I remember seeing John Boorman’s Excalibur when it first came out in 1981. I remember being completely blown away by its visual splendor and Boorman’s fascinating attempt to present the Arthurian legend in terms of Wagner opera (which pervades the soundtrack). I also remember the scorn with which the film was received by a number of reviewers—and being more than a little shocked by presumably adult critics bitching about the fact that the movie didn’t have a real dragon in it. (In Boorman’s take on the story, the “dragon” is the spirit of the earth itself.) Time has tended to side with Boorman’s incredibly ambitious film—a take on the story that preserved its essence, but enlarged on it, made it more universal, and shifted the focus to the emergence of Christianity over paganism (“The one God comes to drive out the many,” Nicole Williamson’s Merlin notes at one point).
If a few things seem a little overstated—like the sex scene between Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) and Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) with the latter still wearing his armor (presumably the top half only)—they’re really not that out of place in a work that’s deliberately operatic. In the end, Boorman’s greatest achievement lies in fashioning a film that’s humanly accessible and yet epic to the point of truly mythic proportion. Image after image—and incredible scenery of Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains—cascades from the screen in an amazing blend of naturalism and cinematic artifice. And the scenery is much more than just pretty “peeps,” because the land—the earth (the dragon, if you will)—is central to the story itself, which implicitly traces the loss of the earthy “old ways” by the encroachment of a new mode of thought. A remarkable film unlike any other.