Monsters & Mullets is Pornokitsch's ongoing project to review each and every 80s fantasy film we can get our grubby little mitts on, and rate them according to various incredibly empirical metrics including, of course, the number of monsters and mullets each movie features.
The problem with any post-1975 cinematic treatment of the Arthurian legends is the long shadow that Monty Python and the Holy Grail casts. Holy Grail isn't just funny, and it isn't just eminently quotable; it's also a carefully executed piss-take of the self-serious, ponderous medieval epic -type films that have infected cinema since Cecil B. Demille launched Geraldine Ferrar as Joan of Arc across screens in 1917.
In such films, the viewer is expected to understand, the combined weight of armor, arms and dirt dragging down the characters is directly proportional to the movie's thematic heft; the more of the former, THE MORE IMPORTANT THE MOVIE, SO SIT UP AND PAY ATTENTION ALREADY. (Symbolic corollary: good guys are always dirty because they're too busy saving maidens and fluffy kittens to bathe, while baddies are always clean because their priorities are wrong and villainous.)
Enter Excalibur. The backstory is pretty interesting: director John Boorman wanted to make an Aurthrian movie but the studio he approached suggested he tackle Tolkien instead. When he finally did get to make his Arthurian film the sets and costumes were informed by his work prepping Lord of the Rings. Next time you watch Excalibur, imagine you're actually watching the definitive live-action Two Towers. Interesting, huh? Also goes a long way toward explaining why a 6th century legend features 12th century costumes. Kind of. Maybe.
So, yes. 1981. John Boorman gets to make his Arthurian movie, and the result is Excalibur. Actually, the results are Excalibur, one PG version and one R-rated version, the latter featuring "21 more minutes of graphic sex and violence." I'm pretty sure we saw the R-rated version, but the "graphic sex" was a couple of boobs and the "violence" was a few arms hewn off. I know I'm a jaded 21st century movie-goer, but still.
The major problem with Excalibur, (and I am trying to be generous with the absurd anachronisms that crawled across every frame), is this: if one is familiar with the Arthurian legend, it's a pretty straight-forward retelling of Malory's Mort d'Arthur. If, however, one is not familiar with the Arthurian legend, it's a gigantic muddle of a mess, a mucky flick with little character development (much less any really likeable characters) and no plot. There's no prophecy beyond "the dude who yanks out this sword will be king after me" - which happens 20 minutes later. There's no sense of dread at Arthur's decay, no sadness at Lancelot's and Guenevere's betrayal, no sense of urgency to Merlin's machinations or Morgana's scheming. Stuff just happens, the end.
This is not to say the movie is entirely without redeeming features. Nicol Williamson as Merlin makes hash out of every scene he's in; he was probably picking splinters from the scenery out of his teeth for a month after production wrapped. And, of course, the divine Helen Mirren gets her evil on as Morgana, somehow managing to be compelling despite the worst bad extensions and macrame could inflict upon her. And the scenery, filmed in Ireland, is breathtaking. (That does not include Camelot, which looks like it's made of sugar-cubes wrapped in aluminum foil.)
But here's where the Holy Grail conundrum returns. Excalibur is fine, in its way - heavy with its own seriousness, and without any really compelling writing to drive it, yes, but fine. People fight, people sex, people piss and moan. There's some magic and some ladies get naked. Arms get hacked off. Legs get hacked off. People are skewered, blugeoned, bitten and beaten. But it takes itself so damned seriously, and there lies its downfall. It doesn't rise above or move beyond Monty Python. When the lady in the lake holds Excalibur aloft, all I see is some watery tart throwing swords at people. During establishing shots of peasants slogging around in the dirt, it's Dennis the constitutional peasant, being repressed.
Only, it's not. Of course. And therein lies the major problem with Excalibur: it never rises beyond the kind of movie that Monty Python made fun of, six years earlier.
Excalibur is, of course, currently being remade.
Adjusted Monster count: 1 watery tart, 1 wizard, 1 lady-wizard, 1 glowing green sword.
Mullets: Arthur sports a full-on mullet!
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Arthur's mother is a victimized doormat; Guenevere sleeps with her husband's best friend (hooker!) and Morgana gets strangled to death by her own son, conceived by tricking her half-brother into sleeping with her (victimized hooker!)
Awesomeness Quotient: Eight repressed peasants and one tin-foil castle.
Comprehensive Monsters and Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: Near Krull. (Low.)