WolfmanOz at the Movies #38

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.

Enjoy.

11 thoughts on “WolfmanOz at the Movies #38”

  1. One of the first Round Table movies I saw at the flicks (apart from Python). Extremely good. The scenes with the Lady of the Lake and the sword are excellent. Helen Mirren makes a great baddie.

    Another I’d recommend is Merlin (1998) with Sam Neil as the wizard. Another fine cast too. It’s called a miniseries, and that’s how I saw it on television at the time, but it is only about 3 hours – which is not untypical of a movie really.


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  2. Design too is a feature of Excalibur.
    It has heft.
    There’s no silver painted knitwear standing in for chain mail
    or vac form plastics for plate armour. Everything clangs and clanks.
    It’s not the world of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone,
    for which we can probably thank Roman Polanski (MacBeth 1971).


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  3. Saw it at a theatre in Perth during country week cricket in 1982. However, seeing it again recently on telly, it doesn’t hold up too well. I agree about Merlin and, in fact, reckon there is nowhere near enough of him in the film. I actually still use his magic phrase, but I won’t write it down in case I turn New Cat into a stone. (And because I can’t spell it.)


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  4. Always been a fan of fantasy. When I was young I was a voracious reader of books, from huge tomes (for a 13yo) like Tolstoy and quasi historical novels like Exodus etc. Fantasy novels like those written by Issac Asminov or R Donaldson were an escape. I was never into slash fiction (knights wielding swords etc) then, but I get the whole escapism thing. My guess is slash fiction is popular in movies today because it’s easy to make engaging movie/series from sword fights, honour duels and hot women serving up justice than it is to recreate Dune (bit of a flop at the recent release).
    To many people to lazy to read GoT for example (and the writing is sh1t anyway, I swear it’s poorly translated from orcish is something), but it was a smash hit on the small screen. The rising popularity of these type of story’s tells me two things: people need to escape reality even more today than ever but they are nonetheless to lazy to a.) immerse themselves in the entire experience or b.) get themselves a meaningful life .


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  5. Heh. This film choice by WolfmanOz brings back memories. All filmed in the beautiful Wicklow mountains on a ‘relatively small budget’. I was one of the extras, employed to make up the wounded and dead in the battle scenes. As a young fella it was super cool to be around these film types and actors but that ended when Boorman demanded shooting the battle scenes again and again while we lay in mud and had another bucket of kensington gore (fake blood) sloshed over us. But, by the almighty himself, it was great craic that followed when everyone clanked in full gear (armour and all) into the pub in Roundwood for pints. The mountainy locals were surprised and delighted. I can’t remember leaving. Tanks fer the memories, Wolfman. BTW it was much better to watch on the silver screen.


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  6. The scene riding through the trees blossoming with orffs O Fortuna building then exploding in full fervour.
    I always thought this should be projected/blasted out at Elland Road when Leeds United run out on the pitch.
    They have been shit for a while.
    Oh the horror, the horror.


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  7. Can it really be more than 40 years?

    I remember watching it on the big screen when it came out.

    Bought the soundtrack record (on vinyl!–as things were, then).

    The film and soundtrack introduced me to Wagner, an acquaintance well worth making.


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