Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Excalibur is a film whose sheer scale does justice to its subject in a way nothing else has come close to."

Few directors have the visual imagination of John Boorman. As a master of epic storytelling who creates worlds so fantastically detailed that they carry absolute conviction, he was always the natural choice to bring to life the legend of King Arthur. Over two hours in length and boasting a formidable cast, Excalibur is considered by many to be the definitive version of the tale. Though it is flawed as all great visions are, it is hard to imagine any other version coming close to its atmosphere and impact.

The story begins before Arthur is born and always centres more on the sword than on the man, giving it a darker edge which suggests otherwordly powers at work. This is vividly brought to life by the use of selected pieces by Wagner, bringing to bear all the authority of the great composer's work but judiciously edited to keep the audience focused. Though we can never be certain quite what is real, magic (and the belief in magic) is an essential part of this world, expressed through the mysteries of nature with fantastic lighting and a rich colour palette. The key figure in all this is Merlin, and Nicol Williams' performance in the role is truly unforgettable. Clad in a silver skullcap, uttering words in a forgotten language, he is at once completely over the top and utterly convincing. Whether he's a genius or a madman doesn't really matter. He is the only man who understands the forces driving good men to destruction, forces which seems to focus on the coveted sword, and he is Arthur's inspiration.

Copy picture

As Arthur, Nigel Terry is rather less charismatic, and this is one of the film's weaknesses. Though he convinces as the boy who draws the sword from the stone, he fades rather two much from our view as the established monarch. It doesn't help that he's surrounded by the likes of Keith Buckley and Liam Neeson, who steal scenes whenever they can. As other characters' story arcs rise, it's difficult to keep caring about him. Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi are also rather bland as the tragic lovers Lancelot and Guinevere, but their story is skillfully told, distantly, with heavy use of symbolism which reminds us of its mythic status and thus serves to imply that they are never in control of their destiny.

A stronger performance comes from the young Helen Mirren as Arthur's half-sister Morgana, a woman endowed with unusual perception but, perhaps, insufficient wisdom to accompany it. Bitter about the rape of her mother Igrayne (played by the director's own daughter), she has a clear motive for her ultimate betrayal and is never treated simply as a monster, as is the case in many other versions. Yet the film's later scenes, as her power grows and Arthur's wanes, are nevertheless spectacularly sinister.

For all its problems, Excalibur is a film whose sheer scale does justice to its subject in a way nothing else has come close to. With thundering battles, passionate romance, and a real sense for the legendary, it's a great film to watch with a group of friends and a barrel of beer, singing along to the Carmina Burana. Get into the spirit of it and let yourself be carried away.

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2008
Share this with others on...
Excalibur packshot
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Amazon link

Director: John Boorman

Writer: Rospo Pallenberg, based on the book by Thomas Malory.

Starring: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Robert Addie, Gabriel Byrne, Keith Buckley, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Niall O'Brien, Katrine Boorman

Year: 1981

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Black Angel
The Green Knight