Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
I didn’t plan for this to happen, but I just realized this is the third film I’ve looked at in a row that came from 1981. Employing a cast and crew from Ireland and giving a big break to some up and coming actors like Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, and Patrick Stewart, we have John Boorman’s epic take on the Arthurian legend: Excalibur.
The film focuses less on character development and more on archetypes and metaphors. If you’re looking for a deep dive into the reasons these mythological characters do what they do, there are other films that focus on the “why” better. However, if you’re looking for some gorgeous visuals and an interesting take on King Arthur and his Round Table, this should be right up your alley. It tweaks some of the details (combining characters, who does what), but the main story is the same with no major surprises. Arthur pulls Excalibur from a stone, becomes king, forms the Round Table, is betrayed by his sister and reborn through the grail. Boorman set the film up as an allegory for death/rebirth and the fading of the old religions and embracing of Christianity. There’s some heavy symbology at play here with Arthur’s ties to the land, Merlin and Morgana tied to the old ways, and Perceval’s quest for the grail to heal Arthur and the Kingdom.
What stood out for me as a kid when I first saw the film is Nicol Williamson. He is an amazing Merlin who walks that line of “knowing too much” cockiness and sincerity. He knows what’s going to happen, but even he can be surprised. With decades, perhaps longer, of trying to unify the kingdom he thinks he finally has a just and righteous leader in Arthur, after having a rash leader in Arthur’s father, Uther. In a great moment, after a battle instead of overcoming all of his enemies, Arthur takes a sincere form of capitulation to a knight, Sir Uryens, which could have been a bad move but ends up working out better than expected. This is the beginning of unification and the end of Merlin. He wasn’t able to see this happen.
What has stood out for me more over the years when I revisit the film is Perceval’s quest. Sure there’s the love triangle of Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot that takes up some screen time and pushes the story forward, but it’s Lancelot finding Perceval and bringing him to Camelot along with his rise in the ranks of the knights to end up being the one to find the grail that draws me in more on each viewing. And this is where Boorman’s Excalibur really comes into its own. With both Lancelot and Guenevere converting to Christianity and Arthur and Merlin tied to the land and the traditional pagan religions, it’s up to Perceval to help transition between the two. There’s a reason that after the final battle Perceval is given the task to throw Excalibur away, but can’t do it on his first attempt. Why spend 15 minutes of valuable film time on the first attempt when we know how it’s going to end? Because it matters as a part of the allegory and is a crucial part of the transition to accepting the new ways.
All this, plus you get one of the greatest pieces of music from Carl Orff and his Carmina Burana, “O Fortuna.” If you don’t recognize the name, you’ll recognize the music. It’s epic and sweeping and almost as well known as Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” His music is featured in the film as well. Also of note, this was Trevor Jones’s first full film as a composer, and he has gone on to a long and distinguished career.
As mentioned earlier, there are other films that delve into the motivation of these “historical” characters more (your mileage may vary as to how good they are), but for sheer epicness, grandeur, and beauty, this is the film I would recommend to anyone.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently not available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.