By Tim Pelan
John Boorman’s 1981 fantastical retelling of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is, to quote Nicol Williamson’s Merlin in the film, “A dream to some. A nightmare to others!” Often dismissed as an episodic and hammy sword and sorcery tale, it is to this writer a clever and satisfying retelling of an evergreen myth, an abstract approach that shows us Arthur’s (unnamed) Kingdom, a place out of time, in several stages of transition; from dark to golden age, via loss of innocence, and painfully bloody rebirth. Excalibur arose out of the ashes of Boorman’s earlier attempt to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the screen (ironically after trying to get a filmic retelling of the Merlin myth off the ground). In his nominal film diary of the making of The Emerald Forest entitled Money Into Light, Boorman writes about previous productions and this might-have-been. He states that, “Tolkien’s work stirs a great brew of Norse, Celtic and Arthurian myth, the ‘Unterwelt’ of my own mind. It was a heady, impossible proposition. If filmmaking for me is, as I have often said, exploration, setting oneself impossible problems and failing to solve them, then the Rings saga qualifies on all counts.” He met his screenwriting collaborator Rospo Pallenberg in New York, “where he was working as an architect. He was trying to write scripts. I recognized a fellow spirit. I brought him to my home in Ireland and we spent six months delving with dwarfs, wallowing with the Gollum, tramping Middle-Earth with Bilbo, but, most of all, Gandalf filled my life. He was, after all, Merlin in another guise.” They spent six months putting the script together in Boorman’s home. “We had a script that we felt was fresh and cinematic, yet carried the spirit of Tolkien, a spirit we had come to admire and cherish during those months… The valley in the Wicklow hills outside of Dublin where my house sits is as close to Middle-Earth as you can get in this depleted world.” During this time United Artists, who intended to make the film, suffered several financial setbacks and got cold feet. They ended up giving it to Ralph Bakshi, who made his truncated animated version. To gain full artistic control for Bakshi’s approach, Boorman’s script was purchased by UA, for a reputed $3 million. Boorman now put his LotR prep to good use with Pallenberg in honing their Excalibur script.
Whilst Excalibur’s closing scenes are mostly wordless, the visual imagery of King Arthur being borne away by maidens to distant shores echoes thematically Boorman and Pallenberg’s scripted Rings ending, as Bilbo and company leave the shores of Middle-Earth forever. Legolas, watching from the land, remarks upon seeing a rainbow. “Look—only seven colors. Indeed the world is failing.” Pallenberg said, “From a physics standpoint it’s incorrect to say that there could be more than seven colors, but what he’s saying is ‘We live in a diminished world.’” With Arthur also gone, the age of myth and magic in his land has finally passed too.
Boorman himself said: “What I’m doing is setting it (Excalibur) in a world, a period, of the imagination. I’m trying to suggest a kind of Middle-Earth in Tolkien terms. I want it to have a primal clarity, a sense that things are happening for the first time. Lands and nature and human emotions are all fresh.”
The film almost plays like a screen Opera—it is a heightened reality, a world anew. One where sex, jealousy and pride threaten to undo the mystical balance and ties between the King and the land. A powerful aid to that feeling is the superb score which utilizes music such as Siegfried’s Funeral March by Wagner, and O Fortuna, a medieval poem set to music by Carl Orff. Boorman was determined to squeeze as much of the legend into his film’s running time as possible, chopping and condensing characters, and switching acts around. He created a three-act saga—the dark ages and the birth of Arthur, a period of brutality and superstition; the rise of Camelot and its age of reason, law, and dawning of Christianity; and the final descent into chaos and wasteland, where a frail Arthur commands the Round Table knights to seek out the Grail. Arising out of this a final battle commences for the soul of the land and the people, a sense of renewal with a promise of a new age to come. Boorman called it the “past, present and future of humanity.”
In the beginning, Uther (Gabriel Byrne) is driven by lust for Igrayne (played by Katrine Boorman, the director’s daughter), the wife of Gordois, Duke of Cornwall, and lays siege to his castle. The action first takes place in the backlot of Ardmore Studios. Uther then has Merlin transform him into the likeness of Gordois so he can have Igrayne (ravished in full armor, in front of a raging fire!) and the scene switches to night. Boorman uses a wide shot encompassing a glass matte shot of the fortress with Merlin summoning magic in the foreground to spirit the transformed Uther across the bay to the castle. Merlin has agreed to his demands, on condition Merlin can take the resulting child, Arthur. As Uther pursues Merlin and the baby after the birth, he is ambushed and drives the magical blade Excalibur, the symbol of his rule, into the stone, rather than Merlin does in Mallory’s telling.
Boorman said: “When Uther thrusts the sword into the stone and then dies, we cut straight to the same scene eighteen years later. I shot the first in Winter; then I shot it again in Spring, when all the trees were in leaf. Boom! Though it was only a seasonal change, it’s a startling one, and then I panned around with the camera, and you see that all this encampment has grown up around it (where champions joust for the right to draw the sword). That’s a passage of eighteen years in one cut, and it gave the story enormous dynamic power.” As Arthur, a mere squire, casually draws the blade for his “brother” whose own was stolen, their father reveals the truth of Arthur’s provenance, and a distant Merlin slowly comes into frame walking towards them, a sense of destiny foreshadowed now forthcoming.
Other quick cuts suggest more passage of time–a scene of young Arthur (Nigel Terry) and Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) cuts straight to a now bearded and older Arthur meeting Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) for the first time in combat, acting rashly and proudly like Uther, breaking Excalibur upon Lancelot’s armor. The sword is cast back in the lake to be reforged, and is returned to the humbled king by the Lady of the Lake (more nepotism—Telsche Boorman).
Director Zack Snyder is a huge fan of the film, discussing its themes and techniques in the Summer 2010 edition of DGA Quarterly. “The thing about Boorman is he’s one of those rare guys who combines drama and being a visualist. The drama of the movie is clearly the most important thing to him, but the way he sees it is incredibly painterly. This is like the stylized other England you want the Middle Ages to be. It’s as if it takes place in no particular time in history. Like it’s another planet in some ways.”
He went on to later pay tribute in several ways in his Warner Bros/DC film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Walter Metz illuminates:
“At the beginning of the film, Excalibur serves as the marker of Bruce Wayne’s Oedipal trauma. He cures himself of that trauma, headed from isolation as a vigilante to the community of the Justice League in future films, by passing the heroic torch to Superman… Impaled in the chest by a Kryptonite spear that Batman earlier created to kill the god he only thinks is his enemy, Superman must pull himself closer to the golem to finish the beast off. It is an exquisite reformulation of an identical scene in Excalibur. At the end of Boorman’s film, Arthur must painfully slide up the lance that impales him, to Mordred, his evil son created by an incestuous mating with his sister. Arthur slays his son and rescues England from the barren misery he has created, as does Superman rid Earth of his similarly genetic miscreant… It is the Man of Steel who redeems Batman, lifting the solution to the problem of the golem from the very film Bruce Wayne never got to see as a child.”
Lancelot, who becomes “the best” of Arthur’s knights, is a catalyst for change, an age of chivalry, and unwitting chink in the armor of Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage. From this point on, the knight’s armor becomes more gleaming and resplendent, as opposed to the blackened, ugly armor of before (almost Uruk-Hai like, as in The Lord of the Rings). Camelot grows and develops into a shining beacon of prosperity and knowledge—little details in the background also suggest this, such as a puppet show re-enacting an earlier law (“It’s to show the passage of time,” says Boorman, “and to show Arthur’s reign passing from fact into legend.”), and an Orrery, with the stars and planets revolving around Camelot.
Later, Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, who has tricked Merlin into giving her the “secret of making,” and transformed herself into Guinevere to seduce Arthur and conceive a son, Mordred, kisses her boy (Charley Boorman) on the forehead. When the camera pulls back as their heads part, you realize ten years have passed, and Mordred is now a young man (Robert Addie), twisted with hatred by his mother to destroy Camelot and all it stands for.
Merlin, portrayed by Nicol Williamson, and Helen Mirren’s Morgana are very interesting characters. Neither actor wanted to work with the other, because, according to Boorman, each stated they wanted to sleep with the other on the set of Macbeth, and were rebuffed. Naturally, Boorman gave them plenty of scenes together to clash with enmity. Williamson based his portrayal on an old English teacher, and plays him as alternately sage and buffoonish, completely ignorant of the ways and passions of humankind. Mirren’s Morgana is of course a sensuous, scheming vamp, but subtly so within the world around her—she sees Merlin’s ways as a means for a woman to have power in a man’s world. Merlin says with melancholic insight to this upstart, “Our time is passing, and the time of man is coming. The one God is driving out the many Gods.” Boorman said of it “The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.” Her trickery of Merlin into incanting the magic that will freeze him for an epoch, the bridging of the world of magic, and of men, when he is released for one last intervention, is reminiscent of Boorman and Pallenberg’s method to illustrate the duel between Gandalf and Saruman in their earlier LotR script. Pallenberg told Ross Plesset in Outre magazine:
There’s a duel between the magicians, Gandalf and Saruman. I was inspired by an African idea of how magicians duel with words, which I had read about. It was a way of one entrapping the other as a duel of words rather than special effects flashes, shaking staffs, and all that. I tried to keep away from that a lot, and Boorman did too. [Reads from script]:
GANDALF: Saruman, I am the snake about to strike!
SARUMAN: I am the staff that crushes the snake!
GANDALF: I am the fire that burns the staff to ashes!
SARUMAN: I am the cloudburst that quenches the fire!
GANDALF: I am the well that traps the waters!
Excalibur is a ravishing film, full of lush and strange visuals, fantastical sets, and clever model photography. Boorman filmed Camelot in the countryside as simply a model placed in the distance. To suggest an air of magic in the forests around his home in Ireland where he filmed, green gel filtered lights gave it a luminous, dream-like quality, especially any time the magical blade Excalibur is drawn, or during Arthur’s discovery of Guinevere and Lancelot’s adulterous entwined naked figures, symbolically impaling Excalibur in the mossy bed between them and walking away emasculated. During the Grail quest, the grim wilderness is easily captured in the “wild” west of Ireland. Local Travelers, hardened to an outdoor life, portray Arthur’s people, fallen on hard times. The Grail Knights armor is now rusted and pitted. Sir Percival is hung up to die by Mordred on a tree and is saved by another Knight’s spur slowly, agonizingly, sawing through the rope. This is intercut with Percival’s vision of locating the Grail. “It’s the land between life and death where the Grail resides,” says Snyder. “There are a lot of cool parallels in this film, and the lighting helps establish the two realities. It’s awesome how surreal all this stuff is.” The stages of the film’s look suggest a war between design and nature, one age struggling to be born from another, a golden age from murky, earthy nature, and the eventual corruption of that.
Excalibur is a cautionary tale. The characters are all struggling to find their place in the world, to maintain harmony with nature. Merlin says poignantly of Excalibur to Arthur, “It was forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.” The film is a longing for a golden age, and the struggle to balance the warring natures of honor and goodness with human greed and jealousy. Surely the most rousing image is when Percival has returned the Grail to Arthur who, rejuvenated, also recovers Excalibur from Guinevere (now a nun, to atone for her adultery with Lancelot). She has kept it safe, knowing her once and future king would one day seek its power. Merlin is unfrozen by Arthur, and even Lancelot, a raggedy wild man driven into exile by his own shame, heeds his true king’s call. Arthur rides out with his knights and these fellow warriors through a re-blossoming countryside to do battle with Mordred for the soul of the land, to Carl Orff’s stirring music.
Boorman believes myths like that of Arthur and others endure because they are stories that withstand retelling. “I think it’s fascinating to see how the great European myths reemerged in the American genre film, particularly the Western. I believe that the popular, lasting stories are really about great deep psychic events in human history that have bitten themselves into the racial memory and which we remember in our unconscious. The retelling of these stories is like the rediscovery of them—it ‘catharizes’ and then gives solace.”
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
I wrote the original script myself, but at some point I got stuck on it. It was a bit too long and convoluted. So I got Rospo in. In the past we’d always worked together sitting in a room talking out scenes, thrashing them out, writing them down, and then revising them. But in this case I asked him to go away and think about the script and try to see if he could come up with any ideas about the structure. You see, I was determined to tell the whole story of the Morte D’Arthur, and that restricted the amount of time I had to develop the characters, the themes, and to make everything work. He did a very good job, and he actually straightened it out quite a lot, as well as coming up with one or two extremely brilliant ideas. —John Boorman
Screenwriter must-read: Rospo Pallenberg & John Boorman’s screenplay for Excalibur [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“Excalibur is all images flashing by—ravishing images—and though we can’t retain them, we drink them in. Each, in some weird way, seems to be on its own. This may help to explain the film’s hypnotic effect: the events keep gliding into each other. We miss the dramatic intensity that we expect the stories to have, but there’s always something to look at. The images keep coming, and the cadences are bizarrely even. Every now and then, there’s an inchoate swelling—as in the royal-wedding sequence, where the sensuousness of metal and flesh makes you feel that something might be about to explode. Boorman sets an aestheticized mood, and by quivering, wiredrawn control he sustains it. At times, he’s doing something close to free-associating visually. It’s as if he were guiding us down a magic corridor and kept parting the curtains in front of us.” —Pauline Kael
John Boorman—in interview, by Harlan Kennedy. This article appeared in the March 1981 issue of American Film.
The path to Camelot was paved with rape and pillage. The ruins of a ransacked village smoldered on a rainy hilltop, and blackened timbers stood in spiky silhouette against the skyline. But down in the valley, green light filtered up through the trees and the fine drizzle, and charred chaos yielded to a glowing beauty. In the shimmering bower of a forest, peasants sitting on bleachers cheered as jousting steel-clad knights smote each other with sword and lance, striking sparks into the air. Around this charmed circle of chivalry moved the milling, babbling throng of market day—peasants shouting their wares, children scurrying, chickens squawking. A smithy’s hammer blows sounded a clanging antiphony to the jousting clash. John Boorman strode between scene and camera, priming and polishing this tableau, plucked from the myth-encrusted prehistory of Britain. A little beyond him, on a hillock, stood the sword-bearing stone from which the boy Arthur would soon draw the magic sword Excalibur.
Boorman, on location in Ireland, was shooting Excalibur, a film based on the Arthurian legend. The movie, an Orion production, is scheduled for release in April. Nicol Williamson heads the cast as Merlin, the magician who weaves through the story and sets the legend in motion by passing on Excalibur to Arthur’s father. Arthur himself is played by the British actor Nigel Terry, moving from boyhood to old age. Other figures who move through Boorman’s re-creation include Queen Guinevere; Sir Lancelot; the knight Perceval, seeker of the Holy Grail; and the evil Morgana, magical half-sister of Arthur. Boorman has cast his son as the boy Mordred and his daughter as Arthur’s mother. Excalibur is at the advance of a sword-and-sorcery vogue. The cinema’s recent sci-fi thrust has curved and brought us full circle into the depths of antiquity and myth. While space movies become more weird, whimsical, and weathered, Boorman has plunged right back into the sources of Western myth.
On this day of shooting, though, myth gave way to nature. As the drizzle turned into an insistent rain, Boorman disbanded his knights for lunch (“But keep your armor on!”), demobbed his crew, and escorted a visitor into his on-location tent. “Sometimes,” Boorman says, settling himself inside, “when you’re up to your ears in rain and mud, it’s not too easy to intrude your camera into the Celtic dawn and create the golden age of Camelot. But it’s happening—at least I think so. It’s working on screen.” Historians have long been trying to determine exactly when that golden age was—when, if ever, King Arthur lived. Somewhere in that dark, unchronicled limbo between the demise of Roman Britain and the rise of William the Conqueror, this hero may have dwelt, setting his hero-knights around his Round Table, wedding Guinevere, bickering with Merlin, and building Camelot. “If there was ever an Arthur,” Boorman says, “he’s sited in about the sixth century. But the date is the least important thing really. I think of the story, the history, as a myth. The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth; it has to do with man taking over the world on his own terms for the first time. So the first trap to avoid is to start worrying about when or whether Arthur existed. The stories that inspire us were really fifteenth-century works, by Thomas Malory and the rest, looking back nostalgically on the twelfth.”
“Malory was really the first hack writer,” he continues. “When Caxton built his printing press, he asked poor old Malory to write something, and he obliged by putting together all the stories he knew: all the stories that had been handed down through the oral tradition. And then slowly, as books proliferated, people forgot the stories or didn’t bother to remember them.” “So these tales set by Malory in the twelfth century described events which had happened much earlier,” Boorman goes on. “And as with all myths, they took on the color of the age in which they were written. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, for instance, or Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites described and painted the twelfth-century Arthurian tales in terms of their era. And they ended by telling you more about the Victorian age than about the legend.”
Where, then, had Boorman set his Arthurian England—in a world spiritually akin to 1980? “What I’m doing is setting it in a world, a period, of the imagination,” Boorman explains. “I’m trying to suggest a kind of Middle Earth, in Tolkien terms. It’s a contiguous world; it’s like ours but different. I want it to have a primal clarity, a sense that things are happening for the first time. Landscape and nature and human emotions are all fresh. I tell the actors that they are not reenacting a legend. They are creating it, and so they themselves don’t know what’s going to happen—it’s unfolding.” Boorman’s movies have been questing journeys into past or future, or crisscrossing odysseys (as in Point Blank) through time zones of the present. Whether flying over visionary peaks and canyons in Exorcist II: The Heretic or swirling down-river in Deliverance, he’s always been a filmmaker dedicated to keeping his feet off the ground. The screenplay for Excalibur, written by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, is a typically bold interweaving of different time layers, from Arthur’s birth to his death, set within an elusive period of “mythic history.”
“I wrote the original script myself,” says Boorman, “but at some point I got stuck on it. It was a bit too long and convoluted. So I got Rospo in. In the past we’d always worked together sitting in a room talking out scenes, thrashing them out, writing them down, and then revising them. But in this case I asked him to go away and think about the script and try to see if he could come up with any ideas about the structure.” “You see, I was determined,” he adds, “to tell the whole story of the Morte D’Arthur, and that restricted the amount of time I had to develop the characters, the themes, and to make everything work. He did a very good job, and he actually straightened it out quite a lot, as well as coming up with one or two extremely brilliant ideas. One was to have Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s real father and the ‘primogenitor’ of the whole saga, if you like, drive the sword into the stone, rather than Merlin, as in Malory. The other was to progress the story in several bold jumps forward in time.”
Boorman offers an example. “When Uther thrusts the sword in the stone and then dies, we cut straight to the same scene eighteen years later. I shot the first in winter; then I shot it again in spring when all the trees were in leaf. Boom! Though it was only a seasonal change, it’s a very startling one, and then I panned around with the camera, and you see that all this encampment you’re looking at today has grown up and around it. That’s a passage of eighteen years in one cut, and it gave the story enormous dynamic power.” “At other times,” Boorman continues, “instead of a time lapse cut on a landscape, I’d make the transition happen on a character’s face. There’s a point when I go from the young Arthur with Guinevere straight to a scene, years later, in which he meets Lancelot. In that scene Arthur has sprouted a beard, and you suddenly see him behaving very much like his father, Uther. Similarly, when Morgana kisses the young Mordred, I show their heads moving apart, and after a moment you realize that ten years have gone by within that embrace and Mordred is now a fully grown man.”
In another scene, Boorman borrows a story from Rabelais’s Pantagruel and transposes it into the Arthurian myth. Arthur as king is seen making a legal judgment between two men, and in a later scene, we see the same judgment reenacted in a puppet show—broadcast and perpetuated in the popular medium of the day, medieval England’s precursor to newspapers, radio, and television. “It’s to show the passage of time,” says Boorman, “and to show Arthur’s reign passing from fact into legend.” The thing about myths,” Boorman declares, “is that they’re a body of stories completely homogenous and interrelated, yet also completely flexible. You can rearrange or extend or elide the order of events quite liberally without destroying the meaning. The essentials that make them popular, the resonances, remain the same.”
Boorman’s notion of myths—that they’re both a close-knit and an open body of work—holds up remarkably well. For example, the German “Ring” legend beloved of Wagner is almost a kissing cousin to the Arthurian story. Both are parables of the birth of consciousness from dormant nature and of the quest for destiny. And both begin with the image of a piercing, luminous object emerging from water (the sword from the lake, the Rhinegold from the Rhine) and go on to tell of a chosen hero (Arthur, Siegfried) waking a primitive land from its sleep of barbarism. Boorman explains, “It’s very basic to adolescent fantasy—look at Star Wars—to have the notion of the young boy who is suddenly chosen, picked out to be a leader or a king. Almost all little children are drawn to the fantasy that they were foundlings and that their real parents come from some extraordinary background. Star Wars hit on these things and tapped into something perennially popular.”
Myths survive, Boorman believes, because they’re stories that stand retelling. “I think it’s fascinating to see how the great European myths reemerged in the American genre film, particularly the Western,” he says. “I believe that the popular, lasting stories are really about great deep psychic events in human history that have bitten themselves into the racial memory and which we remember in our unconscious. The retelling of these stories is like the rediscovery of them—it ‘catharizes’ and then gives solace.” Two of the elements in the Arthurian tales on which Boorman has laid strong emphasis in Excalibur are Merlin and the Holy Grail—the opposite poles of primal pagan magic and redemptive Christian miracle. “I’ve always been absolutely obsessed with the whole Grail story,” he says, “and I’ve used the iconography and also the structures—the ‘quest’ structures particularly—in the various films I’ve done. The whole legend kept impinging on me.”
Boorman first got interested in the legend by reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and went on to read Jessie L. Weston’s book about the Grail quest, From Ritual to Romance. “Then I started to read John Cowper Powys,” he says, “and I was fascinated by him and his book A Glastonbury Romance, which is all about the Grail legend threading its way through contemporary Glastonbury. And then I went to the west of England, to Glastonbury, and spent some time there making a film for the BBC. I was very—I would say—disturbed by the curious, mythic power the place has, the strangeness. And at one point I actually started to write a script based on A Glastonbury Romance.” Boorman turns to Merlin, the magician and seer, played by Nicol Williamson. “Merlin fascinates me because he’s a mixture of real awesome power and foolishness. He gets things wrong. He’s both less human and more human than ordinary people. He has enormous power and knowledge, and yet there are simple things he doesn’t grasp or understand. New forces are contending with his magic and each other. New passions—love, hatred, revenge—are in play. And these emotions are beyond him.”
“At the stage in Merlin’s life that we depict in Excalibur,” says Boorman, “we are suggesting that he’s really beginning to fade out. He’s drifting in and out of the affairs of men. He functions better at some times than at others. And he says it himself—he says to Morgana, ‘Our time is passing and the time of man is coming. The one God is driving out the many gods.’ “And that’s what my story is about: the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.” The flaps of Boorman’s tent parted suddenly, and a harassed, hustling technician came in for a brief preshooting conference. How many extras did Boorman want in the background for the sword-in-the-stone scene? (There were 130 or 140 on call, “foot and knight.”) How much background action in the encampment? Should they cover themselves for a runover in shooting by having the same casting call for extras tomorrow?
Boorman issued swift answers, solved the technician’s problems, and sent him out a calmer man. Soon, the afternoon’s shooting about to begin and the rain letting up, the director left the tent. Out in the Irish daylight, Boorman surveyed his lighting plan for the shooting. The green filters placed over the arc lamps bathed the landscape in a lyric vernal glow. “We’re using green gels in the forest exteriors,” Boorman explains, “to give a kind of luminous quality, and to emphasize the moss and the leaves. It breathes a little magic into the scene; it gives it a sense of otherworldliness, and also that visual quality you can see in sword-and-sorcery illustrations, which is to some extent one of the references we’re using.”
How much would Boorman be making use of real settings, like castles, and how much would he be deploying matte shots and models? “Because it’s a world of the imagination,” he replies, “I’m avoiding using any existing castles or other architectural modes. I’m trying to take it as far from an identifiable reality as possible. We’re building everything ourselves, interiors and exteriors of castles, and obviously we’re using models and mattes a lot for the longer, wider shots so that we can make up what we want.” Boorman adds, “There aren’t any old castles really. They’re either in ruins or they’ve been modernized over the years. The best castles are probably the revivalist ones like Ludwig’s or the Victorian Gothic that were built in England. They’re the most redolent ones really, because they. give off a kind of fantasy about castles, whereas the real ones were terribly dull buildings. They were just walls put up to keep people out.”
Down in the peasant encampment, meanwhile, where the cameras were soon to whir, director of photography Alex Thomson moved among the lights, meter in hand, adding finishing touches to the scene. Knights clanked in and out of view, wearing the full-dress, solid-metal armor that had been hammered into shape by the production’s armorer, Terry English. The design is typical of the film’s vision: a sort of organic rococo, rife with spikes and leaves and hinted natural shapes. The visual impact of the Excalibur location—the eerie green light, the spikes and twisted knots of the armor, the discolored faces peering through a layer of earth or woad—was of design and wildness warring, of one age struggling to be born from another, the civilized from the natural.
Another clash of ages was being waged offcamera in the Excalibur encampment. Mud-daubed actor-peasants wandered between tents and market stalls eating sandwiches and drinking tea from plastic cups; wrist-thick lighting cables snaked along the damp earth; and medieval knights and villagers traded jokes in 1980s colloquialisms. But soon chaos was orchestrated, the crowds deployed to their imaginary starting positions, final makeup touches applied (“Dirty that actor!” cried Boorman, noticing a spotless peasant extra), and the camera set in place for the afternoon’s shooting. The scene to be filmed has the young boy Arthur, squire to his elder brother Sir Kay in the jousting, sent by his father, Sir Ector, to fetch Kay’s sword, negligently left behind in their tent. “A good squire doesn’t forget his knight’s sword,” rasps Sir Ector to cue the action, whereupon the boy dashes contritely off through the market crowds to retrieve the weapon.
Boorman placed his camera on a tracking rail at the edge of the encampment, gave final orders for the gas jetted village bonfires to be lighted and for the horsed knights in the background to begin their jousting, and then cried, “Action!” The market scene suddenly blazed and babbled into life: women carrying groaning baskets of eggs and vegetables, a little boy carrying an outsize sheep, pigs and goats rooting noisily in the mud, bonfires roaring, smithy clanking, and Arthur weaving and buffeting his way through the human surge and flux. After one take, a not-quite-satisfied Boorman asked for still more bustle. As if to lead the way, he personally flung an obliging chicken in front of the camera to produce a foreground flurry of feathers. The chicken, knowing its big moment had come, promptly gave an exultant squawk and amid a shower of feathers laid an egg. The hundred-odd extras upped the scene’s volume and vivacity.
The boy wound through the seething bodies, dashed into the tent, and found, as the legend required, no sword. He ran on, first through the smoke and din of the blacksmith’s forge in panic-stricken search for a weapon, then in tearful despair out of the encampment up the hill toward the place where, though not yet suspecting it, he would find Excalibur. Satisfied after a series of takes that he had caught the scene’s mood and rhythm, Boorman disbanded his actors and extras, all except Nigel Terry, and went into brief conference with his lighting men. On the nearby hill, the king-making sword stood rooted in a mossy stone. Additional filtered green lights bathed the scene in that glowing green radiance shared by the forest around.
Boorman’s whole movie career might be seen as leading to this point—the igniting of the mythical spark in a story which has long been his most cherished movie project. Boorman’s earlier films are crammed with presaging hints of the Arthur legend: from the name itself popping up in a key role in Zardoz (Arthur Frayn, sage and wizard) to the quest motifs, the notion of “heroes” struggling toward a source of meaning and resolution in a world of flux in Point Blank and Deliverance. “In a sense, making movies is itself a quest,” Boorman declares during a break in his lighting conference. “A quest for an alternative world, a world which is more satisfactory than the one we live in. That’s what first appealed to me about making films. It seemed to me a wonderful idea that you could remake the world, hopefully a bit better, braver, and more beautiful than it was presented to us.”
“The characters in Excalibur,” he says, “are seeking to find their place in the world, their destiny. Of course, it’s very unfashionable today to talk of destiny. But what destiny means is to find your place in life, your stream in the river, to find a wholeness in relation to nature. And one of the themes of the piece is that of harmony with the natural world. At the beginning of the film, there’s a speech that Merlin makes about Excalibur which ends with the line, ‘It was forged when the world was young, and bird, beast, and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.’ That’s a very poignant line because it describes the longing, the yearning for that golden age, that time of harmony.”
“And what we see in the story,” Boorman continues, “is the horror and dissension of man, and his warring, feuding, and brutality—his inability to really attain his higher aims and ideals. But I think the moving thing about it is the attempts that people make to try to reach those things. In a sense, that’s what redeems the characters—their aspirations, not their deeds.” Moments later, Boorman stood intent and raptly watchful beside the camera as Arthur took his first clasp of Excalibur. The sword hissed softly, swiftly from the stone as Arthur raised it high above his head, hilt grasped firmly in both hands. At an order from Boorman, a white key light was switched on and Excalibur blazed into life, showering flakes of silvery light into the darkening afternoon. The symbol of a new age towered bright and unsheathed above the old, and life and legend were in harmony.
ALEXANDER THOMSON, BSC
“Plagued with pre-production difficulties for two decades before director John Boorman was able to mount the production, the filming of Excalibur, his epic telling of the Arthurian legends based primarily on Thomas Malory’s book, Le Morte d’Arthur, took place almost entirely in the Irish countryside. The film’s shooting went on for five months in 1980, with rain occurring nearly every day of exteriors. The task of capturing the rain-drenched images, fell on cinematographer Alex Thomson, BSC (Alien 3, Legend), who embraced the rain, understanding the gritty, real-life intensity infused with an other-worldly, fantasy tone Boorman wanted the image to have. ‘We were trying throughout to get a kind of luminosity to the picture. We constantly used green light shining on objects in daytime exteriors to give them a magical luminosity,’ notes Boorman on the commentary track of Warner’s recent Blu-ray release of Excalibur. Whereas the leaves and moss comprising much of the film’s fanciful forests often shimmer with mythical incandescence through the use of creative lighting, it is the titular weapon, Excalibur, that shines most brightly throughout. From its first introduction in the rippling waters that bathe the ‘Lady of the Lake’ to its final scenes amidst the blood-soaked, misty ruins of war, Boorman and Thomson agreed the sword should radiate a mystic glow. They achieved the illusion by aiming appropriately gelled, high-powered lights on it for every appearance. Thomson’s imaginative use of lighting on Excalibur earned him Best Cinematography nominations for an Academy Award and a BSC Award.” —Kenneth Sweeney
Excalibur: Behind the Movie is a retrospective documentary that looks back at the making of director John Boorman’s 1981 movie, Excalibur. Self-described as the toughest film he ever made, Excalibur told the tale of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and helped start the careers of actors Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart. In this one hour film, they join other cast and crew to share their memories from the filming of this Arthurian masterpiece. Mark Wright wrote and directed the title which features interviews with Neeson, Byrne, Mirren and Stewart. The documentary is produced by Alec Moore and Lawrence Fee with Craig McCall as executive producer.
ME AND ME DAD: A PORTRAIT OF JOHN BOORMAN
An intimate portrait about the iconic filmmaker John Boorman directed by his daughter Katrine. The story is told through the relationship of father and daughter, it is a journey about filmmaking, family conflict, love and reconciliation. Now over 80 years old, the director of Hell in the Pacific, Excalibur, Point Blank, Deliverance and The Emerald Forest is one of the last great mavericks. His daughter, who previously had never held a camera, spent four years filming her father who, during the process, found it impossible to resist taking control and offering her a crash course in filmmaking. Vulnerable, cross, funny, wild and wise, Boorman chronicles his adventures in Hollywood, but also talks with great honesty about his childhood, his marriages, his passion for nature, his need for danger and why film is the only thing he ever truly loved. Though the film is also a portrait of one of the most influential British filmmakers of the last 40 years, most of all it is a story of a father and daughter finding their way back to each other through the language of film.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Boorman’s Excalibur. Photographed by Arnaud Sélignac & Robert Willoughby © Orion Pictures, Columbia-EMI-Warner. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in