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JOHN BOORMAN – IN INTERVIEW
by Harlan Kennedy
The path to Camelot was paved with rape and pillage. The ruins of a ransacked village smoldered on a rainy hilltop, and blackened timbers stood in spiky silhouette against the skyline. But down in the valley, green light filtered up through the trees and the fine drizzle, and charred chaos yielded to a glowing beauty.
In the shimmering bower of a forest, peasants sitting on bleachers cheered as jousting steel-clad knights smote each other with sword and lance, striking sparks into the air. Around this charmed circle of chivalry moved the milling, babbling throng of market day – peasants shouting their wares, children scurrying, chickens squawking. A smithy's hammer blows sounded a clanging antiphony to the jousting clash.
John Boorman strode between scene and camera, priming and polishing this tableau, plucked from the myth-encrusted prehistory of
Boorman, on location in Ireland, was shooting Excalibur, a film based on the Arthurian legend. The movie, an Orion production, is scheduled for release in April. Nicol Williamson heads the cast as Merlin, the magician who weaves through the story and sets the legend in motion by passing on Excalibur to Arthur's father. Arthur himself is played by the British actor Nigel Terry, moving from boyhood to old age. Other figures who move through Boorman's re-creation include Queen Guinevere; Sir Lancelot; the knight Perceval, seeker of the Holy Grail; and the evil Morgana, magical half-sister of Arthur. Boorman has cast his son as the boy Mordred and his daughter as Arthur's mother.
Excalibur is at the advance of a sword-and-sorcery vogue. The cinema's recent sci-fi thrust has curved and brought us full circle into the depths of antiquity and myth. While space movies become more weird, whimsical, and weathered, Boorman has plunged right back into the sources of Western myth.
On this day of shooting, though, myth gave way to nature. As the drizzle turned into an insistent rain, Boorman disbanded his knights for lunch ("But keep your armor on!"), demobbed his crew, and escorted a visitor into his on-location tent. "Sometimes," Boorman says, settling himself inside, "when you're up to your ears in rain and mud, it's not too easy to intrude your camera into the Celtic dawn and create the golden age of Camelot. But it's happening – at least I think so. It's working on screen."
Historians have long been trying to determine exactly when that golden age was – when, if ever, King Arthur lived. Somewhere in that dark, unchronicled limbo between the demise of Roman Britain and the rise of William the Conqueror, this hero may have dwelt, setting his hero-knights around his Round Table, wedding Guinevere, bickering with Merlin, and building Camelot.
"If there was ever an Arthur," Boorman says, "he's sited in about the sixth century. But the date is the least important thing really. I think of the story, the history, as a myth. The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth; it has to do with man taking over the world on his own terms for the first time. So the first trap to avoid is to start worrying about when or whether Arthur existed. The stories that inspire us were really fifteenth-century works, by Thomas Malory and the rest, looking back nostalgically on the twelfth."
"Malory was really the first hack writer," he continues. "When Caxton built his printing press, he asked poor old Malory to write something, and he obliged by putting together all the stories he knew: all the stories that had been handed down through the oral tradition. And then slowly, as books proliferated, people forgot the stories or didn't bother to remember them."
"So these tales set by Malory in the twelfth century described events which had happened much earlier," Boorman goes on. "And as with all myths, they took on the color of the age in which they were written. Tennyson's Idylls of the King, for instance, or Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites described and painted the twelfth-century Arthurian tales in terms of their era. And they ended by telling you more about the Victorian age than about the legend."
Where, then, had Boorman set his Arthurian
Boorman's movies have been questing journeys into past or future, or crisscrossing odysseys (as in Point Blank) through time zones of the present. Whether flying over visionary peaks and canyons in Exorcist II: The Heretic or swirling down-river in Deliverance, he's always been a filmmaker dedicated to keeping his feet off the ground. The screenplay for Excalibur, written by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, is a typically bold interweaving of different time layers, from Arthur's birth to his death, set within an elusive period of "mythic history."
"I wrote the original script myself," says Boorman, "but at some point I got stuck on it. It was a bit too long and convoluted. So I got Rospo in. In the past we'd always worked together sitting in a room talking out scenes, thrashing them out, writing them down, and then revising them. But in this case I asked him to go away and think about the script and try to see if he could come up with any ideas about the structure."
"You see, I was determined," he adds, "to tell the whole story of the Morte D'Arthur, and that restricted the amount of time I had to develop the characters, the themes, and to make everything work. He did a very good job, and he actually straightened it out quite a lot, as well as coming up with one or two extremely brilliant ideas. One was to have Uther Pendragon, Arthur's real father and the `primogenitor' of the whole saga, if you like, drive the sword into the stone, rather than Merlin, as in Malory. The other was to progress the story in several bold jumps forward in time."
Boorman offers an example. "When Uther thrusts the sword in the stone and then dies, we cut straight to the same scene eighteen years later. I shot the first in winter; then I shot it again in spring when all the trees were in leaf. Boom! Though it was only a seasonal change, it's a very startling one, and then I panned around with the camera, and you see that all this encampment you're looking at today has grown up and around it. That's a passage of eighteen years in one cut, and it gave the story enormous dynamic power."
"At other times," Boorman continues, "instead of a time lapse cut on a landscape, I'd make the transition happen on a character's face. There's a point when I go from the young Arthur with Guinevere straight to a scene, years later, in which he meets Lancelot. In that scene Arthur has sprouted a beard, and you suddenly see him behaving very much like his father, Uther. Similarly, when Morgana kisses the young Mordred, I show their heads moving apart, and after a moment you realize that ten years have gone by within that embrace and Mordred is now a fully grown man."
In another scene, Boorman borrows a story from Rabelais's Pantagruel and transposes it into the Arthurian myth. Arthur as king is seen making a legal judgment between two men, and in a later scene, we see the same judgment reenacted in a puppet show – broadcast and perpetuated in the popular medium of the day, medieval England's precursor to newspapers, radio, and television. "It's to show the passage of time," says Boorman, "and to show Arthur's reign passing from fact into legend."
The thing about myths," Boorman declares, "is that they're a body of stories completely homogenous and interrelated, yet also completely flexible. You can rearrange or extend or elide the order of events quite liberally without destroying the meaning. The essentials that make them popular, the resonances, remain the same."
Boorman's notion of myths – that they're both a close-knit and an open body of work – holds up remarkably well. For example, the German "Ring" legend beloved of Wagner is almost a kissing cousin to the Arthurian story. Both are parables of the birth of consciousness from dormant nature and of the quest for destiny. And both begin with the image of a piercing, luminous object emerging from water (the sword from the lake, the Rhinegold from the Rhine) and go on to tell of a chosen hero (Arthur, Siegfried) waking a primitive land from its sleep of barbarism.
Boorman explains, "It's very basic to adolescent fantasy – look at Star Wars – to have the notion of the young boy who is suddenly chosen, picked out to be a leader or a king. Almost all little children are drawn to the fantasy that they were foundlings and that their real parents come from some extraordinary background. Star Wars hit on these things and tapped into something perennially popular."
Myths survive, Boorman believes, because they're stories that stand retelling. "I think it's fascinating to see how the great European myths reemerged in the American genre film, particularly the Western," he says. "I believe that the popular, lasting stories are really about great deep psychic events in human history that have bitten themselves into the racial memory and which we remember in our unconscious. The retelling of these stories is like the rediscovery of them – it 'catharizes' and then gives solace."
Two of the elements in the Arthurian tales on which Boorman has laid strong emphasis in Excalibur are Merlin and the Holy Grail – the opposite poles of primal pagan magic and redemptive Christian miracle. "I've always been absolutely obsessed with the whole Grail story," he says, "and I've used the iconography and also the structures – the 'quest' structures particularly – in the various films I've done. The whole legend kept impinging on me."
first got interested in the legend by
reading T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land
and went on to read Jessie L. Weston's book about the
Grail quest, From Ritual
to Romance. "Then I started to read John Cowper Powys,"
he says, "and I was fascinated
by him and his book A
Glastonbury Romance, which is
all about the Grail legend threading its way through contemporary
Boorman turns to Merlin, the magician and seer, played by Nicol Williamson. "Merlin fascinates me because he's a mixture of real awesome power and foolishness. He gets things wrong. He's both less human and more human than ordinary people. He has enormous power and knowledge, and yet there are simple things he doesn't grasp or understand. New forces are contending with his magic and each other. New passions – love, hatred, revenge – are in play. And these emotions are beyond him."
"At the stage in Merlin's life that we depict in Excalibur," says Boorman, "we are suggesting that he's really beginning to fade out. He's drifting in and out of the affairs of men. He functions better at some times than at others. And he says it himself – he says to Morgana, `Our time is passing and the time of man is coming. The one God is driving out the many gods.'
"And that's what my story is about: the coming of Christian man and the disappearance of the old religions which are represented by Merlin. The forces of superstition and magic are swallowed up into the unconscious."
The flaps of Boorman's tent parted suddenly, and a harassed, hustling technician came in for a brief preshooting conference. How many extras did Boorman want in the background for the sword-in-the-stone scene? (There were 130 or 140 on call, "foot and knight.") How much background action in the encampment? Should they cover themselves for a runover in shooting by having the same casting call for extras tomorrow?
Boorman issued swift answers, solved the technician's problems, and sent him out a calmer man. Soon, the afternoon's shooting about to begin and the rain letting up, the director left the tent. Out in the Irish daylight, Boorman surveyed his lighting plan for the shooting. The green filters placed over the arc lamps bathed the landscape in a lyric vernal glow.
"We're using green gels in the forest exteriors," Boorman explains, "to give a kind of luminous quality, and to emphasize the moss and the leaves. It breathes a little magic into the scene; it gives it a sense of otherworldliness, and also that visual quality you can see in sword-and-sorcery illustrations, which is to some extent one of the references we're using."
How much would Boorman be making use of real settings, like castles, and how much would he be deploying matte shots and models? "Because it's a world of the imagination," he replies, "I'm avoiding using any existing castles or other architectural modes. I'm trying to take it as far from an identifiable reality as possible. We're building everything ourselves, interiors and exteriors of castles, and obviously we're using models and mattes a lot for the longer, wider shots so that we can make up what we want."
Boorman adds, "There aren't any old castles really. They're either in ruins or they've been modernized over the years. The best castles are probably the revivalist ones like Ludwig's or the Victorian Gothic that were built in
Down in the peasant encampment, meanwhile, where the cameras were soon to whir, director of photography Alex Thomson moved among the lights, meter in hand, adding finishing touches to the scene. Knights clanked in and out of view, wearing the full-dress, solid-metal armor that had been hammered into shape by the production's armorer, Terry English. The design is typical of the film's vision: a sort of organic rococo, rife with spikes and leaves and hinted natural shapes.
The visual impact of the Excalibur location – the eerie green light, the spikes and twisted knots of the armor, the discolored faces peering through a layer of earth or woad – was of design and wildness warring, of one age struggling to be born from another, the civilized from the natural.
Another clash of ages was being waged offcamera in the Excalibur encampment. Mud-daubed actor-peasants wandered between tents and market stalls eating sandwiches and drinking tea from plastic cups; wrist-thick lighting cables snaked along the damp earth; and medieval knights and villagers traded jokes in 1980s colloquialisms.
But soon chaos was orchestrated, the crowds deployed to their imaginary starting positions, final makeup touches applied ("Dirty that actor!" cried Boorman, noticing a spotless peasant extra), and the camera set in place for the afternoon's shooting. The scene to be filmed has the young boy Arthur, squire to his elder brother Sir Kay in the jousting, sent by his father, Sir Ector, to fetch Kay's sword, negligently left behind in their tent. "A good squire doesn't forget his knight's sword," rasps Sir Ector to cue the action, whereupon the boy dashes contritely off through the market crowds to retrieve the weapon.
Boorman placed his camera on a tracking rail at the edge of the encampment, gave final orders for the gas jetted village bonfires to be lighted and for the horsed knights in the background to begin their jousting, and then cried, "Action!" The market scene suddenly blazed and babbled into life: women carrying groaning baskets of eggs and vegetables, a little boy carrying an outsize sheep, pigs and goats rooting noisily in the mud, bonfires roaring, smithy clanking, and Arthur weaving and buffeting his way through the human surge and flux.
After one take, a not-quite-satisfied Boorman asked for still more bustle. As if to lead the way, he personally flung an obliging chicken in front of the camera to produce a foreground flurry of feathers. The chicken, knowing its big moment had come, promptly gave an exultant squawk and amid a shower of feathers laid an egg. The hundred-odd extras upped the scene's volume and vivacity.
The boy wound through the seething bodies, dashed into the tent, and found, as the legend required, no sword. He ran on, first through the smoke and din of the blacksmith's forge in panic-stricken search for a weapon, then in tearful despair out of the encampment up the hill toward the place where, though not yet suspecting it, he would find Excalibur.
Satisfied after a series of takes that he had caught the scene's mood and rhythm, Boorman disbanded his actors and extras, all except Nigel Terry, and went into brief conference with his lighting men. On the nearby hill, the king-making sword stood rooted in a mossy stone. Additional filtered green lights bathed the scene in that glowing green radiance shared by the forest around.
Boorman's whole movie career might be seen as leading to this point – the igniting of the mythical spark in a story which has long been his most cherished movie project. Boorman's earlier films are crammed with presaging hints of the Arthur legend: from the name itself popping up in a key role in Zardoz (Arthur Frayn, sage and wizard) to the quest motifs, the notion of "heroes" struggling toward a source of meaning and resolution in a world of flux in Point Blank and Deliverance.
"In a sense, making movies is itself a quest," Boorman declares during a break in his lighting conference. "A quest for an alternative world, a world which is more satisfactory than the one we live in. That's what first appealed to me about making films. It seemed to me a wonderful idea that you could remake the world, hopefully a bit better, braver, and more beautiful than it was presented to us."
"The characters in Excalibur," he says, "are seeking to find their place in the world, their destiny. Of course, it's very unfashionable today to talk of destiny. But what destiny means is to find your place in life, your stream in the river, to find a wholeness in relation to nature. And one of the themes of the piece is that of harmony with the natural world. At the beginning of the film, there's a speech that Merlin makes about Excalibur which ends with the line, `It was forged when the world was young, and bird, beast, and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream.' That's a very poignant line because it describes the longing, the yearning for that golden age, that time of harmony."
"And what we see in the story," Boorman continues, "is the horror and dissension of man, and his warring, feuding, and brutality – his inability to really attain his higher aims and ideals. But I think the moving thing about it is the attempts that people make to try to reach those things. In a sense, that's what redeems the characters – their aspirations, not their deeds."
Moments later, Boorman stood intent and raptly watchful beside the camera as Arthur took his first clasp of Excalibur. The sword hissed softly, swiftly from the stone as Arthur raised it high above his head, hilt grasped firmly in both hands. At an order from Boorman, a white key light was switched on and Excalibur blazed into life, showering flakes of silvery light into the darkening afternoon. The symbol of a new age towered bright and unsheathed above the old, and life and legend were in harmony.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MARCH 1981 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.