Excalibur. 1981. Great Britain. Directed by John Boorman. 140 min.
Screenplay by Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg. With Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart. Boorman’s lifelong love of King Arthur and the Grail cycle (“My childhood in river and oak forest had been steeped in the legend…. It is the atavistic homeland, the repository of fairy tales and myth”) culminated in this exemplary and enchanting film. Out of the many literary and operatic renditions of the Arthurian legend—from Thomas Malory to Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach to Richard Wagner—Boorman and co-screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg found the thrust of their story: the betrayal of Arthur by his wife Guenevere and his friend Lancelot. Infusing this with a sophisticated understanding of Jungian archetypes (Merlin as the trickster-magician whose pagan powers are diminished with the ascent of a singular Christian God), Boorman found contemporary relevance in the eternal struggle between nature and law, violence and order, and eros and reason, with man’s very existence poised anxiously between a primeval, Edenic past and a soulless, alienated present. Featuring a top-drawer cast drawn from the English and Irish stages, including Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Patrick Stewart, and a then-unknown Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne, Excalibur is also distinguished by the production design of Anthony Pratt and cinematography of Alex Thompson. As Boorman would recall, “We shone emerald light at the oaks and onto the swords and armor, to enhance the mystical sense of the forest as a palpable living thing.” Courtesy Warner Bros.