Released in 1981, this is King Arthur as filtered through the 1980s, specifically the '80s action movie. It anticipates the Golan-Globus schlocky B-movies starring Charleses Bronson and Norris. Slightly. It feels at times like one of those pictures, but this is John Boorman, reputed to be a great director (I am unfamiliar with his work), and British—so while it has those campy and gaudy scenes, it also is earthy and pagan. The world is built with care just enough that it feels lived in, until a gauzy thing takes you out of the film. Example: The Round Table looks like a glass table in the ballroom of a swanky Eurotrash hotel. The Holy Grail is a big, bejeweled cup. (I wonder if Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, making the literal life and death point that the Grail was a simple, unadorned thing, was a response to this film.). Helen Mirren nudity watch is almost missed because she has on a mesh top. Merlin looks like a Led Zeppelin extra, ready and willing to trash hotel rooms. And so on.
Actually Merlin is the inspired creation and probably the most imaginative thing in this bare bones adaptation of Malory and the King Arther tales. He looks like Geoffrey Rush or Terrence Stamp in Superman 2. He is young, middle aged, and not the old wizard we think of him, another Gandalf. In the beginning, he is introduced as a dark lord, a Rumpelstiltskin who takes the baby Aurthur away from his mother and father as the price for the latter conquering the kingdom and sleeping with the queen (he did it through a magic spell that made him look like the husband). Later on the actor's voice goes up and down in the good comic qualities of the character. The film starts with this back story, and I thought, how long is this film? Because the story is greatly concerned, is in fact, about the passage of time from Arthur's boyhood to King to old man.
We are given only 140 minutes. As you would expect, a lot of things are left out. Morte D'Arthur was about 800 pages. The time compression makes the poignancy and tragedy of the love triangle—Arthur and his best friend are in love with the same woman, Arthur's wife, while she really loves the best friend—less. The three aren't given enough character to make us believe that they love each other and are affected by each other when they commit wrongs against each other.
And Arthur isn't given an existential problem to solve like in T.H White's retelling. There's no indication in the movie that he is building England. Or in despair at the violence that men do. The grail quest isn't given enough psychological and spiritual reason to be. But, some of those scenes look pretty creepy, like witches in Macbeth creepy, while God talking through the cup was campy.
Despite the faults in the plot and characterizations, the look of the film is beautiful. It looks like the camera had a grey mist in front of it when shooting. The landscape is gorgeous. If I had seen it on the big screen, it would have gotten a bump. The movie wants to be an epic, serious drama, and not just another action movie, but it occasionally falls into tacky spectacle. Knowing nothing about King Arthur except watching this film, one would wonder why this story is considered a classic and has survived for hundreds of years. Three out of four stars.
Though one comment on the IMDB message board says the person had to watch it dozens of times to finally get it, philosophically and spiritually. While not planning to do that, I have only seen it once, and it is considered a great movie, so it might work better on multiple viewings.