"Excalibur" opens with men in beastly armor riding through a hellish and primeval fog, followed by Merlin (Nicol Williamson, the movie's only famous star) with a staff that flicks into quick as a Bic. Then the sword Excalibur slices out of the lake like an animated Arthur Rackham painting, and is seized by Uther Pendragon. He lusts after the delectable Igrayne, and gets Merlin to make him look like her husband, and in one of the strangest sex scenes ever, proceeds in full armor to sire the future Arthur.
That's just the first few minutes, movie fans.
Director John Borrman ("Deliverance," "Zardoz") has taken the West's most enduring myth -- King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table -- and done it up with costumes that would make a pre-Raphaelite feel overdressed; with lighting that even fantasy artist Frank Frazetta might find extravagant; and enough snakes, gore, Wagnerian soundtrack, enchanted caves, noble nudity and epic sweep to state the appetite of even the most ravening fantasy freak.
A caveat: if you like your cinema served up verite, and your realism ashcan; if you know everything about movies but are never sure what you like, you won't like this one.
If, however, you want to see this story splashed in front of you, the whole life of Arthur in two-and-a-half hours of super-saturated color, of Irish glens and waterfalls, Edens lost, castles fallen, flashing steel and archetypal passion the way you wished some director would do it back when you were about 14, this is your movie.
Arthur, you recall, pulls Excalibur out of the stone where his long-lost father Uther left it. He proceeds to bring peace plenty, knights and a round table to a divided land. However, he makes the mistake of sending the noble Lancelot out to bring Guninevere to their wedding. The wedding comes off, but those two become an item, as they say in the gossip columns, and the next thing you know, Lancelot is jousting to defend her honor, as yet unstained. The prize for winning the joust, or irony of ironies, turns out to be Guinevere's honor, turned over in a mossy bower guarded by a fawn (who looks the other way).
Everything falls apart, Arthur loses Excalibur, famine and pestilence come on the land. All the knights ride out to quest for the Holy Grail, which will redeem them. There's much death and gore, crows picking out knights' eyes, and so on.Percivale gets the grail, which is a cup, and one sip from it revives the soul of Arthur. Arthur goes out to battle Morded, his wicked son conceived when the evil Morgana, his half-sister, stole Merlin's magic in the crystal grotto, and turned herself into Guinevere.
Well, it gets complicated, but it all ends up tidily enough with a battle scene copied directly from the pre-Raphaelite illustration by Arthur Rackham, Arthur and Mordred battling to the death in the light of a gigantic setting sun, a crimson twilight of the Gods.
Some of the more exquisite intellects among us may find it excessive. The rest of us can call it wonderful.
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