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A view on HD DVDs by Matthew Eizenga

Excalibur - HD

(John Boorman, 1981)



Review by Matthew Eizenga


Warner (USA)


1.85:1 1080p

140 minutes

Audio: DD Plus 5.1, French 1.0, Spanish 1.0

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish

Extras: Director Commentary, Trailer

Released: October 31st, 2006



While getting ready to write my review for this film I looked far back to the early 80’s and my youth.  My family had a VCR and an RCA 23 inch wood grain television that doubled as furniture in our living room, but to me it was perfect for “movie night”.  I always loved wizards and wonder; I remember Excalibur’s Merlin as simply amazing and had such great vocal timbre it was brilliant and mesmerizing to watch as a child.  I remember the music (score) and how it made me want to become a knight in King Arthur’s court.  I wanted to be King Arthur and send my men on the quest of the grail; simply put I loved this movie.  I also remember the women and their exposed breasts and thinking this movie had EVERYTHING, and I am amazed my mom and dad were letting me watch it (p.s. - thanks mom and dad).  I have seen all the other versions of the quest for the grail, but still nothing has, nor will, for my money come close; Excalibur was perfection. 

Then I saw it on DVD for the first time in 1999 and was brought right back to that place I was as a child, reliving the magic and wonder of it all.  At that time I wasn’t paying attention to grain and mosquito noise, I was simply watching a rewind to my youth. For the first time I was able to watch it in widescreen and the TV I was watching it on was a 27 inch Sony Vega, I was starting to understand that widescreen was everything and pan and scan was the devil.  It was great to watch again and little did I know that 7 years later I would get the treat of a lifetime.  When the HD DVD was announced I was as giddy as a school boy.  I am now ready to FINALLY relive my youth in perfect 1080p quality.  As I researched it was really interesting to find out that John Boorman was originally aiming at making a movie based on "The Lord of the Rings". However, he did not acquire the rights, and decided to make a movie about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table instead.  Luck for me since I love the tale of King Arthur and the Quest.  Also of note, the sound didn't balance properly for John Boorman on Dolby sound mixes at various test screenings, so he changed the mix to mono for the theatrical release. 

Did this HD DVD version of Excalibur finally give me movie making perfection? Read on. 


Was this what I was waiting for?  All these years of waiting for the perfect format to witness my favorite films of all time, was this incarnation of the film the end-all-be-all version of Excalibur?  Honestly, I hate to start off a sour puss but no, not at all, the film was rough all around.  I can accept that to a point all movies from this time seem to have a common thread of bad archiving, but none the less it is very easy to see that the master used to make this 1080p HD DVD has aged considerably.  In 2007 the age of HDTV, HD DVD and Blu-ray it is hard to believe that with wonders of days gone by like Casablanca and Forbidden Planet that a movie in the 80’s was this poorly looked after.  I have also heard that film stock used during this time was not on-par, quality wise, with that of nearly every other era, Video Tape was king, but none the less we could have treated our film treasures a whole lot better.  I guess my memory of it on VHS and those things we call “the blinders of youth” still persisted until this day.  This film was scary ugly, folks.

On the technical side, Excalibur was filmed in 1:85:1 ratio which fills the screen on a 16:9 television.  It shows up as 1.78:1 actually on this transfer and has a tight matte on it.  Overscan leaves it pretty close to this on your set.  Again, this version seems to be from an aging master and it would be amazing to see a brand new cleaned up version of this film, however, for now it is all Warner Brothers is giving us.  You will find loads of grain and soft focus in the film as well as dirt, dust and torn negatives throughout.  There is edge enhancement all over the film and in reality it is only a slight step above the DVD version of the film, however it is still a step up.  Colors can occasionally tend to pink giving a weird flesh tone to the film.  But the forest scenes are simply brilliant and look good enough to eat, at least the daylight scenes.  From scene to scene you will go from amazement to embarrassment of the quality, but once again I simply don’t see Warner going back and doing a restoration as this film did not have the box office influence of Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane.  I still however reserve hope that it will one day get the treatment it deserves, perhaps for 2011 the 30th Anniversary and I will get to watch it again on 3D HD DVD.










As I researched the facts Boorman did a remix to mono of the film as he was not content with the Dolby mix used for test screenings in the 1980’s.  In that case it makes a little more sense that the Dolby Digital mix is a very flat and unsatisfying mix.  It is center channel heavy and really a bit of a loss since the score is really a great one and would have made a wonderful sound field around the listener.  So should the mono track give it an easy out?  I don’t think so; why not include the original mono channel track to give the mix an “out”?  I don’t know what the intentions were from the studio or perhaps the director but the audio track is lacking on all fronts.  One thing that did stand out in the track, if I must, would be the LFE channel.  The Bass was quite active but also made the rest of the track a little muddy, whereas a great mix with great LFE simply adds to the audio of a film.  Like the video, a complete restore of the audio elements could give this track a quality of luster.  In the case of this format it simply pales when compared to Transformers or 300.  In the end Excalibur is one of the worst audio mixes I have listened to from the world of HD DVD.



Alas, the only extra worth mentioning is a John Boorman commentary.  As interesting as that may sound he spends most of the time in narration mode explaining what is on screen as if we were watching the movie with blinders on.  The rest of the time he is very silent and says nothing at all.  Occasionally he will throw in some on location trivia but it is dare I say it, trivial.  In the end this was an exact port from the DVD release of a few years ago, and gives nothing new.  If you have listened to the old DVD track you have heard it all and it really isn’t worth a second listen.


John Boorman has directed such lauded efforts as Deliverance and The Emerald Forest.  This film was on par with those excellent titles. So when all is said and done was this HD DVD of Excalibur the one we have all waited for quality wise?  Was it as grand as I wanted it to be?  No.  Perhaps my savvy for films has ruined my childhood vision of what I was expecting this film to look like on HD DVD.  Perhaps it is looking its very best in all of its 1080p glory.  It certainly looks on par with a film its age, which in my opinion is tragic.  I can easily recommend it as a great story of wizardry and medieval wonder but the video and audio both land well short of my hopes for what this film should look like.  It can certainly be enjoyed but turn off your brain and slip into a state of youth; back before you cared about how it looked or sounded.  Back when it was all about how a movie made you feel.

In the end this HD DVD of Excalibur is not an easy recommendation.  I am very sad to say that the video and audio are terrible and the extras are sorely lacking for the film.  I can say the image looks better than the DVD but not leaps and bounds better.  Give the film a rent, not for its absolute quality but for its excitement, wonder and not least for that child in you that loves to watch a great quest.



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About the Reviewer: 

Where do I start?  From the time I was a child watching films on BetaMax and VHS in the very early 80’s I was hooked on film.  From Star Wars to Pee Wee Herman and back again I was grabbed line and sinker.  The first time I realized the effect film had on me (that I can remember) was watching the Martin Scorsese film Casino in 1998.  The whole movie blew me away, but it was the scene with De Niro waiting in the desert for what he assumed was his fate, that I was swept away and had to know more about the craft.  The moment where the car drives across in the reflection of Deniro’s glasses to me was the ultimate “WOW” moment and set in motion my love affair with film.  I hope to translate some of that love that I have for films into my reviews so that you too can share in my passion.

Matthews Home Theatre:
Sharp 37-inch LG37GP1U LCD TV (1920x1080 Progressive Resolution)
Toshiba HD-A35 HD-DVD player
Yamaha RX Series Receiver

Athena 7.1 Audio Set up

I'm using the HD-XA1's analog audio connection to obtain Dolby TrueHD audio, when available.