Excalibur (1981)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Garbriel Byrne, Corin Redgrave, Nicol Williamson, Katherine Boorman
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer

I typically don’t like period pieces – or as a rather dim-witted person once said to me, "Movies that happened in the time before now." I’m much more interested in what’s going to happen than in what has happened. Still, the one maxim that I can’t argue with is, "A good movie is a good movie." Which brings us to "Excalibur." This telling of the legend of King Arthur has long been one of my favorite films, despite the fact that it’s a period piece. And now it is available on a very nice DVD through Warner Home Video.

While most of us are familiar with the basic tenets of the Arthurian legend, including Camelot, Excalibur, Sir Lancelot, etc., the movie "Excalibur" goes very in-depth into the stories and tells a very complete tale. It is based on "Le Morte d’Arthur" by Sir Thomas Mallory, which, as we learn on the <$commentary,audio commentary>, was one of the first books to be published after The Bible.

The film opens in the Dark Ages. Britain is divided and without a true king. Uther Pendragon (Garbriel Byrne) is the leader of a faction of knights who are fighting Lord Cornwall (Corin Redgrave). Uther calls upon the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) for help and Merlin helps Uther to procure Excalibur, the sword of kings.

With Excalibur, Uther is named as ruler of the land. Unfortunately, at the victory party, Uther becomes smitten with Igrayne (Katrine Boorman, the director’s daughter), Cornwall’s young wife. Uther instructs Merlin to devise a way for Uther to have Igrayne. Merlin uses a spell causing Uther to take on the appearance of Cornwall, so that he may trick and seduce Igrayne. During this, Cornwall is killed.

Nine months later, a child is born to Igrayne. Merlin comes forward and takes the child from her, claiming it was part of a deal with Uther, and names it Arthur. As Uther pursues Merlin to get the child back, he is ambushed and with his dying breath, thrusts Excalibur into a rock, creating the "sword in the stone" legend.

The film then jumps ahead sixteen years. The land is still without a king and brave knights fight for the opportunity to attempt to pull the sword from the stone. We are introduced to Arthur (Nigel Terry), a young squire to his father and brother, who are knights. While attempting to find his brother’s sword, Arthur accidentally pulls Excalibur from the stone, and is proclaimed king. Merlin appears to counsel the boy king and help him to make his early decisions. Arthur’s integrity and courage even at an early age impresses the knights around him and soon he gathers a loyal following.

From this point, the film bounces along through time, introducing us to other parts of the Arthurian legend. We see Arthur challenging Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) at their first meeting. We see the maturing of Arthur’s half-sister, the evil Morganna (Helen Mirren), as she plots against Arthur. We witness Arthur’s downfall as he is betrayed by those closest to him and his triumph as he reclaims the land.

There are several things that make "Excalibur" work. The first is its attention to detail. As I mentioned before, the story is very in-depth. While it does touch on the highlights of the Arturian legend, it explores these stories with intense detail. We learn who Arthur is, where he came from, and what his life was like.

This leads to the second facet of "Excalibur’s" success — its realism. This is not the musical "Camelot." While "Excalibur" contains many fantasy elements, the story is told in a very realistic manner. The movie shows us that Arthur wasn’t always a popular king. We are shown that life in this time was a difficult one and that walking in a suit of armor was even more difficult. The battle scenes are staged in a very realistic way and are very bloody. (I can still remember that "Excalibur" was featured in "Fangoria" magazine simply due to all of the bloodshed and severed limbs.) As a matter of fact, the film was viewed as such a thorough and beautiful re-telling of the Arthurian legend, a PG-rated version that was shorn of over 15 minutes of sex and violence, was released so that children could enjoy the tale as well.

All of this ties into the third reason that "Excalibur" is such a good film — the talent behind the camera. Director John Boorman brings the story to life by infusing it with a great sense of realism. Although, as we learn on the <$commentary,audio commentary>, the film had a relatively low budget, Boorman and crew have created a believable world. From the suits of armor, to the battles, to the castles, every step was taken to ensure the creation a believable, breathing world. Cinematographer Alex Thomson was nominated for the his work Oscar on "Excalibur" and rightfully so. The film has some breathtaking visuals, which help add to the illusion of reality. Even the scenes dealing with sorcery and the fantastic are shot in such a fashion that they have an air of reality. As much of the film was shot in the Irish countryside, Boorman and Thomson give us many shots that show awe-inspiring landscapes and lush green meadows, which can only contribute to the film’s beauty. (On the commentary, Boorman relates that the shooting was scheduled so as to take advantage of the Irish foliage in bloom.) "Excalibur" is a shining example of how good a film can be when quality style and substance are combined.

The acting in "Excalibur" is also first-rate. Nigel Terry has the most challenging role in the film as he must play Arthur from a boy through middle-age, but he handles the role quite well. The film also features many actors who are well-known today appearing in their first major motion picture. We’ve already mentioned Gabriel Byrne and Helen Mirren, but we also have the debuts of Liam Neeson as Gaiwain and Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance (and you just keep waiting for him to say, "Number one.") Nicol Williamson is outstanding as Merlin, the cynical wizard who appears to be both fatherly towards the kings and also very apathetic about the plight of mortal man.

The Warner Home Video DVD of "Excalibur" is a very nice package. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. On his <$commentary,commentary track>, Boorman reports that he didn’t shoot in CinemaScope due to all of the special effects. The DVD is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The framing of the picture is accurate, with no warping of the frame. The picture is very clear throughout most of the film. The early part of the film was shot very darkly, and it is during this portion of the DVD that some artifacting and defects on the source print are evident. However, once the photography becomes brighter, the picture improves dramatically.

The audio on "Excalibur" is <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1, but it doesn’t sound like it. There is little to any action from the rear speakers, so there is no real sense of surround sound. Most of the sound comes from the center channel speaker. (To be fair, I listened to the <$commentary,audio commentary>, which is featured in 2-channel, on digital-ready headphones, and it had a much lusher sound.)

The DVD contains a few extras and the clear highlight is the <$commentary,audio commentary> by John Boorman. This commentary is very informative, as you’ve probably guessed, since I’ve already referenced it several times. Boorman mangages to talk for the entire 140 minutes (no small feat there) and fills his commentary with the kind of information which we want to know. He tells us where the film was shot, how it was shot, the troubles involved in making the film, and even personal tidbits about the cast, such as, Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren having had a two-year relationship following the film. The commentary is well-balanced in giving information that would appeal to those looking for technical insight and for those who just want a general overview of how the film was made. Unlike some other recent commentaries that I’ve heard, it’s obvious that Boorman is proud of "Excalibur" and that he is enjoying watching and discussing it. It’s a good example of how a director’s commentary should be. Also included on the DVD is the movie’s original theatrical trailer running for almost two and a half minutes.

Any version of "Excalibur" on DVD would be a welcome addition to my DVD library, but this Warner edition really shines. Especially when you consider that the retail price is $19.98 and can be had for $15 or less through many outlets. For that price, you get a great movie, a great presentation, and an informative <$commentary,audio commentary>. As I stated earlier, "A good movie is a good movie.’’ and there’s nothing better than when a good movie becomes a great DVD.