John Boorman

Helen Mirren as Morgana and Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur (1981)

Helen Mirren as Morgana and Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur (1981)

  • Born: 1933
  • Rank:  44
  • Score:  584.60
  • Awards:  LAFC / BSFC / NSFC
  • Nominations:  2 Oscars / DGA / BAFTA / 2 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films:  16
  • Best:  Hope and Glory
  • Worst:  Exorcist II: The Heretic

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Hope and Glory – 1987
  2. Deliverance – 1972
  3. Excalibur – 1981
  4. Point Blank – 1967
  5. The General – 1998

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1967  – 6th – Point Blank
  • 1972 – 3rd – Deliverance
  • 1981 – 4th – Excalibur
  • 1987 – 4th – Hope and Glory

John Boorman’s career has been frustratingly uneven right from the start.  He began with Having a Wild Weekend, a Dave Clark movie designed to cash in on the success of the Beatles films.  But he followed that up with the fantastic Point Blank, the film that earned him a place in Sarris’ book in spite of only having made three films and the film that David Thomson spends most of his essay on Boorman writing about.  His next film was the solid Hell in the Pacific but that was followed by the terrible Leo the Last before hitting gold (and Oscar nominations) with Deliverance.  But between Deliverance and Excalibur he made the uneven Zardoz and the truly awful Exorcist II.  He had a strong eighties with Excalibur, Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory (more Oscar nominations), but entered the nineties with the relentlessly mediocre Where the Heart Is.  The brilliance of The General was offset by the mediocrity of In My Country.  But in the end, the highs – the backwoods nightmare of Deliverance, the new wave feel of Point Blank, the epic scope of Excalibur and the brilliant child at war in Hope and Glory outweigh all the mediocre efforts and we can hope for more to come.

Excalibur – #5 film of 1981

In his review back in 1981, Roger Ebert complained that the characters in Excalibur seem to be fated towards their actions, something Ebert noted was happening a lot in fantasy films.  But the problem is that Excalibur isn’t really a fantasy film, any more than it’s a romance or an action film.  It’s mythology.  Characters are fated towards their actions in mythology; it’s the whole point of mythology itself.  And Boorman understands this so much better than anyone else who has attempted to film the Arthur legend; the directors in the fifties wanted some action, Disney wanted the growth of moral character fit for a king, the horrible First Knight wanted the romance and Bresson wanted to comment on the ideas, but only Boorman understood the epic scope of the Arthur legend.

From the start, Excalibur reminds us of something we had learned in the Hammer horror films: the sun doesn’t ever shine in England.  But the sun shouldn’t shine for this film.  It’s not about bright lights and glorious sunny days.  So little of this movie deals with the parts of the legend when Arthur is a solid, ruling king, but deals instead with the darkness surrounding his rise and the inevitable decline and final battle.  By giving the film the name Excalibur, Boorman turns away from Arthur as the focal point and settles on the manipulations of Merlin and the epic qualities of the sword that grants Arthur the right to rule (one of the best ideas Boorman had was to conflate the sword in the stone with the Lady in the Lake and make it all about one sword – in most versions of the Arthur legend those are actually two different swords).

In a sense, Boorman uses the Star Wars method of casting by taking unknowns and placing them in the lead roles while surrounding them with gifted British character actors.  Of course, unlike Star Wars, where everyone knows the three leads, these leads stayed unknown while the supporting stars became much bigger (both Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson make their film debuts in small roles and Patrick Stewart has a significant role years before he commanded the Enterprise).  But the main acting kudos go to Nicol Williamson who adds his own bizarre twist to Merlin with a wry sense of humor and Helen Mirren as the seductress Morgana, who gives birth to her half-brother’s son (the kind of thing that only happens in legends).

The film is very dark, is violent, has incest, adultery, nudity and even crows eating eyes of dead knights but these are the things of which myth is made.  And of course it is difficult to get an entire mythology into 140 minutes, so at times the story feels a bit compressed.  But Boorman tried for years to make Lord of the Rings without ever getting hold of the rights, so in the end turned to Arthur.  It’s better that LOTR waited for the right technology, but still, I wish I could have seen his take.