Shot entirely on location in Ireland, employing mostly Irish actors and crew, Excalibur was an important film for the Irish filmmaking industry and helped start the careers of Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Ciarán Hinds.
It was also known as the Boorman Family Project, as several members of director Jonathan Boorman’s family appear, with his daughter Katrine Boorman playing Igrayne — Arthur’s mother — as well as his daughter Telsche as the Lady of the Lake and his son Charley acting in the role of Mordred as a boy. It was shot a mile from his home, so he was able to be at home for the entire making of the movie.
Boorman has been wanting to make the movie since 1969, yet the three-hour script was seen as too costly by United Artists and instead, he was offered The Lord of the Rings, which he did not make yet did develop. He ended up using some of the work that went into that adaption here, as well as potentially being inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
He’d worked with Rospo Pallenberg on that canceled film (as well as Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Emerald Forest; Pallenberg would also direct Cutting Class), so he worked with him here to bring Malory’s Morte d’Arthur to theaters. Boorman said that his film was about “the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious.”
I love Roger Ebert’s review of this movie, in which he said that the film was both a wondrous vision and a mess, “a record of the comings and goings of arbitrary, inconsistent, shadowy figures who are not heroes but simply giants run amok. Still, it’s wonderful to look at.”
It’s beyond gorgeous, actually, a movie that combines shocking gore with artistic flourishes, like the three ladies in white who attend Arthur to Avalon at the close. Boorman was also smart enough to cast Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, two actors who had had a conflict when they acted in Macbeth together. He felt that tension would be seen on screen and it certainly is. That said, Mirren claimed that the two become friends while making Excalibur.
It rained every single day of the shoot, which adds to the foggy look of the film. It had many issues, as the first fight scene had to be filmed three times. It was filmed at night and the exposure meter was broken, leading to two different scenes of underexposed film.
Boorman’s career is pretty great. Sure, there are the big movies like Deliverance, but I love that he shoots for the fences and makes off the wall stuff like Zardoz and Exorcist II: The Heretic. Here’s to less playing it safe for directors, even if the misses end up being spectacular losses. I don’t think that that can happen any longer in entertainment.
My initial exposure to this film came from Mad Magazine. Often as a kid, we wouldn’t see an R-rated movie until it was on HBO, so many of the films I’ve had to find as an adult were first seen through the eyes of Mad’s Usual Gang of Idiots. This time, Don Martin did the movie adaption. I’m happy to share a few panels with you thanks to Jesse Hamm on Twitter.