John Boorman’s Excalibur covers the King Arthur legend in blood, flesh, and Jung
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Director John Boorman didn’t go about adapting the legend of King Arthur casually with his 1981 film Excalibur. Trying to capture the full scope of Arthurian lore, he begins the film with the tumultuous conception of the future king (played from his teenage years through adulthood by Nigel Terry) and continues on through Arthur’s post-death departure for Avalon, drawing on everything from Le Morte D’Arthur to Richard Wagner operas in the process. The result is an unavoidably episodic film, squeezing a lot of story into a single feature. (Peter Jackson might have made a couple of trilogies out of this stuff.) But it feels cohesive even as it moves from one chapter to the next, and it feels appropriately big, too, leaning heavily on Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and The Golden Bough to play with the idea that a king and the land he rules are somehow one and the same. When Arthur becomes despondent, the land itself turns unhealthy. Revived, flowers bloom as he and his knights ride into battle to the accompaniment of Carmina Burana.
Some might call it over the top, but when operating on such a grand scale, is there really a top to go over? Boorman had one eye on the legendary past and another on modern audiences when he made the film, filling it with graphic violence and, as cable television fans of a certain age will no doubt remember, ample nudity. Nothing feels gratuitous, though. Boorman’s film attempts, and largely succeeds, at erasing the distance between moviemaking and mythmaking.
Availability: On BD/DVD, and Amazon Prime members can currently stream it for free.