Excalibur (1981)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 4/29/02
Director: John Boorman
Music: Trevor Jones
Cast: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson

Probably the best film adaptation of the King Arthur legend, but it seems to fall a bit short. It's a difficult story to tell, and two hours seems hardly enough time to cover his entire life. The film opens with the rash and rather violent Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) enlisting Merlin's (Nicol Williamson) aide to rape the wife of his greatest enemy. Merlin agrees, but only if he gets to keep the offspring of his lust. Thus, Arthur (Nigel Terry) is born, destined to be king of England. We next see Arthur as a young squire who pulls Excalibur from its stone prison. After claiming his right to the throne, he conquers and unites all of England and establishes Camelot and the Round Table. Arthur then marries Guenevere, is betrayed by Lancelot, and is seduced by his sinister sister, Morgana. As his kingdom falls apart, Arthur sends his knights on a quest to recover the Holy Grail in a vain attempt to bring peace to the land. Meanwhile, Morgana's unholy offspring Mordred grows to manhood and challenges Arthur for the throne, who is now an old and broken man. Arthur and his remaining knights ride into battle one last time to defeat Mordred and Morgana, and Excalibur is returned to the Lady Of The Lake.

There's a lot going on in this film, and despite the slow pacing it seems to frantically rush from one tale of heroism to the next. As a result, it seems to lack a certain amount of cohesion. The film is certainly beautiful to watch, the acting is very good, and the glory and splendor of medieval combat is faithfully rendered. Trevor Jones's score is big and bold, and Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" has never been put to better use. Sadly, the film looks rather dated now, and some of the visual effects seem to detract from the seriousness of the film. And despite the high quality of acting in the film, it seems to lack any dramatic punch. Classic events unfold in the film, but they're all told with cold and emotionless precision which makes the film feel a bit flat (or maybe I'm just getting used to melodramatic overacting - yikes!). But for a swords and sorcery period piece, it's definitely one of the best offerings out there, and Merlin is a hoot to watch.