In 1981, I went to the movie theatre with my sister to see a movie my older cousin had raved about. It was the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable--but a hardcore Rated R version with violence, sex, and adult themes. It’s hard to remember, but back in the early 1980’s, R rated movies were far more violent and sexual than they are now. In fact, before PG-13 was created in the mid-1980’s, even PG movies often had things in them that we would find completely inappropriate today for PG-13 movies. How I got into that movie theatre, I don’t know. And how I managed to see it three more times within the span of two weeks in 1981 at the age of 10 is also a mystery. I would never let my own son see a movie as graphic as Excalibur at that age, yet this movie, which my parents allowed me to watch, became probably the greatest artistic treasure of my life. For more than 30 years, Excalibur is a film I watch every two years. It is one of the few movies that makes me forget I’m on Planet Earth. When I watch it, I become completely enveloped in this film set in the Middle Ages.
Based on Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur," Excalibur tells the story of King Arthur, the rise of Camelot, the chivalrous knighthood of Lancelot, and the power of the sword Excalibur brought forth by the Lady of the Lake and the necromancer ways of Merlin the Magician. But this is no children’s tale. Instead it is an intense 2 1/2 hour drama that resembles Shakespeare more than a Disney cartoon or Lerner and Loewe's Camelot musical.
Throughout different decades of my life, "Excalibur" has meant different things to me. As a child, I could not get over the shining, gleaming Knights and those fantastic battlescenes. How cool to have been a knight like that! I rode an imaginary horse and played in the woods against imaginary foes trying to mimic scenes from Excalibur.
Directed by John Boorman, the film is set in early medieval England but was in fact filmed in Kerry, Tipperrary, and Wicklow, Ireland. I didn’t learn the word cinematography until I saw "Excalibur" as a 10 year old. The scenes in the film are so lush and pristine, that Ireland’s green forrests take on an unearthly quality. To this day, it is still considered one of the most beautifully shot films ever made. I spent years fascinated with the battles and the scenery. The movie which starred many people who went on to become famous: Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart just to name a few, was also exciting to me as a child because of their intensity and their memorable dialogue. The classically trained actors chose a style of acting that makes every line poetic and highly dramatic.
In my 20’s, my interest in "Excalibur" began to change. I began to become fascinated by "Excalibur’s" many parallels to the Bible. There is the story of King Luther who like Saul in Ancient Israel is a gifted, chosen leader who does not have the character to usher in a righteous kingdom. There is the sword itself, Excalibur, which in the movie serves as the annointing of God. When Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, he is granted God’s favor and a Kingdom to rule. And much like King David, Arthur holds a lowly position and is elevated to king because of his heart, not his brawn or his seniority. There is also the clear impact of sin which brings curses to that which was blessed. Snakes slither around in the background and one particular key scene very much looks like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—at first naked without shame before committing an act that has far reaching consequences. As with Ancient Israel, “the land and the king are one,” and only when King Arthur is acting righteously and the Kingdom is focused does Camelot prosper. The parallels with the Bible as well as the theme of man needing some form of link to divinity was one that kept me coming back to "Excalibur" in my 20’s.
In my late 30’s, however, Excalibur took on yet another new meaning. I could see much more clearly that the film is broken into three Acts: 1) the introduction of Excalibur and the rise of Arthur 2) The spectacular rise and tragic fall of Camelot and 3) The search for forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. As an older adult, I noticed that the movie—which is quite fast paced, is enveloped in a dark cloud over the final 50 minutes or so. There is a tangible heaviness that covers those final scenes. One could chalk it up to editing or inconsistency from the director, but instead, I see it as a very realistic story arc. Much like life, or the Bible, there is no complete restoration or resolution in this life. Instead, the darkness that settles in can be overcome, but only to a certain extent. There are consequences and there is death. Yet the movie does not end without hope. That heaviness that settles in fascinates me.
A further theme in Excalibur is the passing from one age to another. “This is a time for men” Merlin responds when asked by King Arthur why he is no longer around. The medieval era is ending and magic and faith will soon be relegated to quaint ideas as science and technology engulf the world. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment are not far away. This is the last great drama in a world of spirits, magic, and faith.
"Excalibur" has become a cult classic. Many movies attempted to copy it in the early 80’s and all of them failed spectacularly. Boorman never made a better movie. The movie introduced people to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana" which has since been used in many other movies and car commercials. And the use of Wagner’s “Siegried’s Funeral March” from "Götterdämmerung" makes it impossible to use that music for any other movie. I’m not sure anyone has ever tried. And the particular recording that was made of Wagner’s classic specifically for the movie is unmatched. I’ver never found a better recording, including George Solti’s direction of "Götterdämmerung"
This piece of secular art which my parents let me watch, ended up being one of the most spiritually inspiring events in my life. One that has had spiritual meaning for me in multiple ways over decades. Early on, I learned the power of secular art and still prefer it to this day over Christian art which often avoids nuance and ambiguousness. I hope that in my effort to be a good parent that monitors what my son watches and does, I don't prevent him from finding unexpected treasures of his own from the secular world. There are not neat and tidy endings in life. There aren’t too many in the Bible either for that matter. As I watched "Excalibur" yet again a few days ago I marveled at the power of myth to know us more deeply than we often know ourselves.
Note: The movie may not be for all. If you do see it, I highly recommend watching it on a big screen with a good sound system. This movie was made for cinema, NOT for small TV screens or laptops.
For a review of Excalibur. See my friend Greg Dorr's excellent review for the DVD Journal here.