Knights of the Round Table
The fantasy genre has probably become the dominant genre of movies of the 21st century. Whether it be prehistoric dinosaurs running amok, Marvel super heroes saving the universe, the world of Harry Potter, the never-ending Star Wars franchise, or even films based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, fantasy rules supreme at the cinema box-office now.
This prevalence of fantasy today may be a need for audiences to try and connect with something outside their usual mundane world in which religion now plays a lesser part in most people lives; or maybe I’m reading too much into it !
Yet despite their commercial success, I find these fantasy films of today somewhat soulless, as if the incessant need to include as much CGI as possible has drained the life and imagination from them.
But I have a favourite amongst the genre and yes it harks back to yesteryear i.e. over 40 years ago with the 1981 release of John Boorman’s Excalibur; a splendid retelling of the the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, based loosely on the 15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.
After his success with Deliverance released in 1972, Boorman followed up with 2 disastrous films with the pretentious science-fiction fantasy Zardoz and the awful sequel to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic.
With a relatively small-budget Boorman shot the film entirely in Ireland whilst also helped launch the film acting careers of Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and Gabriel Byrne who all had notable supporting roles in the film.
Unlike most versions of the tale, the film starts with the story of Uther Pendragon and how Arthur come into being. Arthur himself is played by Nigel Terry who does a sterling job in playing him from his teenage years to his end as an aged king.
For me what make the film so striking is the terrific performance of Nicol Williamson as Merlin. Here is no aged and insipid wizard but a rousing and strong character that is witty and perceptive who helps to drive the narrative along.
In addition to Williamson there’s also Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay (Arthur’s step-sister). Interestingly Boorman cast the two knowing that they were not on friendly terms to say the least.
The film acts as an allegory of the cycle of birth, life, decay and restoration and as Boorman was to remark “The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth”. The Christian symbolism revolves around the search for the Holy Grail, perhaps most strongly in the imagery of Perceval finally achieving the Grail quest.
In addition to the striking cinematography, the film significantly uses the music of Siegfried’s Death & Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s Gotterdammerung.
Today the film still stands as one the most imaginative and entertaining fantasy films ever made which truly does justice to its legendary source.
Also, another fantasy favourite of mine is 1963’s Jason And The Argonauts, which features the wonderful work of stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen.