May 04, 1981 12:00 PM

Picture Camelot its songs replaced by slice ’em and dice ’em bloodletting worthy of today’s horror films, plus just a bit of Monty Python madness. That will give you some idea of the visually stunning, verbally overwrought retelling of the Arthurian legend by John (Deliverance) Boorman. The director says he pictured an evocation of “man’s lost oneness with nature,” and the superb location photography in Ireland vividly makes us long for primeval times. But the script, which Boorman co-wrote, carries a deadweight of decadence. While switching the legend’s focus from Arthur to Merlin is an intriguing concept, Nicol Williamson’s low-comic, anachronistic playing of the magician doesn’t mesh with the stiff-upper-lip heroics of Nigel Terry’s Arthur or Nicholas Clay’s Lancelot. Helen (Caligula) Mirren fares little better as Arthur’s incestuous sister, who is fond of hanging knights from trees and watching birds peck their eyes out in closeup. There are hacked limbs aplenty and the sex is kinky enough to stir envy even in Ken Russell. Many naked women couple with knights in full, spiky armor. That the director uses his own daughter, Katrine, for one such encounter is hardly chivalrous. Neither is the movie, which, despite moments of high style and wit, too often substitutes mayhem for magic. (R)

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