'Excalibur' is mighty in the sword, not the pen

by Khalil Ayvar | 7/26/02 5:00am

If you're looking for a grand medieval adventure full of guts, glory and a heroic quest, "Excalibur" (shown yesterday in Spaulding Auditorium as part of the Dartmouth Film Series) is a must-see cult-classic.

If you're looking for an accurate and scholarly interpretation of the Arthurian legend, look elsewhere.

Within the realm of blood-stirring epic fantasies, "Excalibur," released in 1981, certainly holds its own. It offers all the grandiose power of Malory's legend -- and not much else.

Based on Malory's 15th century "Mort D'Arthur" (Death of Arthur), this spirited film, written and directed by John Boorman, offers a commendable attempt at retelling the renowned story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The film opens with Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon (played by "Usual Suspects" star Gabriel Byrne) and ends with a mortally wounded Arthur (Nigel Terry) being carried off to Avalon.

The movie captures quite vividly some of the gruesome realities of medieval life and death, with almost a gleeful twist of the knife.

With the notable exception of the sword Excalibur itself (also ridiculously called The Sword of Power in the film), there is no clean slicing off of heads or limbs, but rather countless dullish weapons hacking repeatedly at the interfering armor (that is, after all, what it's there for). This style option certainly helps the film, giving it a slightly more realistic feel to the battle scenes.

Sorcerer and mystic Merlin (Nicol Williamson), who wears a funny silver skullcap throughout the movie, has some of the funniest lines in the work, resorting to erratically switching between dark and mysterious, cold and menacing and utterly insane with an outrageous sense of the overdramatic.

Though hardly reminiscent of the admittedly eccentric Merlin of English legend, one impressive detail is captured that is often forgotten or ignored in modern ideas of the strange wizard (read: Disney).

Merlin is made to be heavily Druidic, representing the fading of magical and pagan influence in medieval England, caused by the rise of Christianity of the time.

The remarkable sparsity of Christian imagery in the movie, however, even during the most Christian of quests -- the "Quest for the Holy Grail" -- is also a puzzling omission.

When asked who the Grail serves, Percival (Paul Geoffrey) -- most holy and pure of all the Knights of the Round Table, according to legend -- answers that it serves King Arthur.

In the film, Arthur is shown to be no more than a mere mortal, flawed and weak even in his strength and wisdom.

There isn't even any mention of what the Grail is, which leaves the uninformed viewer with the impression that the holy relic is simply some magical item out of a fantastical realm, much like an artifact out of a Dungeons and Dragons game.

Feminists beware: "Excalibur" reflects quite adequately the low esteem in which women as a gender were held in the Middle Ages. Misogyny runs rampant throughout the film, and it is expected in this story of an age ruled by men and their might.

There is no attempt to apologize for their portrayal of women as weak and wicked, and if that offends you, take it up with the armor-clad knights.

Viewers, however, can take some solace in the appearance of acclaimed British actres Helen Mirren, who portrays the evil sorceress Morgana in the film.

The music fits the tone of the piece perfectly, complete with the predictable "O Fortuna" not once but twice.

Beginning and ending with strong, strident, triumphant brass, the music quickens the blood and sets the heart to pounding, perfect for those glorious battles, heroic knights riding forth and the sorrowful passing away of a king.

If there is one flaw in the music, it is that it tries to instill a sense of unabashed grandeur and triumph even in some instances where it is not desirable.

The movie also takes a stab at providing pearls of wisdom, too. But these attempts amount to weak one-liners that don't really leave a lasting impression. It doesn't help any that many of these supposed truisms are uttered by the unpredictable and eccentric Merlin.

For a few hours of heroic good fun "Excalibur" is an excellent film, especially for the added bonuses of seeing a younger Patrick Stewart (Leondegrance) and Liam Neeson (Gawain) wielding a sword in bright and shining armor.

But if you want intellectual stimulation, "Excalibur" is just not all that sharp.

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