Why does Zack Snyder, director of the forthcoming Batman v Superman, see in Excalibur, John Boorman’s wildly uneven telling of the King Arthur saga?
Snyder has put this movie among his very favorites, but after some 10 minutes into Excalibur, I was already worried that I had rented the wrong movie. I couldn’t understand what Snyder, no slouch himself, could see in a movie that was only about as good as you’d expect from the director of Zardoz.
For what it’s worth, when I say this movie isn’t sound, I mean starting on the level of some basic storytelling mechanics. At times, it labors just to convey what is happening. Years – decades? – pass between some scenes, with nary a montage or even fade out to suggest the passage of time. Instead, one scene follows another and only goatees where there were once bare chins are there to tell us that time has elapsed.
Or take the evolution of Perceval, one of the most famous Knights of the Round Table. When he first appears, Lancelot calls him “boy” even though the actor playing Perceval could pass for 30. (Maybe this is an affectation of knights, but it seems weird either way.) Later, when telling the story of the search for the Holy Grail, Excalibur abruptly leaps forward 10 years (par for the course in this film), in which time Perceval barely seems to age. Lancelot, on the other hand, now looks like your grandfather, that is if your grandfather believes scissors are a government conspiracy. Arthur, in these 10 years, has “aged” in the sense that his hair now sports a dusting of the most unnatural gray, a make-up job that immediately recalls memories of junior-high theater productions.
Speaking of Arthur: You couldn’t really ask for a less compelling version of the central figure. When he shows up as a young man, he’s distinctly undistinguished. He’s supposed to be unpolished – a fair enough characterization — but Nigel Terry, playing young Arthur, comes across more like a village yahoo than an unformed youth. Merlin, for his part, is played by Nicol Williamson, an actor less than 10 years older than Terry. That’s distracting enough, but some of his line readings around the time of Arthur’s introduction sound for all the world as though Boorman had written a parenthetical in the script describing Merlin as “some kind of BS artist.” It doesn’t get much better; Merlin is occasionally funny, but Arthur rarely seems to merit the crown, as a leader or as an actor. The production generally is of better quality than the acting or casting, though when we finally see Camelot, we find a castle that looks suspiciously like poured concrete covered in faux-stone textured wallpaper.
Anyway, you get the idea: This isn’t any sort of good movie. Maybe the most damning complaint I have about Excalibur, though, is that I don’t even know what Boorman was trying to accomplish. At 2 hours, 20 minutes, it’s either too short or too long, trying to do King Arthur’s greatest hits without adequately staging any single part. There’s the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot triangle; there’s the sword in the stone; there’s the Holy Grail; and there’s the struggle against an evil sorceress and her son, but in none of these could I pinpoint the theme of the whole piece, nor could I point to a character arc that felt complete. The movie spends just enough time with each segment that Boorman can say he’s put it in the movie, but each feels oddly abbreviated. For a more cinematically satisfying treatment of King Arthur, and a movie that is surely more focused, may I point you to Disney’s The Sword and the Stone?
In many ways, the problems with Excalibur fall into the same trap so many lackluster movies do: They use the genre or your existing knowledge of the material as a crutch. In the worse genre movies, we can identify the villain largely only because he wears black and scowls, while his particular motivations and personality are barely sketched for us. In the case of Excalibur, where the audience already knows the story, Boorman relies on this fact to pass off otherwise unconvincing scenes as plot points. Take the clip above, which is supposed to substantiate some romantic connection between Lancelot and Guenevere even though, as you can see, there isn’t a hint of chemistry between them. Boorman can rely on the fact that we already know, stepping into the theater, that they’ll fall in love, so the film can simply goes through its paces without effectively showing us that process. Here and elsewhere, Boorman’s movie often feels as though it’s just trying to get through its voluminous material.
Funny enough, Zack Snyder is quite a bit better director than Boorman seems to be. Man of Steel, Snyder’s first Superman outing, succeeded as a story about Clark Kent finding his Super-self for the first time. This is no small feat; in the popular imagination, Clark Kent simply is and always has been Superman, so making us remember that even he has an origin is admirable. With a premise that could have been perfunctory and still probably raked in cash, Snyder forged a real story. He succeeded where Boorman failed, and I hope Batman v Superman will be more of the same.