Excalibur

1981

Excalibur

Critics Consensus

John Boorman's operatic, opulent take on the legend of King Arthur is visually remarkable, and features strong performances from an all-star lineup of British thespians.

79%

TOMATOMETER

Total Count: 43

80%

Audience Score

User Ratings: 50,069
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Movie Info

According to reports from the set, director John Boorman commandeered the Arthurian adventure Excalibur in the manner of a medieval war lord, expecting his cast and crew to figuratively die with swords in hand if need be. As a result, everyone in the film looks as though he or she is prepared to slit the throat of anyone who looks at them cross-eyed. Nigel Terry stars as the idealistic King Arthur, whose establishment of the idyllic Camelot does not take into account the fact that others are not as noble or altruistic as he is. The fly in the ointment is the covetous Morgana (Helen Mirren), who sets the wheels of Camelot's destruction in motion by bringing Arthur's attention to the love affair between Queen Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). Props essential to the action are the elusive Holy Grail, and of course, the magical Excalibur sword. Far removed from the prettiness of the musical Camelot, Excalibur is set amidst the mud and maggots of Boorman's grim (and occasionally erotic) vision of pre-Norman England. Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur is listed as the source material for Excalibur, but, as is customary with Boorman, there is plenty of embroidering on the original.

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Critic Reviews for Excalibur

All Critics (43) | Top Critics (6) | Fresh (34) | Rotten (9)

  • Give Boorman credit for the loopy grandeur of his imagery and imaginings, for the sweet smell of excess, for his heroic gamble that a movie can dare to trip over its pretensions -- and still fly.

    Nov 6, 2013 | Full Review…
  • There is humor here (in the form of a vaudeville Merlin, played by Nicol Williamson) as well as a diminution of scale that seems intended to help audiences through the thornier byways of Boorman's vision.

    Nov 6, 2013 | Full Review…
  • Exquisite, a near-perfect blend of action, romance, fantasy and philosophy, finely acted and beautifully filmed by director John Boorman and cinematographer Alex Thomson.

    Oct 8, 2008 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Variety
    Top Critic
  • For all its audacity, a misguided folly.

    Jan 26, 2006 | Full Review…

    Geoff Andrew

    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • What a wondrous vision Excalibur is! And what a mess.

    Oct 23, 2004 | Rating: 2.5/4 | Full Review…
  • Mr. Boorman takes these myths very seriously, but he has used them with a pretentiousness that obscures his vision.

    Aug 30, 2004 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Excalibur

  • May 09, 2017
    Excalibur is probably the King Arthur film that most ambitiously tackles the in-depth mythology and legend of the medieval warrior, which is both a good and bad thing. Let's start with the good. This film is a fascinating dive into the ins and outs of Arthurian Legend, starting with the mystical sword, Excalibur. Sometimes the most interesting way to tell a story isn't through your characters but a representation of their strengths and weaknesses. Excalibur is just that for Arthur. He relies on the sword for strength and wisdom, which in turn is his weakness. The power the sword yields him is bigger than Arthur himself, which is where he can sometimes fall victim to the temptations of greed and self-value. At the same time, the sword is easily the films coolest asset. For the first hour or so, it gets increasingly harder to root for Arthur as a character. Here's a guy who stumbles upon power and acts like he's worked his whole life to get it, and he's hardly humble about his circumstances. It isn't until we realize where the story is going and who the main antagonist is that our protagonist (being Arthur) really hits the right note. All of a sudden, a whiny and largely unworthy King, feels noble and brave through the faults of the villain. It is then that the film takes off to an exciting, but equally strange place. This version of the King Arthur story isn't afraid of embracing the fantasy elements and downright weirdness of the source material. Not only do you have Merlin, the great wizard, manipulating certain situations in the background, but you have plenty of other mystical elements enhanced to fit the story that director John Boorman was trying to tell. With that said, when the film does tackle the mystical side of the story it doesn't always feel in place with the rest of the grounded war film that's in its place. So in that regard, I have mixed feelings on it. However, in all, this is about as good as you can tell the proper Arthurian story. It has everything from a brilliant focus on the sword, Lancelot's jealousy and betrayal, a twisted backstory, Merlin pulling the strings, bloody battles, to an overall epic journey for the King. If there was a film that epitomizes all that is good (and strange) about the mythology, Excalibur is probably it. +Crazy mythology embraced +Epic +Performances +Even dives into the strangeness -Which is where it sometimes takes the film off the rails 8.3/10
    Thomas D Super Reviewer
  • Jun 05, 2014
    A decently designed and violently constructed epic loosely based on Thomas Malory's novel "Le Morte d'Arthur", <i>Excalibur</i> surpasses expectations from those used to Boorman's decaying filmography throughout time and from avid followers of the legendary adventure/fantasy tale, perhaps with a noticeable urge to cover all the essential elements from the original source and its characters in a short time span (not even 140 minutes were enough), but with an impeccable design and art direction that tries to compensate for the rather serious lack of cohesion and the plot's proper evolution. Moreover, it <b>also</b> attempts to conquer the amalgamation of human sentiments that similar tales are known for covering: revenge, love, lust, honor, betrayal, [insert 50 more human qualities and defects here]. For a reason, these epic tales of a massively universal scope were meant to be left in literature, where hundreds of pages could construct an entire microuniverse flawlessly described with words. It is true that an image is worth more than a thousand words, but an incorrect progression of images can destroy the intended. Excess is excess. Filmed epically and with a serious symptom of ambition that backfired against the final product, <i>Excalibur</i> shows some important remnants of Hollywood's classic epic filmmaking, back when the stories lasted more than 3 hours and still achieved to maintain the viewer's fascination and an everlasting impact. If my words sound like a condemnation, they are not, but the film, despite worth of attention, has indeed lost the impact that the classics of the 50s and 60s still regain today. 70/100
    Edgar C Super Reviewer
  • Aug 07, 2012
    Stick with the film a little bit and you'll get to see Liam Neeson back before he was "Liam Neeson", though certainly not before he had to deal with the Redgrave family, because if you stick with the film a little bit, then you'll also spot Corin Redgrave. Thirteen years after this film came out, Neeson ended up marrying Corin's niece, and for some reason, I can't shake the feeling that this film is actually an awesome testament to the method acting abilities of Neeson and the late Corin Redgrave, because they, like the royal people of this time, probably put together some kind of arranged marriage between Neeson and Natasha Richardson. Hey, if Neeson made a deal with anyone, it was probably the Devil, because he's 60 now, and he still looks better than me, which makes me think that they seriously should have given Neeson the King Arthur role, because the then-35-year-old leading man Nigel Terry wasn't especially convincing as a teenaged Arthur, whereas Neeson, at 28, coule have easily been mistaken for a toddler or something, or at least if he told you that's what he looks like, because I for one will believe anything Neeson says (Don't want to mess with those special set of skills). Hey, that casting wasn't the first mistake that this film's director and producer John Boorman made, as we learned from the certain other film that he did that started with an "Ex" and came right before this film. Speaking of dealing with the Devil, I can see ol' Goat Legs himself agreeing to make Boorman a popular director, only Boorman would have to have a mostly cult following and would have to do the ridiculous sequel to the classic film about the Devil. Well, either they agreed on that, or that "Deliverance" would be a hit, but Boorman could never be able to do another good thriller. I guess "The Tailor of Panama" taught us that Boorman found a loophole that says that he can still do good spy thrillers, but before Boorman made that discovery, he retreated to more dramatic efforts in order to make good films, though maybe he could have gotten off to a better start with his more dramatic streak, for although this film is enjoyable, it's not quite genuinely good, and for, oh, so very many reasons. I hear the Blu-Ray of this film has pretty poor audio quality, and really, I can imagine, as the sound design on this film, no matter which way you look at it, is pretty shoddy, which I know sounds like a very small complaint, probably because it kind of is, but when you get down to the film, the faulty sound design is so very off-putting in a fashion that is unmissably amateur, making one glaring mistake after another that really does crawl under your skin and even expel you from the film on a few occasions; it certainly exposes an almost sizable degree of incompetence in this film that taints its dramatic effectiveness. Still, as I said, while this unusual technical flaw does do more damage than you would expect, it remains a rather minor flaw, especially in comparison with a much bigger disengaging misstep, the script, which is plagued by more than a few cliches and a couple of spotty pieces of dialogue, and, perhaps most of all, by faulty story structure. A runtime of 140 minutes sounds reasonably hefty, but when we're talking about the legend of the life and rule of King Arthur, that runtime doesn't sound nearly long enough, and sure enough isn't, for the film ever so clumsily and heavy-handedly hurries along, slam-banging in plot points with little delicacy before it rushes off to the next one, and after a short while of this, the film becomes hopelessly disengaging. Still, when you get down to it, the central problem with this film is simply its being just so blasted silly, making the aforementioned and other glaringly amateur, or even incompetent mistakes with such clumsiness that, quite often, it's borderline laughable, and sometimes really is all-out laughable. As I said, the story is structured messily and cheesily, with corny concepts and somewhat flat story spots and characters, made all the worse by the aforementioned hit-or-miss dialogue and set pieces that quite a few performers play up pretty poorly and director John Boorman often celebrates a bit too much, to the detriment of the convincingness of this world and the effectiveness of the film's substance. The film isn't relentlessly amateur, yet it does all too often summon laughs, both unintentional and intentional in an unfitting fashion, while making one story structure and storytelling mistake after another, and this timeless tale really does deserve much better than what this film is presenting: the components of a very mediocre film, something that this film doesn't drift too far from being. However, make no mistake, this film does ultimately transcend total mediocrity, for although its flaws are endless and immense, to the point of rendering the final product all too often laughable, this film will have its moments, and just enough for the final product to emerge still incredibly flawed, but generally worth watching, for, if nothing else, its visual style. Though decidedly dated, Alex Thomson's cinematography remains nothing short of considerably attractive, boasting a kind of hazy yet still near-radiant lighting that bounces back color in a handsome fade that still has enough brightness to it to catch your eye on certain gorgeous moments of lighting. Aesthetically, the film is undeniably appealing to the point of easing you into film, while what eases you... somewhat into this film's world are production designs that have sometimes either also dated or were never all that impressive to begin with, but are generally effective enough for to get a reasonably fair feel for the environment, particularly when some actually pretty neat action sequences hit the scene. Still, the technical aspects that this film actually does get done right can't carry this film too far, alone, and really, a worthy story can carry a film a long way, and here, the story is, well, borderline butchered by Rospo Pallenberg's and John Boorman's immensely messy screenplay and by Boorman's spotty directorial storytelling, but still has enough juice in it to keep you fascinated, particularly around the final act, which is, in fact, rather well-done, being still fairly messy, but still charged with unexpected intrigue and even a bit of intensity (There are some graphic images that are pretty hardcore), yet until that point, the film gets by mostly because it has a pretty good story, complimented by, well, very few performances. As I said, quite a few performers play up the flaws in the screenplay and storytelling rather poorly, with some performers overacting, some performers cheesing things up and some performers just plain being an absolute disaster (John Boorman seriously shouldn't have gotten his daughter Katrine a job), though there are some decent show-stealers (Again, especially in the final act, when certain performers actually have stuff to do, and do it reasonably well), as well as faulty performers who manage to compensate, typically through striking charm that goes quite a ways. Of course, much of that can be said about the rest of the film, because at the end of the day, it's charm that saves this film, whether it be charm from the film's ambition or charm from the film's being so messy. Either way, the film boasts no pretense or overbearingness, but instead, ambition that graces the final product with both immense charm and, yes, entertainment value, for although the film has its slow spots and is rendered often disengaging by its being so messy, it's that very messiness that spark frenetic energy in this film and makes it so watchable. Sure, I'd imagine that Boorman was hoping for this film to go saved by a lot more than unintentional amusement, and lord knows that this film's being so messy is hardly a good thing all the time, yet that ambition, combined with the things that this film acutally does get right, breathes charming life into Boorman's faulty vision and creates a final product that will, or at least should appeal to only so many people (79%, and yet "Troy" doesn't make it past rotten?), but leaves the willing to walk away well-entertained, for both the right and wrong reasons. Overall, the film is nothing if not a messy film, if there ever was one, with sometimes glaringly spotty technical value expelling you from the film, though not as much as the shoddy script, which goes riddled with cliches, improvable dialogue and faulty, heavy-handed story structure, further tainted by cheesy concepts made all the worse by quite a few spotty performances, including one by co-writer and director John Boorman, whose promising vision emerges riddled with amateur missteps that help in making for an absolute mess that runs the risk of collapsing to mediocre, yet surprisingly doesn't, holding your attention with handsome cinematography and other technical aspects that really do work, as well as with a certain aura of charm in most performances and a certain immense aura of charm within the film itself, partially due to the strength of the mostly messily handled but occasionally - especially in the final act - reasonably well-done subject matter and largely due to the entertainment value spawned from lively ambition and more often than not rather enjoyable messiness, thus leaving "Excalibur" to stand immensely faulty as an underwhelming mess, yet one that boasts the undeniably charming ambition needed to stand as generally enjoyable. 2.5/5 - Fair
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • May 27, 2012
    Beautifully filmed in the wilds of Ireland, Excalibur tells the Arthurian legend in a way that is gritty, real, and at times heart breaking. There have been hundreds if not thousands of films dealing with Arthur, but for me, this one has always held a strong place in my memory. Upon this viewing, a good 20 years since my previous one, I note that time once again (as I noticed with Chinatown) cannot stand up to my memory. My memory certainly recalled all the high points - and believe me, there are many, but had glossed over some of the achingly bad dialog and overdubbing. I had also forgotten the written prologue and the overuse of fade to black editing (you either love it or hate it - on this viewing it often felt like I was watching this on TV and each fadeout was a really good spot for a commercial interruption). Still, for all that, the film certainly has its moments, and those moments shine. The cinematography and art direction are flawless (and nominated for an Oscar if memory serves) - the wonderful Wagner soundtrack fitting the moods of the film to a tee. The performances are often quirky, but I feel that in many cases it is due to the dialogue itself than to a lack of talent by the actors. Nigel Terry's Arthur grows from young, naïve, doofus boy to living embodiment of the soul of a nation. Nicol Williamson as Merlin does a wonderful job of spitting out the dialogue, and changing his vocal tones so you aptly feel this otherworldly quality about him - which is apropos. His interplay with Morgana (holy cow - that's Helen Mirren!!) is wonderful in a cat and mouse, odd duck flirty way. Along the way you can also pick up some of the armored knights - Patrick Stewart and... isn't that Lliam Neeson as Gawain? This is all fun, and at times the story teeters on the absurd, but John Boorman always manages to then do something truly special - splitting the camera time between Lancelot and Guenevere's naked tryst in a green glade and the aforementioned quasi romance (a romance over power perhaps) between Morgana and Merlin, taking place in a stalagmite filled cavern (which Merlin calls the heart of the dragon). It is scenes like this and the final battle scenes with a blood red sun casting its pall over the fog enshrouded countryside; all choreographed with that epic Wagnerian music that makes this film, for my money, the best Arthurian film - especially for taking a chance with a different theme - that Arthur and the land are one - which made the scene with the revitalized Arthur riding into battle through a field of flowering trees, the buds swirling around him like snow, all the more poignant and special. If you can get past the creaky dialogue and appreciate the stunning visuals that still stand up today, you'll enjoy this film. As Merlin says at one point "a dream to some, a nightmare to others".
    paul s Super Reviewer

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