Retro Review: John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR Delivers the King Arthur Legend Back to Its Epic, Mythic Roots at The Plaza

Posted on: Nov 13th, 2012 By:

EXCALIBUR (1981); Dir: John Boorman; Starring Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Corin Redgrave, Nicholas Clay; Mythic Movies Series presented by the Mythic Imagination Institute at the Plaza Theatre, Thurs. Nov. 15; 7:30 PM; Discussion following; $10; trailer here.

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Writer

“I think of the story, the history, as a myth. The film has to do with the mythical truth, not historical truth; it has to do with man taking over the world on his own terms for the first time.” 

  • Director John Boorman, EXCALIBUR

Short: “Merlin: STAND BACK! Be silent! Be still!… That’s it… and look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then… this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, ‘I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!’ For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

Medium: John Boorman’s EXCALIBUR returns to the roots of the Arthurian legend following the familiar epic storyline of Thomas Malory‘s LE MORTE D’ARTHUR with some modern twists. The wizard Merlin aids Uther Pendragon in King Arthur’s conception. Merlin then has Arthur claim the Sword in the Stone to certify his claim to kingship. The story fast-forwards to first meeting between Lancelot and Arthur, who in a fit of pride shatters the Sword in the Stone. The Lady in the Lake restores the sword and the Knights of the Round Table are forged. Lancelot and Guivere’s betrayal shatters the land forcing the knights to desperately search for the Holy Grail.

Maximum Verbosity: There is a lot to say about this movie; and it tends to evoke powerful feelings by those that like and dislike it. But even on the most neutral standpoint, the movie’s cast is absolutely astounding. Liam Nielson, Patrick Stewart, Kathrine Boorman all appeared as moderate unknowns with 1980s stars Nigel Terry (THE LION IN WINTER), Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay and Nicol Williamson.

The visual style of EXCALIBUR is unique. Filmed in Ireland, British director John Boorman manages to capture a haunting fantasy in an era with stunning cinematography without CGI or advanced special effects. Boorman’s style is very reflective in this piece. He had originally hoped to do an adaptation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but was unable to find any backers for the project so he transferred the epic scope to Thomas Malory’s LE MORTE D’ARTHUR [Ed. note: which forms the foundation for most tellings of the Arthurian legend from T.H. White’s ONCE AND FUTURE KING to CAMELOT to MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL]. Indeed, I do feel that while the Arthurian mythos has been told and retold, the heart of the tale is often lost with modern sensibilities. Camelot is very often updated with another theme in mind instead of how it was originally conceived, but Boorman manages to capture that older sensibility in EXCALIBUR. His attention to detail helped bring this iconic story to life, for example, the old Irish in the charm of making or some of the more obscure elements taken from Malory’s original work.

John Boorman's son Charlie played young Mordred in iconic golden armor in EXCALIBUR. Photo credit: Orion Pictures Corp., 1981

Some reviewers have criticized what they sense as a “rambling horrific dialog,” but Boorman’s quirky storytelling also includes many more elements of the original mythology than most modern retellings. Boorman is also well known for the acid-trippy science fiction film ZARDOZ (1974) starring Sean Connery, the timeless DELIVERANCE (1972) with its haunting banjo music and violent portrayal of the rural south, and  HOPE AND GLORY (1987), a semi-autobiographical World War II drama. Indeed, DELIVERANCE gave the director the street cred to get a budget sufficient to make EXCALIBUR. Though his career has often had as many misses as hits, EXCALIBUR did achieve Number One status at the box office when it was released. Still, his work is quite distinctive, and elements of EXCALIBUR have found their way into many other films, including enhancing the common understanding of the Arthurian mythos.

If you are a fan of Boorman, King Arthur or sword and sorcery, I cannot recommend this film enough.

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30 Days of the Plaza, Day 14: New Mythic Movies Series Sprinkles A Little Neil Gaiman/Charles Vess STARDUST at The Plaza Thurs. June 14

Posted on: Jun 13th, 2012 By:

By Tom Drake
Contributing Writer

STARDUST (2007); Dir: Matthew Vaughn; Based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; Starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Ian McKellen, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro ; Mythic Movies Series presented by the Mythic Imagination Institute and prologue to Faerie Escape Atlanta convention at the Plaza Theatre, Thurs. June 14; 7:30 PM; Discussion following led by Lisa Stock (SNOW, GLASS, APPLES); $10; trailer here.

Short Version: A philosopher once asked, “Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?” Pointless, really… “Do the stars gaze back?” Now *that’s* a question.

Medium Version: THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) for a new generation. The Village of Wall stands between the world of Fae and our own. One day a star falls, and a capricious girl Victoria (Sienna Miller) sends a young man named Tristan (Charlie Cox) on a quest to bring it to her. So he does. And in the process finds everything he never knew he wanted, for while on our side of the wall, a star is a ball of super-heated gases, on the other side of the wall, the star is a beautiful girl Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is not so keen on being brought back across the wall.

Maximum Verbosity: What is a mythic movie? One might as well ask “what is a myth?” – for which one can consult a dictionary at any time. But the short version is that a myth is a story that works itself into our collective unconsciousness, that tells of a society (including our society) and becomes a part of who we are. In this postmodern world, the myths of many cultures work our way into the American melting pot. Why else would a Greek God like Zeus still be known to every man, woman and child of a civilization that is thousands of miles away from Greece and only claims a small population descended from that region?

Airship Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) dances with star Yvaine (Claire Danes) in STARDUST. Paramount Pictures, 2007.

The stories themselves have taken on a timeless quality and teach lessons that we learn and incorporate into our lives, very often without even knowing it. Fairy tales have been quite popular of late, and there is a reason for it. Most all of us learned about them growing up. But not all fairy tales come from the Brothers Grimm. Around the turn of the century, a series of fairy tale collections gathered by Andrew Lang based on color, THE RED FAIRY BOOK or THE GREEN FAIRY BOOK, graced many bookshelves around the world and were based on a world of Fae very different than the mildly mischievous Tinkerbell who makes the children fly in Disney’s PETER PAN. These Fae are beautiful, dangerous, insane, alien and haunting.

STARDUST is a tale inspired by these kinds of tales and does so with such perfect mimicry that it might as well be one. It has all of the class elements of the fairy tale, of course, including witches, magic spells, a crown to be won, romance, a heroes’ quest and unbearable loss. But it carries with it the innovation and freshness that modern fantasy diaspora provides – a world that makes sense in Fae with a ship that catches lightning and magic that acts much like science does here. Neil Gaiman (the author of the illustrated book upon which the movie is based) is an excellent writer, but the reason he enjoys such popularity is because his tales capture the epic feel of ancient myth with modern language in a way that makes them as meaningful to us today emotionally and creatively, as the older mythic stories were for the original people who were awed and inspired by them in the first place.

On the surface, STARDUST is simply a fun movie. It just wasn’t marketed very well, but it has a slow, small cult following that grows a little bit each year. The characters are very human, and you find yourself rooting for our hero Tristan, especially since at one point or another, we have all done something stupid to impress a girl (or, in reversed circumstances, a guy). But stupid though his task may be, he is bound and determined to do so. He is not only in love, and to a lesser degree his personal honor is at stake, but as he finds the star, alone and so far from her sisters, shining in the heavens above, he begins to have a change of heart. And a change of heart is what all great love stories are about.

Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) in STARDUST. Paramount Pictures, 2007.

On a deeper level, of course, all kinds of things are going on. The true value of sibling love, or rather the lack thereof is often manifest, and the mistakes of our predecessors are often echoed again and again. We often do incredibly stupid things because that is simply the way we have done them. There is the treachery of power, and how, once tasted, we will do almost anything, no matter how vile to retain it. And how of the many flavors of power, physical attractiveness is the most fleeting and superficial powers of them all. STARDUST is a story of what being beautiful truly means, a coming of age tale, and also deciding what it really means to be who you want to be.

And all of that is what makes STARDUST not only a “mythic movie” but an excellent one, for it teaches on many levels. Jim Henson (DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH) also was a master of this. He entertained children, but also entertained the adults at the same time with jokes that only they got. Gaiman tells an exciting story, but weaves in lessons as timeless as the stars they honor, and you enjoy letting him do it.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. It is fantastic in every conceivable way, and this Thursday at the Plaza Theatre, you will get a very rare opportunity indeed: to see it in a historic art-deco (REAL) cinema with an appreciative crowd. The odds of you wanting to own the DVD after seeing it are very high. See the movie.

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