Excalibur (film)

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Excalibur movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Boorman
Produced byJohn Boorman
Screenplay by
Based onLe Morte d'Arthur
by Thomas Malory
Music byTrevor Jones
CinematographyAlex Thomson
Edited byJohn Merritt
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • 10 April 1981 (1981-04-10) (United States)
  • 2 July 1981 (1981-07-02) (United Kingdom)
Running time
140 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States[2][3][4]
Budget$11 million[5]
Box office$35 million[6]

Excalibur is a 1981 American epic medieval fantasy film directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman that retells the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, based on the 15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. It stars Nigel Terry as Arthur, Nicol Williamson as Merlin, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, Helen Mirren as Morgana, Liam Neeson as Gawain, Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon, Corin Redgrave as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance. The film is named after the legendary sword of King Arthur that features prominently in Arthurian literature. The film's soundtrack features the music of Richard Wagner and Carl Orff, along with an original score by Trevor Jones.

Excalibur was shot entirely on location in Ireland, employing Irish actors and crew. It has been acknowledged for its importance to the Irish filmmaking industry and for helping launch the film and acting careers of a number of British and Irish actors, including Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Ciarán Hinds.[5]

Film critics Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby criticized the film's plot and characters,[7][8] although they and other reviewers[9] praised its visual style. Excalibur opened at number one in the United States, eventually grossing $34,967,437 on a budget of around US$11 million to rank 18th in that year's receipts.[6]


The sorcerer Merlin retrieves Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake for Uther Pendragon, who secures a brief alliance with the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin agrees to help Uther seduce Cornwall's wife, Igrayne, on the condition that he give Merlin whatever results from his lust. Merlin transforms Uther into Cornwall's likeness with the Charm of Making. Cornwall's daughter Morgana senses her father's mortal injury during his assault on Uther's camp, and while Igrayne is fooled and Uther impregnates her, Morgana sees through it, watching Uther as Cornwall dies in battle. Nine months later, Merlin takes Uther's son Arthur. Uther pursues but is killed by Cornwall's knights. Uther thrusts Excalibur into a stone, crying that "Nobody shall wield Excalibur, but me!", and Merlin proclaims "He who draws the sword from the stone, he shall be king."

Years later, Sir Ector and his sons, Kay and Arthur attend a jousting tournament. Sir Leondegrance wins the chance to try pulling Excalibur from the stone, but fails. Kay's sword is later stolen, and Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone while trying to replace it. Word spreads, and Merlin announces to the crowd that Arthur is Uther's son, the rightful ruler. Leondegrance immediately proclaims his support for the new king. While the others argue, the overwhelmed Arthur falls into a long sleep. When he wakes, Arthur goes to aid Leondegrance, whose castle is under siege by Arthur's enemies, led by Sir Uryens. During the battle, Arthur defeats Uryens and then demands Uryens knight him, handing him Excalibur to do so. Uryens is tempted to kill him but is deeply moved by Arthur's faith and knights him. Uryens falls to his knees to declare his loyalty, which leads the others to follow suit. Arthur meets Leondegrance's daughter Guinevere and is smitten, but Merlin foresees trouble.

Years later, the undefeated knight Lancelot 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, so Arthur summons Excalibur's magic and defeats Lancelot, but breaks Excalibur in the process. Arthur is ashamed of abusing the sword's power to serve his own vanity and throws the sword's remains into the lake. The Lady of the Lake restores Excalibur to the king, Lancelot is revived and Arthur and his knights unify the land. Arthur creates the Round Table, builds Camelot and marries Guinevere; Lancelot confesses that he has fallen in love with her too. Arthur's half-sister Morgana, a budding sorceress and still bitter towards Arthur, becomes apprenticed to Merlin.

Lancelot stays away to avoid Guinevere. He meets Perceval, a peasant boy and takes him to Camelot to become a squire. Sir Gawain, under Morgana's influence, accuses Guinevere of driving Lancelot away, forcing a duel with Gawain to defend his and Guinevere's honor. The preceding night, Lancelot is attacked by himself in a nightmare and awakens to find himself wounded by his own sword. Arthur hastily knights Perceval when Lancelot is late to the duel, but Lancelot appears just in time and defeats Gawain. Merlin heals him and he rides out to the forest to rest. Guinevere realizes her feelings for Lancelot and they have sex. Meanwhile, Merlin lures Morgana to his lair to trap her, suspecting that she is plotting against Arthur.

Arthur finds Guinevere and Lancelot asleep together. Heartbroken, he thrusts Excalibur into the ground between them. 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 Guinevere and seduces Arthur. Before leaving, she reveals herself to Arthur, telling him that their illegitimate son will be the next king, much to his horror. On awakening to the sight of Excalibur, Lancelot flees in shame and Guinevere lies weeping.

Morgana bears a son, Mordred, whose incestuous origin strikes the land with famine and sickness. 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. Once Mordred grows to adulthood, Morgana has a suit of golden armor made for him, and casts an enchantment so that no weapon made by man can penetrate it. Mordred goes to demand that Arthur give him the crown. Arthur offers his love instead. Mordred rebuffs him, warning Arthur that he will return and take Camelot by force.

Perceval narrowly escapes Morgana and encounters an ugly old man, who preaches that the kingdom has fallen because of "the sin of pride". Perceval recognizes the man as Lancelot. Perceval fails to convince Lancelot to aid Arthur, 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. Upon answering the riddle, he gains the Grail and takes it to Arthur, who drinks from it and is revitalized, as is the land.

Arthur finds Guinevere at a convent and they reconcile. She gives him Excalibur, which she has kept. 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 a last 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 that had kept her young. She rapidly ages and Mordred kills her, repulsed by the sight of his once beautiful mother, now reduced to a decrepit old hag.

Arthur and Mordred's forces meet in battle. Lancelot arrives unexpectedly and turns the tide of battle, later collapsing from his unhealed self-inflicted wound. Arthur and Lancelot reconcile and Lancelot dies. Mordred stabs Arthur with a spear, but Arthur kills Mordred with Excalibur. Arthur tells Perceval to throw Excalibur into a pool of water, reassuring him that a new king will come and the sword will return. Perceval throws Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake catches it. Perceval returns to see Arthur lying on a ship, attended by three ladies clad in white, sailing away.


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 appear: his daughter Katerine played Igrayne, Arthur's mother, and his son Charley portrayed Mordred as a boy. Because of the number of Boormans involved with the film, it is sometimes called "The Boorman Family Project".[10]



Boorman had planned a film adaptation of the Merlin legend as early as 1969, but when submitting the three-hour script written with Rospo Pallenberg to United Artists, they rejected it deeming it too costly and offered him J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings instead. Boorman was allowed to shop the script elsewhere, but no studio would commit to it. Returning to his original idea of the Merlin legend, Boorman was eventually able to secure deals that would help him do Excalibur. Much of the imagery and set designs were created with his original vision of The Lord Of The Rings in mind, and it has been noted that certain scenes are reminiscent of Monty Python's 1975 comedy film, Monty Python And The Holy Grail.[11]

According to Boorman, the film was originally three hours long; among the 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.


Boorman cast Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren opposite each other as Merlin and Morgana, knowing that the two were on less than friendly terms due to personal issues that arose during a production of Macbeth seven years earlier. Boorman verified this on the Excalibur DVD commentary, saying he felt that the tension on set would come through in the actors' performances.


Cahir Castle during the siege battle sequence
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, Republic of Ireland, a well-preserved Irish castle. The castle's moat is the River Suir which flows around it. The fight with Lancelot was filmed at Powerscourt Estate's waterfall. Other locations included Wicklow Head as the backdrop to the battle over Tintagel, the Kerry coast as the place from which Arthur sails to Avalon and a place called Childers Wood near Roundwood, County Wicklow, where Arthur comes on Excalibur in the stone. At the time, John Boorman was living just a few miles down the road, at Annamoe.[12]

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


Autographed armor from the movie Excalibur in a pub in Cahir, Ireland, 2004

Bob Ringwood designed the costumes and received a BAFTA nomination for his work.[13] Terry English designed the armor and went on to craft the armor for the film Aliens.


Rospo Pallenberg and John Boorman wrote the screenplay, which is primarily an adaptation of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1469–70) recasting the Arthurian legends as an allegory of the cycle of birth, life, decay, and restoration, by stripping the text 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."[14][15]

In keeping with this approach, the film is intentionally anachronistic.[14] For example, the opening titles state the setting to be the Dark Ages, even though the knights wear full plate armour, 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 film's sword Excalibur at the London Film Museum

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" (probably inspired by the dragon omen seen in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Merlin's life).[16]

The Charm of Making[edit]

According to linguist Michael Everson, the "Charm of Making" that Merlin speaks to invoke the dragon is an invention, there being no attested source for the charm. Everson reconstructs the text as Old Irish.[17][18][19] The phonetic transcription of the charm as spoken in the film is Celtic pronunciation: [aˈnaːl naθˈrax, uːrθ vaːs beˈθʌd, doxˈjeːl ˈdjenveː]. Although the pronunciation in the film has little relation to how the text would actually be pronounced in Irish, the most likely interpretation of the spoken words, as Old Irish text is:[20]

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

In modern English, this can be translated as:

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


The "Sword in the Stone" sculpture, located at Cahir Castle, one of the filming locations. It was created by local stonemason Philip Quinn and bears the names of local people who appeared as extras.[21]

Excalibur was the number one film during its opening weekend of 10–12 April 1981, eventually earning $34,967,437 in the United States.[6] As of 2020, it currently has a 80% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 44 reviews.[22]

Roger Ebert called it both a "wondrous vision" and "a mess."[7] Elaborating further, Ebert wrote that 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." Vincent Canby wrote that while Boorman took Arthurian myths seriously, "he has used them with a pretentiousness that obscures his vision."[23] In her review in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that 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 writing 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."[24]

Others have praised the entire film, with Variety calling it "a near-perfect blend of action, romance, fantasy and philosophy".[9] Sean Axmaker of Parallax View wrote "John Boorman's magnificent and magical Excalibur is, to my mind, the greatest and the richest of screen incarnation of the oft-told tale."[25] In a later review upon the film's DVD release, 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."[26] A 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.[27]

Christopher John reviewed Excalibur in Ares Magazine #9 and commented that "Excalibur is a shockingly large film, and incredibly intricate and fascinating piece of cinema. It is a fine prologue for the spate of fantasy films waiting in the wings for release this year."[28]

The film featured many actors early in their careers who later became very well-known, including Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds. For his performance as Merlin, Nicol Williamson received widespread acclaim. The Times in 1981 wrote: "The actors are led by Williamson's witty and perceptive Merlin, missed every time he's offscreen".


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.[29]

Classifications and versions[edit]

When first released in the United Kingdom in 1981, the film ran to 140m 30s, and was classified as a "AA" by the BBFC, restricting it to those aged 14 and over.[1] In 1982, the BBFC replaced the "AA" certificate with the higher age-specific "15", which was also applied to Excalibur when released on home video.[30]

The 140-minute version was initially released in the United States with an R-rating. Distributors later announced a 119m PG-rated version, with less graphic sex and violence, but it was not widely released. Most home video releases are the R-rated version, but commercial TV channels may use the PG cut.

When Excalibur first premiered on HBO in 1982, the R-rated version was shown in the evening and the PG-rated version was shown during the daytime, following the then current rule of HBO only showing R-rated films during the evening hours.

1981 documentary[edit]

Neil Jordan directed a 1981 documentary on the making of Excalibur, entitled The Making of Excalibur: Myth Into Movie. Portions of this film appear in the 2013 documentary.

2013 documentary[edit]

A documentary entitled Behind the Sword in the Stone features interviews with director Boorman and many of the cast, such as Terry, Mirren, Stewart, Neeson, Byrne, Lunghi, and Charley Boorman.[31][32][33]Distribution rights were later acquired by PBS International, and the title was changed to Excalibur: Behind the Movie. As of June, 2020, this documentary was made available in the United States through various online streaming services.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Excalibur (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. 1 April 1981. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  2. ^ "Excalibur". American Film Institute. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  3. ^ "Excalibur". LUMIERE Database. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  4. ^ "Excalibur". Swedish Film Database. Archived from the original on 30 May 2018. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  5. ^ a b Doyle, Rónán (27 January 2011). "Boorman honoured as 'Excalibur' hits 30". Film Ireland. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  6. ^ a b c "Excalibur". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  7. ^ a b Ebert, Roger. "Excalibur". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014. What a wondrous vision EXCALIBUR is! And what a mess.
  8. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (10 April 1981). "Boorman's 'Excalibur'". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014. Except for the performances of Nicol Williamson... and Helen Mirren... the movie seems to be a beautiful, uninhabited, primeval forest.
  9. ^ a b "Excalibur". Variety. 31 December 1980. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  10. ^ Manwaring, Kevan (5 October 2009). "Brilliant Failures: Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)". The Big Picture. ISSN 1759-0922. Archived from the original on 5 January 2013. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  11. ^ Boorman, John (1 November 2003). Adventures of a Suburban Boy. Faber Books. pp. 178ff. ISBN 978-0571216956.
  12. ^ Manthey, Dirk, ed. (1981). Excalibur. Cinema Programme 27. pp. 15, 20.
  13. ^ "Film Costume Design in 1982". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  14. ^ a b Kennedy, Harlan (March 1981). "John Boorman in Interview". American Film. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  15. ^ "The Quest for the Hollywood Grail John Boorman's Excalibur, and the Mythic Development of the Arthurian Legend (sic)". Archived from the original on 25 June 2006. Retrieved 8 July 2006.
  16. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, VII, 3.
  17. ^ Everson, Michael. "Merlin's Charm of Making". Evertype. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  18. ^ "Indo-European etymology: *ane-". Retrieved 22 March 2011. 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'
  19. ^ "Indo-European etymology: *nētr-". Retrieved 22 March 2011. 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.'
  20. ^ Bourgne, Florence; Carruthers, Leo M.; Sancery, Arlette (2008). Un espace colonial et ses avatars: naissance d'identités nationales, Angleterre, France, Irlande, Ve-XVe siècles (in French). Volume 42 di Cultures et civilisations médiévales. Editor: Florence Bourgne. Presses Paris Sorbonne. p. 4. ISBN 9782840505594. serpent's [dragon's] breath, charm of death and life, thy spell of making
  21. ^ "Cahir's Excalibur sword removed for repairs". www.tipperarylive.ie.
  22. ^ "Excalibur (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 9 April 2020.
  23. ^ Canby, Vincent (10 April 1981). "Boorman's 'Excalibur'". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  24. ^ Kael, Pauline (20 April 1981). "Boorman's Plunge". The New Yorker: 146–151. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  25. ^ Axmaker, Sean. "Excalibur". Parallax View. Retrieved 19 March 2011.
  26. ^ Lazarus, David (7 September 2000). "Excalibur". Salon. Salon.com. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  27. ^ Elsholz, Jean-Marc (3 March 2011). "Elucidations: Bringing to Light the Aesthetic Underwriting of the Matière de Bretagne in John Boorman's Excalibur". In Carruthers, Leo; Chai-Elsholz, Raeleen; Silec, Tatjana (eds.). Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 205–26. ISBN 978-0230100268. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  28. ^ John, Christopher (July 1981). "Film & Television". Ares Magazine. Simulations Publications, Inc. (9): 21.
  29. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Excalibur". Festival de Cannes. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  30. ^ "EXCALIBUR | British Board of Film Classification". www.bbfc.co.uk.
  31. ^ "Behind the Sword in the Stone". Indiegogo. 1 December 2012. Archived from the original on 16 July 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  32. ^ Hall, Eva (20 December 2012). "'Excalibur' Documentary Wraps Principal Photography In Ireland". Irish Film and Television Network. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  33. ^ "Behind the Sword in the Stone". IMDb. Retrieved 3 May 2017.

External links[edit]