In the Dark Ages, the land was divided and without a king. Out of those lost centuries rose a legend of the sorcerer Merlin. Word spread of the coming of a king and of the sword of power, Excalibur.
As feudal lords rage war, Merlin (Nicol Williamson) favors Uther (Gabriel Byrne) who wishes to be king. Once Merlin gives him Excalibur, Uther and his troops easily conquer the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) and forge a peaceful alliance. A celebration is held at the Duke's castle, but once Uther sees the beautiful Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), wife of the Duke, he lustfully decrees he must have her, destroying the alliance. War resumes, and Uther begs Merlin to help him have Igrayne for one night. Merlin agrees to use his sorcery but demands the results of the union as payment. The magician calls upon the powerful “charm of making,” which bestows Uther with the looks of the Duke so he may enter Igrayne's chambers. Only Igrayne's young daughter, Morgana (Helen Mirren), sees through the disguise. She then has a prophecy her father is dead.
When Igrayne later gives birth to Uther's child, Merlin appears, taking the child as agreed. Angry, Uther follows Merlin through the forest as he carries away the infant he calls Arthur. A group of knights, still loyal to the Duke, ambush Uther. Dying, Uther jams Excalibur deep into a stone, and Merlin decrees only the true king will one day pull the sword from the stone.
Eighteen years later, Arthur (Nigel Terry) effortlessly pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king. He takes Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) as his queen; embraces his half-sister, Morgana; meets his best friend, the knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and builds a roundtable within a grand new castle, Camelot. But as the legends warn, Arthur will be betrayed by his wife and friend and then fall prey to a vengeful Morgana, now an evil sorceress who imprisons Merlin. She uses her powers to lie with her brother and begets a demonic child, Mordred (Robert Addie), who attempts to destroy the kingdom.
Plagued with pre-production difficulties for two decades before director John Boorman was able to mount the production, the filming of Excalibur, his epic telling of the Arthurian legends based primarily on Thomas Malory's book, Le Morte d'Arthur, took place almost entirely in the Irish countryside. The film’s shooting went on for five months in 1980, with rain occurring nearly every day of exteriors. The task of capturing the rain-drenched images, fell on cinematographer Alex Thomson, BSC (Alien 3, Legend), who embraced the rain, understanding the gritty, real-life intensity infused with an other-worldly, fantasy tone Boorman wanted the image to have.
“We were trying throughout to get a kind of luminosity to the picture. We constantly used green light shining on objects in daytime exteriors to give them a magical luminosity,” notes Boorman on the commentary track of Warner's recent Blu-ray release of Excalibur. Whereas the leaves and moss comprising much of the film's fanciful forests often shimmer with mythical incandescence through the use of creative lighting, it is the titular weapon, Excalibur, that shines most brightly throughout. From its first introduction in the rippling waters that bathe the “Lady of the Lake” to its final scenes amidst the blood-soaked, misty ruins of war, Boorman and Thomson agreed the sword should radiate a mystic glow. They achieved the illusion by aiming appropriately gelled, high-powered lights on it for every appearance. Thomson's imaginative use of lighting on Excalibur earned him Best Cinematography nominations for an Academy Award and a BSC Award.
Warner's new 1080p image transfer of Excalibur appears faithful to its 30-year-old source. It captures the film's grainy, sometimes murky, always “lived-in” look while giving plenty of dimensions to the deep primary colors that often represent magic. The intended contrasts among the deliberate colors and gritty blacks and grays are generally well balanced. With the film's heavy use of diffusion and soft focus, there are occasional inconsistencies in sharpness, but, overall, the film's complex look is well represented. Black levels are generally good, and there is little evidence of DNR or edge enhancements. When directly compared to the standard-def DVD and Laserdisc transfers previously available, this high-def image is an obvious upgrade, which more accurately reflects the film's intended look. The DTS-HD Master audio is just adequate, however, with louder music cues reaching across the surround field but leaving much of the soundscape confined to the front stage. There is audible fluctuation in some sound effects and some dialogue that, while never fully lost, seems occasionally too distant. More care could have been taken here. Sadly, the commentary track from the original DVD release in 1999 and the theatrical trailer are the lone supplements.
The legendary struggles of King Arthur remain popular around the world and have been retold in literature, on stage and television and in film for decades. Excalibur, a bold, unique adaptation, deservedly has a large cult following. This new Blu-ray, one that feels true to its creators' intensions, should please fans, and the power of the sword will conquer newcomers as well.