Release Date: April 10, 1981 (US)
Starring: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Helen Mirren, Paul Geoffrey
Directed by John Boorman; Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur); Cinematography by Alex Thomson; Edited by John Merritt
John Boorman’s classic Excalibur is one of a handful of films that has had a profound effect on me from the first time I watched it (in case you’re curious, the others are Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso), and to say this film hit me at the right time is an understatement. I missed out on seeing Excalibur on the big screen at my local movie theater in April 1981, but the day the film launched on cable television I was hooked to the point where I noted each screening listed in the monthly cable guide to watch it every chance I could. Excalibur is an incredible film on all levels, especially the production design and costumes that make earlier films of the genre look too polished (the look of the film was said to be influenced by Roger Christian’s lost but ultimately rediscovered 1980 short film The Black Angel). Excalibur also came in my life as my interest in Dungeons & Dragons developed, opening my mind to a world of imagination and creativity that extended to storytelling and art (I’ve lost count of how many knights, wizards, thieves and rangers I drew back then!). So Excalibur is a very personal film for me because with each screening, even forty years later, I’m transported back to a time in my life when a group of us would meet up Saturdays for a marathon D&D game that would last into the night.
Excalibur begins with a night battle of armored knights thundering through the forest on their armored, snorting horses. Merlin (Nicol Williamson) surveys the field as the armies of Uther and Cornwall face off in the fog, swords clanging against their heavy plate mail. Uther (Gabriel Byrne) confronts Merlin about the sword he was promised, but Merlin will only give it to him if he wages a truce. The next morning, the arm of the Lady of the Lake rises from still waters to produce Excalibur. With Excalibur in hand, Uther offers his enemy Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) the lands to the sea if he enforces Uther’s will as King. As they feast to celebrate their truce, Uther can’t keep his lustful eyes off of Cornall’s wife Igrayne (Katryne Boorman), and casts the newfound peace aside to wage a war for another man’s wife.
As his army lays siege to Cornwall’s castle, Uther requests Merlin’s magic as an advantage. But Merlin will only oblige in return for the product of Uther’s lust. Uther pulls his army back, and that night Merlin uses the Charm of Making to draw in the fog, which pulls Cornwall’s men out to battle Uther’s army. Merlin transforms Uther into the form of Cornwall so he can enter the castle. Meanwhile, Cornwall is killed when he is thrown off of his horse and impaled. At that moment his daughter Morgana senses his death, but Uther arrives in the form of Cornwall and tricks Igrayne into giving herself to him. She is in disbelief the next morning when the real Cornwall’s dead body is brought back to her.
Nine months later, Igrayne has given birth to Uther’s son. But his joy as a father is short lived when Merlin arrives to receive his end of the bargain: their baby. Igrayne now realizes it was Uther that arrived in Cornwall’s place that night during the battle, screaming as Uther rips their child from her arms and hands him to Merlin, who leaves under the creepy eyes and silver tongue of Cornwall and Igrayne’s daughter Morgana. The next morning as Uther rides through the forest to get back his child, he’s ambushed and severely wounded. He staggers through the mud with Excalibur in hand to keep it from his enemies. He declares that no one will wield Excalibur but him, thrusts the sword into a stone with the last of his strength and dies.
Years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) serves as a squire to his father Ector (Clive Swift) and brother Kay (Niall O’Brien). A joust is held to give victorious knights the right to try to draw Excalibur from the stone and be named king, but the sword does not free itself for the unworthy. Arthur forgets his brother Kay’s sword back at their tent, but by the time he gets to it, it’s been stolen. Arthur chases the young thief to retrieve it but soon loses him in the woods. In desperate need of a sword he’s faced with Excalibur glowing in the stone and innocently pulls it free. Kay finds Arthur holding Excalibur, and Ector orders him to put it back in the stone so the people can see him free it. Uryens (Keith Buckley) forces his way to the stone to attempt to free it. But the sword won’t move for him and the worthy Arthur easily pulls the sword from the stone again to be declared king. Ector confesses to Arthur that Merlin brought him as a baby to them to raise as his son. Merlin appears to tell Arthur he is the son of Uther and the new king, but Uryens and his men declare trickery by Merlin and sides are drawn.
Arthur escapes the crowd to follow Merlin into the woods, questioning his ability to be king. Merlin tells him as king he will be one with the land and the land one with him. The next morning as Arthur starts to get a feel for the sword, he follows Merlin to his destiny: Leondegrance’s castle at Cameliard is under siege and Arthur leads his new allies to defend him.
Arthur and his new army arrive to the castle of a severely outnumbered Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart), who can barely hold Uryens’ men from scaling the wall. His daughter Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) sees the brave squire turned king scale the castle walls and single-handedly fight his way save Leondegrance. He then jumps into the moat, knocking Uryens off his horse and forcing him to swear faith to him as his king. Uryens refuses to swear faith to a squire, so Arthur hands him Excalibur to knight him to the surprise to everyone around him. Uryens is overtaken by Excalibur and knights the young king, swearing his undying loyalty. After the battle, Guinevere stitches up Arthur’s wound and wins his heart.
Fast forward to an older, confident Arthur who is faced with a single knight that his army cannot defeat: Sir Lancelot. Each of his knights defeated handily by the lone knight, Arthur faces Lancelot on a bridge and commands him to move for them to pass. The coolly confident Lancelot, burdened with the curse of not finding a worthy match that can defeat him, challenges Arthur to a joust. Arthur is knocked off of his horse but refuses to yield. Lancelot has the advantage but accepts hand to hand combat, making it look too easy as Arthur’s rage gets the best of him. Lancelot draws blood and Arthur is knocked onto the rocks of the falls below them. Arthur calls on Excalibur’s power and by his rage the sword breaks in half as it knocks out Lancelot. Disgusted with himself and his treatment of the worthy opponent Lancelot, Arthur throws the broken Excalibur into the water, ashamed of his vanity destroying the sword of his father. The Lady of the Lake appears with a mended Excalibur, and at Merlin’s prodding Arthur takes it from her hands in disbelief. Lancelot, finally bested and having given up his castle and land, pledges himself to the king. Time passes, and after a successful battle that ends a war Arthur calls his knights together, pledging to build a round table to tell their deeds, a castle around the table, and to marry a queen to bear an heir.
But the future the Arthur hopes for is thrown off course when Lancelot is tasked with escorting Guinevere to the wedding, and their hearts are brought together. Lancelot’s loyalty is pledged to the king, but his love to Guinevere, keeping that love in check by spending much of his time away from Camelot and the new queen. This arouses the suspicion of the now adult Morgana (Helen Mirren), who pushes Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) to accuse Guinevere of infidelity with Lancelot. Lancelot successfully defends her honor, but they ultimately give in to their temptation. Arthur discovers their infidelity and thrusts Excalibur into the ground between their sleeping bodies. Guinevere and Lancelot wake up, horrified by the sight of Excalibur. A king without a sword will lead to a land without a king, plunging the kingdom into despair and hunger for years to come.
No spoilers here. Each scene in Excalibur is reminiscent of a pre-Raphaelite painting (see John William Waterhouse’s 1888 painting The Lady of Shalot and Sir John Everett Mills’ Ophelia), with director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hell In the Pacific) filling the screen with imposing armor designed by Terry English and the lush greens of the production’s filming locations in Ireland (Cahir Castle in County Tipperary was the location of Leondegrance’s castle). The young cast is a Who’s Who of today’s dramatic royalty which includes Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and the amazing Helen Mirren. I was a surprise to me that many critics in 1981 were dismissive of the film. While Boorman’s and Rospo Pallenberg’s adaptation deviates from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur, Excalibur truly stands on its own as a pure fantasy film for its sincere, uncomplicated story. And that sincerity is unmatched by the more recent Arthurian fantasy films that with all of their flash never had the heart of Excalibur. Boorman’s direction, the cast, production design (especially the armor!) and locations are magic on the screen, critics be damned. And one magical sword gave us one timeless classic.
Release Date: April 10, 1981
Starring: Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest
Written and Directed by George A. Romero
The other (kinda sorta) Arthurian themed film released on a crowded April 10th weekend was horror director George A. Romero’s Knightriders, starring Ed Harris as the king of a traveling renaissance fair complete with knights competing in jousts on motorcycles. The film is a deviation from Romero’s better known horror films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) as a heartfelt but exciting drama representing the dynamics and social structure of the film’s renaissance fair troupe and the king trying to keep them together. But it’s the motorcycles that set the film apart from what could have been a straightforward drama, lending an authentic cool factor to the story. Like Excalibur, Knightriders was also a favorite of mine when it debuted on cable TV in the early 80’s. That was a time in my life when we spent our Saturdays playing D&D and Sunday mornings riding our Honda on dirt trails with our friends.
The film begins with Billy (Ed Harris), also known as the troupe’s King William, waking up with his Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) in a lush forest, absorbing the serenity and sounds of nature. But Linet’s watchful, concerned eye sees the crown weighing heavily on the king’s head. After his morning routine which includes self flagellation, Billy dons his helmet, starts his motorcycle and hits the road with the royally garbed Linet holding on to him. In Bakersfield, the renaissance fair is under way as locals partake in the food and trinkets, but the real show is on hold as two local deputies hassle the troupe for a bribe in spite of their legal permit. Morgan (Tom Savini) wants to pay them off and be done with it, but Billy won’t allow them to be strong armed, holding the line and daring the deputy to stop their show. Principles intact, the games begin.
Emcee Pippin (Warner Shook) introduces the motorcycle riding knights of the day’s jousting tournament as they draw lots for their opponents. Lances are sawed down to break easier, but the contact and falls are real. Morgan has his eyes on William’s crown and to get there has forged an all too real mace that outweighs the fake weapons, drawing concern from Alan (Gary Lahti) who predicts someone will get seriously hurt. That prediction nearly comes true when William is forced to defend his crown against Morgan. Already recovering from a shoulder injury that hasn’t fully healed, William stands up to the challenge and his duty as king even if he’s not fully healthy. When knocked off his bike and close to losing his crown, his knights led by Alan and Rocky (Cynthia Adler) save William from defeat and he’s brought to Merlin’s converted bus for medical treatment.
As he receives treatment from Merlin (Brother Blue), Alan gives him an earful about how he’s taking unnecessary risks that could jeopardize his health and the group. Billy gets back enough strength to return to the games, and when a young boy asks him to sign his picture in a motorcycle magazine, Billy disappoints him by declining the autograph due to the article painting him as the type of rider he refuses to be. Morgan happily signs the boy’s magazine as “the next king.” Another successful fair completed, the troupe cleans up the field, hangs up the weapons and hunts wild turkeys for their dinner as a community, each with their own roles (including Friar Tuck’s distillery).
But their night’s sleep is broken up by a nighttime raid by Bakersfield Deputy Cook (Michael P. Moran), who plants marijuana in a member of the troupe’s camper but offers Billy another chance for a payoff. Morgan practically begs him to pay Deputy Cook off so they can make their next gig, but Billy refuses and gets hauled to jail along with Ban (Marty Schiff). Billy orders the troupe to stay put until he’s back but Linet takes charge and goes against Billy’s orders, having the group pack up and get a head start to their next town. Alan gets his new girlfriend Julie (Patricia Tallman) to hit the road with him, getting her away from her drunken father and her abused mother. As Ban gets beaten up by Cook in the Bakersfield jail, Angie (Christine Forrest) and Pippin find the troupe’s lawyer Steve (Ken Hixon) who gets Billy and Ban out of jail and back on the road. But for Billy, the fight with Cook is not over.
Billy catches up with the troupe but is incensed they went against his orders. For Billy the troupe is a community and an extension of his ideals, which begins to come apart when smarmy promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) attempts to sign Morgan and his knights away for a bigger and more lucrative act. Infighting and conflicts between Billy and the troupe take a toll and Billy starts to question himself as king. Lines are drawn, and one true fight for the crown must take place.
No spoilers here. George A. Romero’s Knightriders is a beloved film that forty years later still has loyal fans, myself included. The motorcycle sequences are still fantastic, making you wish they expanded the battle scenes, and Ed Harris delivers a performance that unquestionably establishes Billy’s principles and values. His heart is in this role, with no less commitment from the supporting cast that brings out the camaraderie of the troupe in their scenes. It would be unfair to dismiss the motorcycle themed plot and action sequences of Knightriders as gimmicks because Romero crafted a near perfect film on all levels. Could you imagine a drive in double feature of Excalibur and Knightriders? This is a film that lives up to the amazing image on the movie poster. Long live the king.