Excalibur (1981)



Director:  John Boorman  

Starring:  Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Nigel Terry (Arthur), Helen Mirren (Morganna), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot), Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere), Corin Redgrave (Cornwall),  Paul Geoffrey (Perceval),  Robert Addie (Mordred),  Patrick Stewart (Leondegrance), Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon),  Katrine Boorman (Igrayne),  Liam Neeson (Gawain). 

Country:  British film

This is a sexier Camelot and a more dream-like Camelot.  It is still not that great, but the prettier images make it one of the better versions of the Arthurian legend.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

There is a big fight between knights while Merlin the sorcerer looks on.  Uther tells Merlin that he is the strongest and that Merliln promised to give him the sword of power, Excalibur.  Merlin will grant him the sword if he makes peace.  So Uther speaks with Cornwall saying:  "One land, one king.  That is my peace."  He grants Cornwall land in return for peace.  They celebrate in Cornwall's castle.  Cornwall has his wife Igrayne dance for all the knights and becomes Uther totally captivated by the woman.  He says that he must have her.  Merlin is furious with Uther for breaking the peace, especially since it was all for lust. 

Uther besieges Cornmwall's castle to get at Igrayne.  It is a harder task than he had imagined and so Uther calls on Merlin to use his magic to help him.  Merlin agrees to use magic if Uther will promise that his first male child with Igrayne will be his.  Uther agrees.  Cornwall is drawn out of the castle in pursuit of Uther.  Merlin and Uther see him leave his castle.  Merlin then conjures up a thick fog over which Uther can ride his horse to the castle.  On the way there, Merlin transforms Uther's face to look like that of Cornwall. 

Morgana tells her mother Igrayne that she has seen in her sleep that her father has been killed in battle.  But then Uther as Cornwall shows up, sends Morganna away and has sex with Igrayne. 

Uther and Igrayne have a baby boy.  As Uther gushes over his new son, Merlin shows up to take the child away from them.  Uther protests that he spoke rashly.  He also complains about events in his kingdom.  But Merlin answers that no one trusts him because of what the did to Cornwall and Igrayne.  He then tells Uther:  "You are not the one."  Igrayne is devastated by the news and she sends Uther after Merlin and the baby.

Uther and his men are ambushed and Uther is mortally wounded.  With his last energy he runs up a hill and thrusts Excalibur into a rock.  Only the true king will be able to remove the sword from the rock.  Merlin tells little Arthur that he is the one to be king.  Uther dies.  Sir Hector raises Arthur along with his own biological son. 

Arthur is now a young man.  He attends the jousting feasts to determine who will obtain permission to try to remove Excalibur from the rock in order to be declared the new king.  Arthur is there in support of his brother.  When it is his brother's time to joust they realize that Arthur doesn't have the sword with him.  He left it in the tent.  So Arthur rushes back to the tent only to discover that it has been stolen by a young boy who is now running off with it.  Arthur gives chase and finds himself standing next to Excalibur.  Since he can't get his brother's sword for him, he decides to pull out Excalibur which he is readily able to do.  The shout goes out that Arthur has removed Excalibur from the rock.  Some of the knights accept Arthur as king, while others reject him as a fraud.  The knights choose up sides and part. 

Merlin tells Arthur that he is king.  He then tells Arthur of his real mother and father and of his upbringing.  Merlin leaves suddenly and Arthur, who is very unsure of his new status, chases after him.  Merlin tries to reassure him.  He gets Arthur to go with him back to the knights who support Arthur.  Arthur and his men go to the attack against the forces arrayed against him in the siege of Leondegrance's castle.  Arthur and his men arrive at the castle and attack the attackers of the castle. 

The fight ends when Arthur does battle with one of his major opponents.  Arthur defeats his opponent but the knight says he will not surrender to a mere squire.  So Arthur gives Excalibur to his opponent and asks him to knight him.  The man with Excalibur hesitates for a moment, but then knights Arthur.  The other opponent knights now bow down to Arthur. 

There is a big celebration at the castle.  Leondegrance's daughter Guenevere captivates Arthur, who asks Merlin if he can make her love him.  Merlin says that after the magic he used with Uther and Igrayne he won't intervene in love again.  He adds, however, that a loyal friend will one day betray Arthur. 

A stranger from across the sea named Lancelot jousts with the king's knights and defeats them all.  Arthur then decides to face the new knight himself.  Lancelot is getting the better of Arthur and so Arthur calls on Excalibur's power to save him.  His next blow knocks Lancelot unconscious, but in the process Excalibur is broken in two.  The Lady of the Lake rises to the water's surface to give Arthur a whole Excalibur and Merlin tells him to take it quickly, which he does.  Lancelot now accepts Arthur as his one true king.  Arthur accepts his pledge of allegiance and tells Lancelot that the knight will the king's champion.  Lancelot helps Arthur win a key victory that frees the west.  Now it truly is one land, one king. 

Arthur establishes a circle of fellowship that meets around a round table.  He calls the group the Knights of the Round Table.  Sir Lancelot escorts Guenevere to Arthur. 

Morganna, Arthur's half sister, is now all grown-up and very beautiful.  She tells Merlin that he and she are like each other.  She urges him to teach her his tricks.  He adds that the days of our kind are numbered as the one God of Christianity takes over from the old religion.

A young man named Perceval follows Sir Lancelot around and asks to be his squire so that he can train to be a knight.  He runs alongside Lancelot  as Lancelot rides his horse to Camelot. 

Morganna and Guenevere walk together.  Morganna realizes that there is some kind of relationship between Guenevere and Lancelot.  She makes a mental note of it to make use of the information later.  At a dinner around the round table Sir Gawain denounces Guenevere saying that she has a relationship with Lancelot.  Guenevere protests her innocence.  Since Arthur as king cannot defend Guenevere, Lancelot is designated as her defender.  A jousting match between Lancelot and Gawain is arranged.  While preparing for the joust, Lancelot wounds himself while reacting to a dream where he fights with himself. 

At the joust, Lancelot does not show up and Perceval says that he will defend Guenevere.  But Perceval cannot do this because he is not a knight.  So Arthur knights Perceval.  As Perceval readies himself for the joust, Lancelot shows up.  Lancelot wins the challenge and Gawain declares that the queen is innocent.  After this, Lancelot falls unconscious from his earlier self-inflicted wound.  Guenevere attends the sick knight, but Merlin says that the hero has no will to live.  Arthur asks and Merlin heals Lancelot. 

Lancelot returns to the round table after skipping many of the get-togethers.  But he soon leaves for a needed rest in the forest.  Guenevere rides out alone to see Lancelot.  They meet, embrace and kiss. 

Arthur asks Merlin if his wife and Lancelot are together and Merlin answers in the affirmative.  He also asks Merlin if he will ever see him again.  Merlin says no, the world is done with him.  Merlin visits with Morganna and she asks him to take her with him.  She wants him to teach her the "charm of making".  Merlin takes her with him down into the "coils of the dragon".  There Morganna can see images of Arthur approaching Lancelot and Guenevere in the forest.  As Arthur stands over the sleeping lovers, he raises Excalibur and thrusts it into the ground between the two of them.  The sword also goes into Merlin.  Morganna then traps Merlin in the coils of the dragon.  Morganna tells him:  "I shall find a man and give birth to a god." 

In the morning Guenevere awakens to find Excalibur next to her.  She realizes that Arthur had been standing over them during the night.  Lancelot wakes up and is extremely upset saying:  "A king without a sword, a land without a king." 

While Arthur is feeling weak and sick, Morganna seduces him and the two have sex.  Half-brother and half-sister have a child named Mordred.  The kingdom around them is falling apart.  The peasants are starving.  The still very weak Arthur tells his knights that they must find the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the last supper.  Only the Holy Grail can redeem the kingdom.  All the knights head out to search for the holy chalice. 

Perceval runs into a young boy in golden armor.  The boy tells Perceval if he wants to find the Holy Grail to come with him.  As they ride Perceval sees his fellow knights hanging by ropes attached to their necks from a huge tree.  The bodies have become partly skeletons.  The boy is Mordred, son of Arthur and his half-sister Morganna.  Mordred delivers Perceval to Morganna.  Morganna tells him that there is no Holy Grail.  She then has her men grab Perceval and hang him from the huge tree with the rest of the knights.  As Perceval's rope swings back and forth, he dreams of the Holy Grail and thinks he almost has the answer.  The spurs of one of the knights above him cuts through his rope and he drops to the ground awakening him from his dream.

Morganna sends Mordred and his army out to claim his kingdom from Arthur.  Mordred tells Arthur:  "I have come to claim what is mine father."  He adds that he will take Camelot by force.  Later Mordred kills the knight Uryens making Lanceot and Perceval the last knights of the Round Table, besides Arthur.  As a knight Perceval is attacked by the local peasants led by none other than the now wildman Lancelot.  Perceval recognizes the wildman as Lancelot.  The peasants chase Perceval into the local river and he finds himself being washed downstream.  When he comes up for air he finds himself near the castle he saw in his dream of the Holy Grail.  He goes inside and obtains the chalice. 

Perceval returns to King Arthur and has him drink from the Holy Grail.  Arthur is reinvigorated and now has the energy to go to battle against Mordred.  He visits his wife Guenevere in the nunnery.  They forgive each other and Guenevere returns Excalibur to Arthur.  Arthur calls on Merlin to return to him and Merlin does so saying that Arthur's love brought him back.  The two talk about the coming challenge for Arthur.

Modred has a big army and Arthur is going to need help.  Mordred speaks with Morganna in Mordred's camp and challengers her magic abilities asking her if she has forgotten the "charm of making".   Taking the challenge she lays down a heavy fog like Merlin did when he made Uther appear like Morganna's father Cornwall.   This is bad news for Mordred and he enters his mother's tent to see what she has done.  The moisture of the fog has turned Morganna from a beautiful woman into an old hag and Mordred strangles Morganna to death.

Lancelot returns to fight alongside Arthur.   In the struggle Lancelot is mortally wounded.  As Lancelot lays dying he asks Arthur to forgive him.  He then asks Arthur if Guenevere will be queen again and is happy when he learns that she will be.  Lancelot dies.  Arthur then fights against Mordred.  Mordred runs Arthur through with a lance, but Arthur is able to kill Mordred with Excalibur.  Arthur tells Perceval to throw Excalibur into the water to the Lady of the Lake.  Perceval returns to Arthur without throwing Excalibur into the water.  Arthur reassures Perceval that that Excalibur will not be lost to their people.  Another king will arise and will retrieve Excalibur.  With this reassurance, Perceval is able to throw Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake.  When Perceval returns he sees Arthur's body on a ship sailing away. 


Pretty good movie about a legendary character of whom little is known.  It tells the basic story of Merlin, Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot.  Nicol Williamson was great as Merlin and Helen Mirren spiced things up with her beauty in a rather small role.     

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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