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Roots of Radicalism

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The films of John Boorman

WITH Merlin bewailing the passing of the Old Religion, with knights galloping into battle to the stirring strains of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and with much else besides, we are sure that John Boorman's film Excalibur will have had great appeal for our readers.

John Boorman is a British-born director of second generation Dutch extraction who now lives in Southern Ireland. His films are characterised by the heroic quest of the warrior or hunter who must first achieve an act of Nietzschean self-overcoming before being able to overcome enemies.

John Boorman (right)

His imagery is Jungian rather than Freudian, his values Gentile rather than Jewish.

Although a Protestant he received a Jesuit education and was drawn by the Catholic Grail legend which he views as a Mithraic pagan myth borrowed by the Roman Catholic Church.

The legend of King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail are themes which have fascinated Boorman for a long time, and which he had already woven into earlier films.

Two other productions of particular merit were Deliverance and Zardoz.

In Deliverance a four man group of city dwellers go on a weekend canoeing trip down an Appalachian river about to be destroyed by a dam. Their idyll in the wilderness becomes a desperate struggle against both man and nature, and they rise heroically to the challenge.

In Zardoz a future society which has controlled death grows effete and apathetic until disrupted by the arrival of a barbarian from without. The society is eventually overrun and its inmates returned to the natural cycle of life and death.

Boorman's Excalibur is adapted from Malory's Morte d 'Arthur, the fifteenth century mediaeval romance.

As in Deliverance, where the city dwellers must shed their civilized values in order to become killers for their self-preservation, the initially inept King Arthur struggles to overcome his shortcomings, destroy his enemies, and save his land. Excalibur has a strong mystic content, and the Grail concept, which contains the "pagan fertility beliefs that the reproductive forces of nature are intimately connected with the potency of the ruler" [1], features prominently.

Excalibur has nothing to do with the historical struggle between Celt and Saxon. Dark Age Britain is seen, as Malory saw it, with mediaeval eyes, and it is depicted with large stone castles and knights in plate armour. To object to these 'anachronisms' as some critics have done is to miss the whole point.

Above: a scene from Excalibur

Almost the only other criticism levelled by professional critics was of the scene in which Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, makes love to Igrayne (played by Boorman's daughter Katrine) in a full suit of armour. But even this image, which contrasts masculine strength with feminine vulnerability, reflects an established artistic convention found in many paintings.

The production of a film which reflects the heroic values extolled during the greater part of the three thousand or more years of our Indo-European history and culture is so welcome as to outweigh any minor criticisms. If this reviewer was to make any criticism at all, it would be that the theme was not treated seriously enough.

Excalibur has wide appeal. Even in this age of the anti-hero, the heroic film still delights the essentially healthy and positive instincts of the masses and can thus achieve commercial success.

The mystical past of Excalibur, the adventurous present of Deliverance, and the science fiction future of Zardoz speak to us in the same language and share a common timelessness. The heroic myths of Western culture are a facet of a racial psychology which has come down to us through the Dark Ages and through Malory to find expression in modern writers of the 'sword-and-sorcery' genre and in the films of John Boorman. Their appeal is eternal because they mirror our inherited racial psychology.

But let us leave the last word to John Boorman himself [2]: "It's a tragic story with a great deal of bloodshed. The characters attempt to do great things ... and fail. They fall prey to every human frailty; lust, treachery, brutality, self-pity. But they redeem themselves by discovering their destiny."

  1. The Quest for Arthur's Britain edited by Geoffrey Ashe, Granada 1971.

  2. Sunday Times Magazine, 28th June 1981