Decades before The Lord Of The Rings films hit, these two 80s classics were among my favorite sword and sorcery flicks and while Peter Jackson’s adaptations of some of my favorite books has stolen some of their thunder away, these two still remain favorites and always will…
“A dream to some… A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!”- Merlin
John Boorman’s Excalibur is a beautifully filmed fantasy movie based on the classic legend of King Arthur (Nigel Terry). The film traces the tale from his father King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and Arthur’s conception and birth to the wife of one of Uther’s rivals, thanks to the trickery of Merlin (Nicol Williamson). It then picks up with young Arthur drawing the sword Excalibur from the stone, going from squire to king and his subsequent marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and the founding of the round table. From there it follows his downfall from the betrayal of Guenevere’s affair with Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and his redemption at the finding of The Holy Grail leading to a final battle with his sorceress half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the warrior son she tricked him into conceiving with her, Mordred (Robert Addie).
Adapted from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and sumptuously filmed by Boorman, who co-wrote the script along with Rospo Pallenberg, Excalibur is a gorgeous and sometimes bloody and brutal film that is both fairy tale and dark fantasy and yet also portrays a time when Christianity was slowly forcing out the pagan ways and beliefs. We get some brutal battles along with the throne room melodrama and while the film is full of fantasy elements, Boorman uses in camera effects to portray most of them such as the very effective green light that bathes the legendary sword whenever it is in use or the works of it’s magicians and sorceresses. Every frame of the film looks stunning from the shining silver and gold castle that is Camelot to the final confrontation with Mordred that looks like it came from an Akira Kurosawa samurai flick. The numerous battles are exciting and quite gruesome with spurting blood and hacked off limbs and are a contrast to some of the more peaceful and visually beautiful moments such as Guenevere and Lancelot’s tryst in the forest or the strangely soothing multicolored cavern that Merlin calls home. The film is moderately paced and that is deliberate as it is truly a fairy tale on film and not just an action movie though, we get plenty of that.
If there is any real weakness here, it is that although leads Terry, Lunghi and Clay try hard, neither of the three really have a strong enough screen presence to really convey their character’s legendary status. But, it is supporting players like Williamson’s delightfully eccentric Merlin and Mirren’s sexy and sinister Morgana that really steal the show along with then unknowns Patrick Stewart as Guenever’s father, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain of the round table and Gabriel Byrne as Uther. The leads aren’t bad and don’t ruin the film, it’s just that the before mentioned supporting players have far more impact in their smaller roles and have stronger screen presence then the lead characters that need it most. The film also gets very dark and slows down a bit in the middle but, that is part of the story and it does recover quite nicely for it epic final act. But, these flaws are only minor as the production design and cinematography by Alex Thompson are enough reason alone to watch this film and Boorman does deliver on all the medieval intrigue, sex, sorcery and heroic deeds not to mention the epic clashes and blood soaked combat that we expect from a tale such as this.
The film is highly regarded as a fantasy film classic by many and will always be among my favorites and holds it’s own against Peter Jackson’s fantasy epics quite well. A film that is both a dream-like fantasy and a brutally realistic portrait of a time when men faced each other with cold steal and sacrificed all for honor and loyalty and the film conveys the romance of the time period quite wonderfully as well. But most of all, it’s one of the best adaptations of the classic legend of Arthur and Merlin that even today has yet to really be equalled. A great movie and one of my all time favorites.
3 and 1/2 Excaliburs!
CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)
“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”- Conan when asked ‘what is best in life?’
Conan the Barbarian is a bonafide classic, one of my favorite movies and obviously the film that started Arnold Schwarzenegger on his path to becoming one of the greatest action movie icons of all time. And if nothing else, it’s one of the most quotable movies as the above line illustrates. The film is based on the classic character and stories by Robert E. Howard and begins with a young Conan (Jorge Sanz) being taught by his father (Wiliam Smith) about the riddle of steel. But, soon the boy’s peaceful village is attacked by a band of warriors led by the sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). His parents and people all slaughtered, the young Conan is sold into slavery and once grown into manhood (now Arnold Schwarzenegger) he is then forced into fighting in pits as a gladiator. His numerous victories win the powerful warrior his freedom and he takes to the road as a mercenary and thief joining up with the sly archer Subotai (surfer Gerry Lopez) and the beautiful thief Valeria (dancer Sandahl Bergeman). All this time Conan searches for the man who slaughtered his people and finds that he is now the leader of a snake worshipping cult with a large following that grows across the land. When good King Osric (Max Von Sydow) hires Conan and company to rescue his daughter (Valerie Quennessen) from the very same cult, Conan takes this as an opportunity to finally get revenge on those who slaughtered his people and parents. And a bloody revenge it will be.
Directed by John Milius and co-written by Milius and Oliver Stone, Conan is a violent and brutal yet, almost comic book style sword and sorcery epic filled with fierce and gory battles, daring heroics and narrow escapes. Conan goes through a lot to gain his vengeance and there is a strangely philosophical side to this flick as one might expect from a film that opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. The production design by Ron Cobb is simple yet gives Conan a bit of a unique look and style and is well photographed by Duke Callaghan who makes good use of the sets and Spanish locations. It has a bit of a sense of humor but, most of all, is a hard core fantasy with plenty of sex and bloodshed to delight fans of the pulp material. It’s then all wrapped in a wonderfully fitting score by Basil Poledouris which may be one of the legendary composer’s best.
But, as much as I love this movie, I will admit it has it’s problems too. Most come from the cast. Aside from brief cameos by William Smith and Max Von Sydow, there are only two professional actors in the movie, James Earl Jones and Mako. Mako is a bit over the top and eccentric in a film that plays it’s story straight for the most part and Jones, who is among our greatest actors, just doesn’t seem to quite fit in the long black wig and fancy robes of the Jim Jones like Tulsa Doom. He plays a man hypnotized by his own twisted philosophy and drunk on his own power but, when it comes down to it, he’s not as threatening an opponent for the sculpted and strong barbarian and once stripped of his henchmen, he’s poses little opposition for Conan. I’ve come to be endeared to these two characters over time but, will be honest that they didn’t quite work for me when I first saw this flick in 1982. The rest of the cast are dancers and pro athletes, such as Danish bodybuilder Sven-Ole Thorsen as henchman Thorgrim and former football player Ben Davidson as fellow henchman Rexor. These cast members are physically fine but, performances across the board are pretty wooden. Arnold is obviously physically perfect for the part of Conan but, it would be two or three films later before he developed his now legendary screen persona though, one of his best sequences in Conan as an actor was oddly removed from the final cut. Thankfully, the director’s cut restores Conan’s reminisce of the more peaceful days of his childhood with Subotai and we get to see some of Arnold’s best work in the movie as an actor.
As for the rest, the FX are decent and the action is bloody and furious but, it does take awhile before the film really starts moving and there are long stretches between the action scenes. To a degree Conan is considered a classic and I fully agree but, it is a slightly flawed one. The recent director’s cut on DVD is actually a bit better then what was originally released and includes some really nice scenes that flesh things out a bit more such as the Princess accompanying Conan on his final assault on Thulsa Doom in his fortress and a nice scene of Conan contemplating what to do now once his vengeance is complete. Some nice subtle moments that were, for some reason, cut out of the theatrical print are restored and do make Conan a better film. And It goes without saying that the director’s cut also includes a bit more violence that was cut to achieve an R-rating. Sadly this cut has yet to be released on blu-ray. But, all in all, I can forgive Conan it’s flaws as it is a favorite and also brings back memories of the great movie era that was the early 80s… and is the film that set Arnold on his course to legendary status.
The film was followed by an amusing but, inferior and lighter toned sequel and then recently, a somewhat entertaining if not forgettable remake with Jason Momoa as the barbaric hero. Word now comes that Arnold will return to the role as an aging Conan in a new film and it would be nice if this really happens and Arnold brings closure to the role he still owns. Can’t wait.
3 and 1/2 war axes!