Excalibur is, by most standards, an odd film. It has knights running around in full plate who inexplicably overlook helmets; shouted lines of over-the-top, Shakespearian dialogue; a guy who has sex wearing armor; odd bits of graphic violence; and a script that refuses to extend a helping hand to the viewer, making it tough to figure out what's going on. To get this film, you need at least some familiarity with the Arthurian myths.
Despite these flaws, Excalibur is easily one of my favorite movies of all time. I find it genuinely moving; I love the casting choices almost to a man (and woman); the costumes and sets capture the romance and violence of Malory perfectly; and it isn't afraid to explore the complex themes of many of the Arthurian tales. Plus, it has a great score and some kick-ass battle sequences!
I like films that don't feel the need to stoop to the lowest common denominator, and Excalibur certainly fits this category. For instance, director John Boorman is obviously well-versed in the Fisher King myth (the health of the land is tied directly to the health of the king), yet apart from a few shouted "One Land One King," and "The Land and the King are one" references, we're left to figure this out on our own.
In another example, when the quest for the holy grail begins, the viewer assumes they're looking for an actual, physical cup. Or are they? Boorman hints that the quest is really a search within the individual--that the quest for the grail is actually the voyage of a soul seeking spiritual perfection. You have to look hard for this, as its revealed only by a single cryptic line from Arthur, "[Look for] signs, portents... the edge of within.".
Nicol Williamson plays an amazing Merlin and perhaps renders the best performance of any wizard put to film (Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is a marvel, too). Williamson is simultaneously funny and mysterious, and he injects the role with an eccentric flair that imbues the character with a life of its own. He utters such great lines, fraught with meaning:
When a man lies he murders some part of the world.
The days of our kind are numberèd. The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It's the way of things. Yes... it's a time for men, and their ways.
And look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then... this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, 'I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!' For it is the doom of men that they forget.
There are other worlds...this one is done with me.
Several scenes in this film make my eyes well up and place my heart firmly in my mouth: The young Arthur kneeling in a moat, handing Excalibur to his enemy, Uryenes, to knight him, is one; a wild-haired Lancelot returning from his self-imposed exile and madness to fight and die for his king is another. Arthur's impassioned speech to Guievere before he goes to fight Mordred in the last battle is a third:
I have often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man, that we may meet, and you will come to me and claim me as yours, and know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have...
And who can fail to be moved by the scene of Arthur and his knight's galloping through the falling petals, set to the beautiful Carmina Burana? Watching this scene makes me realize I was born in the wrong time and the wrong world: I should have been a knight of the round table, fighting for Arthur and for civilization against the encroaching dark.
In short, Excalibur rocks hard.