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Warner Home Video presents
Excalibur HD-DVD (1981)

"You are the son of Uther and Igrayne. You are King Arthur."
- Merlin (Nicol Williamson)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 26, 2007

Stars: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson
Other Stars: Robert Addie, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Ciarán Hinds
Director: John Boorman

MPAA Rating: R for (violence, gore, nudity, sensuality)
Run Time: 02h:20m:58s
Release Date: October 31, 2006
UPC: 085391115199
Genre: fantasy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

There have been many retellings of the Arthurian legends, from Malory to Marion Zimmer Bradley, each with their unique take on the story. But few of those retellings are as grim as the despondent film version produced and directed by John Boorman. The attention to detail and the vividness of the creation of the period nevertheless help to make it a memorable viewing experience.

Born of a mystical tryst of Uther (Gabriel Byrne, in his first feature film) and Igrayne (Katrine Boorman, the director's daughter), King Arthur (Nigel Terry) rises to manhood with the aid of the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson), assembling the Knights of the Round Table for a golden age. But that happy world is short lived, and as Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) cuckolds the King by falling in love with Queen Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), England falls into darkness that can only be relived by the quest for the Holy Grail. Unfortunately for Arthur, his half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) has other plans, using the black arts to ensnare Merlin and to seduce the King.

Although it starts off with a reasonably familiar attitude and hopefulness, Boorman emphasizes the illegitimate aspects of Arthur's ancestry with a controversial rape sequence. It's not a clean Medieval Times world, but one where fighting in armor is a matter of sweat, filth and gouting blood. Where things begin a serious descent into darkness is after a drunken Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) accuses the as-yet-innocent Guenevere of unfaithfulness. Even though Lancelot successfully defends the Queen's honor, an inexorable spiral to disaster has been set into motion, and Boorman doesn't stint on the bleakness. Before long, the King is half-dead, the land is in ruins, the people are starving and hope seems to be lost. Even when Perceval recovers the Grail and returns to the King, it seems clear that it is but a last renewal before all must decay. With an enormous body count, it's a vision of Arthurian legend that is cloaked in primeval dread.

Although many of the major leads remain fairly anonymous, quite a few members of the supporting cast have gone on to much greater renown. It's a marvelous piece of casting. Using such talented actors helps Boorman in selling the story quite well. The real-life animosity between Williamson and Mirren makes their rivalry seem quite credible and more than just play-acting. The armor, though anachronistic in the style of Malory, is quite beautiful and it, like the staging of the battle scenes, was clearly an inspirational force for Peter Jackson in his Lord of the Rings films. Stylistically it has a blood and thunder aspect that is more than befitting Boorman's tone.

Although Trevor Jones is nominally credited with the soundtrack, the impact comes from music borrowed from Wagner and Orff: Siegfrieds Tod is quite appropriate for the tale of doom being weaved here, and O Fortuna gives the battles a fine urgency that would be swiped by countless other movies and even more movie trailers. One needs to get past the cliche that the music has evolved into, but it has an undeniable impact here in its usage. While there is plenty of action to be had, the music emphasizes the relentless fate that lies over Arthur and his knights. As the title suggests, much of the emphasis is not so much on the king as on the sword itself, as a symbol of glory and the past, and it plays a critical role in many of the movie's events. Lovingly shot at times with a surreal green light, it helps give the movie a dramatic focus. When it disappears from the screen for nearly half an hour, disaster quickly befalls the kingdom and its characters.

Previous viewings of this movie have often left me cold. Perhaps it was that other tellings of the story have gotten in the way of enjoying it; certainly the film works much better if you allow it to tell its tale without preconceptions. And perhaps the HD transfer allows one to see the action much better, making the experience more accessible. With its distinctive blend of magic and fantasy against the dark tone, the production remains an influential favorite for many 25 years later.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The old standard DVD was well nigh unwatchable, with plenty of artifacts, sparkly grain and a general murkiness that didn't help the film any. Alex Thomson's cinematography was nominated for many awards, and it is restored to something approaching its cinematic appearance here. The picture was shot using heavily-grained stock, and that's accurately reproduced here, but it looks filmlike and doesn't have a sparkly appearance. The fog of the opening and closing battles is very well-rendered, as are the greens and reds that are the most prominent of the very limited palette. Shadow detail in particular is greatly improved, allowing much more clarity to the visuals. There is a persistent soft focus used throughout, so one shouldn't expect video clarity, but it's undeniable that the HD version is a welcome and major improvement. Edge enhancement does crop up at times, and occasionally the backgrounds have an unpleasant digital edge to them. It would have been better to let the soft be soft and not try to tinker with it. But many shots are gorgeous, such as the Lady of the Lake raising the sword above the waters at the beginning of the picture.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The disc sports a robust 5.1 DD+ English track that brings the feeling of mayhem in battle to life, giving them a kineticism that matches the quick editing and violent action. The Wagner sounds great, though the Carmina Burana at times seems a little lacking in the bass, possibly due to the limitations of the recording being borrowed for the picture. The mix is quite vivid on the whole, with the trampling of hooves in particular giving a firm impact. Dialogue occasionally seems to be out of synch, but this may just be sloppy dubbing.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 45 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director John Boorman
Packaging: Elite
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Other than an anamorphic widescreen trailer that emphasizes the action aspect of the film, the sole extra is an excellent commentary from Boorman, who relates plenty of anecdotes and background information. There are few dead spots and it's quite engaging since it's clearly a project near and dear to the director's heart.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

One of the grimmest of the retellings of the Arthurian legends, Excalibur receives a massive upgrade in the rendition in HD.


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