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When a bold young squire slips the enchanted sword, Excalibur, from the stone where it was embedded, the golden age of chivalry and the Knights of the Round Table are born. But the magical kingdom of Camelot harbours evil ambition and Merlin's necromancy in this classic tale of King Arthur's legend.
For more about Excalibur and the Excalibur Blu-ray release, see Excalibur Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on March 16, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: John Boorman
Writers: John Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg
Starring: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Helen Mirren, Cherie Lunghi, Patrick Stewart
» See full cast & crew
Excalibur Blu-ray Review
A hit-or-miss Arthurian adaptation earns a hit-or-miss Blu-ray release...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, March 16, 2011
I have a long-standing love-hate affair with Excalibur. Even after revisiting the film countless times over the years, I've yet to decide how I truly feel about writer/director John Boorman's critically confounding, grim-fantasy debacle. And judging from the debate, passion and vitriol it continues to ignite, I suspect many of you are trapped in the same cinematic limbo. Roger Ebert said, "what a wondrous vision Excalibur is," before drolly quipping, "and what a mess." The New York Times wrote, "Excalibur is humorless, which is not the same thing as being serious." My take? Frustratingly episodic, strangely languid, disarmingly beautiful and irrefutably bizarre, Excalibur is a film at war with itself. Sadly though, it's a war without victors.
Drawn primarily from the waters of Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" and incorporating additional elements from Chrétien de Troyes' poems, the Vulgate Mort Artu, the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult, Robert de Boron's "Merlin" and numerous other sources, Excalibur charts the course of King Arthur's ascendance to the throne from his misbegotten conception to his death at the hands of his own misbegotten heir. From teenage boy to ailing warrior-king, Arthur is played with strained staginess and doting sincerity by Nigel Terry (Troy, Blackbeard), a chameleon of sorts with a heavy lilt in his voice and a weary weight to his step. Born out of his father's (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects) insatiable lust for another man's wife (Boorman's own daughter, Katrine), Arthur pulls Excalibur from its enchanted stone, seeks counsel from his father's sorcerer, Merlin (Nicol Williamson), battles his own countrymen, meets his future queen, Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi, The Mission), becomes king of Britain, earns the loyalty of his subjects and establishes the famed Round Table.
But his love and reign soon come under siege. Guenevere develops feelings for the kingdom's most trusted knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay, Evil Under the Sun), Arthur's half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren, Red) imprisons Merlin and begins exacting her decades-dormant vengeance, infidelity comes to startling light, Excalibur is lost, the Knights of the Round Table fall one by one while searching for the Holy Grail, and the king, now well into his years, is forced to mount one last campaign against a golden-clad menace named Mordred (Robert Addie, Another Country). Needless to say, things don't go so well for anyone involved.
From Uther's depraved conquest to Arthur's own sins, Excalibur leaps from episode to episode with conviction. Alas, Boorman is so taken with the dark and seedy meta-tragedy weaved through Arthurian myth that he neglects to impart any sense of narrative import or dramatic flow. He focuses less on Arthur the Man and more on Arthur the Legend, a tragically flawed (and tragically ambiguous) hero Boorman reminds us -- again and again and again, ad nauseum -- isn't the idyllic, heaven-sent king many have made him to be. The individual storylines that emerge, though potent in each of their own rights, are nothing short of infuriating. Characters undergo drastic changes and substantial shifts with little or no explanation, time lunges forward at the expense of pacing and stability, and Boorman's fusion of gritty mud-n-blood melodrama and shimmering high-fantasy histrionics is unbalanced and cumbersome.
The performances follow suit. Terry is the most natural and engaging, but has a tough time shouldering the brunt of the film, particularly when Arthur is still a boy. Williamson, though the most magnetic and memorable, never settles on a singular Merlin, veering wildly between all-knowing seer, impish trickster, befuddled magician and powerful force of nature with at-times ham-handed theatricality. Lunghi and Clay never escape the soap opera confines of their lovers' plight, Addie pouts and preens without much power, and Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and other notable actors give their all in limited roles but can't combat Excalibur's downward spiral. Only Mirren comes away unscathed; Terry, Williamson and too many others shout, gawk and growl with reckless, at-times hysterical intensity.
Still, while many of the actors deliver overreaching community-theater performances, there's a grandiose, almost Shakespearean flair to Boorman's adaptation and an irresistibly haunting allure to his sweeping vision. Boorman and co-writer Rospo Pallenberg's screenplay is brimming with ornate language and innate elegance, Trevor Jones' music pushes Boorman's Arthurian fever-dream to an appropriately feverish pitch, and Alex Thompson's otherworldly cinematography lends every scene a surreal, nightmarish quality that's as gorgeous and distressing. As it stands, Excalibur is both a magnificent fantasy epic and a magnificently flawed early '80s curiosity. I doubt my love-hate affair with Boorman's classic will ever be fully resolved, but I have a feeling I'll continue coming back until it does. I suppose that says more about the film and its allure than any sentence that comes before it. Take that as you will.
Excalibur Blu-ray, Video Quality
Plagued by production woes, shot under harsh conditions and overrun with a diffuse filmic fog, Excalibur -- now thirty-years old -- buckles beneath its burdens in nearly every scene. So much so that many modern filmfans will walk away from Warner's most recent release of the film disgusted; convinced that, by some miracle and ungodly budget, the studio could have transformed Boorman's fantasy into a dazzling high definition spectacle if only its restoration team had the wherewithal to do just that. So if I may, a spirited defense of Warner's fit and faithful 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer. Alex Thompson's misty palette isn't prone to primary pomp and circumstance (just visceral splashes of red and gold), but his earthy, deep-forest hues, gleaming steels, foreboding shadows and arcane greens prove to be quite striking. Skintones are lifelike on the whole as well, saturation is lovely and, all things considered, black levels are satisfying. Contrast and clarity are problematic -- fine textures frequently falter, softness abounds, haziness even more so, colors often grow murky, and dimly lit scenes are ghastly -- but overall detail, uneven as it may be, is rather pleasing. (Again, all things considered.) Edges are sharp and unsullied by egregious edge enhancement, closeups are surprisingly revealing (behold the majesty of Liam Neeson's fake beard), film grain is intact and unobtrusive, and only a handful of shots struck me as being over-processed (the aftermath of Arthur's battle with Mordred being the only outright eyesore among them). In fact, a careful analysis of Warner's efforts confirms just how extensive, nuanced and respectful Excalibur's restoration actually is, despite assumptions to the contrary.
On the technical front, the encode excels. Inherent crush, surges of grain and limited print blemishes appear, but none of it undermines the integrity of the presentation. Artifacting, banding and aliasing are held at bay, and there aren't any notable anomalies (other than those that stem from the film's original photography). Ultimately, Excalibur's transfer isn't going to leave anyone breathless or woo any cinephile who isn't a purist at heart. But its undying devotion to its source should be celebrated, not ridiculed, as it stays true to Boorman and Thompson's every intention, conjures up vivid memories of its theatrical presentation, and handily bests its DVD forbearer.
Excalibur Blu-ray, Audio Quality
It's much more difficult to mount a defense of Excalibur's fatally flawed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, a flat, erratic and frumpy catalog remix if there ever was one. Dialogue, though clear and intelligible on the whole, struggles with all manner of inconsistencies and distractions (minor as most may be); sound effects range from pointed and piercing to muddled and indistinct, sometimes in the course of the same scene; and dynamics are maddeningly fickle, raising the dead one moment and burrowing in the mud the next. LFE output isn't much better. The thunder of charging horses is occasionally reduced to a weak and sluggish rumble, castle sieges aren't afforded the raw power they deserve, and earthquakes, rock-splitting magic and mystical caverns are too nebulous to leave any sort of lasting impression. And the soundfield? The track may as well be a stereo mix (and an average one at that). Rear speaker activity is nearly non-existent, chaotic scenes are strangely front-heavy, immersion falls to the visuals alone, and the few effects that do flank the listener are feeble, fleeting and largely inconsequential. To be clear: yes, the track represents a marginal improvement over its standard DVD counterpart, yes, the condition of the original sound elements are to blame for some of the aforementioned issues, and yes, as thirty-year old mixes go, it isn't without its lossless charms (not entirely anyway). That being said, I strongly suspect a more meticulous and comprehensive high-dollar overhaul would go a long way toward resurrecting Excalibur from its sonic grave.
Excalibur Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Aside from a roughhewn theatrical trailer, the Blu-ray edition of Excalibur arrives with just one special feature: a dull but dutiful audio commentary with writer/director John Boorman. While silence tends to dominate the track, Boorman still provides plenty of crucial information, particularly when it comes to the many, many difficulties and challenges he and his crew faced over the course of the film's stormy shoot. If nothing else, skeptical videophiles will be left with little doubt about the actual quality of Warner's transfer after listening to his forthcoming account of the production.
Excalibur Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Excalibur is a cinematic curiosity to say the least. Those who've braved its waters have come away with a different impression; some love it, some struggle with its flaws and others despise its every scene. In other words, a rental is in order. Warner's Blu-ray release will also divide audiences. Its video transfer, though extremely faithful to its source, isn't going to wow anyone but purists and diehard fans, its DTS-HD Master Audio track is terribly underwhelming, and its supplemental package consists of a stale commentary and a theatrical trailer. Again, a rental is order.
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Excalibur Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Excalibur Blu-ray Announced - November 10, 2010
Warner Home Video has announced John Boorman's Excalibur for Blu-ray release on March 8, 2011. This adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, starring Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren, is widely acclaimed as one of the finest adaptations ...
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