I recall finding it boring and tiresome, but I was 15 — what did I know?
In the 20-plus years that have intervened, I’ve revisited it several times, each more pleasurably than the last. It’s a film that just gets better with age, and it looks fabulous in its Blu-ray debut. The iconic early scene in which Merlin watches the titular sword emerge from the waters never fails to give me chills, much like the hand reaching out of the river in “Deliverance,” another Boorman classic. And now, the beads of water look crisper than ever.
Set in the Dark Ages, the story is a grand fantasy that tells not only the story of King Arthur’s ascension and subsequent assemble of the knights of the Round Table, but weaves in other tales of mythology into its madness, including the Lady in the Lake, the Holy Grail and the Sword in the Stone; plot summaries do not do its sweeping approach justice. The driving character, however, is Merlin the magician (Nicol Williamson), who is portrayed not as a hero, but a rather frightening force.
Williamson seems insane — a good thing — with a glacial intensity not quite matched by the ensemble cast. But what a cast; although Helen Mirren was already a name, “Excalibur” gave big breaks to Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart. The biggest star isn’t even human, but the Oscar-nominated cinematography; the visuals are sumptuous, with the titular sword reflecting dazzling reds and greens befitting of Christmas light displays.
Given this release marks “Excalibur”’s 30th anniversary — and with a remake on the horizon — it would have been great to see a retrospective documentary included, but the only extras are Boorman’s commentary and the original theatrical trailer, ported over from Warner Home Video’s original snapcase DVD of a decade ago. Still, if you’ve got the TV big enough to showcase its spiffier look, the Blu-ray is worth the upgrade. It is, after all, the best movie ever made on the Arthurian legends. —Rod Lott