What a wondrous vision “Excalibur” is! And what a mess. This wildly ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur is a haunting and violent version of the Dark Ages and the heroic figures who (we dream) populated them. But it's rough going for anyone determined to be sure what is happening from scene to scene. Great armored figures clank through the forest and bury broadaxes in each other's bodies. Young Arthur frees the magic sword Excalibur from the granite boulder where it was embedded. Castles are stormed. Arthur marries Guenevere and the kingdom rejoices. Camelot reigns. Merlin the Magician enters into a doomed pact with Morgana, Arthur's half-sister, and Morgana assumes the appearance of Guenevere to seduce Arthur. She plans for their son born of incest, Mordred, to take his place as king.
And all of this is buried in such a wealth of detail, such an impenetrable atmosphere, such tumultuous alarms and excursions, that the audience is quite likely to lose its place. John Boorman, the director of “Excalibur,” is brilliant at staging the life and times of Arthur, the film is a triumph of production design, costumes, and special effects. But he hasn't hammered out a clear story line. His male characters, bearded and hiding within medieval helmets, sometimes look and sound like one another. If Robert Bresson's “Lancelot Of The Lake” (1973) deliberately made all the knights into interchangeable, clanking clones, Boorman seems to have arrived at the same place inadvertently. This is a film we almost have to squint to see and to understand.
As a panorama of sword and sorcery, however, it is very beautiful to watch. And as a showcase for Nicol Williamson's Merlin, it is sometimes a lot of fun; Williamson plays the magician as a medieval Noel Coward, always armed with the wry witticism. His relationship with Morgana (the lovely Helen Mirren) is actually the most interesting thing in the film. Morgana borrows Merlin's magic to deceive Arthur and to stay young. Inhabiting a dragon's cave that is apparently somewhere beneath Camelot, she wears brass brassieres and other obligatory props, but she's intriguing.
It's curious how our tastes in myth change; heroes seem to be devalued and our fascination is with villains. Arthur almost recedes into the scenery toward the end of “Excalibur,” upstaged by the sins of Lancelot, the schemes of Morgana, the arch amusement of Merlin and, finally, by the astonishing appearance of Mordred, who wears a golden helmet that makes him into a muscular Cupid. “Excalibur” is a revisionist view of what Arthur's people and times looked like. But the film has a tendency to drift into soft focus and impenetrable fogs. Many scenes are shot through filters that soften and dissipate their effect. The movie's very last shot, of a ship plunging out to sea, should have been hard-edged and forlorn, but it's all misty and evanescent.
There is another problem, too: one common not only to many movie versions of Arthurian legends, but epidemic in the modern sword-and-sorcery genre. The people in this film seem doomed to their behavior. They have no choice. Arthur is courageous as a youth, but then presides over the disintegration of the Round Table, for no apparent reason. The brave and pure Lancelot, accused of being Guenevere's lover, engages in a deadly joust to defend her honor. Not much later, however, they make love. Merlin is a great and powerful magician, but allows Morgana to outwit him; he seems to decide from moment to moment whether to possess vast powers or none.
Since there is no consistency in the behavior of the characters, “Excalibur” is maddeningly arbitrary. Anyone is likely to do anything, and when they do, Boorman springs another battle scene on us, with horses whinnying and swords thumping into flesh until the novelty wears thin. One of the joys of “Star Wars,” which is really a sword-and-sorcery fantasy of the future, is that everyone plays by the rules, lives by the Force, and is true to himself. Boorman's “Excalibur” is a record of the comings and goings of arbitrary, inconsistent, shadowy, figures who are not heroes but simply giants run amok. Still, it's wonderful to look at.