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Excalibur

Year: 1981
Studio: Orion Pictures
Director: John Boorman
Writer: Rospo Pallenberg/John Boorman
Cast: Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay

There's a common thread to a lot of movies in the fantastical genres like comic book adaptations, biblical epics and anything starring Anthony Hopkins that I had trouble putting my finger on for a long time, but it was so prevalent in Noah I finally identified it.

It was the practice of the script – and actors – delivering every line as if it was a sonnet of world-stopping profundity, every line poetic and every word a thesaurus version of the word we'd use in real life. It can work in moderation depending on the film, but its overuse has been a problem in everything from Oliver Stone's Alexander and Joe Johnston's remake of The Wolfman to Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, often rendering a whole movie laughable.

But if you want a textbook example of the worst infection of terminal self-importance you've ever seen, of actors delivering lines with so much ham and corn you could make a banquet of sandwiches out of the whole movie, look no further.

It's easy to see how the effects of the day would have been pretty dazzling, but after a few decades of being more used to high drama that's delivered with realistic tones, scripts and dialogue, John Boorman's fantasy classic has aged terribly.

The set-up of Dark Ages England is perfectly fine, managed mostly by the environments. Exteriors are all done in evocative scenes of harsh forest and dark mud, and the interiors are all gloomy castle keeps lit by single torches.

It tells (a very long version of) the story you more or less know if you've seen a hundred other adaptations of the legend – and will again just a few months hence of me writing this courtesy of Guy Ritchie and Charlie Hunnam.

The titular sword is bestowed upon a knight to grant him leadership over England. When he convinces the magician Merlin to cast a spell so he can get lucky with a woman in his court, she bears a child, Arthur. After the political and romantic intrigue that ensues, the sword ends up in the famed stone, where the weedy teenage Arthur (Nigel Terry) is the only one who can extract it.

He rules England with wisdom and bravery as he assembles his knights of the round table to support him, but once again human nature threatens it all in the form of an affair between his closest confidante, Lancelot, and his wife Guinevere.

It's all manipulated from behind the scenes by Morgana (Helen Mirren), who wants to grab power for herself in both the political and magical realms. Her foil to do the latter is Merlin, the most ill-sketched character I've seen in a movie in a long time. With his sour demeanour, tin can hat and slightly nasty air, I thought for a decent portion of the running time that he was supposed to be a villain, or at least Arthur's enemy, or just a voice of reason to take the increasingly power-mad king down a few pegs.

But at one point Arthur starts calling him 'old friend' and it stopped me short. What he's doing and talking about as he drifts throughout the background of the story gave me no clue about how he was supposed to fit in to everything.

I remember when this was being advertised in cinemas and – in thrall to all things Star Wars – thought anything with a fantasy or sci-fi bent would be good. But I somehow missed it, seeing the same story decades later on the small screen courtesy of the NBC miniseries Merlin starring Sam Neill as the magician.

If you've seen any number of other iterations (like Disney's The Sword in the Stone), you'll know the story too, and the only reason to watch this movie is to see one of the original live action treatments of it with flashy effects.

Unfortunately the effects don't stand up and the aesthetic style is such a product of its time it's almost high comedy now. The only thing I can attribute the wide scale praise about the movie to is fond memories from people who loved it when it first came out but who haven't watched it in a long time.

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