It almost seems odd to think that John Boorman’s Excalibur came out years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Boorman’s film is so earnest and self-serious that it would be easy to convince yourself that it was a direct source of the Pythons’ mockery. But if that sounds like a dig at Excalibur, it’s not. Sure, the first time you see it, it may take you a few scenes to keep from smirking at its zealous staidness and its nonsensical touches like the fact that the knights of the round table appear to wear their full suits of armor at literally all times. Once you are gently eased onto its wavelength, though, Excalibur becomes an enchanting as one of Merlin or Morgana’s spells.
You also may notice that Excalibur is a star-studded affair, accidentally so. The biggest name actors at the time would have been Nigel Terry as Arthur, Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana. Now, however, two of those are arguably best known for this movie and little else (okay, Terry was great in The Lion in Winter as well). Further down the cast list, though, you’ll find that Boorman struck gold in his quest to cast relative unknowns. Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and Ciarán Hinds all appear in roles of varying size. Put those four in a movie today and you’ve got yourself a thespian master class. The depth of talent is particularly serendipitous when you reflect that Boorman, like David Lynch, often appears to have cast based first and foremost on aesthetics; every character looks exactly like you’d imagine someone with their traits would look.
That uncanny, on-the-nose feel contributes to the film’s overall dreamlike atmosphere. With every scene full of haze and muted beauty—not to mention with every single line of dialogue apparently looped—watching Excalibur feels like being suspended in an altered plane. It may say it’s a massive two and a half hours long but time loses meaning in its grasp. In fact, it’s a minor disappointment when it ends and your world returns to normal. You almost wish to have stayed slumbering in its fantasy realm forever.