I had always enjoyed reading the King Arthur stories, so when the film critic for the Boston Globe wrote that John Boorman’s new picture, “Excalibur,” possessed images some people had been waiting decades to see, I was the the first in line to see them. Aside from some typically stupid fantasy-adventure scenes, Boorman told the story well and did supply a few images I had been waiting decades to see. I disliked Nicol Williamson’s Merlin, being too reminiscent of the Alec Guinness incarnation of Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Cheri Lunghi’s Guinevere was more high school wallflower than Queen of the Realm, but Helen Mirren made a perfect Morgana, and Nicholas Clay’s Lancelot and Paul Geoffrey’s Perceval fit the overall picture, even if both lacked the imagined battle prowess of a knight.
It was Boorman’s storytelling and visual bravado that carried the day. And there were plenty of images that film scholar and critic Richard T. Jameson might have defined as “Moments out of Time.” The lady of the lake’s hand rising from the the water to catch the hero’s sword. Perceval’s inability to grasp the bloody goblet that hovered just out of his reach. But there was a jovial heigh-dee-ho to the action that was a little too much for me. The joyous manner in which these “friends” cut each other to ribbons might be better read than seen. Unless, of course, your purpose in attending is to observe such bloody deeds.
Returning home. I was not sure whether or not I liked the picture. I kept thinking back to Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du lac,” which I had first seen at the Seattle International Film Festival, and had recently seen again in a dormitory at Harvard where it was presented by the university’s film society. The cast was gorgeous, and their lack of acting skills prevented the scenes from leaping into tenacious dramatics. The director kept everything calm on the surface, letting the audience feel what the actors simply represented.
Rather than tell the whole epic story, as Boorman had, beginning with the sword being pulled from the stone and ending with it being thrown into the lake, Bresson focuses on the contradiction in Lancelot’s vows to both God and Woman. First he promised Guinevere that he would love her as long as he lived. Second, he promised God he would end the relationship with Guinevere, who insists that the vow made to her came first and thus Lancelot had no right to make the vow to God unless Guinevere freed him of the previous vow. Lancelot must determine which is the valid vow, and whether it is a greater sin to betray God, who is strong enough to absorb the wrong, or woman, who may be too weak to survive such a betrayal.
Breaking the quiet of Lancelot’s introspection is the intermittent clash of armor and gushing of blood. All the boisterous mayhem of “Excalibur” is nothing compared to the quiet gloom of death leaking through the armor of Bresson’s knights. Boorman’s spectacle invigorates our passion for heroic bloodshed, but we are aroused only during the moments of active viewing. When the movie ends, so does the myth. But Bresson’s images stay with us forever. When we revisit the movie, we find that it has never left us.