A young man unwittingly pulls the sword from the stone claiming the throne that will either unite a kingdom...or destroy it. Director John Boorman's bold retelling of the Arthurian Legend is meant as allegory not as textual interpretation or historical documentary. This is a tale of men who find honor at the point of a sword, where death is the result of an insult or deceit. Pumped full of testosterone, EXCALIBUR is a film of brutal men learning peace and compassion, that human nature is part of the dragon invoked by Merlin as flesh and earth become one.
Boorman's grandiose costume designs are as much a part of the narrative as the actors themselves, reflecting their passions and weaknesses. As Uther succumbs to his base lusts which proves his undoing, the grim iron armor is very primitive and archaic with Neanderthal-like helmets and skewed angles. As Arthur achieves the crown and peace settles upon the land, the armor becomes poetic and shinning, reflective of pure ideals and morality. As war once again settles upon the King’s brow, the burnished shields fade to the color of dried blood. The acting is full of machismo and potent masculinity, Shakespearean dialogue where nearly every word is an act of defiance or a command. Boorman is able to merge the fairy-tale with reality by showing the brutality of swordplay, the grim bloodletting of hand-to-hand combat, and the crushed exoskeletons of once proud men now reduced to food for a murder of crows.
The choreography is wonderful and captures the frisson of combat, fatigued warriors grasping and gasping for breath, heavy maces and long swords sparking against steel and cutting through bone. Boorman composes in medium shot without the need to cut to close-up or utilize flash-cut techniques which lend a violent verisimilitude to the film. The score heightens the suspense and underlines the action and the use of Orff’s Carmina Burana becomes a knightly resurrection.
The weakest of the majestic Knights, baptized in Lancelot’s rage, holds the chalice to a dying king’s lips and revives a kingdom. As the world blooms and a final battle is fought, magic slips into the past like a dream (or nightmare) and a once proud king gives his sword to the ages.
Final Grade: (B+)