Gloriously over the top in every way, the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is given the John Boorman treatment in EXCALIBUR and it never fails to entertain even though it misses the mark and loses its way.
Loosely based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the film delves deep into the myth of the boy king starting with his conception born from the rash hubris of King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne). So taken by Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), the wife of his enemy, Uther sacrifices everything to spend a single night with her thanks to help from the magician Merlin (Nicol Williamson).
Arthur is the result of the coupling and per an arrangement between Uther and Merlin, he is given to the wizard to raise as his own. Given to a knight to protect him as a child, Arthur soon grows to a man (Nigel Terry) and unwittingly draws a magical sword named Excalibur embedded in a stone. Whoever shall do that would be the rightful King of England.
Using the wisdom he was taught, Arthur assembles the bravest Knights of the land and together they rule the land from Camelot and help it prosper. Unfortunately it is once again lust that will bring down a kingdom.
Arthur falls for Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and though she loves him as her King, her heart is absconded by Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), Arthur’s most trusted friend and noblest of his knights. This betrayal causes Arthur and the region to fall into despair and it’s a quest to find the Holy Grail that ultimately might save Camelot once and forever.
With operatic pageantry, costumes and music matched with “to the balcony” performances by the entire cast, EXCALIBUR revels in its grandeur. There’s nothing subtle to this movie, but even though it’s extreme, Boorman is still able to find true pathos and tenderness in the proceedings.
The first two-thirds of the film are rather good, unfortunately it starts to fall apart as Camelot and its King does. Ironically the quest for the Holy Grail, which should be the film’s centerpiece, is not only given a short shrift but it is also confusing and rushed. It’s a shame they didn’t take their time with it, because even though the movie is long, it could have used a more well-defined third act and could have made the final product even that much more epic.
EXCALIBUR is one of the best versions of the Arthurian legend, but a word of warning though, if you are looking for a King Arthur film to share with the entire family, this is not the one. Filled with excessive violence and gore, there’s also a fair amount of nudity and sex. It’s rated R for a reason.