A lush retelling of the King Arthur legend gets some sharp edges from a real-life clash between two of its stars.

Published September 7, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Directed by John Boorman
Starring Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren
Warner Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extra: Director commentary

Director John Boorman can be a tad preachy for some tastes. But his penchant for moralizing is perfectly suited to "Excalibur," a lush retelling of the King Arthur legend that sets a high-water mark among sword-and-sorcery movies. Actually, we're talking more swords than sorcery here, as Boorman sets the tale at an imagined historical juncture: the twilight of the days of magic and the emergence of mankind and rationalism. While Arthur (Nigel Terry) ostensibly stands at the heart of the story, the true central figure is Merlin (Nicol Williamson, shamelessly chewing up the scenery), who serves as both witness and puppet master for the events that transpire. In the end, it is Merlin's demise, and not Arthur's, that marks the tragic climax of Boorman's version of the legend.

"Excalibur" richly depicts all the crucial elements of the story -- the sword in the stone, the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail -- and fleshes them out with some resoundingly armor-clanging battle scenes. (After the effortless, no-sweat fights of "Gladiator," it's refreshing to see combat that's faithful to the strenuous nature of swordplay.) Watch how the metallic surfaces radiate an eerie green light whenever magic is present. Keep an eye peeled as well for a number of stars making early-career appearances. That's Gabriel Byrne in his movie debut (and wrestling with a thick Dublin accent) as Arthur's lusty father, Uther, and a young Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain. A surprisingly buff, pre-Picard Patrick Stewart appears and does some mighty hacking and slashing as Guinevere's dad, Leondegrance.

The DVD version features a commentary by Boorman in which he describes how he pulled off the visuals and the unique challenge of shooting actors in highly polished armor. (It was no small feat dealing with all the reflections.) The opening battle scene was so difficult, Boorman relates, that his cameraman suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced. He also notes that Helen Mirren, who plays evil sorceress Morgana, and Williamson detested each other from an earlier theatrical experience and had been reluctant to join the cast for that reason. Boorman nevertheless persuaded them both to come aboard, and the genuine hostility between the two actors, he observes, "gives the picture a kind of edge" -- as if the blade wasn't sharp enough in the first place.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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