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.