Knowing absolutely nothing about Arthurian legend, I went into 'Excalibur' totally blind. Perhaps I needed to do a bit more research, because deciphering the plot of this jumbled, incoherent mess seems to require a Master's Thesis in Ancient Mythology. I know 'Excalibur' continues to attract a dedicated cult following, and there's admittedly a lot going on in this film: the profound, dream-like imagery; the bloody, orgiastic battles; the fabulously tacky early '80s special effects; and cast of thousands, including blink-or-you'll-miss-'em early appearances by such stars as Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne. Just don't ask me how any of this adds up to make any semblance of sense at all. Go ahead and flame away 'Excalibur' fans, but about halfway through this ungodly spawn of a movie, I was ready to throw myself on Arthur's sword just to get it over with.
I will try to explain the plot. Uther Pendragon (Byrne) wants to get nasty with the Igrayne, the Duchess of Cornwall (Katrine Boorman), so with the help of the magical Merlin (Nicol Williamson) he gets transformed into the image of the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) and rapes her. Nine months later, out pops Arthur (Nigel Terry), the bastard son of a hundred wizards. But apparently Merlin had a little clause in the mystical stork contract -- Uther promised to give up the product of his unbridled lust, and so Merlin claims Arthur for his own. Flashforward about twenty years (only the first of many jarring jumps in time), and Arthur is to come to power by drawing the sword of kings, Excalibur, from a stone. Prosperity follows, Arthur is crowned king, and Camelot is built. He even finds his queen, Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), and creates the roundtable, a sort of Medieval version Donald Trump's "Apprentice" boardroom. But instead of Trump, we get Morgana (Helen Mirren), Arthur's evil half-sister, who lusts after Merlin's magical secrets. Meanwhile, Guenevere gets the hots for Lancelot (Nicholas Clay). Too bad Arthur has other ideas, and finally puts Excalibur to good use, spearing them both in a nasty bit of coitus interruptus. (Ouch!) The Earth is then plunged into darkness, and only the Holy Grail can restore the warm and fuzzies. So Arthur and his Roundtable embark on their greatest quest yet. But wait, there's more... Morgana actually had an incestuous union, and now Arthur has an arch-rival, Mordred (Robert Addie). Only one last, final, bloody battle will finally end this damn story.
I suppose I should have expected such surreal, nearly incomprehensible silliness from John Boorman. His movies are nothing if not, um, unusual. Who can forget Sean Connery wearing a giant diaper in 'Zardoz?' Or James Earl Jones impersonating a giant locust in the legendary disaster that was 'Exorcist II?' To be fair, Boorman has made some good movies, too. But giving him a few million bucks and final cut to make a non-linear sword 'n' sorcerer pic -- especially at the tail-end of the auteur-obsessed '70s -- was probably just asking for trouble. Not that the actors fare any better. I've never seen such over-emoting in my life, with about half of the movie's dialogue screamed, not spoken, and enough arm-flailing for a whole season of "Inside the Actor's Studio." I swear, at several points I honestly thought this movie could be a long-lost Monty Python episode.
Despite all of this, I do see the cult appeal of 'Excalibur,' at least for those who like to drop acid. However loopy, Boorman's images are compelling. Like a David Lynch film, even if you can't understand what you are looking at, it's never boring. Some of the now-chintzy effects also have some charm, and we do get a big, bloody climactic battle that is so excessive it almost becomes sublime. But Boorman and his "creative scenarist" Rospo Pallenberg pack their film with every single last tidbit of Arthurian legend that it becomes like some sort of cinematic Cliff's Notes. One man's camp is another man's classic, of course, so god bless everone out there who loves 'Excalibur.' I'm just not one of them.
'Excalibur' is now over twenty-five years old, and despite a half-hearted restoration effort by Warner, this transfer really struggles.
Rather tightly matted to 1.78:1 widescreen and presented in 1080p/VC-1 video, the source print is all over the place. This is a soft, grainy, murky movie. Blacks are generally solid but often faded, which is especially noticeable in dimly lit interiors. Shadow detail can wash out into nothing, and the ever-present, heavy veil of grain and frequent dirt doesn't help. (Grain haters, this is definitely not the transfer for you.) Colors bounce up and down in saturation with wild abandon, even within the same shot. Fleshtones suffer from pinkeye, giving everyone that Miss Piggy look. Detail is also lacking, with most shots looking quite flat and two-dimensional. I also suspect that this master is at least five years old, as I spotted some jitter and edge enhancement. To be fair, a few sequences (usually bright exteriors) look quite good. But coming from Warner, I expected more. Even though 'Excalibur' will probably never look fantastic, it really could have looked better had the studio invested a bit more time and money into a proper restoration.
As middling as the video is, the audio is even worse. This is by far the most pitiful Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track I've heard from Warner -- and probably the worst I've heard on any HD DVD release. Next to an old videotape, you're not going to hear high-end as tinny as this, or dialogue as flat and muffled. I also giggled often at the really bad ADR, with looped-in dialogue sounding like a bad kung fu movie, only in English. Surround use is almost nil, and the stereo effects sound pretty gimmicky and processed. Oddly enough, low bass is quite hefty, though it also sounds pretty darn fake. The subwoofer is so artificially pumped up that I would have preferred it had been left alone, because its incongruity with the rest of the mix is really distracting. Ultimately this does sound better than older video versions, but still... woof.
Alas, no good news here as the extras, too, are anemic.
Mirroring the fairly bare-bones standard-def DVD release, the only real extra is an audio commentary with director John Boorman. The guy has a great accent, but he spends about half of his commentary either narrating what's on-screen, or in total silence. The other half is pretty good, however, as he describes shooting the film on a very low-budget, which explains all the practical effects and lack of matte shots and opticals (ah, the old days). There is also some fun gossip about on-set bickering between the stars, particularly Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren. A little more dirt and a bit less dry meandering, and this track would have been a lot more fun.
The other extra is the film's Theatrical Trailer. It also looks awful.
While not my cup of tea, 'Excalibur' is a good enough sword and sorcery epic. Not nearly as polished as a 'King Arthur,' nor as much fun as such '80s guilty pleasures as 'The Sword and the Sorcerer' and 'Conan the Destroyer,' it will do in a pinch. This HD DVD release, however, is just not one of Warner's finest moments. The transfer looks dated and tossed off, and what a dreadful soundtrack. At least we get a John Boorman commentary, but quite frankly there is nothing here that is at all superior to what you can get on the cheapie $9.99 DVD release. Sorry 'Excalibur' fans, but you deserve better.