The phrase I thought of while watching Excalibur was “barmy”. The movie demands that you journey as an audience member to a state of mind more accepting of sensational, unconscious myth. That means ridiculous imagery, characters who are archetypes and not complex beings, and importantly magic. Excalibur is about King Arthur, about a fantastical pagan era where witches still hold control but know their time is rapidly passing. The entire plot is really driven by Merlin and Morgana save for the moments when the lowly humans surprise them with their unpredictability.
John Boorman’s film is goofy, teenage in its fixations on nudity, great men in swords hacking at each other (one of the best things about its battles is that you can truly feel the weight of every sweaty, clumsy move the armored knights make), how Morgana is the deceptive woman out to get your seed. This is appropriate both for the ‘early 80s period it was shot in, the last gasp of countercultural flesh fixations, and for the Arthurian story. Excalibur is drunk on its own excess, taking detours for the Holy Grail quest, the climax of the battle between Mordred and Arthur bathed in sickening red and mist.
But I think what made me like the movie far more than I expected is that it cares about Arthur and Guinevere and the central tragedy of Camelot. Boorman co-wrote the film and while much of the dialogue is leaden, it works for the characters oddly enough. They’re human but these aren’t creatures of great psychological weight and depth meant to be Method acted and analyzed. Arthur is the Boy who will be King, Guinevere the Queen, Lancelot the Pure Knight. These are their definitions. Merlin (played with a campy, grumpy cunning by Nicol Williamson) is the one person given a certain shading, while Helen Mirren simply provides it to Morgana through sheer force of will. But the acting and visual detail provide enough dimension that retelling the Arthur story still has a terrible, fresh poignancy. The final act of the older, declining Arthur reemerging with his knights, their beards white and long, ready to do battle and redeem themselves for the sins of the past tugs at my heart no matter how many times I read or see it. This was no exception.