Why Excalibur is the Best R-Rated Fantasy Movie
By definition, fantasy stories can be as weird and wild as their creators want them to be. It’s one of the joys of the genre. Which is why it’s a bit of a shame that we’ve had so few adult-oriented fantasy films over the years. Quick – name a good R-rated fantasy film. No, game of thrones and the witcher do not count; these are TV shows. I am talking here about feature films made for the big screen. Alright, maybe you found Guillermo del Toroit is Pan’s Labyrinth Where John Miliusit is Conan the Barbarian. Of course, these would qualify. Although Conan was followed by a watered down PG sequel, and Pan’s Labyrinth could be lumped into this category of “horror films that have a bent towards fantasy”. (See also: “Action movies that have a leaning towards fantasy”, where mountaineer franchise largely lives.)
But pure R-rated fantasy movies, especially of the high-fantasy, sword and sorcery variety, are harder to come by, as Hollywood tends to view these things as family-friendly PG-13 affairs. Maybe that’s why people are so excited about the upcoming release of The green knight — David Basseythe medieval epic from which has proudly waved its fantasy flag since the release of its first trailer. And I also think that’s why whenever one of these movies finds its way into the world, it’s inevitably compared to John Bormanit is Excalibur – the 1981 tale of King Arthur legend that stuffs its 141 minutes with as much violence, lust and utter weirdness as Boorman could muster. And yet, everything is so beautifully and distinctly designed that, 40 years later, Excalibur stands as its own version of Camelot – a brilliant achievement that anyone who gets an R-rated fantasy movie is trying to beat. Good luck with that.
Just to start, it’s hard to approach Excaliburthe scope. Boorman’s film is an adaptation of Arthur’s Death, Mr. Thomas MaloryThe 15th century compilation of various Arthurian myths, and spanning decades. The film begins with a 23-minute prologue which recounts the fall of Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), who was given Excalibur, the mystical sword of kings, by the wizard Merlin (Nicholas Williamson) to unite various warring factions and bring peace to the country. Uther ends up ruining everything by falling in love with the wife of a noble rival, and before long the world is once again kingless and in ruins. Cut to several years later, when Uther’s son Arthur (Nigel Terry) frees Excalibur from the stone he’s been trapped in and sets out to create the utopia his father couldn’t. From there, the movie hits all the beats you’d expect – Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Camelot, and more. Years pass and it seems that a happy ending could come for all of them. But, as Merlin warns, evil lurks “where you least expect it”. An illicit romance takes hold and Arthur’s half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren) begins to creep around the edges of the film. She uses magic to trick her brother into impregnating her, and the film jumps back in time again, to set up a battle between an elderly Arthur and his cold-blooded son Mordred (Robert Addie), who intends to take the throne by force.
That’s a lot, and there’s still so much that I haven’t even mentioned. New and important characters are introduced throughout the duration of the film. The final third of the film, which turns the tale into a grisly nightmare, details in part a haunting quest for the Holy Grail undertaken by Percival (Paul Geoffrey), a character who isn’t even introduced until halfway through the film. It really is epic cinema that has no point in focusing on specific aspects of Arthur’s legend or whittling it down to a more digestible narrative. You get it all smashed together in a hodgepodge of fever dreams of swords, sex and sorcery.
Watching Excalibur today there are many things that stand out. The film is magnificent with Boorman and director of photography Alex Thompson using Ireland’s natural beauty alongside bold (and often green-colored) lighting to build a lush, vibrant world. The music is a frenetic and triumphant combination of various Richard Wagner operas (notably “Götterdämmerung”), Carl Orffthe cantata “Carmina Burana” from 1937 and Trevor Jones‘ his own original score. (Just try not to get goosebumps when, after a battle scene devoid of musical accompaniment, the strings and horns spring into action as a rival warrior named Uryens knights a kneeling Arthur who has freely abandoned his sword.) The battle scenes are brutal, bloody and heavy. Don’t expect flashy sword choreography here. In Excaliburthe armor everyone wears seems unbearably heavy, and the best way to defeat a man in combat is to chase him with a mace until he physically can’t stand.
Performances range from colorfully compelling to memorably quirky, though all are delivered with the arch-theatrics one would expect from a cast of mostly British stage actors. Williamson delivers hammered lines such as “A dream for some, a nightmare for others!” without worrying about grounding in the least. At first, Terry seems a bit out of depth playing a young Arthur, but he grows well into the role as the character ages. Future Stars Byrne, patrick stuartand Liam Neeson are showy in smaller parts. It all ends up working within the context of the film, which at times feels like a play about a secret history brought to kaleidoscopic life.
ExcaliburThe biggest downside of is that, with one exception, it doesn’t think much about its female characters. Igrayne (Katrine Boorman, the director’s own daughter) is introduced in the prologue, raped by a magically disguised Uther, then abandoned once the main plot has begun. Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) is largely there just to drive a wedge between Arthur and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). Thank goodness then for Morgana, who in the second half becomes the film’s main antagonist – a rising witch with an ox against Merlin, the man who spent most of the film manipulating his family to serve his own ends. . . Morgana is a well-rounded villain with a legitimate point of view, and Mirren plays her unsurprisingly. This is one of his fiercest performances.
ExcaliburThe influence of has continued over the years. You can feel it when you look peter jacksonit is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which uses light and natural settings in a similar way. (Fun Fact: Boorman had planned to shoot his own version of JRR Tolkienthough it eventually fell apart, and Jackson’s first trilogy teaser used the same “Carmina Burana” move that’s featured so heavily in Excalibur.) And just this year, Zack Snyder recycled the same Excalibur-used pieces of “Götterdämmerung” for his zombie opus, army of the dead. Not a huge surprise, as Snyder called it Excalibur his favorite movie.
Lowery hasn’t been as blatant in his name dropping as he promotes The green knight. Although a recent Vanity Fair profile indicates that Excalibur was one of the films he had in mind as he tackled his own adult fantasy epic. Frankly? It would have to be. Excalibur hovers over the genre as the legendary and universal dragon of Merlin. When fantasy movies had a bit of a boom in the early 80s, a few more R-rated movies came out, but you really don’t hear anyone talk about death tracker Where Witch all these years later. This is Excalibur who has stood the test of time, waiting for another movie to come along and dethrone him just as the sword itself waited in stone. Godspeed to Lowery or anyone else who dares to take on this quest.
KEEP READING: ‘The Green Knight’: New Documentary Reveals Story Behind Legend