EXCALIBUR Directed by John Boorman Screenplay by Rospo Pallenberg and John Boorman
Look at almost any new movie, and you will find its spirit fettered in realism, soldered to the everyday. When a film attempts to soar into the oneiric, with voluptuous imagery and italicized feelings, it is likely to be grounded by those air-traffic controllers of popular culture, the critics. Excalibur is such a film. Viewers are advised to decide for themselves if John Boorman's retelling of the Arthurian romance is a dove or a dodo.
Boorman set himself a task only slightly less daunting than the search for the Holy Grail: to tell, in 140 minutes, the epic of Arthur, Guenevere and the Knights of the Round Table. He has a millennium of tough acts to follow: Malory and Tennyson and Tolkien, Wagner and Lerner and Loewe. On screen in the '70s, George Lucas set the story in space (Star Wars); Robert Bresson made it austere (Lancelot of the Lake), and six English cutups made it funny (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) But Boorman has never been cowed by precedent or expectations. In Point Blank (1967), he twisted the gangster genre into a psychedelic ghost story. In Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), he torpedoed The Exorcist's bad-seed plot for a Mach 2 excursion into religious ecstasy.
Few followed, but Boorman has not clipped his wings with Excalibur: it is extravagantly conceived, and it sprints like a deer through the thickets of legend.
Compared with Boorman, the other two major mannerists of the English cinema Joseph Losey and Ken Russelllook like a pair of sensible shoes.
King Arthur, if he existed, probably ruled in the 6th century; tales of his exploits developed, from oral history to moral imperative, over the next thousand years. No visual style could capture his moment with historical accuracy. What is neededand what Boorman and Production Designer Anthony Pratt deliver is a ripe and consistent graphic vision. Excalibur is the handsomest film since Terence Malick's Days of Heaven, and is as alive to the subtle textures of earth, water and sky. The land leans gracefully toward the horizon to embrace Camelot, a fairy castle in Eden. The sword that will give Arthur his power rises suddenly, majestically, from a mercurial, brooding lake; a 300-ft.-high waterfall murmurs like silk in a soft wind; a soldier's lifeblood and the mud he died in become one. It is the morning of a new ageChristianity come to Britain but Arthur and Mordred, his son born of an incestuous dream, meet their destiny in a crimson twilight of the gods.
If only as pop-up figures in a pop-art pageant, Boorman's knights and ladies look just rightlike the children of a lost age or planet. Their acting is as green and lush as the rolling hills of Ireland, where the film was shot. Nigel Terry (Arthur) is no Sean Connery, the parfit gentil knight of Robin and Marian, but he passes persuasively from innocence to kingship to the realization that immortality can be won only through a fatal joust with his son and slayer. Cherie Lunghi too closely resembles a Covent Garden flower child to bring Guenevere to mature life, but her callow modernity wreathes Excalibur in later ideals of post-courtly love. Nicholas Clay makes an athletic Lancelot: he could be a dashing soldier of fortune or a knight in stainless steel.