Thursday 11 May 2017

I Blame Society #3: Excalibur (1981)

Last week, I was, for the very first time, paid to write a film review. I was sent the price of a cinema ticket to see Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and write about it.

I'm apprehensive.

OK, I'm not really. I know it's going to be terrible. Guy Ritchie makes aggressively, actively awful films. Some of them make money. Some of them are even hits. The thought of the man who made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels bringing his signature style to Arthurian legend... Yeah. This will not end well.

The last time I went to see an Arthurian movie was back in 2004 when I saw Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, which started with a title card saying "recently discovered historical evidence suggests that there was a real King Arthur..." and then, perhaps impressively, having stripped out everything from the legend except the names – they even took out the big love triangle – managed to screw up every historical and geographical detail the film introduced. Everything, from costume and armaments (crossbows!) right down to the film's casual mention of Christian heresies, was wrong. I don't mind films getting history wrong. Sometimes history gets in the way of a compelling narrative. If you get your history from films, you're doing it wrong. But when you explicitly, in words, make a virtue of your historical accuracy and then mess it up, that's not good. Also, it was a dull, badly written, stupid film, history aside. The one apparent saving grace was that the friends I went with afterwards told me that while the film was bad, watching my face as it progressed was hilarious.

So someone had fun watching it.
Lancelot is like, "Why are you a 2nd century Roman Centurion again?"
Nine years before that I went to see First Knight, which at least made itself about the love triangle, but which nonetheless pitched itself aesthetically as a fantasy, while all the time trying very hard to remove fantasy elements. It was the least fantastical fantasy I'd ever seen. First Knight was dull.
Even the costumes are boring.
For all that, while part of the reason I'm so unforgiving about Arthurian movies is the whole history and myth thing, a big part of the reason is that they're not Excalibur, a film I've loved since my teens and which is probably the only film I've watched as many times as Repo Man.

Excalibur is in many ways a mess. It's overlong, in places rambling and repetitive, has politics I can charitably describe as out of tune with my own, and makes weird tonal choices. Its music is sort of wrong.

I think it's the best Arthurian movie.
Behold! The Sword of Power!
Excalibur is a brave, credible attempt at compressing the Arthurian myth cycle into two and a half hours of cinema, from Uther Pendragon's rape of Igrayne, wife of the Duke of Cornwall, and the consequences of that to the drawing of the sword, the Round Table, the love triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail and the final battle.

It was directed by John Boorman (with a screenplay by Rospo Pallenberg). Boorman has made great movies (Point Blank, Deliverance), middling movies and flat-out terrible movies (Zardoz, anyone?) and Excalibur is, even though it's my favourite movie of his, very much in between. 
So shiny.
Excalibur makes the very sensible choice to condense characters and concepts: the film's Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) takes on the story roles of Perceval, Galahad and Bedivere; Morgana (played as an adult by Helen Mirren) is a conflation of Morgan le Fay and Nimue; Arthur himself (the late Nigel Terry) is given the narrative function of the Fisher King late in the film; and Excalibur is also the Sword in the Stone (which it isn't in a lot of versions of the story).

And these last two decisions enable the central theme to the film: in Excalibur, the titular sword is now tied to the spirit of Britain. It's part of the land.
Merlin: Behold! The Sword of Power! Excalibur! Forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with Man, and death was but a dream!
The idea is that kingship is a spiritual role, that you only get the sword because you're the king and you only get to work as a proper king if you have the sword.

But also, because being the king is a spiritual calling, so the king has to be worthy of the sword, or the enterprise fails. And the worthy king is also part of the land, so if the king is sick or sad, the land goes sour, and if the king is healthy, the land flourishes again. And the film makes a big deal of this.
Men, united.
More than once, Excalibur is described as a thing purposed to "unite men", a sign of kingship, and I suppose my fundamental problem with that is that implements designed for lopping off limbs (and Excalibur does a fair bit of that in the film, squirty blood and everything) aren't really that fit for purpose as symbols of unity, except in terms of uniting people for war. And it's a warlike film. For all the talk of making peace, it's evident that in Excalibur, men are better when they're fighting together under strong leadership, and by making the land literally come alive when Arthur gets his mojo back on at the end of the film, it frames a Just War that Unites Men in Manliness as an objective, divine good.

The obsession the film has with Being a Man extends to how it treats its women, of which there are only three. Igrayne (Katrine Boorman – John Boorman's daughter) is a cipher, who dances provocatively, gets raped by Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), and cries when her baby is taken away. And that's it. Even aside from the terrible treatment the character gets, I can't help thinking that casting your daughter in the part of a woman who gets raped by a man in full armour is a tiny bit weird. Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi, best known as the face of Kenco) makes eyes at Arthur, makes eyes at Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), acts sulky when she's accused of cheating before she's actually done the deed, then goes and does the deed anyway. Later on, she has a scene where Arthur finds her in a convent and forgives her for chucking him for a nicer bloke, but Cherie Lunghi isn't given a whole lot to work with here and has trouble selling the film's dialogue. The most rounded of the film's women, Morgana (Helen Mirren) is basically given the role of "spiteful, witchy temptress" which she plays with relish. She gives one of the best performances in the film, but although Morgana at least gets a backstory, the character is irredeemably evil, with no nuance.
The days of our kind are number├ęd.
The musical choices are in places sort of weird, too. Boorman often used classical music in his films as a sort of shorthand (so for example in Zardoz, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony), and in Excalibur you get three pieces, all of which sound sort of right, big and dramatic and operatic... until you actually know the pieces, at which point two of them aren't right at all. One is the Funeral March of Siegfried from Richard Wagner's Nibelungenlied, which is about a dead Viking (well, all right, that's a tiny bit reductive), and one is Carl Orff's O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, which is based on a medieval chorus about bad luck. To be fair, the other one is part of the Prelude from Parsifal, by Wagner also, which is properly Arthurian and also plays when Perceval finds the Grail, and you can't fault that, really.

The point of the music is that the tone of the film is itself operatic; I just criticised the female characters as being shallow, but the riposte to that is that all the characters are shallow, because they're big heroic archetypes. And the film looks epic. Camelot is lifesize and clad in silver and gold; the armour is huge and over-the-top. The battles are grunting, bloody affairs fought by men who wield weapons that look like they're heavy and could really do some damage. The whole design of the thing is pitched at "fairytale": it doesn't look like any medieval period, but rather resembles an idea of what the middle ages looked like in stories. It's a sort of imaginary medieval.
I doubt you no more.
People yell a lot in Excalibur (the Excalibur drinking game: take a shot every time someone cries out for Arthur, take two if it's Merlin). Dialogue is in a sort of iambic metre – for example, Merlin at one point says to Morgana "the days of our kind are numbered," except he doesn't say "numbered", he says "number├ęd", giving the word three syllables, so the line ends on an iamb, and that's got to be a conscious decision. None of the dialogue in the film is close to naturalistic; it's all heroic and mythic and archetypal, and, well operatic. The actors sell that with varying degrees of success: Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart do a better job than Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Clay, for example.

The heart of the movie is of course Nicol Williamson as Merlin, played as the archetypal wise fool or foolish wise man. And any review of the film is going to settle the question of whether the critic liked it or not on whether they liked Merlin, since the film is the most fun to watch when Merlin is on screen, and in the big chunk at the end where Merlin is imprisoned, that's when the film slows down a bit. And Nicol Williamson is surpassingly strange. He delivers his lines in orotund Shakespearean tones, and as a real pagan wizard, half-devil should be, he is both sinister and comical, and all the time he teaches. He catches a fish in his hands and then slips and pratfalls into the river, telling Arthur, as the king goes to meet Lancelot in single combat, "There's always something cleverer than yourself."
A round table. And a hall around the table. And a castle around the hall.
And there's this scene at the Round Table, which comes just before Lancelot and Guinevere do the deed, where Arthur does that thing where he tries to get the discussion going, and picks on Merlin, who is half asleep at the edge of the party.
Arthur: What is the greatest quality of knighthood? Courage? Compassion? Loyalty? Humility? What do you say, Merlin?
Merlin (dozing): Hmm? (He notices everyone staring at him expectantly) Ah! Ah. Ah, the greatest. Erm, well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword...
Arthur: No poetry, just a straight answer. Which is it?
Merlin (hardening): All right then. Truth. That's it. Yes. It must be truth. Above all. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. You should know that.
And then Lancelot gets up and leaves and Guinevere rides out after him as soon as she's able. And it's clear that Arthur is asking a stupid question, and Merlin, unable to give an affable answer, says something dangerous and troubling instead, for Merlin's job is to unsettle. And it's great how he goes from comical to annoyed to deadly serious in the space of a line. 
A dream to some... A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!
For me, Nicol Williamson's Merlin is wise and sad and funny in the way that only the wisest and saddest people can be. He's a quintessential pagan mystic: he worships the power of the earth as the Dragon, and does his magic with the Charm of Making, that harnesses the power of the Earth itself. But the choices he makes in his performance, which are deliberately off-putting and sometimes downright counterintuitive, are a reason that a lot of people really hate Excalibur. You can't really like Excalibur if you don't like Merlin, frankly.

I auppose that while having Perceval fail to achieve the Grail and then succeed, and then be unable to dispose of Excalibur and then do it the second time is part of the myth cycle, it does make for a longer film; but then on the other hand, I don't see how Boorman could have reproduced that part of the story and kept its force. Both scenes are frustrating, but then I think that they're supposed to be frustrating; the problem is perhaps that it's going to be up to viewer whether or not they've been lost by the first part and are still sticking with the film for the payoff.
Best helmet ever.
Excalibur gets criticised for being episodic and rambling, but actually I think it does a pretty good job of presenting the key parts of the Arthurian cycle. I mentioned before that it compresses characters, and I do think that's really good, because in the end, the Arthurian figures are themselves archetypes, and it gives the film a solid working structure. It spreads out over decades, and the film does the best job it can of expressing that passage of time, both in doing the best it can with the aging of the characters, and with the way that just like the Arthurian cycle, new characters come in as the older knights fade away, so at the start, Arthur recruits Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart) and Uryens (Keith Buckley); then, later, we meet Lancelot and Gawain (Liam Neeson); and then Perceval comes, and for much of the second half of the film, Perceval is the point of view character.
You and the land are one.
Much of the work in the second half of the film is done by Paul Geoffrey, who plays Perceval as a rascal who grows into a gentle, decent soul, self-doubting and melancholy. Perceval is the knight who achieves the Grail (and the only character who has his own theme tune, which plays as he finds the Secret of the Grail); he is the knight who returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. And Geoffrey's job is thankless, frankly. He does the best he can, but isn't quite charismatic enough to be the lead, and so he never quite gets the credit he deserves. 

When I first saw Excalibur, I was in my early teens, and the world it presented, of nobility, of comradeship was so unlike the hell I faced daily that it seemed an almost magical escape. Even now, I find parts of it really quite moving, and the whole epic, operatic scale of the film, never fails to engage me, even now, when I can see the film's flaws all too clearly.