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