A look back at Excalibur

The Game of Thrones has helped medieval-themed stories make a big comeback. 

And the old tales of Arthurian legend, much like the works of Shakespeare, have incredible dramatic possibilities with today’s audiences, which is why these classic stories keep coming back.

When Jerry Bruckheimer made his big, pimpy version of King Arthur, which didn’t take off at the box office, it was promised to be the down and dirty version of the legend, making me roll my eyes. That’s Excalibur, I thought.

In the early eighties, sword and sorcery stories had a brief comeback on the big screen with Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer, The Beastmaster, and Excalibur, which is my favorite version of the King Arthur story. 

It was a project of passion for British director John Boorman, who also helmed Point Blank, the incredible 60’s crime film starring Lee Marvin, and Deliverance.

Boorman had first tried to adapt Lord of the Rings back in the 70’s, but it was too difficult to condense the stories down into a single film, a similar problem he faced with Excalibur. 

As Boorman recalled in his autobiography, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, once he was able to get the story down to a reasonable length, he pitched it to all the studios, and only Orion responded.

Mike Medavoy, who was formerly at United Artists, loved the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movies, and was hoping this could revive their spirit. He also asked Boorman, “Promise me it won’t be dark.”

The film was shot in sixteen weeks on an $11 million budget. “Huge sets, battle scenes, hundreds of extras, horses, armor, special effects,” Boorman wrote. 

Like Peter Jackson when he filmed Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, Boorman shot the film close to his home in Ireland “where fragments of the primeval oak forest still remain… It is dark in those woods. I wanted to light them as though we were inside a building. We pumped green light onto green moss to make it luminous. We shone emerald light at the oaks and onto the swords and armor, to enhance the mystical sense of the forest as a palpable living thing.”

Boorman even paid tribute to the ending from Deliverance (The Lady of the Lake is actually based on Arthurian legend), except this time the Lady’s hand came out of the sea grabbing the magical sword of the title, instead of a shotgun. (It was actually Boorman’s daughter holding the sword.) 

Excalibur first came out to mixed notices in the summer of ’81, but reportedly became one of Warner Brothers’s biggest selling movies on video and DVD. (Warner absorbed Orion’s library when the company went under).

The sword of the title is on Boorman’s wall, and as he continued, “It was a lifelong quest: I had found the Grail.” One day, a fanatical fan of the movie came to Boorman’s home, and the director offered to show him Excalibur. 

The fan declined, however. “It was too much for him,” Boorman recalled. “Like many a knight before him, he could not bring himself to look upon it.”