John Boorman's Excalibur : An Exercise in Cinematic Vision- Keeping the Historians at Bay

by Lance Bailey

Arthurian legend is known throughout the world through film and literature which have shaped modern perspectives of Arthur and his exploits. Most people can name the king, queen, sword, wizard, and even a few of the knights. Literary renditions of Arthur have derived from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, published in 1485, which set the precedent of the romanticized tale of courtly love. Later works such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Idylls of the King and T. H. . White's The Once and Future King, portray the legend differently.

There is some historical basis for Arthur, though quite inconclusive. The King's name appears in Historia Britonum and Annales Cambriae, works which place Arthur in the 6th century, a fact Frank D. Reno uses to launch and exhaustive study titled The Historic King Arthur. So a case can be made for an historic Arthur, but when determining its validity, as John Morris maintains in the introduction to Reno's The Age of Arthur, a historian "may not blankly refuse to decide, but he cannot proclaim certainty. He must give an informed opinion on what is probable and improbable, and return an open verdict when the balance of evidence suggests no probability." In the end, there are two Arthurs, one of literature (and subsequently film) and one of history. Fortunately, the uncertainty of Arthur's place in history is left to the scholars; it is popular culture that influences presentations of Arthurian legend in literature and films.

Such is clearly the case for John Boorman's Excalibur , produced in 1981: it is considered one of the better Arthurian presentations of the more than 30 films in existence internationally, not because of great historical accuracy, but rather because of its mythic presentation. Borrman never intended the film to be historically accurate. He says of the Arthurian legend, "I think of the story, the history, as a myth. The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth; it has to do with man taking over the world on his own terms for the first time. Boorman's ahistorical intentions led directly to his decision to base his film loosely on Malory's version which, with its references to the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, places Arthur in the late Middle Ages, an historical inaccuracy of magnitude. As Norris J. Lacy pointed out in the July/August issue of Film Comment:

[Malory] adapted a number of sources, especially the 13th century French Vulgate Cycle, including the Queste du Saint Graal, while those texts in turn went far beyond the first great French Arthurian poet, Chretien de Troyes (late 12th century). Chretien departed strikingly from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin chronicle of Arthur Historia Regum Britanniae (ca. 1136), which itself was formed out of oral legends, fragmentary written references, and especially Geoffrey's own imagination.

So the very source of Boorman's film is historically inaccurate, yet in his quest for a mythical Arthur, is a wise choice, as it left the director freedom to apply his vision to another area of historical error: arms and armor. As a director, Boorman was confronted with the problem of having to choose a period upon which to base his sets and costumes. He had a large range of nearly a thousand years to choose from: the historical Arthur of around the 6th century up to Malory's 15th century Arthur, and even beyond. Let's not forget George Romero's Knightriders (1981), in which horses are traded in for motorcycles! In the DVD commentary of Excalibur , Boorman says, "I wasn't really interested in period. This is a mythic story. I wasn't interested in specifying a period." He calls his overall style for the film "heavy monumental Germanic."

An interesting aspect of the film is in the treatment of weapons. Although not consistent, most of the arms and armor in the film have historical origins and considerable accuracy. Helmut Nickel says of Excalibur, "It places an extraordinarily heavy emphasis on the representation of armor, to a degree that is unusual even among Arthurian films." Boorman hired Terry English, who specialized in reproducing antique armor, to create the armor for the film. Incidentally, Wilkinson Sword made Excalibur for the film, and Boorman still has it mounted on the wall in his house. Made out of aluminum, the armor doubled as costume and symbolism for the narration. As the knights progress through the film, so does their armor. Early in the film the knights' armor has monstrous head dresses because Boorman believed the early part of the legend was man "emerging from the swamp."

The armor of Duke Gorlois, the wronged husband of Ygraine (interestingly enough played by Boorman's daughter) who is raped by Uther (also wearing full armor), is based on a existing suit of armor of ca. 1450-1460. Later the armor is polished and bright at the pinnacle of Arthur's reign, and finally rusting during the quest. According to Nickel, the scale of armor of Arthur's horse in the scene when the knights ride to join Mordrid in battle is "styled after an original cataphract (heavy armored cavalry) armor found in he Late Roman fortress Dura Europos, Mesopotamia, and was introduced by steppe nomads taken into the Late Roman army as auxiliaries from A.D. 175 on." In addition, Mordrid's golden helmet/face mask is fashioned after Late Roman parade helmets in the Oriental fashion, and his muscle cuirass is also of Roman pattern. So Boorman wasn't going for a single period, just what looked right. To give the film a mythic look, he used green flood lights that reflected in the armor, giving the arms and armor an almost faerie glow, certainly not historical or realistic but effective.

In the end, Boorman's Excalibur is not historical, nor was it meant to be, nor has any work in Arthurian legend managed to be. The film is, however, a work of art -plain and simple. There is no question that popular culture's conception of Arthur is purely mythical. As Boorman himself said, "Listen carefully to the echoes of myth. It has much more to tell us than the petty lies and insignificant truths of recorded history."