One of my online roles seems to be as an unofficial Keeper of the Flame for John Boorman’s film Excalibur, which I’ve written about here, and here, and here. So I was saddened to learn this week of the death of its star, Nigel Terry. A west country lad and a superb actor, he made a magnificent Arthur, convincing and passionate all the way from callow youth to sorrowful old age.
When I first saw the film I imagined he would go on to star in dozens of other big movies, but although he was a fine Caravaggio a few years later in the Derek Jarman film, I lost track of him for many years after that, until the 1990s, when he began turning up from time to time on TV. He was Svidrigailov in a BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment and Mr Boldwood in ITV’s Far From The Madding Crowd, where he appeared alongside actor-turned-excellent-YA-author Andy Robb (who wrote on Facebook yesterday that he was ‘one of the funniest men I’ve ever met – and possibly the most miserable bastard to walk the earth’. (He also turned up in a Dr Who episode – I must have missed that one.) And, although he seems to have been quite a private and reclusive man, he appeared along with the rest of the Excalibur cast in the Behind the Sword in the Stone documentary (which I wish I could link to, but it’s still in search of a distribution deal).
Anyway, he was a fine actor, and he will always be King Arthur to me.
Anyone who has been reading this blog for a year or two will know that I like to bang on about Excaliburfrom time to time, John Boorman’s 1981 King Arthur movie having been a bit of a seminal moment for me. The first time I saw it – 5th July 1981, a day to mark with a white stone – I remember that it reminded me of a strange little movie called Black Angel, which had played as a supporting feature with The Empire Strikes Back the previous year. But Black Angel was long gone by then, and never released on video or shown on TV, so I was never able to compare and contrast the two.
A few years ago I came across a reference to this lost movie on the internet, and wrote a piece about my memories of it. It turned out to be the work of Roger Christian, better known as art director on Star Wars and Alien, who sent me a very nice e-mail after I posted my piece, in which he mentioned that he was hoping to get it restored and re-released somehow.
Well, thirty four years later, I have finally been able to watch it again. It’s a fascinating little fragment of cinema history, whose influence can be traced through ’80s fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer all the way to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and HBO’s Games of Thrones.
The story is a fractured, elusive affair. A knight (Tony Vogel) returns to his homeland to find it ravaged by war and sickness. Falling into a river, he almost drowns, but his life is saved by a mysterious girl. She claims to be bound as a servant tothe Black Angel – who, when he finally appears, turns out to be a sort of personification of Death, all black armour and fraying cobwebs. The knight does battle with him…
I remember being entranced by it as a teenager (it was the first time I’d seen on screen the sort of imagery I loved in the work of artists like Brian Froud and Alan Lee), but the story never quite came into focus enough to be satisfying. I feel rather the same way about it now. It feels like a haunting fragment.
It’s really a mood piece, like many short films. The budget looks miniscule, but the photography, by Roger Pratt, is remarkably beautiful. It unfolds like a series of paintings. There are lingering shots of wintry upland landscapes, through which the knight rides on his white horse. There is a great sense of the physicality of the landscape, the mud and wind (Christian claims Kurosawa as an influence; I wonder if there’s also an echo of Terry Gilliam’s mediaeval landscapes from Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail?). But it’s a world of magic too; the scenes shift in a dreamlike way – the knight falls into a river, but emerges from a broad lake; figures appear and disappear; smoke drifts through the forests.
To an Excalibur fan it’s all eerily familiar, because it’s made from the exact same elements as the ‘quest for the grail’ sequences in the later movie. In interviews, Roger Christian has mentioned that John Boorman loved his film and said it had the look that he was after for Excalibur, but the parallels go beyond the visuals. The increasingly hallucinatory nature of the knight’s quest seems like a direct forerunner of Sir Perceval’s adventures in Excalibur. The music is by the same composer, Trevor Jones, and features some of the same elements – ethereal singing, odd twanging electronic sounds, and a descending synthesiser scale which is repeated almost exactly on the Excalibur soundtrack. There is some underwater footage where the floundering knight errant tears at his armour as he sinks. Even the sparse, looped-sounding dialogue is similar (‘Follow me!’ cackles the raggedy old man whom the knight meets at the waterfall, vanishing into the trees, just like the child Mordred in Excalibur.)
For me, watching Black Angel again felt like tracing something back to its source. It’s always worth remembering that works of art don’t exist in isolation; everyone has their influences; creators see stuff they like in other people’s work and import something of it into their own. As Picasso is supposed to have said, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. And one of the pleasures of getting to know a work of art is working out its ancestry, and tracking all the tributaries which fed into it.
In the interview I linked to above, Roger Christian mentions vague plans of returning to the world of Black Angel and expanding it into a longer film. I have no idea where those plans stand, or whether the tenebrous atmosphere of the original could survive the process, but it would be great to see him do something of the same sort again.
I bought Black Angel on i-tunes for £1.49. It may be available in other places too – I’m still a bit vague about how you buy movies online).
In the ancient oak woods on the Glendalough Estate in County Wicklow stands this mysterious mossy pillar. At first glance it might be mistaken for an old gate-post, but in fact it’s a bit of movie archaeology. For these are the woods where, back in 1980, John Boorman shot his movie Excalibur, and this relic is the concrete stabiliser from inside the artificial boulder in which Excalibur itself was stuck. There’s a slot in the top into which the sword would have fitted, and the two bolts on the side would have been tightened up to make sure that no one but King Arthur (Nigel Terry) could draw it from the stone… a trick that would appeal to my own Myrddin, in Here Lies Arthur.
I was in Ireland last week for the premiere of Behind the Sword in the Stone, a documentary film about the making of Excalibur by Mossy Hare Productions. You might remember that, this time last year, I was auctioning off signed books and drawings to help raise money for their Indiegogo fund-raising drive. I also made a donation of my own, which qualifies me as an executive producer – so I could hardly miss the first screening. And when I told director Mark Wright that I was coming, he very kindly invited me to stay with him and his partner Kathleen. So I flew over to Dublin on Thursday night, and on Friday I helped gather wine and glasses for the reception after the screening, and watched in amazement as Kathleen cooked more vol-au-vents and mini quiches than I think I’ve ever seen in one place. Then, in a howling storm, Mark drove us down to Bray, and the Mermaid Arts Centre, where the film was to be shown. Despite the foul weather, a good crowd turned up to watch, including Terry English (who made the armour for Excalibur) and John Lawlor, one of the assistant directors. And it was great to meet one of the other executive producers, Leah Krevit, who runs the Byrneholics website dedicated to all things Gabriel Byrne. She’d flown in all the way from Texas, where she’s building a house in the mountains near Alpine.
Obviously I’m far too partial an observer to review the new film, but it more than lived up to my expectations, and seemed to go down well with the whole audience, including those who have never actually seen Excalibur. One of the things which makes Excalibur so important, and makes Behind the Sword in the Stone such a worthwhile project, is that it gave a start in movies to a lot of people who have since become household names; Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, and composer Trevor Jones. It was also a major early role for Helen Mirren, while Neil Jordan, credited as Creative Consultant, shot a behind-the-scenes documentary which Mossy Hare have drawn on for their film. Mark and his co-director Alec Moore have secured interviews with all of them, and also with Nigel Terry, Cherie Lunghi, Clive Swift and Paul Geoffrey, with John Boorman himself, with his son Charley and daughter Katrine (who both appear in Excalibur), with Terry English, and with important behind-the-scenes figures such as John Lawlor, and Kevin Moriarty of Ardmore Studios.
They all have great anecdotes to tell, many of which are very funny – there was a lot of laughter during the screening. They all seem to look back on Excalibur with immense affection. Gabriel Byrne is hilarious, and Patrick Stewart is particularly twinkly as he recounts his misadventures on horseback and in armour. But as the film progresses, the tone shifts subtly, remembering those members of the cast who have passed away in the thirty three years since it was made. They include Nicol Williamson, who dominated Excalibur as the wizard Merlin, and whose absence from Behind the Sword in the Stone could have seemed a major hole – but he’s there in spirit, I think, with a long-ish chunk dedicated to the cast and crew’s memories of him.
One of my favourite minor performances in Excalibur was that of Niall O’Brien as Arthur’s brother Kay. Although he was a heroic figure in the early Celtic Arthurian tales, Kay is usually portrayed as a bully and a buffoon by later writers, but Niall O’Brien rehabilitates him; he’s always there in the background, a dependable older brother who sticks by Arthur to the very end. Sadly, Niall O’Brien died in 2009, but I was pleased to meet his wife at the screening, and also his son Ruairi, who directed his father in this short film, Teeth.
But most of all, and quite rightly, Behind the Sword in the Stone stands as a tribute to John Boorman’s vision, and to the charm, skill and perseverance with which he managed to bring it to the screen. Always an excellent interviewee, it was great to see him talking at such length about my favourite of his films; not just about the technical difficulties, but also things like his decision to dress the actors in mediaeval armour that is far too late for the dark ages setting – he wanted to make it mythic. And, of course, he succeeded; I can’t think of a better evocation of myth in mainstream cinema.
We were hoping that he would attend the premiere, but sadly the weather on Friday night was so bad that he decided to stay at home. But on Sunday morning Mark drove me over to Glendalough (through a surprising snowstorm in the Wicklow Gap). We met Alec at the Glendalough Estate and they showed me around some of the Excalibur locations there, including the little hill in the woods where the sword in the stone stood…
Photo: Alec Moore
and the avenue of conifers where Arthur and Guinevere were married.
Photo: Alec Moore
How very strange, having come to know these scenes so well from the movie, to walk around them in real life. And how very much stranger, shortly afterwards, to drive up to John Boorman’s lovely old rectory and meet John himself, who gave us coffee and some (very good) cake. We didn’t stay long, and I was struggling to avoid having a FANBOY MELTDOWN, so I never got around to telling him that I think he’s the best film director we have, and that his films helped to turn me into a writer. But I’m very happy to report that he is still hard at work; he had just returned from Roumania, where he’s been shooting his latest project, a sequel to Hope and Glory called Queen and Country.
Photo: Alec Moore
It’s been a pleasure to be involved with the Mossy Hares, and Behind the Sword in the Stone, which they shot at their own expense over the past two years, is a great achievement. Next year they will be arranging screenings in London and New York and, hopefully, some TV broadcasts. After that, Mark is planning more documentaries, while Alec has already shot a short film, In This Place, currently in post-production, and he is working on a feature.