Excalibur makes the list for one reason alone, no other film has understood how to use Wagner to underscore the emotion on screen as much as this (Apocalypse Now uses it in what can only be described as an ironic fashion). This isn’t to say that it’s the films sole merit, but for me (as a self confessed Wagner nut) then it’s a massive aspect of its appeal and one that hugely influences the choice to include it.
For Boorman to make the link is inevitable, both the film and the composer are obsessed with the issues of myth and myth-making. Wagner wrote great swathes of opera about the subject (and more accurately, about the way in which it can be used to fashion a vision of a nation), here, Boorman uses that connection as a means of establishing his version of the national myth (something he would return to later on a smaller scale with The General). Unlike other directors he doesn’t make the mistake of trying to root his version in the reality of the past, but rather accepts the fantastical as part and parcel of the story, making it all the more effective as a result. The result is a romantic (in the truest sense of the word) look at our past, one that he doesn’t pretend ever existed. It’s the fantastical that creates the appeal (something many films on similar subjects have lost in there mistaken belief that darker, grittier means more realistic). Boorman plays it perfectly straight throughout, there is no sense of irony to his vision, the fantastical is made believable because of this.
The look of the film is unique, all darkness, smoke and fire it feels like the fighting fantasy version of the dark ages, where spike clad knights ride what look like huge, fire breathing steeds about the night, encountering bandits and dying ignoble deaths. Bizarrely this works, even the most ardent re-enactor I’ve ever met has gotten a little misty-eyed when the armour in this film is mentioned, not because of its accuracy but because it looks so damn good. Boorman rejects realism, instead aiming to produce the feeling of how terrifying these figures must have been on the open field. Only his Lancelot is clad in anything near to accurate, although the luscious shine of his armour suggests he must spend as much time cleaning it as he does training. Elsewhere the film is a curious mixture of location filming (if you ever visit Dublin, drive thirty miles south of the city and you can pick up the tour of the locations in the Wicklow Mountains on many of the roads, its worth the half day or so it takes to follow) and scientific stock footage, both of which contribute to the films unique look, part fantasy, part documentary.
(As an aside, Boorman had attempted to get a version of Lord of the Rings off the ground in the early seventies, but lacking money, and perhaps taking a few too many liberties with the story – sex between Frodo & Galadrial, Gimili & racial memories – the project was shelved. Reportedly some of the armour designs intended for that were later recycled into Excalibur, which may explain the fantastical nature of the armour and such.)
Thirty years later the film also feels like a who’s who of up-and-coming British talent – Liam Neeson, Gabriel Bryne, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Stewart and (perhaps) most memorably Helen Mirren in one of the sorts of roles she used to play before she became respectable. It’s a question whether she or Nicol Williamson (as a truly demented version of Merlin) deliver the most hammy, bonkers performance in the film (the two hated each others presence), although none of the performances are particularly restrained. In fact the one performance that is in danger of being lost is Nigel Terry as Arthur, although this could be because he’s the cause of much of the action rather than a reactor to it, although maybe he’s needed as the calm centre to the film to prevent it from alienating the viewer too much.
Boorman is an interesting director, neither the auteur nor the studio hack, he strode the middle line producing interesting films with little commonality between them except perhaps their interest in the natural world as a protagonist (here, land and king are the same – earlier in Deliverance there’s the argument that the land is defending itself from the encroachment of man). Excalibur was a long cherished project, and the love for the subject matter shows throughout. Like many films on this list it’s one mans personnel vision rather than a studio derived, market driven monstrosity (something that the eighties and beyond deliver in droves following the blockbuster explosion of the late seventies), and that sense of commitment is what attracts. Sometimes it doesn’t work (there are many failed vanity projects down the years), but when it does its those films that we often remember.
But returning to the music, the only other film that uses music in such a clever manner is 2001: A Space Odyssey, although Kubrick perhaps edges it in terms that is choices feel smarter, more knowing, less obvious. The overture to Tristan & Isolde is such an easy comparison to Lancelot & Guinevere that others could no doubt make it, the difference may be that Boorman was brave enough to take the obvious choice. Likewise Parsifal / Gawain feels natural, not forced. Kubrick took the intellectual approach to the music he chose, Boorman the emotional one, but his choice was no less right for the situation (and it would be impossible to think of the film divorced from the music) and the use of Siegfried’s’ Funeral March at the end is nothing short of glorious. Yes – there are elements of an original score in there, yes – there is music present by composers other than Wagner (most notably Carl Orff), but they don’t have the same gut-shot appeal. it’s difficult to imagine the film without it.