British director John Boorman approached the Arthurian legends with reverence and awe and came away with the passionate and mystical Excalibur. Boorman at one time wanted to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Excalibur occasionally shimmers with the same grandeur that director Peter Jackson accomplished in his adaptations. Both movies tap into the enduring resonance of their respective myths. If Excalibur often feels hokier, it’s largely due to the acting – though Trevor Jones’ incongruous science-fiction score doesn’t help. Nigel Terry makes for a weak, whiny Arthur, while Nicholas Clay’s pretty-boy
Lancelot resembles an ’80s aerobics instructor. Better turns are given by supporting performers who would go on to become famous: a ruthless Gabriel Byrne as Arthur’s father; a raging Liam Neeson as Arthur’s knight Gawain; and a conniving Helen Mirren as Merlin’s protege Morgana. When his actors are reined in, Boorman is able to immerse his film in an otherworldly aura, as when foggy ‘dragon’s breath’ covers a castle during one early scene. Another magical touch is the green glow cast off by the title sword, an eerie light that can be seen now and then playing across the knights’ faces. Like the ring of power in Tolkien’s tale, Excalibur entrances men even as it curses them.