Excalibur [retro review]

“Talk is for lovers, Merlin! I need the sword to be king!”

The Scoop: R 1981, directed by John Boorman and starring Nicol Williamson, Nigel Terry and Cherie Lunghi.

Tagline: No mortal could possess it! No kingdom could command it!

Summary Capsule:  Arthur is on the rocks, but a cryptic wizard and a green sword are on his side.

Justin’s Rating: Men in fruity gold masks are not to be trusted.

Justin’s Review: When I was a kid, our favorite non-Nintendo activity was to congregate outside in backyards to fight epic G.I. Joe battles across the neighborhood. Of course, we were a bit more lax when it came to admission standards for our outfits; instead of having many years of specialized secret ops training, we mainly expected you to have some sort of plastic gun and the ability to say, “Bam! I got you! You’re dead! You’re shot! Fall down!” over and over. If you didn’t have a plastic gun, a stick would do as some sort of lame gun/bayonet substitute, but everyone would know that your mom didn’t love you enough to get you a fake machine gun with Realistic Slaughter Sound™! There really wasn’t any greater thought to our battles, we just wanted to have fun and engage in pretend gross homicidal activity that today would have parents running for the politically correct hills.

You get the sense that the makers of Excalibur had similar childhood experiences, and never really grew out of that boys-will-be-boys mode. For me, I’m glad, because I’m just sick of today’s action movies that take ludicrous stunts and special effects too seriously, implying that, hey, if you were really a MAN, you’d be able to outrun a fireball and handle a 100-pound machine gun in each hand, too. Excalibur is no more realistic than, say, Hard Boiled, but it at least has the decency to cast fairly repulsive male leads as to make the rest of us balding, pudgy couch jockeys feel secure in our unshaved masculinity.

To twist Say Anything, the world is full of manly movies — so don’t be a manly movie, be a guy movie!

Excalibur is the stuff that Renaissance festivals are made out of, except that it generally knows how stupid and geeky it’s coming off as, and feels free to poke fun at itself. Condensing the Arthurian legend down into close to two and a half hours — well, maybe “condensing” isn’t the right word here — this movie is a wild mob of conflicting ideas and continuity errors, the likes of which the world has never seen. But it’s all good, since we only need some shiny armor, perhaps wrapped around a knight and saddled on a white horse, and then we need a napalm-spewing dragon to swoop down and make medieval Hot Pockets.

Merlin (Nicol Williamson) is the central character of Excalibur, a man who is more wise than Yoda and more dumb than Jar-Jar. For a guy with fantastic powers and an ability to see the future, he makes an awful lot of mistakes, mainly being that he bets on Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and later his son Arthur (Nigel Terry) to unite all of Britain in peace. Of course, boys being boys, they’d rather go power-mad and level up their +4 Emerald Sword of Watery Tarts and chase skirts across the isles without even stopping to think that you might not want to do that, since leg shaving and underarm deodorant weren’t quite in vogue yet. So Merlin backs loser after loser, sporting a chrome headpiece that made me wonder if that was really his skull, and he was some sort of Terminator from 2029 sent back in time to kill John Conner’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother. If Skynet had any brains at all, it would’ve done that, but maybe it felt like it wanted to give the human race a sporting chance. Anyway, with his track record, I wouldn’t be mimicking Merlin’s bets at the dog races.

Easily the high point of Excalibur is to see Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) himself as an armor-clad knight jumping around in battle, swinging a phaser axe. It’s good to know that his Shakespearian talents are not wasted here.

Arthur, the boy who would become king and then screw it all up somehow, rises from the shadows of dark ages obscurity by pulling out the titular named sword from a big honking rock. It goes to show that people back then were so stupid and so not to be trusted that even rocks knew how to set up a better government. Sad commentary, really. Merlin coaches Arthur through his training and ascension to the throne by mainly speaking in confounding riddles and confusing giggles. He’s really an odd duck, that Merlin.

“But Justin,” you weep. “I’m not a guy! I don’t have the low standards and proper plumbing! Is there anything in here for me?”

Of course. Well, not really. The filmmakers throw Sir Lancelot at the female watchers in a vain attempt to empty their minds of rational thought and have them twitter lightly while curling their hair around their fingers. It doesn’t quite work, because Lancelot isn’t that handsome — even for eighties standards — and we know that without the armor, he’s a big dweeb who wasn’t getting any dates for the weekend. So, sorry ladies, unless thrusting metal and unbridled wenching gets your goat, you might want to be heading over to the First Knight area right now.

There isn’t any great acting here, or even spectacular storytelling, but there is a pretty over-the-top flick that becomes fun once you just let it be what it wants to be that particular minute. Exuberant battles, overblown speeches about foreswearing and honor, low-budget sorcery, guys rushing at each other pounding on armor with maces, and plenty of 1981 nudity makes for a not-too-shabby romp through a boy’s psyche. Maybe it doesn’t do the Arthurian legend proper justice (which wasn’t too strong at that point, considering that Monty Python lampooned it excellently only a few years previously), but it’s not boring and ordinary, and I’ll take that any day of the week.

Yes, Merlin got struck by lightning a lot.

Intermission

  • Merlin: good ol’ chrome dome.
  • Maybe jumping off a castle wall into a fight isn’t the best of ideas… well, hey, whaddya know, it worked.
  • Guenevere kisses with her eyes open
  • Hehe… rabbit tackle!
  • “What’s that?” “It’s Camelot, the king’s castle!” Was anyone else resisting the line, “It’s only a model….”?
  • Did most castles have a big room wherre people would randomly mill about doing artistic and entertaining things without anyone else watching?
  • Liam Neeson as the drunk knight. Hehe…
  • Um, so, naked Lancelot is fighting himself in armor? Empire strikes back anyone? He does go back to sleep rather quickly for just having stabbed himself.
  • I like it when Merlin’s voice changes to get all weird like that.
  • Merlin looks bored through Arthur’s speeches. Funny.
  • Guess incest is one way to go to take over a kingdom… huh.
  • The peasants poking around in a ditch with sticks: What are they doing? Is this play time?
  • Eyeball anyone?
  • That boy looks SO CREEEPY! He doesn’t do anything, and I already want him to be spanked.
  • Yeah, mom, I’m 18, it’s time to stop giving me sponge baths
  • Some of the crew agreed that Gabriel Byrne’s Irish accent made “One night with Igrayne” sound like “One night with your granny”.
  • When Lancelot and Arthur are fighting in the river, Arthur falls back on some rocks and lets go of his mace, which flies back and strikes the camera. He then looks around for the camera, as if worried that he’s ruined the take.
  • The armor reflects some things, like boom mikes and cameras.
  • Uther has sex with Igraine while wearing his armor… fun.
  • As Merlin gives his speech a gas hose is visible connected to his staff.
  • Igrayne, The Lady of the Lake, and young Mordred were all played by director John Boorman’s real-life children: Katrine Boorman, Telsche Boorman, and Charley Boorman. Charley Boorman now makes documentaries of himself motorcycling across the world.
  • United Artists told John Boorman that he could cast anyone as Merlin except Nicol Williamson. Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson were initially reluctant to work with each other as they had both been in a disastrous production of Macbeth and were not on speaking terms.
  • The filmmakers apparently loved Wagner, so during a couple action/battle scenes Wagner swells up. And it’s not that bad, if completely out of period.

Groovy Dialogue

Merlin: When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.

Arthur: Now, once more, I must ride with my knights to defend what was, and the dream of what could be!

Merlin: For it is the doom of men that they forget!

Uther: The sword! You promised me the sword!
Merlin: And you shall have it; but to heal, not to hack. Tomorrow, a truce; we meet at the river.
Uther: Talk! Talk is for lovers, Merlin. I need the sword to be king!

Merlin: Now look, I once stood exposed to the Dragon’s Breath so that a man could lie one night with a woman. It took me nine moons to recover. And all for this lunacy called, “love,” this mad distemper that strikes down both beggar and king! Never again! Never!

Merlin: [Excalibur breaks] You have broken what could not be broken! Hope… is… broken.

Merlin: You must remember, there’s always something cleverer than yourself.

Arthur: Any man who would be a knight and follow a king… follow me!

Merlin: Good and evil, there never is one without the other.

Perceval: I can’t lose faith, Lancelot. It’s all I have left.

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6 Comments

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