1980s Fantasy Film Festival #6: “Excalibur” (1981)

For one, it features two fantastic, massively entertaining performances, the first one being the aforementioned Williamson as Merlin, in a significantly different interpretation of the character than is the Hollywood norm. Rather than the “crazy old wizard” look with flowing robes and long, white beard, he looks decidedly younger, with tighter robes and the skullcap of a medieval scholar. And although he seems human on the outside, his performance, dialogue, and actions make him feel truly alien and Fae, completely divorced from humanity. He isn’t just a human or a half-human with sorcerous powers but instead seems a living embodiment of a force of nature, an Old One in the form of a man. For example, he takes Arthur, as a baby, away from his screaming mother, without an ounce of compassion or remorse, not because he’s a heartless person but because he basically isn’t a person at all but a god-like figure whose concerns for providing the Land with the prophesied good king who will wield Excalibur nobly and create a veritable Utopia on Earth outweigh the feelings of one woman. He is inscrutable and ineffable, imbuing the film with a sense of true myth.

And then there is the one and only Helen Mirren, vamping it up as the delightfully evil Morgana. Now, this is far from the most feminist portrayal of a female character on film. All of Morgana’s powers are tied directly into her manipulative, all-consuming sexuality, and she is teeth-gnashingly EEEEEVIL, but this is also an issue with the source material. The Arthurian Legend is rife with a great deal of ingrained misogyny, and a revisionist feminist version of the tale a la The Mists of Avalon, this ain’t. As a performance, however, it’s a blast. Mirren exudes femme fatale venom in abundance, and devours the screen like it’s a triple-digit meal at a 5-star restaurant.

Morgana and Merlin

Morgana and Merlin

Patrick Stewart is also in it. Unfortunately, as Guinevere’s dear old dad, King Leodegrance, he doesn’t do much. He doesn’t even provide the Round Table to Arthur, as he does in Le Morte D’Arthur. But he is Patrick Stewart, and so worthy of note.

Same goes for Liam Neeson as Sir Gawaine. He leaves even less of an impression than Stewart, but he is, indeed, still Liam Neeson.

Next, there is the truly striking imagery that runs throughout Excalibur, which at times feels like an arthouse film take on a fantasy epic, at least visually and stylistically. It has a very surreal vibe and, while it fails as a character drama and even as a story, the strange gaps in time, logic, and narrative actually help contribute to its dreamy atmosphere. The film often feels like one is watching a dream: bizarre, only vaguely understandable events occurring one after another, in one long chain, with neither explanation nor reason, linked by ancient mythical archetypes and thematic symbolism, and imagery by turns vivid, hazy, and breathtaking.

The film is an anachronistic fever dream, influences from various points of English history conflating with legend and myth, some seemingly historically based, others pure fairy tale. Although ostensibly set in the Dark Ages, the arms and armor is of a style that came centuries later. Meanwhile, Camelot doesn’t look like an actual medieval castle but instead like something out of an animated Disney film, by way of 1980s decadence, with shimmering, reflective walls, and a very shiny (literally!), almost-art-deco Round Table that has to be seen to be believed:

The Knights of the Round Table

The Knights of the Round Table

There are moments of the film that never left my head, years after I first saw it: the Lady of the Lake’s hand rising, holding Excalibur aloft…

Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake

…Percivale’s dying vision of the Holy Grail…

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail

…and perhaps most powerfully, the sequence in which Lancelot fights himself. Now, although it starts off beautifully, visually speaking, the idea of someone literally fighting himself–usually in a dream–in a fantasy story isn’t new. One of the most famous spins on the trope is in The Emperor Strikes Back, when Luke fights the vision of Darth Vader in the Dagobah cave, only to discover, after beheading him, that he has Luke’s own face (a foreshadowing both of Luke’s parentage and comment on how easy it can be to fall to the Dark Side). The comparable scene here looks great but that isn’t the truly unusual part of it.

Author: Robert Berg

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