Swords and sorcery are back in style. Questing for dollars more anxiously than King Arthur's gang sought the Holy Grail, the movies have rediscovered romance, fantasy, and far-away adventure. Look for several such sagas in the months to come, each striving to be more exotic than the one before.
The first has already arrived: Excalibur, directed by the ambitious John Boorman. Too ambitious, alas, for the good of his movies. Just as "deliverance" and "Zardoz" bogged down in their own pretensions, "Excalibur" gets tangled in a thick web of myth and history.
It's like watching a war horse carry an armored knight with too much hardware. The sight is impressive at first, but as soon as it tries to go anywhere -- in the memorable words of a bygone Mad magazine parody -- "the whole thing collapses like a fershlugginer pack of cards."
At a time when most movies try far too little, I don't like berating "Excalibur" for taking on too much. It's just that Mr. Boorman never quite achieves what he attempts. The film's quick gestures, fact pace, and picaresque plot all point to a "STar Wars" effect -- with medieval England replacing the depths of space, and a twinkling Merlin playing Ben Kenobe to an Arthur as boyish as Luke Skywalker. While "Star Wars" could zoom in its own cosmic directions, though, "Excalibur" is anchored in familiar legend -- which would be fine, if Boorman didn't try to cram so much of it into 2 1/2 hours.
The tension between tempestuous myth and escapist fancy is further heightened when the picture breaks into stormy violence or, far less often, fiery sex. Events that seem purple even in the ornate prose of Sir Thomas Malory look downright livid on the wide screen and the picture's lighter, more swashbuckling side is altogether swamped.
You get some idea of the film's aspirations when you notice that Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" is cited as the source for the screenplay. This pinpoints a basic problem. How do you translate 800 pages of dense and delicate prose into 140 minutes of technicolor blockbuster? Despite his obvious wish to repopularize Arthurian lore, Mr. Boorman has less distance and perspective on the subject than Malory had in the late Middle Ages.
Malory modestly related the yarns he had picked up from french literature of an earlier age, occasionally condensing and commenting on his material. Boorman bites off the whole saga, then flings huge chunks in our direction, hoping they will somehow fall together. In the process, he misses certain essences of the tale, such as its intense Christian dimension. The result is a faint shadow of Malory, not a true screen translation.
"Excalibur" has virtues, mind you. Some of the images and settings are spectacular, it moves rapidly, and it's fun watching Nicol williamson do his Alistaire sim imitation in the Merlin role, with its touches of wry humor. Still, I prefer the offbeat lyricism of Eric Rohmer's "Pereval le Gallois," to mention a more successful Arthurian fling of recent vintage, or the genuine spaciness of a "Star Wars," which took its epic impetus from sagas like this. "Excalibur" tries for ice and fire, but the one extinguishes the other. Even on a technical level, the result is more ponderous than powerful: There's no half hour of "Excalibur" I'd trade for five minutes of black-and-white battle from the Orson Welles "Chimes at Midnight."
For a much stranger approach to Arthurian themes, there's Knightriders by George A. Romero. This is the contemporary tale of a visionary motorcycles gang , who put on shows from town to town -- donning armor and holding mock jousting tournaments, riding motorcycles instead of horses. To them it's not just a job, though --they're a bunch of idealists who have created a crazy Camelot on the back roads of rural America.
The movie chronicles their lives, loves, hopes, and fears. Besides celebrating them, however, it's hard to figure what Romero is after. His film is a totally mixed bag of modern settings, medieval sentiments, and Renaissance trappings. Even Friar Tuck shows up, from the pages of "Robin Hood"!
And then there's the odd philosophical thrust. Though the gang prides itself on individualism, their lives revolve around the "king," who is a nice guy, but a boss nonetheless. When he gets deposed by another, the movie underlines the chummy feelings of all concerned, and the smoothness of the change -- you expect the outgoing king to ride back to Plains and write his memoirs. Incredibly, the tough-skinned director of "Night of the Living Dead" has now given us a 2 1/2 -hour epic about the orderly transition of power. There's even a scene where the regal daddy-figure gets "government" off the gang's back by beating up an evil policeman in a fast-food joint. The so ciological symbolism may not be intended, but it's sure there.
I liked much of "knightriders," especially when the characters openly thrive on their youthful energy, their unashamed sense of honor, and their affection for one another. It gets choppy when the rarified tone is punctuated with occasional R-rated tactics (a little sex, a bit of excessive violence) and there are too many overlong emotional scenes. It's also peculiar that the maker of "Living Dead" and "Martin" doesn't muster a smidgen of suspense, even during the "battle" scenes. Still, for all its flaws, this is as personal a movie as we've seen all year from a director in the commercial mainstream. I respect it, and I'll be thinking about it for a long time.