|HD DVD Sci-Fi-Fantasy|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2007|
This nearly awesome adaptation of the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table takes its title from Arthur’s magical sword—“Forged when the world was young and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.” Boorman and co-writer Rospo Pallenberg adapted their screenplay from Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” and it’s the most complete and faithful movie version of these familiar stories. Only “Camelot” is as thorough, and it’s not nearly as good a movie.
Other Arthurian movies, like “First Knight” and “King Arthur” have fled from the magical elements of the original tales like they were poison; Boorman and Pallenberg embrace them and weave them into the fabric of their narrative—which is as it should be. Without the magic, the Arthurian tales are just more stuff about medieval kings and knights. But here the most important character is Merlin the magician, magnificently embodied by Nicol Williamson, who gives what may be his best movie performance. He’s of indeterminate age, always clad in a shaggy cloak that may be black or dark green, always wearing a gleaming silver skullcap, always carrying his magical walking stick (which occasionally doubles as a torch). Williamson is mysterious, amusing, full of tricks (at one point, he quickly whispers instructions to a horse), and not quite human. He’s also fallible, all too willing to fall for the wicked Morgana (Helen Mirren), half-sister of Arthur (Nigel Terry), and mother of Arthur’s only child, Mordred.
Although Warner Bros.’ high-definition release of this memorable, important movie presents an excellent print at its full length (it was cut back to 119 minutes soon after its initial release), they shortcut on the extras, including only a trailer and John Boorman’s commentary track which, alas, isn’t as interesting as you’d expect from this enterprising, talented director. He shot the film almost entirely on exteriors in lush, green Ireland (near his own home); there’s an especially eye-catching sequence of a joust filmed amid towering trees with platforms built of branches and small logs. And throughout, as is often the case with high definition DVDs, the greens are almost incandescent, nearly tangible; you almost feel the cool, moist breeze, you can almost touch the velvety leaves.
The interior sets are not as spectacular; when Camelot is seen from a distance, it gleams in the sunlight like a carved castle of silver set down among the evergreens. But when we enter the castle, built of blocks of silver and gold, it seems limited and cold; the castle of the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) in the opening scenes is a more traditional castle of stone, and more impressive than Camelot. However, Boorman’s commentary suggests that Camelot was intended to be somewhat cold and remote—though he doesn’t explain why.
He wasn’t making a historical epic, and simply ignore the realities of history; the full body armor worn by almost everyone but Merlin and the women throughout the movie comes from a period long, long after the setting of the Arthurian tales. But it’s emotionally right, especially when we first see Lancelot of the Lake (Nicholas Clay), cursed to be the greatest knight of all: Lancelot just HAD to be a knight in shining armor, and that he wears has a mirror-like finish.
Most of the familiar elements of the tales are present: early on we meet Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), Arthur’s father, who uses the breath of the dragon (never seen, fortunately) to enable Uther to cross a gorge to Cornwall’s castle. The youthful Arthur is the adopted son of kindly Sir Hector (Clive Swift) and the foster brother of gormless Kay (Niall O’Brien), who both immediately recognize him as king when he pulls Uther’s sword Excalibur out of the stone. There’s Arthur’s timid courtship of Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi).
Later, Arthur forms the Knights of the Round Table, battles Lancelot—and defeats him, winning Lancelot’s loyalty and friendship—only to betray him by falling in love with Queen Guenevere. Throughout the film, we are told time and again that Arthur is more than the King of England—he literally IS England. “You will be the land and the land will be you,” Merlin warns him early on. “If you fail, the land will perish; as you thrive, the land will blossom.”
In the battle with Lancelot, Merlin is surprised when Arthur angrily strikes his opponent so hard he breaks Excalibur—“You have broken what could not be broken!” says the shocked Merlin. But the Lady of the Lake, who lives beneath still fresh water, returns the healed sword to Arthur, just as he has it returned to her at the end. When Lancelot and Guenevere make love in the forest, they awaken to find Excalibur thrust into the ground between them. “The King without a sword! The land without a king!” cries Lancelot, and runs off to become a religious hermit. (This scene doesn’t work.)
The land does fall fallow, Arthur is wounded, not just by the betrayal of his best friend and his wife, but by the (unknown to him) birth of Modred, whom vengeful Morgana—whose own father was killed by Uther Pendragon—raises to be the slayer of Arthur, his father. Then the Knights of the Table Round set out to find the Holy Grail, which can heal the broken land. Most of the knights, including Gawain (Liam Neeson), die in the Quest for the Holy Grail; Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) is the only knight pure enough to find it.
It’s quite astonishing how well Pallenberg and Boorman have integrated all these elements into a coherent story; the movie does drag a little at times, and occasionally its less-than-huge budget betrays itself. But most of the time, Boorman’s daring and confidence carry the viewer smoothly through all these complicated events.
The score is especially good in this regard; mostly, it’s original music by Trevor Jones, but at the beginning, refrains from Wagner are used effectively, and Carl Orff’s great “Carmina Burana” works so well in the healing-of-the-land sequence (Arthur and his knights thunder through fields that blossom as they pass) that it seems to have been written just for these images.
Nigel Terry is a weakness; Boorman frequently praises him in the commentary track, but he never seems as noble and commanding as we expect King Arthur to be. His career since has been unimpressive, though he continues to work. Not so Nicholas Clay, who died relatively young. The movie is studded with faces that have since become much more familiar than they were in 1981: Corin Redgrave, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson—whose first film this was. Boorman’s children play several roles; his daughter Katrine as Igrayne even has a topless scene.
It’s a great-looking movie, one of the most striking and handsome of the 1980s; it has a distinctive, impressive visual style. Cinematographer Alex Thomson and production designer Anthony Pratt don’t try for mere beauty, but for sets, costumes and photography that express the ideas of the script, that take us back to a time when the world was young, all was green and magic was possible. Boorman imaginatively uses green light throughout to suggest the idea that magic lies beneath all that happens.
It’s a shame that Warners didn’t fill this disc with extras; surely there are writers, film historians and the like who could eloquently explain how this film fits into the movie history of King Arthur, its placement in the career of John Boorman, how it was cast, how some of the supporting players have gone on to major fame. Instead, we get a great print, some comments by Boorman—and nothing else. The movie is worthy of much better treatment.