Movie Report: Excalibur (1981)

Book coverI’d had this film in the cabinet for quite some time, and I watched it instead of the growing selection of recent acquisitions spreading across the cabinets beside the television.

It has been a long time since I delved into Arthurian legend. I read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The King’s Henchman in 2007. I saw The Sword of Lancelot with Cornel Wilde and his wife Jean Wallace sometime after the turn of the century but before I started relying on Movie Reports to provide content for my great advertising and affiliate marketing empire keep my mind straight as to what I’ve seen and when.

This 1981 film retells the legend of King Arthur from the time of his father Uther Pendragon–who receives Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake and unites England, but throws it all away and relies on Merlin to help him seduce the wife of his rival. The union produces a son, Arthur, whom Merlin raises. Arthur then reuinites England pretty much off stage, and then he meets a knight errant and bests him using the power of Excalibur inappropriately. The knight errant, Lancelot, falls in love with Guinevere but does not act on it until a drunken Gawain, put up to it by Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, accuses them of adultery. Arthur orders a trial by combat, and Lancelot returns, and he and Guinivere consummate their shared love. Morgana comes to Arthur disguised as Guinivere and conceives a son, Mordred, whom she raises to supplant her half-brother. Arthur goes into a stupor and sends his knights out to find the Holy Grail which he hopes can restore him and England. So they all go out and look, falling into Morgana’s trap, except for Percival, who finds the Grail and restores Arthur just in time for a big battle where Arthur defeats Mordred but is mortally wounded, and Excalibur is returned to the Lady in the Lake for future distribution.

Sorry to ruin the story for you. Sadly, this is the 21st century, you know, and although school children will be exposed to many fine stories of today’s political mania, they won’t learn about the legend of King Arthur, and this would indeed be a spoiler alert for them.

The film is more ponderous than other sword-and-sorcery fare of the era, such as the Conan movies, but it is trying to be a serious film and a piece of art and not just entertainment and/or a blockbuster. The pacing is a tad slow for modern audiences, and of the films I might have caught bits of at my friends’ house, sponging off of their HBO and cable, this is definitely the one without the sword with three blades in it (The Sword and the Sorcerer, 1982, which now that I’m thinking of it, I’ll look for it).

Also, some of the anachronisms in the film kind of took me out of it–not a problem when dealing with the Hyborean Age, but still: the Knights of the Round Table ride around, alone, on horseback in full plate through the whole movie. If they’d cut more of those scenes, perhaps the pacing would have been better. But I think they might have been trying for the high-budget, good looking film, and shiny armor was that.

When I was reading up on the film for this post, I was stunned at the cast. Helen Mirren as Morgana–there’s a scene where Morgana, who had used magic to stay young, as the spell was broken ages into an old woman, and Helen Mirren clearly did not turn into a crone. Gabriel Byrne is Uther Pendragon. Liam Neeson is Gawain. Patrick Stewart is Leondegrance, one of the first to pledge to Arthur. I didn’t recognize any of them because they were so young.

I probably won’t watch this film over and over, and the previous owner did not, either, as the film still had cellaphane over most of it. Which meant the picture was amazingly clear.

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