British director John Boorman established his name with hard-hitting movies like ‘Point Blank’ (starring a brilliant, cold-eyed Lee Marvin) and ‘Deliverance’ (which defined the image of banjo-playing, shaven headed red neck yokels and burned the words ‘Squeal like a pig, boy’ into the ears of 1970s cinema goers): but it was his love affair with Ireland that contributed to one of his biggest and certainly most visually stunning hits.
Resident in County Wicklow since the 1970s he had longed to make a film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but was unable to secure the film rights to the books or the necessary financial backing despite being in contact with Tolkien himself before the author’s death. Boorman’s favoured location to shoot the movie in was Ireland, the adopted home he memorably described as the nearest place to Middle-Earth on Earth. However, unable to fulfil his dream project he turned to something slightly less ambitious but just as mythic – the legend of King Arthur.
The result was the dark and bloody sword ‘n’ sorcery epic ‘Excalibur’, shot entirely in Ireland and with a large cast of Irish actors and actresses, including a young Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. Perhaps the setting and the presence of so many Irish men and women on the set and in the crew gave the movie its very definite Celtic Twilight feel, becoming the retelling of an original Welsh myth (or history) in late medieval dress – mysterious druids and incantations combined with shining plate armour and knights errant. Despite some of the movie’s failings in the areas of story and dialogue, its brooding supernatural air combined with adult themes of sex, violence, adulterous romance, nudity, magic and betrayal combined with simply gorgeous cinematography made it a moderate box office success upon cinematic release in 1981.
Despite King Arthur having donned numerous other movie guises in the last three decades, ‘Excalibur’ remains one of the best regarded dramatisations of the myth. Yes, it is confusing at times, and the characters are never exactly people we like or even empathise with: but this is epic movie making and for all those arresting visuals that stay in one’s mind and memory long after the last reel has rolled we’ll forgive the film its shortfalls.
And it was shot in Ireland: an Ireland that has never looked better, or, paradoxically, more Irish.