At a special screening last week to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Ain't It Cool News, übergeek Harry Knowles donned his trickster mask, presenting fans who waited an hour or more in line not with a sneak peek of "Thor" or "Super 8" but with the 1981 fantasy film "Dragonslayer."
Discussing the film afterward with guest Guillermo del Toro, Knowles wondered aloud if the movie world would ever again see a take on sword-and-sorcerer lore as perfect as John Boorman's "Excalibur," a much more adult film released the same year as "Dragonslayer." The director doubted it.
As it happens, "Excalibur" has just been released by Warner Bros. on Blu-ray, and even after three decades it looks to be as believable an embodiment of Arthurian legend as we're likely to get.
Produced a few years after Boorman went from perhaps his highest point ("Deliverance") to a film that has earned much mockery since its release (the Sean Connery sci-fi flick "Zardoz"), "Excalibur" brings expressionist flourishes to its Middle Ages setting. Neon colors bloom in the corners of castles; the walls of Camelot glisten; backlights shine through billowing smoke to create grand entrances wherever necessary.
But style never overwhelms the substance, and it often enhances it, especially when the sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson, lending plenty of human flaws to the man of magic) finds his rival in Arthur's half-sister Morgana. The two have a showdown in his subterranean lair of luminous stalactites and conjured crystal — a setting that has aged better than one of its cinematic contemporaries, Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
As for the story: This is not the King Arthur of your childhood (and certainly not of Lerner and Loewe). Though Rospo Pallenberg's adaptation of Thomas Malory's 15th-century stories strongly retains the original's virtuous themes (honesty, loyalty, honor) and convincingly finds tragedy in their breakdown, the film downplays grand feats of bravery and climactic battles. Lancelot's armor may shine like chrome, but Boorman has too much down-and-dirty in him to film jousts and swordplay in the conventional, hyper-romantic Hollywood style.
One convention it started instead of following was the use of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" as accompaniment for epic action. This film was the first to use that work's "O Fortuna" section, which has since become the ultimate grandiose cliché.
If only somebody could take that beautiful composition out to a lake and throw it in, as Arthur commands Perceval to do with his sword when his reign is done — letting the stirring music restore its power through a decade or two of absence, waiting patiently until another filmmaker comes along who deserves to use it.