"I was not born to live a man's life, but to be the stuff of future memory."
We shouldn't confuse the legendary Arthur with the possibility of a real-life Arthur. In 2004 we saw the mixed results of a Hollywood studio trying to base a movie on bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence regarding a real-life basis for the myth. It pays to go with tradition and the customary King Arthur of lore. It makes for a lot more fun, like John Boorman's 1981 production, "Excalibur," now available on high-definition Blu-ray disc. The movie is often visually stunning, and the soundtrack music, based largely on snippets from classical composers Richard Wagner and Carl Orff, is a joy.
For nearly fifteen hundred years the tales of Arthur have kept people enthralled, their appeal diminishing only in the latter part of the twentieth century when superheros with trench coats and capes full of gadgetry replaced knights in shining armor. But director Boorman ("Point Blank," "Deliverance") revived the folklore, the pageantry, the derring-do, and the magic that had worked so well for ages, and he couldn't have done it better. "Excalibur" is romantic and brutal, lyrically beautiful yet grittily realistic.
No one is sure if Arthur actually existed as mythology portrays him, but it's pretty clear somebody existed. Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe argues persuasively that the fifth-century British king Riothamus was the prototype for the character and that the remains of a settlement at Tintgagel and a fortress on Cadbury Hill point to Arthur's birthplace and the Camelot of legend. Whatever, for the next five hundred years the oral tradition celebrated Arthur's deeds. Then by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries came the histories of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the poetry of Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and others that really got the ball rolling. By the late fifteenth century Sir Thomas Mallory collected and wrote up the most famous narrative of Arthur's exploits, "Le Morte D'Arthur," 1485, and director Boorman based his film upon this account.
It is remarkable that Boorman and writer Rospo Pallenberg were able so successfully to condense most of the familiar stories into a mere two hours and twenty minutes of screen time. While the great love triangle of Tristan, Isolde, and King Mark is noticeably absent, along with Sir Gareth and Sir Galahad, almost everything else is properly in its place.
The picture begins with Arthur's birth at Tintagel on the coast of Cornwall, continues with his rearing by the necromancer Merlin, and relates his ascension to the throne by the pulling out of the sword Excalibur from the stone. Next, we see him uniting the various divided British kingdoms under one rule, then his marriage to Guinevere, and the subsequent betrayal of his wife and his best friend, Lancelot. Finally, in the second half of the film comes the Grail Quest, the collapse of the Round Table, the treachery of Morgana and Mordred, and the final battle and death of Arthur.
Any one of these episodes could be, and has been, the subject of an individual film. To have covered them all is quite an accomplishment. Boorman even manages to resolve some internal discrepancies among the many conflicting versions of the legend. Like where did Arthur really obtain the sword Excalibur? Was it the blade he drew from the stone, as some tales suggest, or was it the gift he received from one of the Ladies of the Lake, as other accounts would have it? The movie cleverly has it both ways.
If there is any serious controversy about the movie, it's Boorman decision to clothe almost all the knights in full body armor, even though neither a real-life nor mythical Arthur would have worn such gear. And not only does the director have his actors fight in full armor, he has them wearing metal suits almost throughout the film. At one point, a character makes love wearing his armor, which must have been painful to both participants. Still, it is knights in shining armor that people expect, so it is knights in shining armor that Boorman provides. I have to admit, historically correct or not, seeing Sir Lancelot sheathed head-to-toe in gleaming silver plate is a rousing sight.
Among the many elements that make the movie work is its cast. Nigel Terry plays Arthur from youth through older adulthood. While he is slightly more convincing as the naive youngster than as the world-weary old king, his performance is steady. Cherie Lunghi as Guinevere is beautiful and effective in her youthful buoyancy and her later maturity. Nicholas Clay as Lancelot takes on a part that calls upon him to do little more than look appropriately handsome and heroic. He succeeds. The real scene stealers, however, are Nicol Williamson as the canny Merlin and Helen Mirren as his nemesis, Morgana (also known in the myths as Morgan Le Fay). John Boorman tells us in his narration that the two actors did not like each other at the time of the filming, in fact, didn't even want to appear together; but Boorman thought the friction might actually intensify their roles. It seems to have worked.
The supporting ensemble is no less effective and features some prominent names: Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance, Paul Geoffrey as Percival, and Clive Swift as Sir Ector. Boorman filmed the movie entirely in the Republic of Ireland, and the location shooting is green and lush and luxuriant. Adding to the grandness of the action are musical excerpts at every turn from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" and Richard Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," "Parsifal," and "Gotterdammerung."
"Ready my knights for battle. They will ride with their king once more. I have lived through others for far too long. Lancelot carried my honor and Guenevere my guilt. Mordred bears my sins. My knights have fought my causes. Now, my brother, I shall be king."
A few years ago when I reviewed the HD DVD's VC-1 transfer of "Excalibur," I remarked that many of the film's scenes were intentionally dark and visible print grain inevitable, the image a bit on the rough side. It was not a big concern, but it seemed a natural consequence of inherent print grain and the effects of age on a thirty-year-old film. Understand, Boorman set out to make a dark and gritty film (these were the Dark Ages, after all). He sets much of his picture at night or inside dark castles or dark forests. Boorman meant "Excalibur" as a kind of medieval film noir; he was not after a pristine, crystal-clear look.
Now, Warners give us the Blu-ray edition of the movie, this time on a dual-layer BD50, using an MPEG-4 AVC transfer. Does it still look a bit rough and gritty? I compared the HD DVD with the new Blu-ray side by side, and the results surprised me. The new transfer eliminates much of the grain, along with much of the detail, replaced by a softer, smoother, often washed-out look. So the studio engineers seem to have replaced one concern with another. The new transfer will delight viewers who watch a lot of ultraclean, digitally shot television shows, but it may not fully satisfy the videophile who may feel the BD picture now lacks fine particulars and ultimate definition. Still, the colors show up well enough, and the new transfer preserves the overall dark aspect of the film.
Warners have upgraded the HD DVD's lossy Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 to the Blu-ray's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which, like its predecessor, opens up nicely in the front speakers, displays fairly wide dynamics, and on several occasions makes use of the rear channels. Nevertheless, voices still sometimes appear a bit sour and pinched, and the overall sonic delivery is somewhat hard. The lossless track also increases the sonic impact and the tautness of the deep bass. There were a couple of moments when I thought the room was going to shake apart from the disc's low-end reproduction of organ notes. Finally, the DTS-HD Master Audio made me more aware than ever of subtle rear-channel sounds, things like environmental forest noises, background voices, and musical ambience. These noises are few and far between, but thank goodness for small favors.
The Blu-ray disc offers no more in the way of extras than the earlier SD or HD DVD discs did. The main thing is director John Boorman's commentary track. Boorman has made all too few films, and the ones he has given us are uniquely personal. His inside look at filmmaking is worth one's attention. Otherwise, there are a generous forty-five scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and other subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
"Excalibur" is not the only good movie version of the Arthur legend; it's simply among the best. Among many other films with their respective charms are "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949), "Prince Valiant" (1954), "The Black Knight" (1954), "Lancelot and Guinevere" (1963), "Camelot" (1967), "Lancelot du Lac" (1974), "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975), "First Knight" (1995), "Dragonheart" (1996), and "The Mists of Avalon" (2001, TV). But none of them encapsulates so much of the Arthur magic as Boorman's film.
I know that many moviegoers today would rather see special-effects-laden sci-fi or fantasy extravaganzas than old-fashioned Romantic epics, but I hope we haven't dulled our imaginations so much by computer graphics that we cannot appreciate the excitement of chivalry, courtly love, prancing horses, and flashing steel. In the Arthur mythology we read that "Some day a king will come, and the sword will rise again." In "Excalibur" John Boorman proves that the feats of King Arthur and his knights can still capture and hold our attention.
"Here lies Arthur, the once and future King."