Turn Back the Clock
Distributed by: Orion Pictures Corporation
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
As a kid, I loved reading stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I truly enjoyed the tales filled with wizards and magic, dragons, knights and their Kings, swords, castles, gallantry and honor. Watching the television series Merlin brought all of that enjoyment back and made me yearn to watch my favorite film about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table called Excalibur.
The tale begins with King Uthor Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), a warrior with little room in his life for things like love and family. He and his army travel far and wide with Merlin (Nicol Williamson), a wizard whose magic is said to come from “the dragon“. Together with Merlin and a special sword called Excalibur, Uthor is unstoppable and creates quite a kingdom.
But lust is his undoing - Uthor desperately wants to bed Igrayne, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) with whom he has just struck a truce. This has not gone unnoticed by the Duke and the truce is broken, but Uthor is smitten and doesn’t heed Merlin’s warnings. Uthor bargains with Merlin, begging him to use his magic to allow Uthor one night with Igrayne. In exchange Merlin will receive anything that may come of their one night together.
While Uthor is with Igrayne, the Duke of Cornwall is killed. Morgana, daughter of the Duke and Igrayne instantly sees past Uthor’s disguise and, having the power of foresight, has already sensed her father’s death. Her hate for Uthor increases when the son born to Igrayne nine months later is taken by Merlin as part of the bargain. She secretly vows to avenge her family. Uthor, having second thoughts about his bargain sets out to take his son back but is ambushed by warriors faithful to the Duke and killed. His last act is to pierce a boulder-sized piece of stone with Excalibur, vowing that no one but the King will wield the sword again.
Years later, at a jousting competition for the right to attempt to remove the sword from the stone and become King takes place. A young squire named Arthur (Nigel Terry) accidentally removes the sword from the stone, much to the astonishment of all who have tried. It is then revealed that Arthur is the son of Uthor and Igrayne and that Excalibur is his birthright. Of course, a king so young and inexperienced is not quickly accepted…even the king himself is insecure in his new role. But it soon becomes apparent that Arthur is a fair and honest man and many decide to join him in his quest to rebuild the kingdom that once was. Thus begins the story of King Arthur, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.
I first saw Excalibur when I was in middle school and I was immediately captivated by the fight scenes, the beautiful landscapes, the magic and the mystery. An adaptation of Le Morte d’Arthur, a story written by Sir Thomas Malory first published in 1485, the film depicts the rise and fall of King Arthur and contains a great many of the major tales of Camelot I read about as a kid. There is the story of the sword in the stone, the creation of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, how Lancelot came to be one of Arthur’s Knights, the quest for the Holy Grail, Mordred and more.
I only saw Excalibur a couple of times as a kid and yet the film stuck with me. Since then, no one but Nigel Terry will do as King Arthur for me. Somehow, I had forgotten the story of Uthor, but Arthur’s story was still fresh until today, especially his indiscretion with Morgana (Helen Mirren) and his battle with Mordred (Robert Addie). The Lady in the Lake was also something that stayed with me - perhaps the mystery behind her presence and her ties with the sword have something to do with that. And then there is that song, used heavily in dramatic and violent scenes throughout the movie - O Fortuna by Carl Orff. I love that song - the drama of it, the sweeping vocals and orchestral composition - amazing!
Finally, after over two decades…yes, I’m getting old…I finally have gotten to view the full version of Excalibur. The previous versions I have seen have all been rather clean cut thanks to television censorship. The DVD version I watched last week was rather explicit, showing quite a bit of nudity, sexual situations and violence. There were 21 more minutes to this version of the film. They only served to make the film more enjoyable for me.
As I watched the film, I realized just how much I still remembered of the film. I was also amazed to discover that Excalibur marked some of the earliest works of actors Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, who portrayed Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table. But most of all I was amazed that, despite the fact that special effects have made such a marked advance since the creation of this film, I found Excalibur to be just as enjoyable now as I did when I first saw it all those years ago.
Excalibur is the tales of fantasy and magic, kingdoms and sorcery, knights and honor come to life in dramatic fashion. The film contains drama, betrayal, intrigue and adventure. In 1981, when the film first hit the theaters, it was the 18th most successful film of the year (there were approximately 465 movies that year). Since then, Excalibur has enjoyed something of a dedicated cult following of which I am proud to say I am a loyal member. Anyone who is a fan of the stories of King Arthur, Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table or the Sword in the Stone will be sure to love this film, but I would recommend it to anyone with any interest in fantasy films in general. This is a film that has stood the test of time.