Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, Robert Addie, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart
Thomas Malory (book, "Le Morte d'Arthur"), Rospo Pallenberg (and adaptation), John Boorman
Forged by a god. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a king.
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table receives its most impressive screen treatment in Excalibur, from visionary director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory). All the elements of Sir Thomas Malory’s classic "Le Morte Darthur" are here: Arthur (Nigel Terry) removing the sword Excalibur from the stone; the Round Table’s noble birth and tragic decline; the heroic attempts to recover the Holy Grail; and the shifting balance of power between wily wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and evil sorceress Morgana (Helen Mirren). With Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson in notable early screen roles.
$4.519 million on 692 screens.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Runtime: 140 min.
Release Date: 3/8/2011
• Audio Commentary with Director John Boorman
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Excalibur [Blu-Ray] (1981)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 25, 2011)
I suppose that I should admit this up front: I've never been terribly interested in the "Arthur" legend. (King Arthur, that is, though Dudley Moore never much interested me either.) It's not something I can easily describe. I certainly understand the appeal of all that "swords and sorcery" stuff, and I actually really like computer games that revolve around the subject (Wizardry, Heroes of Might and Magic), but movies or books about it usually leave me cold.
Nothing about 1981’s Excalibur changed my mind. I can't say that it was a poorly made film, but it had enough faults to keep me from maintaining much interest in it.
King Uther (Gabriel Byrne) seeks domain over all that he sees, and he uses the talents of wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) to grant him access to Excalibur, the sword of power, so he can achieve his goals. Uther achieves an accord with the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave), but he blows it when he decides he must do the nasty with Cornwall’s sex wife Igrayne (Katherine Boorman).
To bed her, Uther gets Merlin to make him look like Cornwall. Merlin agrees – for a price: Merlin will possess the product of their union. This means a son who comes along nine months later. Uther doesn’t care for this arrangement, but Merlin prevails, partially because soldiers loyal to Cornwall kill Uther.
Before he dies, Uther buries the sword in a stone - a stone that waits the “one true king” to retrieve it. Merlin casts a spell on the sword that means only the proper heir can remove it. This happens when 16-year-old Arthur (Nigel Terry) needs to grab a weapon for his guardian Sir Ector’s (Clive Swift) son Kay (Niall O’Brien). This leads Arthrut to become king, and we follow the various adventures and relationships, some of which focus on Arthur’s half-sister, sorceress Morgana (Helen Mirren).
I found two main flaws with Excalibur. For one, the acting seemed pretty weak. One major drawback with any film of this sort is the stilted, overly dramatic language the characters have to speak, and this aspect appeared even worse than usual in Excalibur. Almost to a one, the actors chose to really go over the top with their line deliveries; most of them use these incredibly emotive, pseudo-Shakespearian readings that often seem much more artificially intense than is necessary. I got the feeling that none of these folks could ask to borrow a cup of flour without trying to make it sound like a matter of life or death.
That qualifier "trying to" is an important one, for I felt that all of this emotional intensity undermined rather than supported the project. So much of the material came across as ridiculously overwrought. I understand that actors in this sort of film have to walk a very thin line between casual and dramatic; for example, more subdued performances of this kind of material can seem somewhat silly, like Dennis Quaid's semi-Valley Boy work in Dragonheart. Nonetheless, I found the acting in Excalibur to fall too far on the emotive side of the equation, and that made the movie less entertaining to me.
In regard to individual actors, I only thought a couple of them did good work. Actually, only Nigel Terry as Arthur really impressed me to any degree. I didn't care for his voice work, but he did a very good physical job with the role. Arthur is clearly the most demanding part in the film; not only is he the central character, but Terry had to play the role as a young man all the way through semi-old age (his fifties, I'd guess? It's not clear how old Arthur should be at the end of the film). Terry sounded silly, but he used his body and his attitudes to nicely convey the different moods of the king; frequently it appeared that another actor was performing the role, a fact partly due to makeup, but mainly the result of Terry's convincing portrayal.
After Terry, no one else - not even the accomplished Helen Mirren - impressed me. Of the main actors, Nicol Williamson's Merlin was so far over the top that he teetered dangerously on the edge of camp. No, I take that back - Williamson did descend into the world of campiness as Merlin. It's a silly performance that left me cold.
As Arthur's number one guy Lancelot, Nicholas Clay managed to provide a pretty presence, but that's about it; he invested the role with little power, authority, or emotional nuance. Well, at least he's attractive; that's more than I can say for the female in the Camelot love triangle, Cherie Lunghi's Guenevere. Granted, maybe she just doesn't fit my taste in women, but I found her to be rather unattractive. This is the woman who so fascinated our two heroes? She's not a skank or anything, but she's no royal beauty either. Unlike the other hyper-emotive actors, she seems much more subdued; however, that may not be such a great thing, as it reduced her presence to an almost invisible level and she made very little impression on me.
Mirren's Morgana, however - wow! While Mirren’s aged well, I never knew that she'd ever looked so good. Unfortunately, I didn't think much of her acting; she seemed bitten by the "ham bug” as well, and invested far too much of that attitude into her performance.
Interestingly, Excalibur offered early roles to some now well-known actors; Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart all feature in supporting roles. None of them were terribly interesting, though I did find Byrne's bit the most interesting. That's because of all the vocal emoters, he was the king. He went so over the top with his line readings that I barely recognized him. I thought to myself that it sure looked like Byrne but it sure didn't sound at all like him. It was him, though, biting off hunks of scenery at a time. (I suspect that another actor may have dubbed Byrne’s lines. During his audio commentary, director John Boorman mentions Byrne's accent in a not-terribly-complimentary way, and I thought he might tell us that someone else did his voice. If that's the case, however, Boorman never actually says it.)
My second problem with Excalibur was the brevity of the piece. At 140 minutes, it's a long film, but not lengthy enough to adequately cover its story. It simply felt like all of the aspects of the Arthur legend were rushed through and abbreviated. Boorman may have bitten off more than he could chew, and the film might have benefited from focusing more closely on some portions of the legend rather than the whole thing. Excalibur literally includes enough story material for five or six movies; the attempt to pack so much into so little time doesn’t succeed.
Enough griping: so what did Excalibur do well? It's a grand looking film, with lush settings and convincing props and costumes. Excalibur apparently had a relatively modest budget, but Boorman created a film that appeared much more costly. Although the story seemed condensed, Boorman did a nice job of moving things along; he kept the action going and managed to makes the multiple transitions between different eras without much difficulty.
Despite these positives, the end result left me cold. I didn't think that Excalibur was a bad film; it's actually somewhat entertaining at times. I just felt that it had enough shortcomings to substantially mar the affair.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus C+
Excalibur appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. Though never a stunning presentation, the transfer fared well
For the most part, sharpness appeared positive. The movie often took on a dreamy, diffuse look that meant definition could be a bit off, but I suspected that most of that connected to photographic choices, not problems with the transfer. A little unexplainable softness still occurred, but I felt the majority of the movie offered good delineation.
No examples of jaggies or moiré effects marred the image, and edge haloes remained absent. Given the inherent graininess of the film, I feared that excessive digital noise reduction might rear its ugly head, but I didn’t get that sense here. The movie came with a lot of grain and showed a natural appearance. As for print flaws, there was little on display; the flick looked clean.
Colors reflected that airy dreaminess I mentioned earlier. The movie went with an earthy palette that rarely got a chance to shine; some purples looked rich, but most of the image was subdued. This meant a borderline drab sense of hues, but I thought they fit the film’s design most of the time. Blacks were reasonably dark and tight, while shadows showed pretty good clarity. I doubt the movie’s ever looked better than it did here.
As for the film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, it showed its age but usually satisfied. The soundfield opened things up in a fairly positive manner. Music offered nice stereo delineation, and effects broadened our horizons in an engaging way. Most of this concentrated on the front speakers; these could be somewhat “speaker-specific”, but they offered a good level of activity – especially during battles – and showed decent panning.
The surrounds didn’t have a lot to do, but they made themselves known at times. These instances usually occurred during battles, and those sequences could give us some useful elements. Though I’d be hard-pressed to point out anything truly memorable, the track featured the back speakers in a way that allowed them to bolster the presentation.
Audio quality seemed fine given the movie’s age. Speech varied from natural to brittle, but the lines usually sounded concise, and they rarely suffered from edginess; dialogue was consistently intelligible. I thought the music could be a little boomy at times – it showed a few instances of too-loud bass – but the score seemed lush and full the majority of the time.
Effects also tended to be up and down, but they satisfied more than they disappointed. Again, some low-end appeared loose, but other instances of bass appeared rich and deep. Though a bit of distortion occasionally marred the effects, they generally came across as acceptably concise and accurate. While nothing here dazzled, the track was better than average for its age.
How did the picture and sound of this Blu-Ray compare with those of the original DVD from 1999? Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of that disc, but based on my old notes, I’m sure the Blu-ray greatly surpassed it in terms of quality. It appeared to boast a clearer, more natural and better balanced soundtrack, and the visuals seemed to be cleaner and more distinctive. Heck, I wasn’t happy with the picture on a 27-inch 4X3 TV, so I can’t imagine it would hold up well on a 50-inch 16X9 set. Expect a much superior presentation of the film.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we get an audio commentary from director John Boorman. He offers a running, screen-specific chat the covers his intentions for the project, cast and performances, cinematography, sets and locations, effects, stunts and action, props, music and armor.
Boorman makes for an engaging presence who helps me appreciate and enjoy the picture to a greater degree. We get good notes about the production and nice insights such as remarks about the negativity between actors Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren. Though we find more dead spots than I’d like, Boorman gives us a solid chat here.
While not a genuinely bad fantasy epic, Excalibur lacks consistent positives. It seems campy and over the top as well as abrupt and abbreviated; it doesn’t have enough screentime to adequately explore its legends, so its actors feel that if they emote enough, we won’t notice. We do, and the movie suffers for these flaws.
As for the Blu-ray, it becomes easily the strongest rendition of the film to date. Although picture and audio show their age, they’re usually pretty good, and they deliver the movie in a satisfying manner. In terms of supplements, an interesting commentary adds value to the set. I don’t think much of the flick, but fans will feel pleased with this nice release.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars|| Number of Votes: 3|