Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Excalibur: A Daring Gem Of Its Time

In the modern era of filmmaking, only The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a "sword and sorcery" epic has been able to compete (and grossly outclass, we can say) with the lush opulence and the gory chaos that clangs and swoons through 1981's Excalibur. Ridley Scott's 1999 masterpiece Gladiator (the film that launched the wildfire career of Russell Crowe) swings worthy of this cleaved-up genre of storytelling, but then, Gladiator is set in the Roman empire and sorcery plays very little in its sinewy ode to vengeance.

In the midst of its beknighted majesty, an onslaught of armor-plated, blood-soaked films trailed after Excalibur: the 1982 Conan the Barbarian and its silly, guilty pleasure sequel, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Beastmaster, Fire and Ice, Deathstalker, Krull, Clash of the Titans, The Barbarians, Kull the Conqueror, Sword of the Valiant, Dragonslayer, Merlin, A Knight's Tale and so forth. Most of these films border from mediocre to dreadful. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however, is a riotous devil with its own legend and tireless, "Nee!" shrieking fan base.

Kenneth Branagh turned Shakespeare's Henry V into a masterwork in its own right, while Mel Gibson (love him or hate him) did marvelous work with Hamlet, not to mention his immortal Celtic epic, Braveheart. Tip of the hat to Liam Neeson's Rob Roy, while we're in a highland frame of mind. Then Laurence Fishburne achieved the impossible with a modern hike of Othello. Today, the the CGI-aided 300 and Troy have become the closest rivals to Excalibur, while the Spartacus cable series is besting that film's then-groundbreaking sex and splatter. As for the 2010 Conan the Barbarian reboot, not a bad job, honestly, though I'm still well on the fence about the pointless Clash of the Titans remake. I'll take Harryhausen's claymation Kracken over a computerized beastie-blob any day.

Excalibur is more in tune with folklore and the purported history of English liege, King Arthur. Based upon Sir Thomas Mallory's over-imaginative writings, Le Morte d'Arthur, Excalibur is to be considered high fantasy (an associated tag of this particular genus of film and fiction), especially if you're to accept a mythical sword bequeathed from a shimmering aquatic angel. Much less the fact the sword stays locked inside a boulder, laying in wait of the one true king to retrieve it and thence rule the land. In this case, it happens to be a teenaged squire who accidentally yanks it out and turns the tide of history.

Nevertheless, this outrageous premise is built upon an even more outrageous premise in which our noble future sovereign was born out rape aided and abetted by sorcerous transfiguation. Never mind Arthur himself will be deceived by his own "sister" (really, a half-sister if you put it all together) into conceiving an archangel daddy slayer, Mordred.

Okay, so we've established Excalibur as a giddy romp of nonsense, yet there's something about John Boorman's vision that beholds grandeur and spectacle you cannot veer from. Instead of turning Camelot into a big sing-a-long (as Monty Python and the Holy Grail would roast of Richard Burton's orchestral realm, 'tis a silly place), Boorman consults both the woe and the valor of the Dark Ages. Excalibur is a wondrous world bred of greed, dishonor and complete fatism. Its principals are both beautiful and ugly and in the end, only God and nature prevail, despite a mortal king's best efforts. In peace, Arthur shines. In war, he glowers. His kingdom reflects both cases. In telling the tale, Boorman's locations are inspirational, the action is savage and no film since has sang the song of steel with such graceful clings, clunks and silver-kissed wails like Excalibur does.

I remember the first time I saw Excalibur on VHS in the mid-eighties. For us teen boys, Excalibur had a reputation. We'd banded together in our neighborhood and marveled at Arnold Schwarzenegger carving half up the cast and pumping his seed into a small handful of women throughout the first Conan film. Excalibur, we were told, matched Conan's overflowing buckets of blood and sex scenes.

Well, yes and no. Conan the Barbarian was gratuitous in both measures, taking cue from Robert E. Howard's (and all of his succeeding scribes) pulp novels. That film was supposed to be full of the crimson, the fantastical and hetero-aggressive sexuality. It's nearly a shocking thing Conan actually feels for Valeria in the first film, that he actually has a romance instead of a fleeting night in the hay like he does with almost half of the women he comes into contact with through the novels. His mourning of Valeria is a wow moment of the Hyborean universe.

Excalibur treats sex in both a discomfiting and compelling fashion. Arthur and Morgana in the first case, Guenevere and Launcelot in the other. One side is deceptive rape (the aforementioned Arthur-Morgana tryst, plus that of King Uther Pendragon and Igrayne, the wife of his nemesis, the Duke of Cornwall), while the other is sensuous and ultimately devastating. All of Excalibur's sex lore is proposed prophecy, all leading to tragic events, even if Arthur's blood father, Uther, might be heralded with just the smallest shade of pride for siring a legend. Pride, of course, becomes Uther's undoing and for that matter, his son's.

As teenage boys, it's the sex we were all after once Excalibur landed into one of our VCRs. We were happy campers in that department, but we were likewise transfixed by the swinging cutlery, Orff's sweeping gusts of "Carmina Burana" and we were mesmerized by the gusty Medieval world John Boorman presented before us. It was one of the highest forms of visual art a young male could appreciate, even if the basest parts of our DNA fueled our approval. We never once thought it was dumb The Lady of the Lake stuck her hand out of the water to retrieve or hand over the mystical sword of Excalibur.

I've said it a thousand times that I'm privileged to have grown up in the eighties. I'm not saying every film we had was a gem. We offer Krull as a caveat to all future generations. As spectacular as Excalibur is, there was Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments before it. Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz before them. Even Star Wars preceded Excalibur, but in the latter's case, we related to it more because it represented a fictional part of mankind's history. It still felt like we belonged to that world in some transient fashion. Of course, we had no idea Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson would go on from this film to become pop culture icons, but it's fun to watch and reflect now.

At the moment, there's a remake of Excalibur helmed by Bryan Singer sitting on the shelves of Warner Brothers. No offense to Singer, but I can't fathom a replication of Boorman's eye for detail, for battle-hungry wonderment, for his constructive lust for glory. Then there the urgent quest for God's salvation that's deeply affecting from Paul Geoffrey's ceaseless trials to Arthur's dispatching by his own son. Once Sir Perceval hurls Excalibur back into the sea and the angels sail away with Arthur's remains on the floating pyre, it's a perfect, if melancholic finale to a grueling ode. At the end, Excalibur offers the very real precept that the cosmos is bigger than us.


  1. I've seen four Boorman films. Deliverance was brilliant. Hell in the Pacific was okay. Exorcist 2 stunk. Zardoz was mostly crap, but it was just strange enough to make me watch more than once. The Boorman film I most want to see, but have not is Emerald Forest. Yeah, I know your post is about Excalibur. I tried to watch Excalibur at least twice on tv years ago and gave up on it. Then maybe ten years ago I bought it on DVD out of the bargain bin and tried to watch it again and gave up on it again. Just very dull and too self aware for it's own good so I gave the DVD to Goodwill. Then a few years ago a co-worker was clearing out some DVDs and ask me if I wanted any. I got this film again for free. I tried it again and made it further than before, but still after trying I just to got to a point where I felt like if I am having to push myself to watch something then it's not worth my time so I gave up again. I still have it and should try and give it one more go. My problem isn't so much lack of action as it is lack of mood. Boorman has in this film and others got caught up in this almost pageant type presentation of his stories and that's what I feel with this film. Only there is nothing spectaular enough happening to warrant that kind of presenation. I have pulled the DVD out and will give it another shot at some point.
    I liked your write-up except the whole second paragraph doesn't fit in with the rest of it. You just trailed out a big list of films trying to include anything with a sword in it. Although there was an outpouring of sword and fantasy films in the early 80's, but you also listed films made well into the 90's. Plus you listed the Monty Python films which was made in 1974 so it really doesn't relate to the point you tried to make in the paragraph. Your third prargraph also doesn't really relate to your post topic. It was like you were off on another tangent. Not that was it was bad at all, but that it could have been in it's post instead. All of your post fits together fine except those two paragraphs felt like you got sidetracked.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Mark. Doubtful you'll like the film after all those tries before, but you never know. I agree that Exorcist 2 is complete garbage, Deliverance was incredible and Hell In the Pacific is decent, but memorable for the pissing on the head scene.