The Museum of Modern Art

A Knight at the Opera: John Boorman’s Excalibur

Excalibur. 1981. Great Britain. Directed by John Boorman. © Orion Pictures. Courtesy Orion/Photofest

Excalibur. 1981. Great Britain. Directed by John Boorman. © Orion Pictures. Courtesy Orion/Photofest

On Saturday, November 15, as part of Monday, November 17.

Excalibur is the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a theater. It was 1981 and I was seven years old. (Luckily, this is not a parenting blog.) Suffice it to say that, while I had been introduced to the broadest strokes of King Arthur’s story courtesy of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, I was ill equipped to process a grand epic of war, lust, betrayal, incest, a great deal more war, Götterdämmerung, and salvation. Nonetheless, the sheer beauty—and, let’s be honest, brutality—of Boorman’s imagery had a more lasting impact on my imagination than even the standard, two-pronged American adolescent introduction to Arthurian legend: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a compulsory reading of [the Cliff's Notes for] Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

That a little kid should be so captivated by a film he only kind of understands is a testament to Boorman’s masterful use of color and composition. (Plus the Holy Grail quest is so heavily laden with Jungian archetypes that my seven-year-old brain was probably tapped into the collective unconscious.) It’s telling that contemporary critics were mixed on the film (though its reputation has grown considerably in the intervening years), with many praising its visual flair and deriding its screenplay. Roger Ebert, who was among these “beautiful mess” detractors, remarked, “The people in this film seem doomed to their behavior. They have no choice…. [The film] is a record of the comings and goings of arbitrary, inconsistent, shadowy, figures who are not heroes but simply giants run amok.” And yet that, it seems to me, is exactly the point; everyone in these tales is doomed—or redeemed—by the machinations of fate. Boorman’s film is brazenly operatic—even, occasionally, a little silly—because myths are meant to be larger than life.

Opera, indeed: Excalibur‘s main theme is Siegfried’s funeral march from Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung; its love scenes, staged like idyllic tableaux, unfold to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; and the Knights of the Round Table fly into battle accompanied by Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” from Carmina Burana. Subtlety is hardly the order of the day. The forests and hills are suffused with emerald light and full of creeping mists—I can’t imagine the fog-machine budget on this movie—and arms and armor gleam like headlights…until they’re dulled by gallons of blood. The excellent Nicol Williamson (Merlin) and Helen Mirren (Morgana) can hardly be blamed for chewing the scenery when they’re given so much of it to chew. As Pauline Kael put it, “Excalibur is all images flashing by—ravishing images—and though we can’t retain them, we drink them in.” I think she meant that as a criticism, but a lot of the time that’s what I go to the movies for—to be ravished and intoxicated. On that score, at the very least, Excalibur wins the day.

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