Tuesday, November 17, 2009

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

Now, First Knight was a terrible, terrible movie. We’ve established this in no uncertain terms. But, you may ask, what then is the measure of a good Arthurian film? Holy Grail is a comedy, so it doesn’t really count if you want to get nitpicky. So what then does count? Ah, to understand the proper way to tell an Arthurian movie, we must look at 1981’s Excalibur by John Boorman. It is a film long held up as a definitive Arthurian movie and subsequent films have all tried to do something radically different from it, like telling “the true story” of King Arthur. Well, let’s see what’s so special about this long, magic-infused epic that subsequent moviemakers haven’t even bothered trying to imitate it.

Whoo-boy. This could get long. Let’s just say that the focus of the story is a man and a sword, their fates entwined. Merlin arranges for the sword Excalibur to be given to King Uther Pendragon for the purposes of uniting England, but Uther gets blinded by lust and alienates the lords by betraying the Duke of Cornwall and sleeping with his wife (with some help from Merlin). A son is born from the union and given to Merlin. Uther is killed soon after. The son grows up into Arthur, recovers the sword and becomes King of England, uniting the land under his idealistic rule. He marries the lovely Guenevere, befriends the mighty Lancelot, but even then, forces are at work at the Court of Camelot that seek to destroy what he’s built. You know, pretty much the standard Arthurian story that follows his birth all the way to his climactic death. It’s a long movie at 140 minutes, but it covers a lot of ground.

King Uther: Gabriel Byrne in his big-screen debut. Uther is an ambitious man, eager to unify England under one banner; his. With Merlin’s help he gets Excalibur, a sword that can help forge that kingdom. Unfortunately, after settling peace with the Duke of Cornwall, Uther falls violently in love with Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne, and the two lords go to war. Merlin pulls some magic and Uther is able to ride into Cornwall’s court disguised as him and bed Igrayne (in a rather awkward love scene because he’s still wearing his armor). Merlin’s price for helping Uther in this is the child born of this union. Uther’s not in the film all that much, but he leaves a strong impression. He’s basically like Arthur but without the self-restraint.

Merlin: Nicol Williamson is this film’s glorious badass. Merlin is younger than one would normally expect. His beard is neither gray nor very long. But Williamson brings an incredibly over-the-top delivery with a peculiar accent that just makes him fun as all hell to watch. His delivery takes a witty stance when he needs to and completely deadpan when delivering his grim portents and prophesies. He’s an absolute scene stealer and a character that really gets a lot done.

Arthur: Nigel Terry has a lot to do in this film, basically playing Arthur from a young man all the way to old age. He does an all right job, delivering everything with a straight face, and he looks appropriate in the armor as a leader of men, but there’s just something missing from the character that I can’t place. There’s a fire that’s missing from Arthur for a lot of scenes.

Lancelot: Nicholas Clay is Lancelot, a knight bold and true and undefeatable in combat. Until Arthur pushes Excalibur over the limit to beat him (breaking the sword in the process: don’t worry, it gets fixed). Lancelot is Arthur’s greatest knight, but of course he falls in love with Guenevere and that whole situation comes up. Its handled much better here than in *shudder* First Knight. They know their attraction is wrong and Lancelot does everything in his power to keep away from her, but it just doesn’t work and the two do eventually do the deed (yielding quite a bit more naked Lancelot than is bargained for).

Guenevere: Cheri Lunghi rounds out the love triangle. She’s all right as the Queen of Camelot, and the movie does give her and Arthur’s romance time to grow before the marriage, which works in their favor when it comes time for the affair. Still, Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere all feel like weaker links in this film, especially compared to the Merlin subplot.

Leodegrance: Patrick Stewart (yes, that one) plays the smaller role of Guenevere’s father. A veteran warrior who sides with Arthur soon after the lad draws the sword from the stone, he’s a loyal member of the court and in Arthur’s riding to his aid, the king meets Guenevere. Sadly, Leodegrance disappears from the movie after the wedding.

Gawain: Liam Neeson in one of his earliest roles. He plays Gawain as a fairly simple big guy with an odd haircut (seriously, I don’t get why they did that). His major part is in challenging Guenevere’s fidelity to Arthur. After that, he fades into the background.

Perceval: Paul Geoffrey plays a plucky lad who wants to become a knight, eventually convincing Lancelot to take him to Camelot where he can become a squire. He gets knighted in order to help defend Guenevere’s honor. After that, he becomes the central figure of the grail quest, where he practically goes through hell to find the cup.

Uryens: Keith Buckley plays a lord that is most resistant to Arthur ascending the throne. After a battle, Uryens finally comes round and joins the court. He’s a minor character, but the fact that he keeps showing up consistently through the movie makes him worth mentioning, particularly for his part in the grail quest with Perceval.

Morgana: Helen Mirren (yes, that one) plays the scheming magician that’s Arthur’s half sister. She plays Morgana up as a vamp, sidling up to male characters like Arthur and Merlin to get them to do what she wants. She really hams it up, particularly in her mental duel with Merlin as she tries to seduce him in order to learn all his secrets.

Mordred: Robert Addie plays the unholy spawn of Morgana’s deceptive union with Arthur, the arrogant, ambitious, cruel Mordred. He makes a striking appearance with his gold armor and a helmet that basically serves as a mask (with golden hair and open for his mouth so that it looks like a corrupted face). The armor is ten times as creepy on the boy Mordred, played by Charley Boorman (the director’s son). Man those scenes with boy Mordred were creepy. That laugh alone can cause nightmares.

John Boorman, who directed Deliverance, Exorcist: II and the, er... "legendary" Zardoz, went full out with the look of the film. Completely throwing historicity out the window in favor of myth, his knights spend all their time running, lounging, playing and fornicating in armor, if for no other reason than it looks mythical. Filmed in Ireland, the movie has a wet, lush and very green feel to it that helps with the atmosphere. The movie definitely goes for the magical route of Arthurian legend, but does so more subtly than with puppets or guys in rubber dragon costumes, and I think that’s really for the best. Here, the magical stuff is shadowy, mysterious and you can’t really be sure its all on the level with the heroes, not even with Merlin. Also, the color green (usually reflected or lit up in an unearthly way) is a nice way of saying “magical stuff here” without being too obvious about it. The visual pacing is nice, with scenes moving along, but the movie does feel long, just by the sheer amount of stuff it piles on. The fight scenes on the other hand, well, they’re pretty clunky and slow moving, though not without entertainment.

Thomas Malory gets credited for Le Morte D’Arthur, which tells you how historically accurate this film’s going to be. (The answer is not at all.) John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg adapted the mammoth book into a big film, and generally do a good job of telling the Arthur story and hitting the major beats. The Merlin/Morgana interplay is mostly new though, and that’s also the part of the film that really stands out. I definitely have to give credit to a movie that manages to add some interesting new elements to the Arthurian Romance while still being a thematically faithful telling of the legend.

Trevor Jones wrote original music for the film, which works great, but the most memorable musical cues come from the use of some Richard Wagner and some Carl Orff. Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana being a signature sound for the film as it accompanies Arthur and his knights riding to battle. Good stuff.

Excalibur is actually a very fine film if you can get over the camp elements (like the constant wearing of armor for leisure and whatnot). The movie achieves an epic feel and really does succeed in bringing a mythological take on King Arthur. Its really more of a cult film now because some of the look hasn’t aged well, but for what it is, its probably the best straight faced telling of Arthur that uses all of the magical elements in the story. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t seem to want to try and surpass it on that front, instead going for “the true history of Arthur” movies that pile on the grime and filth and try to deconstruct the characters into the dust and owe more visually to Gladiator than to Excalibur. It’s a shame, but rumors are circulating that Bryan Singer is planning some kind of remake, which makes me cautiously hopeful for a mystical, thoroughly “Arthurian” telling of the tale.

And just to give you an idea of Merlin in this:

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