes over Galahads role and is the one who completes the Grail Quest, the stories about the Lance of Longinus and Morgan-le-Fays theft of Excaliburs scabbard are excised (as they have been from all subsequent film versions). That is less important though as Boorman takes the story back into the rich swim of mythology that birthed it. The aforementioned adaptations and almost all since are pedestrian, literalistic adaptations that concern themselves with either the political intrigue of the kingdom, the romantic story or banal displays of magic. John Boorman by contrast is interested in the ideas that make up the myth the concept of chivalry, the concept of nationhood united under the kings physical/moral health and pagan religions slow occlusion and usurpation by Christianity. The mythic resonances in Excalibur are extraordinarily rich.
Excalibur has a crazy rapturousness to it. It overflows with compelling, impassioned imagery. It is all beautifully shot in lush Irish landscapes and filled with extraordinary images of knights in beaten gold armour, woodland weddings draped in flora, battles set against beautiful red sunsets, the Lady in the Lake floating supine in the midst of a riverbed. The image of Arthur being knighted in the midst of a river is a remarkably moving one. Trevor Williams scores the film with selections from Wagner and Orff, which adds a wild, primal passion rarely has the use of classical excerpts been so well chosen in a film.
John Boorman has also determined to make a vision of the Arthurian legends that doesnt befall the cliches of the stuffed doublet Mediaevalism of Knights of the Round Table, Camelot and the Prince Valiant comic-strip, of merely being extras in page-boy haircuts and standard costumes from central casting. From the moment the film opens in the midst of a brutal bloody battle where we see arms hacked off, this is clearly a different vision of the Middle Ages, one that is rooted in a grimy realism. Many have jumped on the fact that the styles of armour are wildly anachronistic but this is relatively unimportant, quite possibly deliberate John Boorman is not setting out to make an historical film, the legend of King Arthur has rarely ever had anything to do with historical realism and Excalibur is clearly intended to takes place in a mythic neverwhen.
There is a time when Excalibur inevitably spills over and turns into almost baggy-pants burlesque, most notably Nicol Williamsons performance as Merlin, which strides between wild overacting and a portentous wisdom. Some regard the performance as silly but when Nicol Williamson does succeed, he generates both an otherworldly wisdom and a sadness that holds the film together. This is a Merlin that, as John Boorman has clearly intended, shakes any cliche image of the figure in a pointy hat and long white beard. There is an equally fine performance from Helen Mirren as Morgana whose slinky, seductive prowlings have considerable sensuality. It is the two of them that dominate the film. In fact, these two performances overshadow the actors that should have taken charge of the film Nigel Terrys Arthur and Cherie Lunghis Guenevere who both remain anonymous and never fill out as characters. Excalibur can also be noted for the presence of a number of then unknown up-and-coming stars, including Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart.
Bryan Singer has announced a remake of Excalibur for some time in the 2010s.
Other film versions of the Arthurian legends include: a Three Stooges spoof Squareheads of the Round Table (1948); the Cinemascope historical adventure Knights of the Round Table (1954); the live-action tv series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-7); Cornel Wildes Lancelot and Guinevere (1963); the Disney animated version with cute animals The Sword in the Stone (1963); the comic cartoon series Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table (1966); the big budget musical Camelot (1967); Robert Bressons deconstructed Lancelot du Lac (1974); King Arthur, The Young Warlord (1975); the absurdist comedy send-up Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975); the arthouse Perceval Le Gallois (1977); the tv series The Legend of King Arthur (1979); the German tv series Merlin (1980); the dreary TV mini-series Arthur the King/Merlin and the Sword (1981); the Wagnerian opera Parsifal (1982); the tv series Merlin of the Crystal Cave (1991); the animated tv series King Arthur and the Knights of Justice (1992-3); a modern updating October the 32nd/Merlin (1992); Arthurs Departure (1994) about time travellers attempting to snatch King Arthur; First Knight (1995), which retells the story as a non-fantastical romance; Kids of the Round Table (1995), a childrens version that retells it in schoolyard terms; Lancelot, Guardian of Time (1997) with a time-travelling Lancelot; the tv mini-series Merlin (1998), which tells the story from Merlins point-of-view and its sequel Merlins Apprentice (1996); the tv movie Merlin (1998) with Jason Connery as the young wizard; the animated Quest for Camelot (1998), which concerned the daughter of one of the Knights of the Round Table; The Excalibur Kid (1999) in which a child is transported back in time to Arthurs court; Merlin: The Return (1999) in which Arthur and the knights are revived in the present; the revisionist tv mini-series The Mists of Avalon (2001), which tells the story from the perspective of the women; the tv movie Young Arthur (2002); the historical spectacular King Arthur (2004); The Last Legion (2007), an historical spectacular that acts as a prequel to the Arthurian saga; the tv series Merlin/The Adventures of Merlin (2008-12); the tv series Camelot (2011). Other variants include the lowbrow comedy foil of Mark Twains A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court (1889), filmed variously in 1921, 1931, 1949, 1979 and 1989. Parts of the myth have turned up in various films and particularly tv series Merlin (played by Ringo Starr) as an advisor to various Famous Monsters in Son of Dracula (1974); The Round Table turned up in an episode of Robin of Sherwood (1983-6); Merlin and Lancelot appeared in the present day in an episode of The Twilight Zone (1985-7); the Doctor Who episode Battlefield (1989) attempted a science-fictional retelling; and various series have played the myth out in various futuristic settings against a post-holocaust dictatorship in Knights of God (1987) and as a puppet space opera in Space Knights (1989). Of all of these, Excalibur is the finest.
John Boormans other genre films are: the startling backwoods brutality film Deliverance (1972); the pretentious sf film Zardoz (1974) (1974); the notoriously pilloried but not entirely uninteresting Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977); the mystical environmentalist film The Emerald Forest (1985); and the doppelganger film The Tigers Tail (2006). Boorman also produced the strange fantasy film Dream One/Nemo (1984). In the early 2000s, Boorman announced plans for an animated remake of The Wizard of Oz, although this has yet to be greenlit.