Grail Enquiries

My line on EXCALIBUR has long been that John Boorman decided, boldly but perhaps unwisely, to make an Arthurian epic as if MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL had never happened.

I came up with a new line today while showing clips to a student who’s embarking on a mythic fantasy short: it’s like Boorman maybe DID know there was such a thing as The Ridiculous, but bet that he could break on through it to the other side. But possibly there’s nothing on the other side of The Ridiculous except more Ridiculous, going on forever, getting ever more ridiculous.

Hopping through the film for frame-grabs though, my God it’s beautiful. Though the muddy bits are the most Pythonesque, and the glossy bits are kind of sixties-hippy-meets-disco, so it’s all silly all the time, maybe it plays better in episodes, or even moments, than as a whole.

Remember Hawks’ “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks”? Remember also that Fritz Lang was offered the chance to remake DIE NIBELUNGEN at the end of his career, and turned it down on the basis that the dialogue would be impossible. EXCALIBUR would make a great silent movie.

I had just watched Daniel Aronofsky’s NOAH, which has some nice fake time-lapses but otherwise was not entertainingly bad as I’d hoped, but kind of depressingly bad, and I’d also shown clips from Polanski’s MACBETH, and the thing all three films have in common is really mannered performances. EXCALIBUR looked particularly ropey, except for Nicol Williamson who has the benefit of a sly wit. You can’t not think of LORD OF THE RINGS (which Boorman had wanted to make), and my feeling is what makes that movie/series watchable in spite of all the excesses (which are its ARCHITECTURE), is it has lots of interesting actors who can step outside the clichés of the Epic Style. Peter Jackson has always liked big, ALL-CAPS, cartoony performances, but there are understatement specialists and eccentrics dotted all through LOTR and yet there’s also an acceptable house style that keeps things just unified enough.

But one can’t help but dream of what a Boorman LOTR would be like. Like a Jodorowsky DUNE or a Ken Russell CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

14 Responses to “Grail Enquiries”

  1. I maintain that the film plays better when watched in French with English subtitles. The performances seem less arch and the lines read fine… In a sense bridging the literary and the cinematic.

  2. Visually, it really is ravishing. I suspect that watching it with an isolated score and subtitles would do wonders for it as well.

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    You described my experience perfectly as a teenager obsessed with Monty Python and seeing Excalibur’s first run at the Star-Lite Drive-In in Transcona, Manitoba. I couldn’t help sniggering at all the moments reminiscent of Python, yet the awe-inspiring beauty was undeniable. And it engendered a lifelong exploriation of the Arthurian and Grail mythology. The world is a mad, glorious, noble, funny ha-ha, funny sheesh place, so why not mix it all in one film. It embodies that call to chivalry and noble pursuits when surrounded by filth and decay, and bedevilled by our own weaknesses and failings.

  4. Grant Skene Says:

    By the way, I was surprised how much I enjoyed Noah. I thought Aaronofsky breathed new life into an old story. It isn’t brilliant, but a vast improvement over those plodding and “safe” biblical epics from the fifties.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Nichol Williamson’s “sly wit” stems from the fact that he was batshit crazy.

    Lovely to look at in every respect the best thing about “Excalibur” is Helen Mirren as Morgan La Fay. She’s the best thing about almost all the movies in which she appears.

    OFF-TOPIC: Agnes Varda has died. She was 90.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I love Excalibur. To me Monty Python and the Holy Grail didn’t define the myths as much as it did to the original audience. But then I had also seen, stuff like Rohmer’s Perceval and Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. As did Boorman, he said in interviews with Ciment he had seen and liked both those films. I think Boorman’s great insight into the King Arthur legend was that the story of Arthur such as it was, wasn’t great by itself. What mattered is that it became a story that would live on after him, or rather as he says, “Become future memory” and so on.

    I think this is a brilliantly realized film, and it takes a special genius to basically tell the entire myth cycle in a single film narrative, and avoiding the serialization of Star Wars and LOTR. Whenever I hear people say that “so-and-so-can’t be done in one film”, I think have they seen Excalibur lately.

  7. Grant Skene Says:

    Well said Sudarshan! I thought it was a brilliant idea to make Arthur also the wounded Fisher King and have the Waste Land emanate from his sadness at the betrayal of Guinevere and Lancelot. And a more aching portrayal of the love triangle, I’m yet to see.

  8. revelator60 Says:

    Trying to cram Malory (who was already a master summarizer) into two hours was something of a fool’s errand to begin with, and the result is a series of lavishly illustrated highlights from a myth cycle rather than the entire thing—the grail quest is drastically foreshortened and the Lancelot-Guinevere storyline becomes a tedious sideshow to the Morgana-Merlin campfest (and don’t get me started on the waste of Gawain!).

    Beyond the harm done by the epic style is the inability of many of the actors to master it. The fellow who plays Arthur comes across as a nonentity, and Lancelot and Guinevere are almost as unmemorable. So the film is badly unbalanced and Williamson and Mirren walk away with it. That said, I still like Excalibur for its demented majesty, overripe beauty, and Boorman’s willingness to be ridiculous. But he was a overly focused on making the film mythic rather than understanding that behind the myth is some very human literature. Bresson understood this in his adaptation of the Vulgate, one of Malory’s chief sources.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Pretty but empty. Helen Mirren steals it.

  10. I chatted with Dave McWhinnie, producer of many of those Channel 5 WWII documentaries, including a surprisingly turgid Occult History of the Third Reich. He reckoned that Excalibur was “a deeply sinister film” full of iconography drawn from the Nazis, along with the Wagner and Orff music — imagery that’s too obscure for me to be able to identify it, though obviously there’s some kind of crossover between all those northern European myths.

    I’d love to see Richard Lester’s Knight Time (but it was never made), scripted by Charles Wood from Donald Barthelme’s novel The King, which plays the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle in a WWII setting — but with knights in armour riding about.

  11. David Ehrenstein Says:

    You wanna talk “iconography derived from the Nazis” then see Syberberg’s “Parsifal” in which at one point a swastika is unfurled.

    Another great rendition of the Grail Saga (thankfully Nazi-free) is Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” which is more about Gawain, “modeled” (as Bressons puts it) by the beautiful, doomed Humbert Balsam, than it is about Lancelot and Guinevere.

  12. Syberberg is clearly well aware of what he’s doing. Boorman might be flirting with fascist imagery and rhetoric “The king and the land are one!” in a naughty schoolboy kind of way.

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Divine Right of Kings and Fisher King is pretty old and separate from fascism which is a modern phenomenon.

    The point of Excalibur is that Arthur and his Kingdom was never all that great shakes. It was never the great noble thing that it was until it was completely gone and dead. And the main enemy, Mordred is a blonde Aryan-looking psychopath so visually it’s not coded as positive towards the Nazi aesthetics.

  14. I particularly like Nicol Williamson as a grungy Merlin, who basically in the opening of the film uses his magic to allow a sexual assault to occur, simultaneously to the death of the man being replaced. No wonder Morgana is so upset at what happens to her parents, to the extent of wanting revenge against Merlin’s next protege!

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