Monday, October 7, 2019

Excalibur


I have seen this many times described as a Sword & Sorcery film, and while I am certain the comparison was not made with any kind of rigorous definition in mind, I think it bears consideration. Released in 1981, the film had been in development for over a decade, with director John Boorman planning it as early as 1969. The script he initially came up with, and the film he proposed, were deemed too long and too costly, and instead the studio, United Artists, told him to do a Lord of the Rings movie. He worked on that while shopping his King Arthur project around, and supposedly some of the set designs developed for the Tolkien film were ultimately used for this.

It shows, in that Excalibur is a completely fantastical version of the Arthurian legends. There is not a single nod to any kind of historical accuracy of any kind. The opening titles proclaim the setting is “The Dark Ages”, but the knights wear shiny plate armor that was not in use until the 15th century. The weapons used are a stew of anachronistic styles, and there are no recognizable English landmarks to be seen. The world of the movie seems to consist purely of primordial forests and mysterious castles. No doubt budget considerations prevented them from showing a period town or city, but it works in creating a purely fantastical mood lifted right from the legends.

Combining the shining armor, deep green woodlands, blood, and naked flesh together under the lush cinematography creates a primal and lurid landscape for the story. It seems to come bursting out of the screen in rich colors and dreamlike settings, grounded by the gritty, dirty details and the sometimes graphic violence. Far from a polite fairy tale, Excalibur is carnal and passionate epic, bursting with the larger-than-life characters of the stories we all know so well, seeming to distill them down to an archetypical essence.

Magic, represented in the film by an otherworldly green glow, is very much present, and depicted as a dangerous, unknowable power. Morgana tells Merlin she is a “creature like him”, setting magic as an inborn power, usable only by a few, who are thus not exactly human. Magic wields great power, but is highly dangerous, even to those who use it, and it is Morgana’s unrestrained use of that power which leads to her downfall

The moral landscape of the film could be argued almost endlessly, because while the characters within the world believe in absolute good and evil, the universe itself seems to reflect no such axis. The flawed characters, tormented by failures and driven by passions and oaths, struggle to live up to the standards they set and create, very few of them managing to do so. Even Lancelot – the paragon of virtue and knightly grace – is shown to fail, tortured by his love for Guenevere and the conviction that he has failed his friend and king. All of the characters, even relatively flat ones like Mordred, get little moments that add layers, and when the movie has a chance to out and out confirm the existence of God, it veers off and leaves us with more questions than answers.

The acting comes across as quite stagey now, and that’s because Boorman cast mostly unknowns who came from the theater, and so their style was markedly different from the more naturalistic acting then coming to dominate mainstream cinema. It works because the dialogue is also quite elevated, having much more to do with Elizabethan speech than anything modern. This is another divergence from S&S, as while the prose in Sword & Sorcery stories is often elevated, the speech usually is not, in line with the express lower class origins of the characters and the genre.

It is in the realm of symbolism that the film diverges most from a Sword & Sorcery tale, as Excalibur is highly symbolic, while S&S rarely bothers with overt kinds of symbolism. It is telling how the armor in the film begins as dark and dented at the beginning, during the civil wars that divide the land, and then becomes shiny and gleaming during the height of Arthur’s reign. Later, as the knights vanish in the quest for the grail, their armor becomes slimed with mud and dented by years of ill-repair. Percivals’ retrieval of the grail itself is almost entirely symbolic, causing him to shed his armor, emerge from the water, and cross a drawbridge to claim it from a disembodied voice that asks him riddles.

The truth is that Excalibur is not a Sword & Sorcery movie, really, but rather an adaptation of one of the prime sources of inspiration for the form. Myths and legends influenced and drove the kinds of adventure and fantastical literature that served as the bread and butter for Howard, Moorcock, Smith and Leiber. Tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Roland inspired the likes of Talbot Mundy, H. Rider Haggard, and Robert Louis Stevenson to invent the stories of adventure that would go on to sow the seeds from which new kinds of fantasy would spring in later years.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Wings of Thunder


They flew by day, for they had learned that the hunters saw better by night. Tathar led his people through the rugged hill lands, skulking through the misty skies and lairing in hidden rifts and vales by night. Under the red sun they haunted the edges of the crags and cliffsides, seeking the wake of the sea beast as it swam along the great estuary. They hunted it, following always from a distance as it moved west. Tathar sensed a purpose in its motion. It had a destination, and he thought he had some thought of what that might be.

Sometimes the water was too shallow, and it moved overland, lumbering on great, clawed feet, leaving a trail across the earth that could be seen for miles. When it moved from the water it grew wary, and they had to follow from a distance, watchful of the spiral of hunting beasts that rose above it. Tathar wondered if those were its own young, and whether each winged beast might someday grow so immense. It seemed impossible – surely the world could not encompass so many behemoths.

Now Tathar flew ahead beneath a lowering sky and the dim glow of the copper sun. The beast was moving to the north, making way for the deeper waters of the sea, but Tathar wanted to know what its purpose might be. Everywhere through the civilized parts of the empire they had seen pillars of smoke and marks of pillage and death. Kurux had loosed all his war power to bring chaos upon the world, tormenting even his own empire for no purpose save terror and slaughter.

Zakai’s wings left trails of mist threaded through the cold air as he and Suara flew ahead to scout the way. They saw a last barrier of sharp-edged cliffs and then the land turned green and gentle, sloping downward to the north. Tathar knew that long slope led to the waters of the Numarean Passage – the long thread of the sea that led past the Black City and in the west opened out into the Sea of Azar.

They flew onward, the birds glad of the open sky, and Tathar was pleased to look on the green, tree-covered hills rolling below. It was pleasant country, if stony and all but useless for farmland. They swept down over the hills and through layers of fog until they saw the sea, dark and rolling slow beneath the sky. And there, filling the waters, was an armada of ships with crimson sails billowing, and Tathar knew what the thing from the sea was coming to do.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Dragonslayer


The runaway success of Star Wars in 1977 kicked off a wave of SF and Fantasy films that carried through the 80s, as the studios learned that visual effects had matured to the point that they could serve as a major selling point of a film, and the phenomenon of the “effects blockbuster” was born. The original Conan the Barbarian was a part of this wave, even though in the end it was pretty light on VFX. Oliver Stone’s original script had been much more fantastical and monster-heavy.

Another product of this wave was Dragonslayer, a strange little film that has become kind of a cult classic – mostly due to nostalgia from people who saw it when they were kids. A joint production between Paramount and Disney, the move was part of a short-lived venture whereby the big D sought to bankroll films through other studios as an outlet for more mature subjects. The only other result of this pairing was – believe it or not – Popeye, and when neither that movie nor this one made any money, the whole thing fell apart, probably leading to the formation of Touchstone pictures a few years later.

Written and directed by Matthew Robbins, who was a friend of George Lucas from his film school days, Dragonslayer tells a story that is part archetypical, and partly tries to subvert expectations, and doesn’t manage either that well. A dragon is menacing a kingdom, the people hold a lottery to choose virgins to sacrifice to it twice a year to appease it, and then some of the people send a delegation to find a wizard to come kill it. The wizard Ulrich dies almost before his journey begins, and we follow his apprentice, Galen, as he tries to carry out his master’s last quest.

As Galen, Peter MacNicol is a strange choice of leading man. Short, fuzzy-haired, and just kind of odd-looking, he doesn’t radiate any kind of danger or intelligence, and it is telling that the rest of his career saw him settle in as a comedic character actor, most memorable as the camp director in Addams Family Values. He’s just miscast, and the script seems to mostly use him for humor. In another subversion of tropes, he doesn’t even kill the dragon, but instead Ulrich is conveniently resurrected to battle the beast himself, dying again in the battle.

The movie, overall, is darker than expected, and just has a nice amount of grit. There is blood and killing, some nudity, and the world has a grimy, lived-in look that resembles Excalibur more than a little – though that film had only come out a few months earlier. We get some rather gruesome shots of one of the dragon’s victims being devoured by her young, and overall the movie’s world is depicted as unfriendly and dangerous, which gives it a bit of gravitas that the lead actors don’t lend. A lot of the performers had extensive stage backgrounds, and so there is just a rather formal, artificial quality to the acting.

The real star of the movie, obviously, is the dragon himself – or herself, as there are young, so the grandly named Vermithrax Pejorative is apparently a she. Only glimped in part through most of the film, the dragon, when she finally emerges, is one of the most stunning achievements in creature VFX prior to the age of CGI. Graphic artist Dave Bunnett created the design, which was realized by Brian Johnson – who also supervised effects on Alien and Empire Strikes Back, among other films. The standout sequences where the beast was moving in full view were done by Phil Tippett using “go-motion”, which used a computer-controlled model to move synchronized with the camera exposure, allowing for a much more realistic look, without the jerkiness of stop-motion. Effects legend Ken Ralston created the flying sequences, giving the dragon a speed and deadliness in the air other flying monsters lacked.

It is in the underground scenes, where the dragon is fully revealed more than an hour into the 109-minute movie, that the film really takes hold. The lair is a flame-lit nightmare underworld, filled with steam, burning water, and dripping slime, and then there comes the beast herself, looking more real than any other movie monster ever had. It takes the movie a while to get to the dragon, but when they do, they are not shy about using it.

The pacing of the movie is slow, and the tone wanders around quite a lot, as though the filmmakers were not quite sure what kind of film they were making. It has elements of awkward comedy as well as a strong atmosphere of horror, and the dragon is never depicted as anything but terrifying. Still, it contains one of the great achievements in practical creature effects, and in its depiction of a morally compromised, dangerous world beset by inhuman forces, it is a kind of Sword & Sorcery film without a real Sword & Sorcery hero at the center of it.