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Can't you see all around you the Dragon's breath: Boorman's film Excalibur
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Paracelsus Offline
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Can't you see all around you the Dragon's breath: Boorman's film Excalibur
[Image: Excalibur198111_zps7df571b9.jpg]

"“My whole life I’ve been surrounded by women, and perhaps I try to escape from that in my films… So in this film I tried to explore the world of men.”

This is a quote from John Boorman, director of the film Excalibur. I had already decided to do something on this wonderful 1981 film before I came across this quote while researching it further, but you can guess what a thrill went up my spine when I saw he'd said that. It's such a wonderful moment of connection to the director. When you analyse films you sometimes wonder if you're just seeing things in Rorschach blots, that you're seeing something that isn't actually there.

What a wonderful moment, then, to realise Boorman had done this film specifically for men and about men. You sort of hope for it when you see the film is getting on forty years old, but even in 1981 feminist bullshit was starting to get into mainstream film.

Excalibur is the last serious attempt at thoughtfully adapting the story of King Arthur to film or TV. I evidence that proposition by referring you to the monkey shit that has succeeded it: First Knight with a sliver or two of Red Pill from Richard Gere's performance butchers the legend. Tristan and Isolde is so forgettable I can't even remember its plot. King Arthur, the 2004 film starring Clive Owen, misses so many opportunities despite having the courage to have a crack at a historical-ish Arthur as a Roman gone native. Chiefly, it spits on the spiritual and mythic aspects of the legend, instead going the tired old postmodern, atheist route of explaining every mythic element in "real world" events. And those are the three major efforts at adapting the story. I also discount the 1991 Robin Williams film The Fisher King because it's an updating - not an actual attempt at adapting the original story.

I allow one exception. It's roughly five minutes of film, the one element of the kiddie film Dragonheart that works: the protagonist's redemption at the tomb of King Arthur, which still brings a tear to my eye. The rest of it, forget it.

Do I need to go into the recent millennial attempt at a TV series, Merlin, which tears the legend to pieces much as the TV series Smallville pisses on the mythic aspects of Superman? No, I think not. How about the Merlin TV series starring Sam Neill? Interesting, but it's still a show with a sort of homosexual vibe to it since Merlin isn't ever really a man like us.

So we're left with Excalibur. I realised as I thought back over this film that there is so much good shit going on in Excalibur that it needed a long review similar to how I went through the Rambo films a while back. So until you see me post otherwise, this is a rolling set of thoughts about the film and incomplete, and always ready for discussion.

[Image: 220px-John_Boorman_%281974%29.jpg]

Excalibur is the work of John Boorman. You couldn't have asked for much better hands in which to put a film about men: he'd directed Deliverance. On the other hand, he also directed some turkeys: Zardoz and Exorcist II were his work. (Reminder to self to watch a film: Hell in the Pacific starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune is apparently his work. Sounds like absolute dynamite.) But he hit it out of the park with Excalibur. One suspects it was because the legend was close to him: he's an Irishman and the film was shot there.

Excalibur's script is mostly drawn from Malory's Morte D'Arthur, though other Arthurian sources are drawn from as well. Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg wrote the script and altered the story somewhat so it became fundamentally to be about life, decay, death, and rebirth. Doing so they touched on some of the deepest and most important themes and how men figure into them.

Some of the easiest ways to unlock these themes are to look at some of the characters and most significant motifs and themes. (The film has an amazing cast. Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart are all in it. Helen Mirren plays Morgana Le Fay. Clive Swift -- one of my favourite 'suffering British men' actors -- plays Sir Ector. Nigel Terry manages to pull off the teenage through to old age Arthur. And then we have the amazing, scene-stealing Nicol Williamson who plays the only Merlin with a steel cap for a hat. Boorman's son plays the young Mordred, and Boorman's daughter plays Igrayne ... lots of things to consider here Smile )


Uther

[Image: excalibur2blog.jpg]

Arthur's father in this version, and the initial possessor of Excalibur (having demanded it of Merlin), Uther symbolises all the sheer power of untempered masculinity. Uther is driven solely by his desires, and they are powerful indeed. Magic in this film seems to amplify what's already in people: when Uther asks Merlin how he is to break into Igrayne's castle and have sex with her, Merlin simply replies: "Your lust will hold you up. You will float on the dragon's breath." What Uther wants, he gets, even if it puts everything he has at risk ... but as Merlin later says to Arthur "He was strong. He was brave. But he never learned to look into men's hearts -- least of all, his own."

Uther's character transforms very quickly in this film (mainly because his character arc has to finish in the first act or so) but it's a quick and powerful portrait of how youth and desire mature into love for family ... and how one's earlier, impulsive decisions can come back to haunt a man later. In particular, Merlin's bargain: "What is used from your lust shall be mine." Uther says himself they were hasty words, and that Arthur is flesh and blood. And again it's Uther's impulsiveness -- riding out after Merlin without his bodyguard -- that brings him low.

And Uther also introduces the theme of rebirth and a cycle of life with his last words: "Nobody shall have the sword! Nobody shall wield Excalibur BUT ME!" (Byrne's dying scream of these words is a thrilling moment.)

Excalibur is not always the Sword in the Stone in the myths, but for this film it's a wonderful plot point. All of Uther's strength, all his life force, goes into the sword. And only someone like him -- his son -- can draw that sword again. Only a son can understand his father at a deep level. Arthur becomes so much more than his father because he learns from Uther's mistakes. Arthur's rite of initiation, his entry into manhood, is to take up his father's sword.

Next time: some magic. Talking about Merlin, and Excalibur, and -- perhaps -- Morgana Le Fay.

Remissas, discite, vivet.
God save us from people who mean well. -storm
(This post was last modified: 01-29-2016 03:31 AM by Paracelsus.)
01-29-2016 03:26 AM
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Quintus Curtius Offline
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RE: Can't you see all around you the Dragon's breath: Boorman's film Excalibur
I love that old movie...it's hard to believe that 1981 is so long ago.

Boorman's film is gem, and it captures the grandeur, idealism, and mystic tone of the old Arthurian legends.

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01-29-2016 03:38 PM
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Paracelsus
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RE: Can't you see all around you the Dragon's breath: Boorman's film Excalibur
Merlin and magic

[Image: Excalibur-Merlin.jpg]

Nicol Williamson died broke. It was a terrible coda for a man once acclaimed by a director he'd worked with as second only to Marlon Brando, and regarded as a genius by Samuel Beckett. Giving things even more energy on Excalibur was Helen Mirren, Williamson's ex, being cast as Morgana -- something both of them were apparently dismayed about. Realising that, I think some of that antipathy does comes across on screen.

Williamson's performance as Merlin steals the film, but he couldn't have done it without the lyrical dialogue given to him combined with some of the funniest moments in the film:
"Looking at that cake's like looking at the future. Until you've tasted it, what do you really know -- and then, of course, it's too late!" (Arthur, fixated on Guinevere, hasn't heard word Merlin says and bites into the cake that Guinevere has given him. Seeing this, Merlin sighs and gives his next line: "Too late."

And later, on the eve of the battle of Salisbury Down:
Arthur: Are you just a dream?
Merlin: A dream ... to some. A nightmare to others!

Merlin functions as Arthur's guide figure in this film, his traditional mythic role, but perhaps the most interesting part of it is that he has the capacity to be surprised by others - including Arthur and Morgana. He does see the future, true, but it's not a future fully experienced and at some moments he explicitly admits to not seeing things that Arthur suddenly does. He's a surprisingly human figure, by turns fierce, whimsical, thoughtful, wise, silly, menacing, sly and comical.

I can think of only one other such figure with the same mixture of traits in modern pop culture, who appears in one film and never again: Yoda, and then only in The Empire Strikes Back. Every other screen appearance of the character, including during ROTJ, lacks the vitality Yoda had in that film, and it's the same vitality, the same humanity, that Nicol Williamson brings to the part here.

The source of that humanity is, again, masculinity. Merlin is not a shrinking violet or detached ascetic; the character is heavily implied as fucking Morgana Le Fay while she's his student, isn't above cursing at young and stupid apprentices, and gets angry as fuck at Uther when the man goes to civil war due to having a hard-on for Cornwall's wife.

This is important to observe because it demonstrates mastering a discipline does not mean you lose your emotions on the way. And Merlin is always in control of his emotions: he's capable of expressing them, but they never rule him. Most other 'guide' characters in the modern era of film don't have any actual masculinity left to them: they are generally sexless or have their masculinity repressed. Compare Qui-Gon Jinn or even the young Obi-Wan Kenobi with Yoda or Merlin of this film. That's part of why the former feel paper-thin on film.

Merlin's humanity is intriguing as Merlin is also implied to be a creature of the land itself, if not indeed part of the Dragon which is part of the land itself. Uther says Merlin can't understand lust because he's not a man. Merlin calls up Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. When Arthur drives Excalibur in between Lancelot and Guinevere, we cut immediately to an image of Merlin with the sword driven into his back. (And moments before, we have Merlin attempt to kill Morgana by allowing her to "look into the eyes of the Dragon and despair" -- Merlin's own eyes, which have turned red.)

[Image: excalibur_2.jpg]

Merlin, then, is one with the Dragon, one with the land, and thus one with Arthur too. When Arthur drinks from the Grail, he is renewed. When Arthur falls asleep at the lith where Merlin is imprisoned, Merlin whispers that it is Arthur's love that brought him back to the world of dreams. The film opens with Merlin stalking over a smoke-blasted hill at midnight seeking out Uther, and closes with Arthur's funeral bier sailing to the horizon.

Merlin also tells us a little -- but, wonderfully, never enough -- of how magic works in the land. It all appears to derive fundamentally from the Dragon, and appears (like vast sums of money) to amplify or enable what is already in the person. It persists throughout the land, and is fundamentally dependent on a patriarchal figure -- Arthur -- to allow it to persist.

But it is a primitive and powerful force, a fundamentally masculine force which is tainted when women access it; Morgana uses it to change her appearance (another comment on her character, one might note) and to obscure things, Merlin uses it to bring others together or meet their destinies. Morgana points out the power, the joy of it. Merlin replies they are "moments, only moments". It's unusual for odylic forces to be represented as masculine ones in film: traditionally (especially the feminist and anti-Christian excrement The Mists of Avalon) it's taken as the sole province of women.

Arthur's place as the seeming heart of the land we'll get into when we get to him, and the same for the scene in which Morgana imprisons Merlin since they deserve their own thoughts. Likewise the Grail, which is its own subject entirely.

Remissas, discite, vivet.
God save us from people who mean well. -storm
(This post was last modified: 01-30-2016 02:31 AM by Paracelsus.)
01-30-2016 02:28 AM
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RE: Can't you see all around you the Dragon's breath: Boorman's film Excalibur
Great film. I do snicker at all the plastic armor that was used. You can tell by the way to shakes in some key scenes, it's way to light. I'm told the actors refused to wear real metal because it was too heavy, so the studio came up with some very realistic plastic duplicates. Still a lot better than the armor used in KNIGHTRIDERS which makes me cringe every time I watch it.

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01-30-2016 07:54 PM
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