By Ava Dickerson, Lilly Library Manuscripts Archivist
Known for his 1981 film Excalibur–a retelling of the legend of King Arthur starring Helen Mirren, Nigel Terry, Liam Neeson, and Patrick Stewart among others – John Boorman continued to explore his interest in Arthurian legend in Knight’s Castle, an unrealized project based on the children’s novel of the same name by Edward Eager. Despite the film’s abandonment in the early 2000s, the project’s documentation offers a glimpse into Boorman’s interpretation of the subject for a younger audience. According to the synopsis Boorman wrote to send to prospective child actors, when Roger and Ann’s father is diagnosed with a mysterious illness, the two children are sent to live with their uncle John in a “creepy Victorian Gothic house.” There, they discover an exact replica of the home in the form of a dollhouse and a set of metal Arthurian figurines. Once asleep, Roger–and, later, Ann and their cousin Eliza–travel to the land of Robin Hood and Merlin, where only the discovery of Excalibur can save King Richard, who also happens to be the children’s father.
Because the film’s production had progressed so far before its abandonment, it offers a well-developed look into the numerous stages of planning–and costs–that constitute the creation of a feature-length film. Every aspect of filming, from developing the film itself to renting cars for cast members, adds to the project’s expenses, and the collection meticulously documents the cast and crew’s financial and contractual negotiations. The correspondence and documentation relating to casting is particularly revealing when trying to capture Boorman’s unrealized vision for the project. Early in the casting process, Boorman wrote to Colin Firth and Kenneth Brannagh regarding their interest in playing King Richard and King John respectively; though the papers do not include their responses, the later potential cast list marks them as “uninterested” and Tim Roth becomes lead candidate for King John’s role. The casting correspondence includes a handwritten letter from a young girl asking Boorman for a role in the film. Accompanied by a glowing testimonial from her tutor at the Young Gaiety School of Acting and a Third Place certificate for a 1998 debate competition to demonstrate her merits, these papers offer a reminder of the intended audience of the project. Five thick folders of CVs sent to Boorman illustrate the interest the project had generated before its cancellation, including a letter from an actor who felt entitled to a role in the film due to his involvement in the Society of Creative Anachronism, a reenactment group that focuses on medieval Europe.
The thick file of costume research materials offers a more visual representation of Boorman’s intentions for Knight’s Castle and falls mainly into two thematic categories: illustrations of Robin Hood and chess sets/miniatures. The costume sketches clearly draw upon these resources while also adding in the more modern features dictated by the story’s development. In the latter half of the plot, the medieval dreamscape becomes interspersed with 20th century elements, leading to a need for eclectic costumes that blend plate mail and 1980’s streetwear. The contrast between these two costume styles parallels the contrast between this section of Boorman’s manuscripts and the other projects represented in his papers. In addition to its unfinished status (despite nearly completing pre-production, according to its documentation) amidst Boorman’s dozens of realized films, Knight’s Castle presents Boorman’s interpretation of Arthurian legend from a child’s perspective, diverging from Excalibur’s mature tone while retaining the subject matter.
The Boorman archive contains several iconic pieces of costumes, including the shoes worn by Lee Marvin in Point Blank and the breastplate worn by Helen Mirren in Excalibur. Although Knight’s Castle was never filmed, the archive contains a child-sized pair of glow-in-the-dark pajamas, purchased from The Gap and intended for use in (or perhaps inspiration for a yet-to-be-made costume) for the film’s protagonist.
Learn more about the Boorman archive and request materials for research through our online finding aid.