Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Excalibur

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, November 8, 1999

Any man who would be a knight; follow a king: follow me!

Special features

Cast Information1
Commentary Track6

Hard to go wrong for the price, and this is the best retelling of the Arthurian saga that I’ve seen on screen. It also includes some early parts by Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Gabriel Byrne.

RecommendationRent Soon!
DirectorJohn Boorman
WritersJohn Boorman, Thomas Malory, Rospo Pallenberg
Movie Rating7
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating7
  • Enhanced Widescreen

This movie is one of the best swords and sorcery tales ever. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first of the modern swords and sorcery movies. It was filmed on a fairly small budget. There were at least three actors who were the director’s children (Ygrayne, Mordred, and the Lady of the Lake). This was also before computer animation, and is full of incredibly simple yet effective special effects. The beautiful deep green of some of the forest is simply because it was filmed in Ireland, where it rains all the time. But the green was occasionally enhanced through the simple measure of using green spotlights. The Lady of the Lake lying underwater? Half the time it was John Boorman’s daughter holding her breath underwater.

This movie is a tale of extremes, of the transition between states of being. Between the dirt of war and the garish cleanliness of Camelot. Between the many gods of the past and the one god of the future. Between dreams and reality. Between myth and now. Between the natural world and civilization.

Between a bad king and a good king. One of the more fascinating aspects of the story (and there are many) are the differences between Uther Pendragon and Arthur. It is especially obvious in the relationship between Uther and Merlin, and between Arthur and Merlin. Uther and Merlin each feel that the other is merely a tool. Arthur and Merlin are friends. When Merlin parts with Uther, Uther complains that his best weapon is gone. When Merlin leaves Arthur, Arthur asks “if I’ll ever see you again, old friend?”

The scenery is another wonderful aspect of the film. It is mostly filmed in Ireland, much of which is a short walk from John Boorman’s home. Some of the scenes you think must have been enhanced, they are so lush, and on the commentary track Boorman says, no, that’s the way Ireland is. “Of course, the price you have to pay is that it rains all the time.” Most scenes really gain from being seen on the big screen; the final scene truly requires it, and loses a bit on a television set.

Another win for this movie is that despite the prevalence of magic throughout, it is the most realistic Arthurian saga I’ve seen onscreen. It isn’t realistic in the sense of being true to the period (it isn’t), nor obviously in the sense of lacking magic (there is no question that magic exists in this world). In the fields and forests and mists of battle, there is no magic in death. If you are hit, you bleed. A deathblow kills. The acting is mostly magnificent—not least of which, probably, is that many of the unknowns were good enough that later they would not be: Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Gawain, and Gabriel Byrne as Uther, for example. Probably the only scene that really bugs me from a realism standpoint is when Uther has sex with his armor on. But if Katrine Boorman can live with it, I guess I can’t complain.

The movie starts in battle, with Uther’s men on horseback coming over a hill in silhouette, the silhouettes tinged red from the flames of their torches. It follows Uther Pendragon’s taking the sword, Excalibur (with Merlin’s help), winning the kingship of England, and through his lust losing both it and his life. And then Arthur accidentally freeing the sword Excalibur, winning the kingdom in his own way, and building Camelot for the Knights of the Round Table. And, of course, the coming of his son Mordred by his half-sister Morgana and Arthur’s final trip across the sea.

“Excalibur” is full of wonderful scenes. Arthur’s first battle, assisting his ally, Leondegrance, and being knighted there. The return of Merlin from Morgana’s trap. Merlin pulling a speech from Shakespeare the night under the stars when the final battle is won and England is one under King Arthur. And more that I’m not going to tell you because you might not remember them from the original legend, and they’re worth a surprise or two.

The Director’s Commentary is interesting. It gives us some insight into how the special effects were done, and more importantly it gives us some insight into how John Boorman directs a movie. All of the mirror surfaces apparently give some trouble: they have to make sure you can’t see the camera or the crew in the reflections!

The cast information is extraordinarily lame. It’s just a still with the major cast listing—no actual information about the cast at all.

Recommendation: Rent Soon!

DirectorJohn Boorman
WritersJohn Boorman, Thomas Malory, Rospo Pallenberg
ActorsNigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson
Spoken languagesEnglish, French
SubtitlesEnglish, French
Special FeaturesCast Information, Commentary Track, Trailer
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