Ex­cal­ibur

Screen Gems

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Michael Abatemarco

Ex­cal­ibur , me­dieval fan­tasy, rated R, The Screen, 4 chiles

From its open­ing scene — set to the strains of “Siegfried’s Fu­neral March” from Richard Wag­ner’s Ring cy­cle — to its tragic con­clu­sion, Ex­cal­ibur of­fers one ter­rific set piece af­ter an­other in its ver­sion of the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Ta­ble. Thirty-four years af­ter its ini­tial re­lease, the movie re­mains the un­ri­valed cin­e­matic treat­ment of the Arthurian leg­end. The film, by direc­tor John Boor­man, is part of The Screen’s Films to See Be­fore You Die se­ries and of a mini Boor­man fest that in­cludes Hope and Glory (1987) and his lat­est work, Queen and Coun­try (2014), both of which open on March 6.

Ex­cal­ibur is set, of course, in the Dark Ages, and we learn from its ti­tle se­quence that the land is di­vided and with­out a king. The script never names the fac­tions vy­ing for power: To do so would con­sign the tale to a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal set­ting, when it lies squarely in the time­less realm of myth. For the screen­play, Rospo Pal­len­berg and Boor­man adapted Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-cen­tury Le Morte D’Arthur , con­dens­ing a daunt­ing amount of ma­te­rial. We are given 20 min­utes’ worth of back story at the movie’s start be­fore we’re swept up into the saga of Arthur’s rise to king­hood, his reign in the golden age of Camelot, and his even­tual down­fall.

The back story in­volves Uther Pen­dragon (Gabriel Byrne), who has se­cured an un­easy al­liance with Corn­wall (Corin Red­grave) but then frac­tures that peace by lust­ing af­ter Corn­wall’s wife, Igrayne (Ka­trine Boor­man), thereby reignit­ing the feud. Pen­dragon ap­peals to Mer­lin (Ni­col Wil­liamson) for help in steal­ing Igrayne away from her hus­band. Mer­lin grants Uther his wish — but on the con­di­tion that he gives the ma­gi­cian any chil­dren that re­sult from their union. In a cruel trick, Mer­lin then uses magic to dis­guise Uther as Corn­wall. The se­quence con­tains the first of many great scenes as Uther, at Mer­lin’s com­mand, rides horse­back across a mist­shrouded sea to Corn­wall’s cas­tle. The equiv­o­cal Mer­lin has se­cured the ful­fill­ment of prophecy by help­ing Uther im­preg­nate Igrayne, but the treach­ery used to carry it out also plants the seeds for Camelot’s ul­ti­mate demise. The scenes show­ing Igrayne’s rape were con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial when the movie was re­leased be­cause the role was given to Boor­man’s daugh­ter, who was about twenty-two dur­ing film­ing.

Ni­col Wil­liamson was al­ready a noted stage and screen ac­tor in Bri­tain when he was cast as Mer­lin, but of the five ac­tors play­ing the other main char­ac­ters — Mor­gana, Arthur, Guen­e­vere, Lancelot, and Perce­val — only He­len Mir­ren, as the be­witch­ing Mor­gana, went on to even greater cin­e­matic fame af­ter Ex­cal­ibur . How­ever, this isn’t true of some of the ac­tors cast as mi­nor char­ac­ters. Liam Nee­son (Gawain), Ciarán Hinds (Lot), Pa­trick Ste­wart (Leon­de­grance), and Byrne are all quite well known to Amer­i­can movie­go­ers now. Nigel Terry (Arthur) and Cherie Lunghi (Guen­e­vere) still work as ac­tors but aren’t house­hold names in the U.S. Wil­liamson died at seventy-three in 2011; Ni­cholas Clay, who epit­o­mizes the con­flicted char­ac­ter Lancelot, died in 2000 at the age of fifty-three.

Paul Ge­of­frey, who plays Perce­val, took a break from act­ing in 1999, af­ter a mi­nor role in The Thomas Crown Af­fair , and only re­cently re­turned to it as Oliver in 2012’s Spells . Ge­of­frey never achieved star sta­tus even though he car­ries most of the last third of the film, emerg­ing as its true hero. “He’s the fear­less, re­proach­less knight,” Ge­of­frey, who now lives in Santa Fe, told Pasatiempo . “He never gives up. For him, there was this per­se­ver­ance. No mat­ter how many times he fell over or got knocked down, he’d get up and try again.” Af­ter living in Los An­ge­les in the early 1990s, Ge­of­frey moved to Santa Fe, work­ing as the direc­tor of the Al­lene Lapi­des Gallery be­fore start­ing a ca­reer in real es­tate. He in­tro­duces the film at 7 p.m. on Fri­day, Feb. 27.

Ge­of­frey orig­i­nally au­di­tioned for the role of Arthur, but was told he was too young for the part and ac­cepted the role of Perce­val in­stead. The re­hearsals be­gan at a ho­tel in Eng­land. “I went and threw up in the bath­room be­fore the first meet­ing, I was so ner­vous,” he said. “We had to go and get fit­ted for the ar­mor, and it was made by th­ese three broth­ers, and they had, prob­a­bly, three teeth be­tween them and lived in the mid­dle of this for­est in the woods. They were far­ri­ers; they did horse­shoes and things like that. The ar­mor, although it was made of alu­minum, was very com­pli­cated and very de­tailed. I was the guinea pig for in­tro­duc­ing a man in ar­mor to a horse. I goofed up the first day. They were hold­ing the horse, and I got up,

and it im­me­di­ately threw me. But, hav­ing the ar­mor on, I was pro­tected. I got thrown off four or five times. Then the horse got used to it.”

A sched­ule was set for five months of film­ing. “We ar­rived in Ire­land — my­self, Nigel Terry, and Ni­col Wil­liamson — on St. Pa­trick’s Day in Dublin. For me, that was a very in­ter­est­ing meet of Ir­ish hos­pi­tal­ity and mod­est non­stop drink­ing.” Once film­ing be­gan, the crew was be­set by al­most con­stant rain­fall. “I did a lot of sec­ond-unit film­ing for the quest scenes out in the Wick­low Moun­tains. It was pour­ing rain, and I couldn’t see through the vi­sor. It doesn’t re­ally reg­is­ter on film, ex­cept in close-up.” Ac­cord­ing to Ge­of­frey, the ac­tors had Satur­days off and would go into Dublin for the day, where they spent hours in the up­stairs dining room of a lo­cal pub. “We be­came like a fam­ily.”

The movie opened to mixed re­views but has since en­joyed a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion, thanks to a gen­er­a­tion that caught it on ca­ble TV through­out the 1980s. “When it came out, it was looked upon as an in­ter­est­ing pe­riod film but didn’t have the same at­trac­tion of Char­i­ots of Fire , which was huge,” said Ge­of­frey, who turned down a part in the much-loved film about Bri­tish run­ners in the 1924 Olympics in or­der to play Perce­val. “The first time I came here, I was in Kaune’s, and I turned around and walked up the aisle, and there was this young woman who came down op­po­site. She just stopped and said, ‘Perce­val!’ So a cer­tain group of kids saw it over and over, and I think that did a lot to make peo­ple re­mem­ber it. Maybe, if I had done Char­i­ots of Fire, I would have made more money. But, at the end of the day, I was much hap­pier with Ex­cal­ibur . It was an amaz­ing film to be a part of, es­pe­cially be­ing where we were: this mag­i­cal land in one of the only me­dieval oak forests left in the world.”

E xcal­ibur — named for the magic sword that, Mer­lin says, was “forged when the world was young and bird and beast and flower were one with man” — pre­serves many of the leg­end’s key el­e­ments: the sword in the stone, which is des­tined to be lifted free by the one true king who can unite the land; the for­ma­tion of the Knights of the Round Ta­ble; the doomed love af­fair be­tween Guen­e­vere, Arthur’s queen, and Lancelot, his cham­pion; the cryptic ro­mance-cum-ri­valry be­tween Mer­lin and Mor­gana, daugh­ter of Corn­wall and Igrayne and Arthur’s half sis­ter; the quest for the Holy Grail, which plays out in a suit­ably dark and apoc­a­lyp­tic se­quence; and, fi­nally, the tragedy of Arthur and his il­le­git­i­mate son Mordred (Robert Ad­die, who died at the age of forty-three in 2003), who are fated to meet on a bloody, muddy, and fog-cloaked bat­tle­field.

Boor­man’s film is gor­geous to look at, even if it oc­ca­sion­ally in­dulges in such ob­vi­ous vis­ual el­e­ments as the very-fake red sun that ap­pears for the closing mo­ments. It was filmed al­most en­tirely in the forests of Ire­land, in the coun­ties of Kerry, Tip­per­ary, and Wick­low. Green fil­ters were placed over the lights to lend an eerie, oth­er­worldly cast to many of the scenes, flash­ing off of ar­mor and shim­mer­ing on the sur­faces of lakes. Alex Thom­son’s lush cin­e­matog­ra­phy got him an Os­car nom­i­na­tion, and Boor­man was nom­i­nated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes (he won Best Artis­tic Con­tri­bu­tion). Mead­ows are car­peted in lark­spur, knights fight du­els to the death while crash­ing through ferns and mossy woods and ride through or­chards heavy with fall­ing blos­soms to the strains of “O For­tuna,” from the open­ing move­ment of Carl Orff’s Carmina Bu­rana . The film’s aes­thetics were in­spired by Pre-Raphaelite de­pic­tions of the leg­end, which were popular in the 19th cen­tury af­ter Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson’s Idylls of the King was pub­lished. But Boor­man and Pal­len­berg’s script goes even deeper than Malory and Ten­nyson, min­ing such an­tique ma­te­rial as Ge­of­frey of Mon­mouth’s 12th-cen­tury The His­tory of the Kings of Bri­tain (which the film uses es­pe­cially in its in­tro­duc­tory back story) and Wol­fram von Eschen­bach’s 13th-cen­tury Parzival , a text in which the hero was the Grail knight ( Ex­cal­ibur re­tains this mo­tif) be­fore the French Vul­gate texts gave that honor to Gala­had.

One of the film’s ma­jor themes is the clash be­tween poly­the­ism and monothe­ism. This is ex­pressed most beau­ti­fully in the for­est wed­ding of Arthur and Guen­e­vere, which com­bines Chris­tian im­agery and pa­gan forms of na­ture wor­ship. At the wed­ding, Mer­lin says, “The one god comes to drive out the many gods. The spir­its of wood and stream grow si­lent.” His most pow­er­ful in­can­ta­tion, com­posed in Old Ir­ish, is the “Charm of Mak­ing” — a spell of trans­for­ma­tion. Want­ing re­venge, Mor­gana even­tu­ally uses this magic to be­guile Mer­lin for his ear­lier de­ceit. It’s an evil turn for Mir­ren: She and Wil­liamson were ru­mored to have dis­liked each an­other, only adding to the ten­sion be­tween their char­ac­ters. Why Mer­lin is in ser­vice to the king is never clearly ex­plained here, but some lit­er­ary sources hold that the ma­gi­cian was a de­mon sworn to serve the Pen­dragon line, and T.H. White’s The Once and Fu­ture King por­trays him as a pow­er­ful men­tor to the young Arthur.

Dur­ing the night­mar­ish se­quences show­ing the quest for the Grail, when the coun­try is be­set by famine and plague, Ex­cal­ibur ’s fo­cus shifts from the story of Arthur to the ad­ven­tures of Perce­val. Hav­ing al­most suc­cumbed to the wiles of Mordred and Mor­gana, Perce­val wan­ders about aim­lessly, cer­tain he has failed in his quest. In th­ese scenes, Ge­of­frey de­liv­ers some of the film’s most af­fect­ing lines. Af­ter he’s nearly drowned by a mob of an­gry peas­ants, led by Lancelot (a mad­man since his fall from grace as Queen Guen­e­vere’s lover), Perce­val tells him, “I can’t give up hope, Lancelot. It’s all I have.” The movie’s dark tone shifts.

When Arthur, old and wasted, is roused to fight in the fi­nal strug­gle, all we could hope to have come into play does — and with surg­ing mo­ments of glory and the re­turn of char­ac­ters who, for Arthur, had long ago be­come dis­tant mem­o­ries. The epic battle isn’t fought over ter­ri­tory or pol­i­tics, but, as Arthur tells Guen­e­vere, “to de­fend what was and the dream of what could be.”

He­len Mir­ren as Mor­gana and Ni­col Wil­liamson as Mer­lin; op­po­site page, top, Nigel Terry as King Arthur; bot­tom, Paul Ge­of­frey as Perce­val

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