Excalibur (film)

Excalibur (film)

Theatrical release poster by Bob Peak
Directed by John Boorman
Produced by John Boorman
Screenplay by Rospo Pallenberg
John Boorman
Based on Le Morte d'Arthur by
Thomas Malory
Starring Nigel Terry
Helen Mirren
Nicol Williamson
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Alex Thomson
Editing by John Merritt
Studio Orion Pictures
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date(s) April 10, 1981 (1981-04-10)
Running time 140 minutes
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Budget $11,000,000[1]
Box office $34,967,437

Excalibur is a 1981 dramatic fantasy film directed, produced and co-written by John Boorman that retells the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Adapted from the 15th century Arthurian romance, Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory, Excalibur features the music of Richard Wagner and Carl Orff, along with an original score by Trevor Jones. It stars Nigel Terry as Arthur, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, Helen Mirren as Morgana, Liam Neeson as Gawain, Nicol Williamson as Merlin and a relatively unknown Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance. The film is named for the legendary sword of King Arthur that features prominently in Arthurian literature.

Shot entirely on location in Ireland and employing Irish actors and crew, the film has been acknowledged for its importance to the Irish filmmaking industry and for helping launch the film careers of Neeson, as well as Gabriel Byrne, Neil Jordan and Ciarán Hinds.[1]

Excalibur achieved moderate box office success while receiving mixed reviews. Although film critics Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby criticized the film's plot and characters,[2][3] they, along with other reviewers,[4] praised it visually. Excalibur opened at number one in the United States, eventually grossing $34,967,437 on a budget of around USD $11 million, to rank 18th in that year's receipts.[5]



The beginning

The sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson) retrieves Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake for Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne). Uther uses it to secure an alliance with Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave). Uther soon ruins the truce with his lust for Cornwall's wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman). Uther forces Merlin to help him seduce Igrayne. On the condition that Uther relinquishes to Merlin whatever results from his lust, Merlin transforms Uther into Cornwall's likeness with the Charm of Making. Cornwall dies while leading an assault on Uther's camp, and his daughter Morgana awakes upon sensing Cornwall's death. Igrayne, fooled by the disguise, submits to Uther, who impregnates her. The devastated Morgana is the only one who can see past his disguise.

Nine months later, Merlin arrives and takes Uther's son Arthur. Uther pursues but is mortally wounded by Gorlois's knights. Uther thrusts Excalibur into a stone, and Merlin proclaims that "he who draws the sword from the stone, he shall be king."

The sword in the stone

Years later, Sir Ector (Clive Swift) and his sons Kay (Niall O'Brien) and Arthur (Nigel Terry) attend a jousting tournament. The victor, Sir Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart), wins a chance to try pulling Excalibur from the stone, but he fails. Kay's sword is later stolen, and Arthur pulls Excalibur after failing to stop the thief. Word spreads, and Merlin announces to the crowd that Arthur is Uther's son and hence the rightful ruler.

Leondegrance immediately proclaims his support for the new king, but not all are willing to accept. While the others argue, Merlin and Arthur enter the forest, and Merlin tells the boy that he is the rightful king, and that he and the land are one. Overwhelmed, Arthur falls into a long sleep.

When he wakes, Arthur comes to aid Leondegrance, whose castle is under siege by Arthur's enemies. During the battle, Arthur asks Sir Uryens (Keith Buckley) to knight him, and hands him Excalibur to do so. Uryens is tempted to strike the boy down, but, deeply moved by Arthur's display of faith, Uryens knights the boy, then falls to his knees and declares loyalty, leading the others to follow suit.

Guenevere and Camelot

Soon after, Arthur meets Leondegrance's daughter Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and is smitten, but Merlin forsees this leading to future problems.

Years later, the undefeated knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) blocks a bridge and will not move until he is defeated in single combat, seeking a king worthy of his sword. Lancelot defeats Arthur and his knights. Arthur summons Excalibur's magic and defeats Lancelot, but the sword breaks. Arthur, ashamed of abusing the sword's power to serve his own vanity, throws the sword's remains into the water. The Lady of the Lake offers the restored blade to the king. Arthur vows never to abuse the sword's power again, and Lancelot is revived.

Arthur and his knights unify the land. Arthur creates the Round Table, builds Camelot, and marries Guenevere. Lancelot confesses that he, too, has fallen in love with her. Arthur's half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren), a budding sorceress, becomes apprenticed to Merlin in hopes of learning the Charm of Making from him.

Lancelot and Guenevere

Over time, Lancelot begins to stay away from the Round Table to keep his distance from Guenevere. On an excursion, he encounters a peasant boy named Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) and takes the boy to Camelot where he becomes a squire.

Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson), under Morgana's influence, openly accuses Lancelot and Guenevere of adultery. Lancelot must duel Gawain to defend his and Guenevere's honor. The night before, Lancelot duels himself in a nightmare and awakens to find himself wounded by his own sword. When Lancelot does not arrive at the duel in time, Perceval volunteers to champion Guenevere and is knighted by Arthur. But just before Perceval is about to duel with Gawain, Lancelot appears; the injured Lancelot defeats Gawain but nearly dies from his wounds.

Merlin saves him, and he rides out to the forest to rest. Guenevere realizes her feelings for Lancelot and goes to him in the forest, where they consummate their love. Meanwhile, Merlin lures Morgana to his lair to trap her, suspecting her plots against Arthur. Arthur finds Guenevere and Lancelot asleep together. Heartbroken at their betrayal, he thrusts Excalibur into the ground between the sleeping couple. Merlin's magical link to the land impales him on the sword, and Morgana seizes the opportunity to trap him in a crystal with the Charm of Making. Morgana takes the form of Guenevere and seduces Arthur. On awakening to the sight of Excalibur, Lancelot flees in shame and Guenevere lies weeping.

Quest for the Grail

Morgana bears a son, Mordred (Charley Boorman/Robert Addie). Because of the boy's "unholy" origin in incest, a curse descends upon Arthur and the land is striken with famine and sickness. A broken Arthur sends his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail in hopes of restoring the land. Many of his knights die or are bewitched by Morgana.

Morgana captures Perceval who narrowly escapes. Perceval encounters a bearded man with armor under his tattered robes who preaches to followers that the kingdom has fallen because of "the sin of Pride". A shocked Perceval recognizes the man as Lancelot. After Perceval fails to convince Lancelot to come to Arthur's aid, Lancelot and his followers throw Perceval into a river. Perceval has a vision of the Grail during which he realizes that Arthur and the land are one. Answering the riddle, he attains the Grail and takes it to Arthur who drinks from it and is revitalized, as is the land, which springs into blossom.

The final battle

Arthur finds Guenevere at a convent, where they reconcile. She gives him Excalibur, which she has kept safe since the day she fled.

Frustrated in preparation for battle against Morgana's allies, Arthur calls to Merlin, unknowingly awakening the wizard from his enchanted slumber. Merlin and Arthur have one final conversation before Merlin vanishes. The wizard then appears to Morgana as a shadow and tricks her into uttering the Charm of Making, producing a fog from the breath of the Dragon, and exhausting her own magical powers which had kept her young. She rapidly ages, and her own son kills her.

Arthur and Mordred's forces meet in battle, with Arthur's side benefiting from the fog which conceals the smallness of their army. Lancelot unexpectedly arrives and turns the tide of battle. He later collapses from the old, self-inflicted wound, which never healed. Arthur and Lancelot reconcile, and Lancelot dies with Arthur's honors.

Mordred stabs Arthur with a spear, but Arthur further impales himself to get within reach of the boy. Arthur kills Mordred with Excalibur.

After first ignoring Arthur's dying wish that he throw Excalibur into a pool of calm water, Perceval then finally throws it into the pool, where the Lady of the Lake catches it. Perceval returns to see Arthur lying on a ship, attended by three formally posed ladies clad in white, sailing into the sun toward the Isle of Avalon.


Even though he was 35 years old, Nigel Terry plays King Arthur from his teenage years to his ending as an aged monarch.

Several members of the Boorman family also appeared in the picture: his daughter Katrine Boorman played Igrayne, Arthur's mother and his son Charley Boorman portrayed Mordred as a boy. Because of the number of Boormans involved with the film, it is sometimes called "The Boorman Family Project."[6]

PG and R-rated versions

The movie was originally put into theatrical release in 1981 as an R-rated film in the USA. Later there was an announcement of a PG-rated version, but it was not widely released. The original R-rated cut is 140 minutes. Most home video versions are the R-rated version, but TV and movie channels show the PG cut, making the movie 119 minutes. The R-rated version features about 21 more minutes of graphic sex and violence.[citation needed]



John Boorman had planned a film adaptation of the Merlin legend as early as 1969, but the studio he offered it to (United Artists) rejected his concept, offering him J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings instead. When Boorman, having written a three-hour-/-one-film-script with Rospo Pallenberg, submitted the film script to UA, they rejected it, deeming it too costly. Boorman was allowed to shop the script elsewhere, but no studio would commit to it. Returning to the original idea of the Merlin legend, Boorman was eventually able to secure deals that would help him do "Excalibur" instead. Much of the imagery and set designs seen in the film were originally created with "Lord Of The Rings" in mind.[7]

According to Boorman, the film was originally three hours long; among scenes that were deleted from the finished film but featured in one of the promotional trailers was a sequence where Lancelot rescued Guenevere from a forest bandit.


John Boorman cast Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren opposite each other as Merlin and Morgana, knowing that the two were at the time on less than friendly terms, due to personal issues that arose during a production of Macbeth seven years earlier. Boorman felt that the tension on set would come through in the actors' performances. This is stated by John Boorman himself in the audio commentary track of the Excalibur DVD.


Excalibur locations trail in County Wicklow, 28 years after filming.

Excalibur was filmed in Irish locations in County Wicklow, County Tipperary, and County Kerry. The early critical battle scene around a castle, in which Arthur is made a knight by Uryens, while kneeling in a moat, was filmed in Cahir Castle, in Cahir County Tipperary, Ireland. It is a genuine Norman castle, one of the best preserved anywhere and the moat is the River Suir which flows around the castle. The fight with Lancelot was filmed at Powerscourt Estate's waterfall.

According to director John Boorman, the love scene between Lancelot and Guinevere in the forest was filmed on a very cold night, but Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi did the scene in the nude anyway.


The costumes were designed by Bob Ringwood, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. The armor was designed by Terry English, who also crafted the armor for the film Aliens. The design is anachronistic, resembling more suits of the late medieval period rather than the Dark Ages. Ringwood's designs evolve as the film progresses; at first, the knights' armor is dark, iron-like, and their helmet visors are slightly grotesque, resembling the faces of beasts. Later, the knights adopt the bright, silvery armor and dragon helmet of Lancelot. The forces under Mordred appear in dark armor as well, in stark contrast to his which is bright gold.


The screenplay was written by Rospo Pallenberg with assistance from John Boorman.

The film is primarily an adaptation of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1469–70). In order to recast the Arthurian legends as an allegory of the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration, the text was stripped of decorative or insignificant details. The resulting film is reminiscent of mythographic works such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance; Arthur is presented as the "Wounded King" whose realm becomes a wasteland to be reborn thanks to the Grail, and may be compared to the Fisher (or Sinner) King, whose land also became a wasteland, and was also healed by Perceval. "The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth," Boorman remarked to a journalist during filming. The Christian symbolism revolves around the Grail, perhaps most strongly in the baptismal imagery of Perceval finally achieving the Grail quest. "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."[8][9]

In keeping with this approach, the film is intentionally ahistorical.[8] For example, the opening titles state the setting to be the Dark Ages, even though the knights wear full plate armor, a technology of the 15th century. Knights, knighthood and the code of chivalry also did not exist during the period. Furthermore, Britain is never mentioned by name, only as "the land".

In addition to Malory, the writers incorporated elements from other Arthurian stories, sometimes altering them. For example, the sword between the sleeping lovers' bodies comes from the tales of Tristan and Iseult; the knight who returns Excalibur to the water is changed from Bedivere to Perceval; and Morgause and Morgan Le Fay are merged into one character.

The sword Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone are presented as the same thing; in some versions of the legends they are separate. In Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Galahad, the illegitimate son of Lancelot and Elaine of Carbonek, is actually the Knight who is worthy of the Holy Grail. Boorman follows the earlier version of the tale as told by Chrétien de Troyes, making Perceval the grail winner.

Some new elements were added, such as Uther wielding Excalibur before Arthur (repeated in Merlin), Merlin's 'Charm of Making' (written in Old Irish), and the concept of the world as "the dragon".

The Charm of Making

According to linguist Michael Everson, the "Charm of Making" that Merlin speaks to invoke the dragon is evidently an invention, there being no known classical source. It is apparently based upon Old Irish.[10][11][12][13]

Transcribed phonetically as spoken in the film, the charm is pronounced [aˈnaːl naθˈrax, uːrθ vaːs beˈθud, doxˈjeːl ˈdjenveː]. The most likely interpretation of the spoken words, supposedly composed in Old Irish, though the pronunciation in the film has little relation to how the text would actually be pronounced in Irish, is:

Anál nathrach,
orth’ bháis’s bethad,
do chél dénmha

In modern English, this would be translated as:

Serpent's breath,
charm of death and life,
thy omen of making.


The soundtrack consists of original music composed by Trevor Jones, with the inclusion of classical pieces from Orff's Carmina Burana, as well as from Wagner's Ring and Tristan und Isolde operas.[14]

  • Part of Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung was used as the main theme.
  • Orff's "O Fortuna" is heard during two scenes when Arthur and his knights ride out to do battle.
  • The theme between Lancelot and Guinevere is the prelude to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde", a piece about the romance of Sir Tristram and Iseult, another pair of lovers from the Arthurian tales.
  • The theme of Perceval and the Grail is the prelude to Wagner's "Parsifal".


Excalibur was the number one film during its opening weekend of April 10–12, 1981, eventually earning $34,967,437 gross in the United States.[5]

Reviews for Excalibur were mixed. Widely hailed for its visuals, setting and overall design, other elements such as the story and performances some critics found wanting. Ebert, for instance, called it both a "wondrous vision" and " a mess."[2] Elaborating further, Ebert said the film was "a record of the comings and goings of arbitrary, inconsistent, shadowy, figures who are not heroes but simply giants run amok. Still, it's wonderful to look at." Canby was more critical, saying that while Boorman took Arthurian myths seriously, "he has used them with a pretentiousness that obscures his vision."[15] In her review in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael said the film had its own "crazy integrity", adding that the imagery was "impassioned" with a "hypnotic quality." According to her, the dialogue, however, was "near-atrocious." She concluded by saying that "Excalibur is all images flashing by... We miss the dramatic intensity that we expect the stories to have, but there's always something to look at."[16]

Others have praised the entire film, with Variety calling it "a near-perfect blend of action, romance, fantasy and philosophy."[4] Sean Axmaker of Parallax View said, "John Boorman's magnificent and magical Excalibur is, to my mind, the greatest and the richest of screen incarnation of the oft-told tale."[17] In a later review upon the Excalibur's release on DVD, Salon's David Lazarus noted the film's contribution to the fantasy genre, stating that it was "a lush retelling of the King Arthur legend that sets a high-water mark among sword-and-sorcery movies."[18] A recent study by Jean-Marc Elsholz demonstrates how closely the film Excalibur was inspired by the Arthurian romance tradition and its intersections with medieval theories of light, most particularly in the aesthetic/visual narrative of Boorman's film rather than in its plot alone.[19]

Excalibur currently has an 79% "fresh" rating on the Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer.[20]


Alex Thomson, the film's cinematographer, was nominated for Best Cinematography at the 1982 Academy Awards, but lost to Vittorio Storaro for Reds.

Boorman won the prize for Best Artistic Contribution, and was nominated for a Palme d'Or, at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.[21]


A remake was announced by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures in late 2009 with Bryan Singer attached to direct, but this has been shelved indefinitely as of October, 2011.[22]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Boorman honoured as ‘Excalibur’ hits 30". http://www.filmireland.net/2011/01/27/boorman-honoured-as-excalibur-hits-30/. Retrieved 2011-03-20. 
  2. ^ a b "Excalibur". Chicago Sun-Times. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19810101/REVIEWS/101010322/1023. Retrieved 2011-03-21. "What a wondrous vision EXCALIBUR is! And what a mess." 
  3. ^ Canby, Vincent (April 10, 1981). "Boorman's 'Excalibur'". The New York Times. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9505EFD61138F933A25757C0A967948260. "Except for the performances of Nicol Williamson... and Helen Mirren... the movie seems to be a beautiful, uninhabited, primeval forest." 
  4. ^ a b "Excalibur". Variety. December 31, 1980. http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117790761?refcatid=31. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  5. ^ a b "Excalibur". Box Office Mojo. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=excalibur.htm. Retrieved 2011-03-21. 
  6. ^ Manwaring, Kevin (October 5, 2009). "Brilliant Failures: Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)". The Big Picture. http://www.thebigpicturemagazine.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=181:brilliant-failures-excalibur-john-boorman-1981&catid=34:film-reviews&Itemid=60. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  7. ^ Boorman, John: Adventures Of A Suburban Boy, Faber Books 2003, ISBN 9780571216951, p.178ff.
  8. ^ a b "JOHN BOORMAN IN INTERVIEW". http://americancinemapapers.homestead.com/files/EXCALIBUR.htm. Retrieved 2006-07-08. 
  9. ^ "The Quest for the Hollywood Grail John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the Mythic Development of the Arthurian Legend (sic)". Archived from the original on 2006-06-25. http://web.archive.org/web/20060625172606/http://www.dandalf.com/dandalf/hollywoodgrail.html. Retrieved 2006-07-08. 
  10. ^ Everson, Michael (September 9, 2002). "Merlin's Charm of Making". http://www.evertype.com/misc/charm.html. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  11. ^ "Indo-European etymology: *ane-". http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/response.cgi?single=1&basename=\data\ie\piet&text_recno=1276&root=config. Retrieved 2011-03-22. "Anál :to breathe, to blow *anǝtlo-: OIr anāl 'spiritus'; Cymr anadl 'Atem'; MBret alazn (Umstellung), Bret holan; *anǝtī-: MCymr eneit, Cymr eneid 'Seele'; *anamon-: OIr animm, gen. anman, Ir anam 'Seele'" 
  12. ^ "Indo-European etymology: *nētr-". http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/response.cgi?single=1&basename=\data\ie\piet&text_recno=799&root=config. Retrieved 2011-03-22. "Nathrach: Celtic: *natrī > OIsl nathir, gen. nathrach 'natrix, serpens'; Corn nader `Schlange', OBret pl. natrol-ion 'Basilisken', MBret azr 'Schlange', NBret aer ds., Cymr neidr, pl. nadroedd 'ds.'" 
  13. ^ Bourgne, Florence; Leo M. Carruthers, Arlette Sancery (2008). Un espace colonial et ses avatars: Naissance d'identités nationales. Presses Sorbonne. pp. 4. http://books.google.com/books?id=OEs4JyShTLQC&lpg=RA9-PA2-IA1&dq=anal%20nathrach&lr&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is&num=100&as_brr=0&pg=RA8-PA4#v=snippet&q=charme&f=false. "Remontant en effet au sources les plus anciennes, la celebre incantation de Merlin dans la film, le "Charme Supreme", "Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha", est une formule en vieil irlandais." 
  14. ^ "Soundtracks for Excalibur". http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/soundtrack. Retrieved 2011-03-21. 
  15. ^ Canby, Vincent (1981-04-10). "Boorman's 'Excalibur'". Movie Review (The New York Times). http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9505EFD61138F933A25757C0A967948260. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  16. ^ Kael, Pauline (April 20, 1981), "Boorman's Plunge", The New Yorker: 146–151, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1981/04/20/1981_04_20_146_TNY_CARDS_000120840, retrieved 2011-03-22 
  17. ^ Axmaker, Sean. "Excalibur". Reviews. Parallax View. http://parallax-view.org/2011/03/09/excalibur-blu-ray-and-a-film-unfinished-dvds-of-the-week/. Retrieved 19 March 2011. 
  18. ^ Lazarus, David (September 7, 2000). "Excalibur". Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/dvd/review/2000/09/07/excalibur/index.html?CP=IMD&DN=110. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  19. ^ Jean-Marc Elsholz, "Elucidations: Bringing to Light the Aesthetic Underwriting of the Matière de Bretagne in John Boorman's Excalibur", in Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England, eds. Leo Carruthers, Raeleen Chai-Elsholz, Tatjana Silec. New York: Palgrave, 2011. 205-26.
  20. ^ "Excalibur (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/excalibur. Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  21. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Excalibur". festival- cannes.com. http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/1738/year/1981.html. Retrieved 2009-05-31. 
  22. ^ {{cite web|last=Kit |first=Borys |url=http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Bryan-Singer-Excalibur-Remake-Dead-27411.html%7Ctitle=Bryan Singer's Excalibur Remake Is Dead|

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