Had a trip back in time today, in two ways. I watched a movie that was released in 1981 and was set in Albion during the late fifth / early sixth century and concerns the legends surrounding King Arthur.
The film, “Excalibur”, was directed by John Boorman (“Deliverance”, “Point Blank”) and is best described as a fantasy drama. Filmed entirely in Ireland, it is based on the various stories contained in a collection of stories written and compiled by Sir Thomas Malory entitled “La Mort d’Arthur” which was originally published in 1485.
The sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson – “Black Widow”) takes the legendary sword Excalibur from the Lady In The Lake and gives it to Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne – “The Usual Suspects”, “Ghost Ship”) who uses it to secure a peace pact with the Duke Of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave – “Persuasion”).
That peace is shattered by Pendragon’s lust for Cornwall’s wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman – “Hope And Glory”). Whilst Cornwall is away from his castle chasing Pendragon’s men, Merlin is persuaded to temporarily transform Pendragon to look like Cornwall so that he can seduce Igrayne, on the condition that Merlin can keep whatever results from Pendragon’s lust. Igrayne is impregnated during the subsequent encounter, even as Cornwall is dying in battle – something sensed by his and Igrayne’s daughter Morgana.
Nine months later Merlin returns to claim the new-born son of Igrayne and Pendragon, who he names Arthur. In pursuit, Pendragon is killed but thrusts Excalibur into a stone as he is dying. Merlin then declares that whoever will be able to withdraw the sword from the stone shall be King.
The film then shoots forward in time some years where we witness Arthur (Nigel Terry – “The Last Of England”) attend a jousting tournament and remove the sword from the stone when all others, including Sir Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart – “X-Men”), have failed. Arthur later meets Leondegrance’s daughter, Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi – “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”) and falls in love with her.
A further jump forward sees the meeting of Arthur and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay – “Sleeping Beauty”), the foundation of the Round Table and Camelot, Lancelot also falling in love with Arthur’s new bride Guenevere, and the reappearance of Morgana (Helen Mirren – “Brighton Rock, “The Debt”) who wants to become Merlin’s apprentice.
Later, Morgana uses her powers to influence Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson – “Taken”, “Darkman”) to accuse Guenevere of driving Lancelot away with her desires, so forcing Lancelot to defend Guenevere’s honour in a duel. Arthur then discovers the lovers in the forest together and thrusts Excalibur into the ground between their sleeping bodies.
Merlin is subsequently enchanted by Morgana, who in turn disguises herself as Guenevere in order to get Arthur to impregnate her. The result is a child, Mordred (Robert Addie – “Robin Of Sherwood”), and a curse upon the land causing famine and sickness. In an attempt to end the curse, Arthur sends his knights out in search of the Holy Grail.
Years later most of the knights are dead at the hands of Morgana and Mordred. However, Perceval (Paul Geoffrey – “Greystoke – The Legend Of Tarzan”) manages to unlock the mystery and bring the grail to Arthur who is revitalised – as is the land.
Arthur is reconnected with Guenevere, who has kept Excalibur safe, whilst Merlin wakes from his enchanted state and is able to trick Morgana into using up her powers, leading to her death. Arthur and his remaining knights fight the Battle Of Camlann against Mordred’s larger army, and are boosted by the return of Lancelot. Finally, Excalibur is returned to the Lady Of The Lake by Perceval as Arthur is taken off to the island of Avalon.
I missed this movie when it was first out, as I was too young to watch it at the time and, sadly, did not have a great interest in history once I was old enough! Those days are way behind me, though, and I do now enjoy a good movie about this country’s history.
As well as huge portions of the Arthurian legends, the film also has hints of the conflict between paganism and Christianity in that era and the Druid origins of Merlin as his many gods are usurped by the one god of Christianity.
This is a long film at two hours and twenty minutes and still contains quite a few jumps in time, as I have noted. The timespan covered is essentially the whole of Arthur’s life (starting even before his conception) so there is a lot of ground to cover. This means that from time to time the movie feels a little disjointed and you could lose track of what’s going on if you don’t pay close enough attention.
That said, the production values are really strong and I think that the film holds up really well thirty four years after it first appeared. The acting is really very good and the staging, costumes and cinematography are excellent, transforming the beautiful Irish landscape into the mainland of the Dark Ages.
A hugely enjoyable slice of our mythical history…