Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Excalibur
There’s no such thing as a good King Arthur movie. Now, I say that as someone who loves this week’s cheesy movie, but the English-speaking film industry has failed to make a genuinely good movie based on the Arthur legends. It’s too much material and too many versions. Names, bloodlines and behaviors change depending on the version you read. King Arthur was overtaken by his fanfic writers centuries ago and competing headcanons prevent a really solid story from making its way to the screen.
Director John Boorman (Point Blank, Zardoz) took a different approach with Excalibur. He took his favorite headcanons, mainly Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and favorite passages and ideas from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and mixed them in the blender of his own fevered mind. The result may not be a good movie, but it is nonetheless great.
Plot: It is the tenth century (probably) and the land aches while the various lords and barons of England fight for supremacy. Into this conflict comes Merlin, a wizard with an interest in putting the right king in charge. His choice is Uther Pendragon, a brash fighter with questionable ideas on ruling his lords and vassals. For one, he starts a war with the Duke of Cornwall to steal his wife Igrayne from him. In the midst of laying siege to Cornwall’s fortress, he has Merlin use the powers of the Dragon — which might be the spine of England itself — to cloak Uther in the guise of Cornwall so he can bed Igrayne.
Yeah, the movie does kind of feel like the mural on a 70s’ van.
From that night came Arthur, the king Merlin was looking for all along. And so Boorman dramatizes a number of notable scenes from the Arthur legend like the Sword in the Stone, Arthur meeting Guenevere, his meet cute with Sir Lancelot du Lac and the fall of Camelot. Because issues of authenticity mean nothing to Boorman, he mixes in quotes from Tennyson and ideas from just about any writer who took the pen to write their Arthur romance.
Instead of the probable look of 10th Century England, he creates a mythic place of armor and stone fortresses more in keeping with the French Arthur tradition. And like those authors before him, he attempts to make the stories fit his format. Because of this, some idea get condensed for brevity’s sake. Excalibur itself stands in for the Sword in the Stone (often they are separate badges of office) and Arthur’s Cornish sisters are merged into one character: the would-be witch Morgana. Perceval makes an early appearance, but disappears until it’s time for the Grail Quest. Notables like Sir Bors, Sir Uryens and Sir Gawain make cameo appearances, but with Arthur, Merlin, Morgana, Lancelot and Guenevere taking up most of the screentime, the limited investment in other Knights of the Roundtable is understandable. Boorman’s focus is on the central relationships that brought down Merlin’s dream.
In dedicating himself to his take on the myths, Boorman strikes out with a deranged confidence. Because we’re outside conventional reality, men do a lot of things in full armor. Performances are heightened to a place that would seem silly to modern eye. Actor Nicol Williamson is given free reign to create a Merlin that is funny, pathetic, dangerous and wise all within the space of a few lines.
And that confidence is the main charm of the film. Boorman never second guesses if people will buy his use of Wagner or Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” in key moments. He never worries if the overuse of green lighting and fabrics will look silly. He never loses his faith in his way of telling the story, strange and dreamlike as it is. If he falters anywhere — and he’s more than willing to admit this himself — it’s with his depiction of Camelot. It’s never as splendid as it should be. Its grandeur never scales with the mythic darkness he presents in the pre- and post-Camelot eras. Which goes to show you have much people like to talk about Golden Ages, but can never realize them.
Yet even within his compromised Camelot, Boorman assembles a cavalcade of fine performers who would go on to major careers. Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne all appear in armor and mud, offering their talents in fairly small parts. Helen Mirren, already an established name by this point, kills it as Morgana; rarely has evil been so appealing. Ciaran Hinds is also billed as Lot, but I’ve never been able to spot him.
With his Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot — actors Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi, and Nicholas Clay — Boorman gets a photogenic trio who just about pull off what he asks of them, but modern eyes will find their performances stagey and weird. Terry is successful at realizing Arthur from boy to old man, but never quite pulls off the operatic flair some scenes require.
The only completely flat performer is Robert Addie as Mordred. Though, I suppose, a petulant and privileged prince may sound exactly as shallow as he does in the role.
At the same time, even the dodgiest of the film’s performances makes sense in Boorman’s Dark Age England. His thoughts are beyond parochial notions of quality and that makes Excalibur such a pleasure to watch. It’s a true vision, distinctly its own, that just about avoids the traps that snare other King Arthur adaptations. It’s dedication to its cheesy self make it a dream to some and nightmare to others.
Excalibur is available to stream on Amazon for a small rental fee. It’s also available as an early Warner Home Video Blu-ray release with a 1998 audio commentary from director John Boorman.
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