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HERE INBOSTON, the most intriguing thing about John Boorman's Excalibur--the new film version of the legend of King Arthur--is that it's playing at the same theater as Star Wars: because, if not for Star Wars, there probably wouldn't be any Excalibur. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum, shielded from social forces, and in this country, cinema--perhaps, the most commercial of all art forms--is controlled by money. Studios, not artists, for the most part, determine cinematic trends by what will sell. To capture audiences, they try to identify some vague "national mood," exploiting what they see as America's collective unconscious in return for big box office entertainment.
Good vs. Evil is in. Since they perceived the "national mood" as desperate, the studios give us heroes and Super-heroes restoring order to chaos. The champions of American mythology--comic book characters--are back in action. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Flash Gordon battles sinister Orientals in outer space. Superman defends Truth, Justice, and the American Way. The public wants the old heroes, the old stories: ancient themes provide the grist for almost all American movies. Whether this does indeed say anything important about America's collective unconscious is an elastic point, and one easily stretched to banality.
This perceived national mood, combined with the basic human fascination with myth, has prompted some of the most successful of the new pseudo-mythical, comic book adventure films. Star Wars bears similarities to several ancient myths, including the Arthurian legend (note the parallels between Luke Skywalker and Arthur, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Merlin, etc.) and it seemed only a matter of time until a major studio would turn to an original tale and package it as a suped-up blockbuster. Whatever the social or corporate logic behind its conception. Boorman has made Excalibur an exhilirating, hugely entertaining film.
At the outset. Boorman creates just the right mood of mystery and high adventure. After the opening credits tell us that we're in The Dark Ages ("The Land was divided and with a King.") we're thrust into a bloody battle between small armies of knights on horseback. Their armor splattered with blood and mud, they fight against the background of a bright orange sky, the bloodshot sun hanging low. The strange atmosphere of unreality intensifies with the entrance of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) who emerges from the mist covered in black robes, his head adorned with a glistening silver skull cap. Uther (Gabriel Byrne), boldest of the knights--soon-to-be father of Arthur--hacks through the earnage and calls out to Merlin "I must be King! I must have that sword! I must have Excalibur!" Merlin cackles "In time, Uther, in time." It's a marvelous seene. It promises L'Mort d'Arthur as grand pulp melodrama, with the perfect mixture of Marvel Comies and subtle satire.
UNFORTUNATELY, AFTER THE FIRST SEQUENCE--the tale of Uther's winning Excalibur and the conception of Arthur--the film slows down and Boorman's pacing remains erratic for the next two hours. Boorman gives us almost the entire legend: young Arthur's gaining Excalibur: Merlin's education of the young king: Arthur's courting of Guenevere: the establishment of Camelot: the love triangle of Arthur. Guenevere, and Lancelot: the search for the Holy Grail: the power struggle between Arthur and his half-brother/son (through incest) Mordred. Alas, the film stumbles between episodes, failing to connect the careful pattern of events coherently. The numerous battle scenes--exciting, if a bit gratuitously gory--always run too long. Even the tone of the film vacilates between tongue-in-cheek humor, and at other times, terrible solemnity. Perhaps, the scope of the legend overwhelmed Boorman. But whatever the reason for Excalibur's spasmodic quality, its lack of cohesion prevents it from achieving the epic effect to which it aspires.
Still, Boorman provides some dazzling images: Uther riding across a sea of dragon's breath: a bizarre scene that crosscuts an act of adultery with the gruesome death of the betrayed husband: Perceval, hanging, nearly dead, as his Other Self reaches for the Holy Grail. Alex Thompson's garish cinematography gives every scene a fantastical fiery glow and Anthony Praff's production design is, by inappropriate turns, marvelous and ridiculous. For instance, most of his medieval castles have a finely detailed primordial look, but his contrast to these palaces, the new and civilized Camelot, is a high-tech Xanadu full of glass and chrome and parapets that look like they're made of aluminum.
AS MERLIN--the real central character of this film--Nicol Williamson thoroughly enjoys himself, savoring his every line with a sly insouciance. With an amazing array of inflections and twitches. Williamson makes his wizard a peculiar combination of magician, clown, and guardian angel. His consistent brilliance gives the film its only consistency.
The other performers fail to find Williamson's easy balance of comic and serious. Nigel Terry, as Arthur, is solemn throughout, and never believable as the inspiration of a people. As his wicked half-sister. Morgana, Helen Mirren is appropriately fiendish. Cheri Lunghix is a competent Guenevere, but Nicholas Clay's Lancelot is a semi-comatose pretty boy.
While Boorman does not make Excalibur the extravagant tour-de-force it might have been, he does manage a fine depiction of an ageless tale without excessive tribute to the contemporary schlock impulse. If the times demand adventure stories, they should all aspire to the plain intelligence of Excalibur.
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