Viking Night: Excalibur
By Bruce Hall
October 7, 2015
So, you want to make a movie about King Arthur.
It’s really kind of a slam dunk, because whether you’re a middle aged drone slaving away in a cubicle farm or a member of ISIS living in a spider hole, dreaming up new ways to be the worst person ever, you’ve heard of the Knights of the Round Table. And even though most people aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the legend, almost everyone knows the basics. The Arthurian legends have got something for everyone - swords, sorcery, greed, betrayal, romance, violence, and on occasion, sex and drugs and rock and roll.
So you still want to make a movie about King Arthur? Okay, the only question left is which of the dozens of available versions are you going to use?
For the kids, Disney went with their usual sing-songy, talking animals approach. For the ladies, Jerry Zucker made an unintentionally funny version with Sean Connery and Richard Gere. For the dudes, Keira Knightley proved your high school teacher wrong by playing Guinevere in a leather bikini. Clive Owen proved that casting a film is harder than it looks. Monty Python threw the whole damn thing out the window and knocked the ball out of the park using nothing more than some coconuts and an animatronic bunny.
But the most common approach usually involves either T.H. White's The Once and Future King, or Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D'Arthur. John Boorman (Zardoz, Deliverance) went with the latter and conjured up the definitive 1980s version of the Legend in Excalibur. It's a beautiful, ambitious and baffling film, smothered with pretense and stuffed with top flight Shakespearean talent. Also, you could fly from Dallas to Miami, pick up your bags and get a table at Wolfgang Puck's in the time it takes to watch it. But despite all this, Excalibur remains one of the most fascinating and engaging interpretations you’re likely to see, and it’s no doubt worth your time - provided you have a lot of it.
Your nerdy friends will complain about the liberties taken with the source material, but the basic premise is more or less what you remember from eighth grade literature. Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) longs to be king of Britain, and enlists the help of the eccentric wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) to make it happen. In order to be king, he must not only wield the enchanted sword Excalibur, but prove himself worthy of having it. After securing the sword - and a truce with his greatest rival - Pendragon celebrates by trying to get busy with the man’s wife, Ingrayne (Katrine Boorman). Forgetting all about that whole “King of the Britons” thing, Uther concocts a plan with Merlin that allows him to get Ingrayne’s husband out of the way and have her to himself.
The result of this union is a child, which Merlin claims for himself. And because he’s such a jerk, Uther manages to lose possession of the sword, leaving it trapped within an impenetrable stone. Prophecy dicates that the man who can retrieve the sword and prove himself worthy will become the rightful heir to the throne. Many men try, but none succeed. As a result, Britain is plunged into chaos and famine. Fortunately, Uther’s son, Arthur (Nigel Terry) matures into a fine young man under the care of a kind hearted nobleman. One day, Arthur unknowingly manages to retrieve Excalibur and before he’s even old enough to shave, finds himself King of England. With Merlin’s help, he manages to unite the warring clans and bring peace to the nation. But he is warned that one day, his rule will be tested when he is betrayed by a close confidant, engulfing his reign in a quagmire of lust and betrayal.