Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

Now, I haven't seen each and every last film based on the Arthurian myth cycle, the medieval Arthurian romances, and the modern (i.e. 19th Century & onwards) re-interpretations of those myths and romances. I have, however, seen enough of them to wager that 1981's Excalibur is the most straight adaptation of the Morte d'Arthur branch of Arthuriana, which is what I think most of us have in mind when the subject comes up. Not bad for a movie so transparently born of the desire to be yet another in the seemingly inexhaustible chain of Star Wars wannabes from the turn of the '80s.

It helps that the film was something of a labor of love for director John Boorman, who'd been hankering to make a fantasy movie for over a decade - Le Morte d'Arthur and The Lord of the Rings being the two main candidates - and who moreover was in pretty significant need of a good, successful film right about then. His Oscar-nominated, hugely popular thriller Deliverance was all the way back in 1972. In the interim, he'd only made two films, both of them among the most splashy, visibly terrible movies of the 1970s: 1974's Zardoz and 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic. It's a little impressive that he as able to get the keys to an $11 million movie in the wake of those - not a huge budget, but certainly not chump change, by 1981 standards. For that money, he provided Orion Pictures with one of the weirder mainstream pictures of its generation, attempting to capture not merely the traditional story of Arthur and the court at Camelot (which isn't even actually a consistent feature of the screenplay, written by Rospo Pallenberg and Boorman), but the manner in which that story was told by its major chroniclers: Thomas Malory, but also Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes.

By this I mean, simply, that Excalibur doesn't really tell a "story" in the sense that we generally mean it. It's not precisely "episodic", either, though that's getting closer. It's using the highly elliptical, narratively condensed style of the old legends themselves, assembling details in clusters of plot material that don't necessarily stitch together to other clusters through cause, theme, or mood. It skips madly through time, very frequently not permitting us to know where we've landed or even that the skip ahead took place; characters enter and exit the narrative quite indifferently, based solely on when it is their turn to be germane to the primary story. It's too deliberately disorienting to be an accident - yes, I know this is the same director-writer responsible for Zardoz, but that film's disorienting elements feel much more scattershot and inconsistent than those in Excalibur, which starts this practice quite early on and develops it all throughout the film's running time.

What this leaves behind is too erratic and all-over-the-place to deserve a plot synopsis, but it's basically the whole of the very large Le Morte d'Arthur condensed into less than two-and-a-half hours: the island of Britain is torn by various local powers, but one Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) is in a particularly strong position, as is the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave). Accordingly, these two men end up forming a rather tense alliance, thanks in large part to the intercession of the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson), who has arranged for Uther to receive the powerful magic sword Excalibur. Uther is a hot-headed asshole, though, and the moment he spots Cornwall's wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), he's ready to throw away the tenuous peace for a chance to screw her. With great reluctance, Merlin uses his powers to arrange a tryst, with Uther taking Cornwall's form and seducing Igrayne at the exact moment that the real Cornwall is being killed in battle with Uther's forces. Merlin is forced into a magic coma for nine months to recover, emerging just after Igrayne has given birth to a son, Arthur, as part of her forced, unpleasant marriage to Uther. Soon thereafter, Uther is killed in battle, surviving just long enough to place Excalibur in a large stone in the middle of a forest, while Merlin takes the boy and leaves him with the kind Ector (Clive Swift).

And here comes the first of those plunges ahead through time: just like that, Arthur is a teenager, played by Nigel Terry, and has managed to lose his foster-brother Kay's (Niall O'Brien) sword right before a tournament held near the sword in the stone. And so the lad guilelessly pulls the sword out, and accidentally becomes the king of England. With Merlin's guidance, he tries to rule as a just and fair king, the servant of the law rather than its master. This is complicated by the appearance of impropriety between his wife, Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), and his best knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and Arthur's subsequent plunge into self-hatred and despair, leading to the kingdom itself decaying as the king recedes into a private oblivion. This provides the perfect opening for Arthur's malicious half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren), and their incestuous offspring Mordred (Robert Addie as a young adult, Charley Boorman as a much creepier and more interesting child) to kick over the destablised Camelot court.

It's not a "pure" version of the legend - nowhere prior to this, that I am aware of, conflates Arthur with the Fisher King in this way - but it's certainly all in the spirit of medieval myth-making. Moreover, the fairly huge amount of stuff that goes on in the long-but-not-that-long movie (it's 2 hours and 20 minutes) speaks to the somewhat glancing way much of the material is presented, and the choosy way that that Boorman and Pallenberg pluck only certain moments to treat with extra attention and emphasis. It's a strange way to structure a film narrative, but cozily in keeping with the chronicle-style narratives of the source material. It presents a suitably "out of time" feeling for the film to feel like a genuine window into the quasi-medieval world it presents.

Quasi-medieval is perhaps even overselling it. Excalibur takes place in an England that never remotely was, mixing cultural codes and costume styles from a roughly 400-year span, while also daubing in things that never existed in the first place, like the gleaming chrome plate armor that looks like more spacey than medieval (or Merlin's shiny mirrored skullcap). Historical presence is absolutely not the goal here; if it's anything specific that Boorman and Co. had in mind (that Co. including cinematographer Alex Thomson, costume designer Bob Ringwood, and production designer Anthony Pratt), it's maybe the feeling of a dreamspace in which the Matter of Britain plays out as something between a hallucination and a divinely-inspired vision.

Somewhat cutting against that, somewhat building it up, the film has a one-of-a-kind ensemble made up of some of the greatest British actors of their generation, assembled more or less by accident (nobody was famous yet when they were cast). Besides Mirren and Byrne, it's a film for a very young Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds, a not-as-young Patrick Stewart, and while Nigel Terry and Cherie Lunghi would never rise to the level of fame of any of those people, they're both excellent in their roles, especially early on: the depiction of Arthur and Guenevere as young, infatuated kids is easily my favorite cinematic incarnation of that relationship, and Terry's Arthur in general is outstanding, moving from a modestly slow-witted intuition about how to be moral in the face of politics to the gutted tragic old figure of the end, and being equally convincing in both registers. His is probably the most level and grounded performance in a movie that mostly encourages the cast to play everything at a high, unashamed pitch: Mirren especially thrives for being given a chance to be just evil, and Williamson's mercurial, batty Merlin is a marvelous oddity, always a bit too distracting maybe for his own good, but readily believable as someone who is, in some critical way, other than human.

The whole movie, basically, is abnormal, and much to its credit: unlike every other Arthurian film I can name, it really doesn't feel like it reflects the time it was made (except in the cinematography, marked by a very distinctive color quality in the exterior shots, which is most of them), but some time-without-time. It doesn't feel like it was made in the 1480s, or the 1200s either, but it does feel like it was made according to their sensibilities a bit more, maybe, than to ours. The result of all that is a peculiar experience that's hard to pin down - Excalibur is immodestly unclear and elliptical, even if you already know the content fairly well - but as an experience in vivid, dramatic compositions and startlingly unconventional design, and as a plunge into the feeling, rather than the denotative qualities, of medieval literature, it's a great pleasure, assuming you like that sort of thing. Add in the explicitly operatic grandeur - the music leans heavily on snippets of Wagner, most prominently the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung - and the whole thing is an exercise in being overwhelmed by overripe grandiosity. Basically, this is what we might have gotten if the fevered madness of Zardoz had been turned to good instead of to evil, and I'm all for it.