Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Special Edition DVD
Warner, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Digital Mono, subtitles: English, French, single side-dual layer, 45 chapters, rated R, 140 min., $19.98, street date 9/21/99.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Cinematography, 1982.
Directed by John Boorman. Starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson.
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table receives its most impressive screen treatment in Excalibur, from visionary moviemaker John Boorman.
All the elements of Sir Thomas Malory's classic Le Morte Darthur are here: Arthur (Terry) removing the sword Excalibur from the stone; the Round Table's noble birth and tragic decline; the heroic attempts to recover the Holy Grail; and the shifting balance of power between wily wizard Merlin (Williamson) and evil sorceress Morgana (Mirren). With Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson in notable early screen roles, Excalibur serves up, The New Yorker's Pauline Kael wrote, "one lush, enraptured scene after another."
I suppose that I should admit this up front: I've never much cared for movies about the "Arthur" legend. (KING Arthur, that is, though Dudley Moore never interested me either.) It's not something I can easily describe; I certainly understand the appeal of all that "swords and sorcery" stuff, and I actually really like computer games that revolve around the subject (Wizardry, Heroes of Might and Magic), but movies or books about it just bore me to tears.
So why the hell did I decide to buy a copy of Excalibur, a movie I never even saw? Uh, well... it was cheap, it included an audio commentary, it was inexpensive, I'd heard good things about it, and it didn't cost me much money.
I'm very happy about that whole financial aspect of the deal, because I didn't much care for Excalibur. I can't say that it was a poorly made film, but it had enough faults to keep me from maintaining much interest in it.
Actually, there are two main flaws that I found with Excalibur. For one, the acting seems pretty weak. One major drawback with any film of this sort is the stilted, overly dramatic language the characters have to speak, and this aspect appeared even worse than usual in Excalibur. Almost to a one, the actors chose to really go over the top with their line deliveries; most of them use these incredibly emotive, pseudo-Shakespearian readings that often seem much more artificially intense than is necessary. I get the feeling that none of these folks could ask to borrow a quarter without trying to make it sound like a matter of life or death.
That qualifier "trying to" is an important one, for I feel that all of this emotional intensity undermines rather than supports the project. So much of the material comes across as ridiculously overwrought. I understand that actors in this sort of film have to walk a very thin line between casual and dramatic; for example, more subdued performances of this kind of material can seem somewhat silly, like Dennis Quaid's semi-Valley Boy work in Dragonheart. Nonetheless, I found the acting in Excalibur to fall too far on the emotive side of the equation, and that made the movie less entertaining to me.
In regard to individual actors, I only thought a couple of them did good work. Actually, only Nigel Terry as Arthur really impressed me to any degree. I didn't care for his voice work, but he did a very good physical job with the role. Arthur is clearly the most demanding part in the film; not only is he the central character, but Terry had to play the role as a young man all the way through semi-old age (his fifties, I'd guess? It's not clear how old Arthur should be at the end of the film). Terry sounded silly, but he used his body and his attitudes to nicely convey the different moods of the king; frequently it appeared that another actor was performing the role, a fact partly due to makeup, but mainly the result of Terry's convincing portrayal.
After Terry, no one else - not even the accomplished Helen Mirren - impressed me. Of the main actors, Nicol Williamson's Merlin is so far over the top that he teetered dangerously on the edge of camp. No, I take that back - Williamson DOES descend into the world of campiness as Merlin. It's a silly performance that left me cold.
As Arthur's number one guy Lancelot, Nicholas Clay manages to be a pretty presence, but that's about it; he invests the role with little power, authority, or emotional nuance. Well, at least he's pretty; that's more than I can say for the female in the Camelot love triangle, Cherie Lunghi's Guenevere; granted, maybe she just doesn't fit my taste in women, but I found her to be rather unattractive. THIS is the woman who so fascinated our two heroes? Ack! She's not a skank or anything, but she's no royal beauty either. Unlike the other hyper-emotive actors, she seems much more subdued; however, that may not be such a great thing, as it reduces her presence to an almost invisible level - she made very little impression on me.
Mirren's Morgana, however - ouch! I never knew that she'd ever looked that good! Unfortunately, I didn't think much of her acting, either; she seemed bitten by the "ham" bug as well, and invested far too much of that excessiveness into her performance.
Interestingly, Excalibur offered early roles to some now well-known actors. Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart all feature in supporting roles. None of them are terribly interesting, though I did find Byrne's bit the most interesting. That's because of all the vocal emoters, he was the king here! He goes so over the top with his line readings that I wasn't even sure it was him. I thought to myself that it sure LOOKED like Byrne (I didn't know for certain he was in the film) but it sure didn't SOUND at all like him. It WAS him, though, biting off hunks of scenery at a time. (I actually suspected that Byrne's lines may have been dubbed by another actor. During his audio commentary, director John Boorman mentions Byrne's accent in a not-terribly-complimentary way, and I thought he might state that someone else did his voice, but if that's the case, Boorman never actually says it.)
My second problem with Excalibur is the brevity of the piece. At 140 minutes, it's a long film, but not lengthy enough to adequately cover its story. I don't know the Arthur legend terribly well, but I could tell that Excalibur seemed like a Cliff's Notes version of the saga. It simply felt like all of the aspects of the story were rushed through and abbreviated. Boorman may have bitten off more than he could chew, and the film might have benefited from focussing more closely on some portions of the legend rather than the whole thing.
Enough griping: so what does Excalibur do well? It's a grand looking film, with lush settings and very convincing props and costumes. Excalibur apparently had a relatively modest budget, but Boorman creates a film that appears much more costly. Although the story seems condensed, Boorman does a nice job of moving things along; he keeps the action going and manages to makes the multiple transitions between different eras without much difficulty. I didn't think that Excalibur was a BAD film; it's actually somewhat entertaining most of the time. I just felt that it had enough shortcomings that marred the affair for me.
Among those problems is the DVD itself. Warner Bros. present Excalibur in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layered DVD. The image seems very inconsistent. At times it appears quite sharp, but a gauzy softness often intrudes upon the screen. Some of this effect seems intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but it's so inconsistent that it also appears likely that poor image mastering is responsible for much of the haziness. Print flaws are not a major problem, but scratches and white spots appear from time to time.
I found the colors in Excalibur to be very inconsistent as well. During some scenes (Guenevere's introduction to Lancelot, Morgana's dress during a later portion), hues seem spot-on and quite brilliant. However, colors often appears subdued and vaguely dull. The forest scenery never seems as bold and lifelike as it should; the greens simply don't look right, even in a fantasy setting. Black levels are also decent but spotty; at times they're deep and rich, but they also can be gray and faded in appearance. For a tutorial in all this image's strengths and weaknesses, check out chapter 31, when Perceval encounters Morgana; it covers the gamut of the picture's highs and lows. Overall, Excalibur looks about average, but that's because of a combination of very good and pretty bad scenes, with little consistency.
That trend continues with the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The audio is VERY inconsistent, even more so than the picture. First a little history lesson: during his audio commentary, Boorman states that he originally had a Dolby Stereo (ie, surround) mix created for Excalibur, but when he heard it previewed in American theaters, he noted how poor the speaker balance was so he had the theatrical release issued with only a mono mix. It's unclear from what sources the 5.1 mix comes; I assume the producers used the Dolby stems, but this is not noted.
Interestingly, unlike most Warner Bros. DVDs that offer remixed 5.1 soundtracks, nowhere on the Excalibur DVD case is this fact touted. That's probably because those responsible were too embarrassed by the results. I find it ironic that Boorman released the film in mono during its theatrical run because of a lack of balance between channels, because that's one of the main problems I heard on this track. The use of the individual channels is weak and the balance seems WAY out of kilter. The right side of the soundstage dominates from start to finish, and at times this imbalance is ridiculous. Take the climactic battle between Arthur and Mordred, for example: it starts with the audio strongly emanating from the right, then it moves almost totally into the center, then it kind of bops between the two. We hear little from the left side. At times the mix offers some pretty nice stereo effects that actually manage to balance the front three channels, but for the most part, this move to the right dominates. Who mixed this thing? Pat Buchanan?
Excalibur makes very little use of the rear channels. A musical bit here (mainly toward the end of the film), a soft ambient effect there - that's about it. I might not mind the strange speaker shenanigans so much if the quality of the sound was higher, but the soundtrack falters in this department as well. For the most part, dialogue tends to be harsh and strident, with an almost crackling distortion. At times, it sounds more warm and natural, but on those occasions, it also seems not-too-well dubbed. If I have to choose between better integrated but poor sound or higher quality but somewhat awkward seeming dialogue, I'd go with the latter, but it's pretty much the lesser of two evils.
Effects come across poorly as well, as they often seem very flat and listless. Although it occasionally offers a briefly rousing moment, the quality of the musical score also appears dull and listless. Maybe I've been spoiled by all the strong 5.1 remixes I've recently heard (Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Boorman's own Deliverance), but I found the soundtrack of Excalibur to be a tremendous disappointment.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, one of the motivating factors behind my purchase of the Excalibur DVD was the inclusion of an audio commentary from director John Boorman. I found this track to be easily the most satisfactory component of the package. Boorman leaves too many gaps during which he doesn't speak, but he covers most of the film, and he offers a strong overview of how it was made. He hits all of the important components: his intentions for the project, comments on the cast (including an interesting anecdote about the relationship between Williamson and Mirren), details of the technical aspects, and various other tidbits. Boorman makes for an engaging presence who helped me appreciate and enjoy the picture to a greater degree.
In addition to the commentary, the DVD includes a cast and crew listing. Oddly, despite the fact that many other cast and crew members' names are shown, only the biography for Boorman can be accessed. I don't know if this was intentional or was a glitch. It doesn't seem isolated to my copy; other reviewers have noted the same problem. It seems odd that Warner Bros. would only include ONE biography but tempt us with the others, but who knows? If I hear an update on this issue, the review will be modified to reflect that.
Finally, Excalibur features its theatrical trailer. Overall it's really very good; even though I'd just watched - and been not terribly entertained by - the movie itself, the trailer makes the movie look so exciting that I almost wanted to watch it again! "Maybe it'll be more interesting this time!" The ad is marred only by a cheesy voice-over narration. Still, it's a pretty effective little piece of marketing.
Ultimately, I cannot recommend the DVD of Excalibur. Although I didn't think much of the movie, that fact has almost nothing to do with my dislike of this DVD. Both picture and sound quality range seem fairly weak, and though I enjoyed the audio commentary from director John Boorman, the package lacks other interesting supplements. The DVD's MSRP of only $19.98 makes it more appealing, and die-hard fans may be willing to overlook the disc's multiple flaws, but I could not.