THE SWORD Excalibur rose from the lake the first time in John Boorman's parents' living room, near London. He was 5, he was sitting in an armchair leafing through a book, looking at the pictures.
"They must have been done by either Aubrey Beardsley or Arthur Rackham," he says in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, 43 years after the event, and 10 days after picking up the final print of his new movie, "Excalibur."
"Rackham illustrated a copy of the "Morte d'Arthur.' The last scene of 'Excalibur' is a tribute to Rackham -- where Mordred and Arthur kill each other in the final battle. We set it up exactly like the illustration."
True enough: There they are in the movie, fantastically armored, grappling for truth, justice, life and Britain itself against a gigantic setting sun. It is the climax to a myth that has fascinated Western civilization since its foggy historical origins sometime around the fifth century in Wales: King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, the magnificent and doomed love of Lancelot and Guenevere, the quest for the Holy Grail, the machinations of Merlin, the sword Excalibur coming out of the lake, which, as Boorman says, he saw for the first time in his parents' living room.
"I remember seeing it, that illustration of the hand lifting the sword above the water," he says. "The image haunted me. Somebody asked me why I wanted to make this movie. The answer is that I wanted to shoot that sword coming out of the lake and going back into it.The rest of it was what went in between. You ask -- why is that image so powerful to me? But I don't answer, I just do it."
He was out to do not the history of the sword, or even the history of the whole legend, but the reality behind it, the legend itself.
"I said to the actors: we're not retelling this legend. These are the events on which the legend is based," Boorman recalls now.
He has tried to present us with the Ur-myth, to reach the most primal fantasies in all of us, so it's not surprising that his source and inspiration here is the work of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who said that mankind is linked by a common unconscious, a repository of ancient imagery and ideas that show up around the world in children's art, in religious motifs such as mandalas, and in myths: myths of dragons who must be battled in the name of the conscious mind of civilization; of Edens forsakes, the Paradises lost; of quests for everything from the Tolkien's ring to the Holy Grail; of heroes and saviors who arise, fall, and will revive to save us again, be they the Messiah, Jason, Samson, or Arthur, "the once and future king." These stories get told over and over again in one form or another. They are what Jung called "archetypes."
Just now, delving into his sea trout in the restaurant, Boorman points out that "Jung said that every myth is about a turning point in consciousness. The movie starts out with men as primeval animals, dinosaurs really (with snoutlike visors on their armor as they thunder around in a hellish mist), man struggling out of the slime. But as he emerges, what he loses is his harmony with nature and his sense of magic."
By the end of the movie, Arthur has dwindled to a gritty and ordinary humanity. He calls on Merlin, who appears only to tell him that the age of magic is gone, that he, Merlin, exists now only in dreams. Jung would agree, of course: Merlin is in our unconscious, along with all the other archetypes that Boorman has built into the movie.
"There's a lot of hidden things in it which have an effect," he says. "The wound which Lancelot gives himself in his side is in the same spot as Christ's wound, and the rib which Adam lost. You can always go back and find earlier examples of these things. The grail is the cup which caught the blood of Christ, but it was the cornucopia before that, and symbolically it's the same as the lake which contains the sword."
It was this sort of mysticism and symbolism that the intelligentsia of the 20th century has worked so hard to eradicate in the name of science and rationalism. This has been an age of realistic and literal fiction, of telling it like it is, of Freud over Jung, of ashcan realism and cinema verite, of the triumph of the doctrine of objectivity; and lately of a Me Generation to whom Boorman's mythical theorizing should be anathema. Myth, he says, "is about submitting to destiny -- finding your place in the world, rather than finding yourself."
Even Joseph Campbell, a favorite scholar of Jungians, writes in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces": "Today all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche."
Of course, he wrote that in the 1950s, before the mysteries of science technology and economics had lost their force for us, too. And along with all its other disappointments, the problem with this century's most enlightened thinking is that it has failed to provide us with heroes. Anti-heroes, yes, and celebrities, but not heroes of an order that Boorman is dealing with: redeemers, who not only fight for good, but for the very existence of goodness. They are order against chaos, civilization against savagery. Until recently, they'd been relegated to paperback fantasy novels, comic books and Saturday morning cartoon shows. Kid stuff.Cheap thrills. Teens to the rescue.
Says Boorman: "Warner's [the distributor of "Excalibur"] was worried the movie might be too remote, too distant, for young people. But there's been this tremendous burgeoning of sword-and sorcery comic books, so working-class kids are familiar with the mythological iconography."
Sword and sorcery is a phrase that may soon be as familiar as cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians. Already in existence are movies such as "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back," a torrent of fantasy paperbacks from the "Conan the Barbarian" books (now being made into a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. We have the proliferation of superheroes in Marvel comics and the Saturday morning cartoon shows; and Dungeons and Dragons -- a fantasy game that seems to be claiming 14-year-old minds with awesome power. Fantasy is big, fantasy sells. In the works now, along with "Conan," are movies including Paramount and Disney's "Dragonslayer," EMI's "The Sword," a Tarzan movie, a sequel to Ralph Bakshi's animated "Lord of the Rings," and a collaboration between Bakshi and fantasy-art king Frank Frazetta.
Sword and sorcery. Trash, flash, slash and clash. Heroes are back, low class and high, from Rocky to Luke Skywalker. The rest of us may soon be admitting what kids and fantasy freaks have known for years now: that myth and its heroes, despite all the best efforts of modern minds, have an appeal that nothing else can offer.
Until the rise of fantasy, the work "hero" itself had become degraded. In "Casablanca," we think of Humphrey Bogart as a hero, for instance, but his virtue is grudging at best. Hemingway's heroes are reluctant loners, and even at that get attacked for exemplifying the dread attributes of machismo. The left wing offered us poor Che Guevara, who died as a ridiculous failure in Bolivia. The right wing gave us John Wayne, who died in bed of smoking too many cigarettes.
Pathetic: The best we've been able to do, otherwise, is to turn the artists themselves into heroes, regardless of the work they give us: Hemingway, Mick Jagger, Andrew Wyeth, Leonard Bernstein or Paul Newman. And recently, in Hollywood, a generation of superhero directors, whose public personas exhibit all the egotism of comic-opera royalty, and who preside over fantasy empires with the budgets of small countries.
By Hollywood standards, at least, Boorman would appear to lack the sort of ego we've gotten used to in Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, or Michael Cimino. Also, he's paid more dues: hundreds of documentaries for the BBC; a Beatles knock-off starring the Dave Clark Five; failures including "Zardoz," which continues to live as a cult favorite, and "Exorcist II: The Heretic." Fortunately, he's also had successes such as "Point Blank," with Lee Marvin, and "Deliverance," which got him Oscar nominations for best film and best director.
He is a genial mesomorph, blue-eyed and gat-teethed, "mostly Celtic," he says, despite the Dutch name. He wears a houndstooth jacket, a plaid shirt and a rust-colored tie, a British Bohemian-squire look. He looks a little out of place in the sort of midtown French restaurant where everyone seems to have applied a coat of lacquer to themselves before they left home.
He likes to think of himself as being totally out of place in Hollywood.
"The success-failure syndrome there exerts such enormous pressure. After doing 'The Deer Hunter,' Michael Cimino couldn't really go off and make a small, quiet Western. The system insists he turn it into an epic. You either fail dismally or succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Coppola has to keep trying to top himself in order to hang onto his reputation as a whiz kid. Stanley Kubrick was one of the first it happened to. I was having lunch with Jack Nicholson while he was making 'The Shining' with Stanley. He said: 'It's so exhausting.We did 147 takes of one shot today. With Stanley I always try to peak at around take 40.' You get a similar problem with stars. The more you pay them the less they do. And the expenses multiply. A $3 miullion star has to have his own makeup man, who makes twice as much as the set's makeup man, who then demands a raise. When Brando was doing 'Superman' he wouldn't memorize lines. In that scene where he talks to the baby, they had a television monitor behind the baby's head, so he could read the lines. On one take, the baby reached behind his head and hit a switch that turned off the television. Brando never changed his tone, just started saying: 'And if baby turns off the television set, daddy won't be able to read his lines.'"
In order to make "Excalibur," Boorman agreed to take no salary, and he hired no stars, except for Nicol Williamson, who plays Merlin. An ease with this kind of modestly may have been what it took, too, for him to delve into the subculture that has been shunned and scorned by the intelligentsia, the critics, and other thought-police of aesthetics: fantasy.
Boorman is hardly cashing in on a trend. "I've been trying to make this movie for 20 years," he says.
He made a modern-dress version in the early '60s at BBC, called "Quarry," with a hero was named Arthur King. In 1969 he gave a treatment of the Arthur legend to United Artists after making "Leo the Last," which won him the Best Director award at Cannes in 1970. They asked him instead to try a script of "Lord of the Rings," but backed down when the script proved to be four hours long. In 1975 he tried a draft of "Excalibur," and finally in 1979, Orion gave him a go-ahead.
"I spent a year designing it -- the armor, the weapons, the castles, everything. Ordinarly, you'd just ask for costumes from a given century, but I didn't want it to be part of any particular historical period."
It's myth, after all, and in both myth and the fantasy genre, the idea is to evoke something timeless and eternal.
One problem with this archetypal material is not only that it violates canons of rationality, but that it is associated with the Nazis' successful use of it: The swastika, for instance, is an ancient symbol that appears in cultures around the world. Hitler biographer John Toland points out that "one very popular picture of Hitler had him in armor, like Siegfried, astride a horse. The Soviets undestood this threat very well. You can see it portrayed in the movie 'Alexander Nevsky,' with all those banner-waving Teutonic knights."
"It's dangerous, terribly dangerous territory," Boorman says. "The Nazis used the myths but in a distorted way. "There's a wonderful book called 'The Spear of Destiny' by Trevor Ravenscroft that talks about the spear which killed Christ -- Mordred kills Arthur with it, though we don't merntion the spear's history in the movie. And it was this spear that the Nazis were weilding, symbolically. It's been in the hands of every tyrant."
History suggests that our consigning of myth to children's entertainments may have less to do with political fears than with the dominant philosophy of the age.
The Arthur Legend, sometimes referred to as "The Matter of Britain," flowered in the Middle Ages, six centuries after the factual prototype had lived in Britain. It flourished, particularly in France, and was brought back to Britain by Thomas Malory in the 15th century as the "Morte d'Arthur," the source on which Boorman based "Excalibur." The legend lost popularity in the Renaissance, which, much like our own time, stressed rationality and realism. It resurfaced in the early Gothic novels of the 18th century, then flowered again with the Romantics of 19th-century England. 1In America, Mark Twain complained that this sort of material as rendered by Sir Walter Scott had totally corrupted Southerners, afflicting then with preposterously romantic notions of chivalry and manhood. Twain himself wrote an antidote, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," which showed how a common-sense mechanic could triumph over the magic of Merlin and the might of the knights.
But in a world in which the mechanical solutions of everything from econometrics to "limited warfare" fail to rouse much enthusiasm anymore, myth is tempting: It puts everything in order, all the cycles of life, the seasons, man and civilization. It does it so appealingly well that it's a little frightening, which may account for the violent mix of reviews the movie has received, from outraged scorn to tones of wonder.
As a man who's don every job in the movies since his first job as an assistant television film editor Boorman has no problems putting mechanics and myth together.
"I used to feel a lot of guilt about making movies," he says. "We'd use all these carpenters and plasterers to build sets, and I'd think that they should be out building houses for people. But I feel resolved about that. We should take these incredible technological resources we have and turn them into light and dreams."
After two hours of talk about archetypes and egos and the movie business, the restaurant is nearly empty and the waiters are standing around waiting for Boorman to leave.
There's no way they would ever guess that he is Merlin, he's the questing Perceval, he is Arthur wielding the sword that came out of the lake for him 43 years ago in his parents' living room.
It all comes down to one thing:
"I'm a great believer in the movies," says Boorman.