Excalibur (film)

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Excalibur movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Boorman
Screenplay by
Based onLe Morte d'Arthur
by Thomas Malory
Adapted byRospo Pallenberg
Produced byJohn Boorman
CinematographyAlex Thomson
Edited byJohn Merritt
Music byTrevor Jones
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • 10 April 1981 (1981-04-10)
Running time
141 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 loosely 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[7] and Carl Orff,[8] 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 Irish and British actors, including Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Ciarán Hinds.[5][obsolete source]

Film critics Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby criticized the film's plot and characters,[9][10] although they and other reviewers[11] 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 the magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake for Uther Pendragon. After Uther breaks a peace pact between them out of lustful desire for Igrayne, the wife of his enemy, the Duke of Cornwall, Merlin agrees to help Uther seduce her on the condition that Uther give Merlin “what issues from your lust." Merlin uses his magic to transform Uther into the appearance of Cornwall, tricking Igrayne into sleeping with him, while Cornwall dies in battle at the same moment. Cornwall's daughter Morgana senses his death, and sees through Uther's illusion. Nine months later, Igrayne has given birth to Uther's son Arthur, but Merlin comes for the boy, forcing Uther to adhere to his vow. Uther has a change of heart and chases after him, but becomes the victim of an ambush by Cornwall's surviving men, and Merlin ignores his cries for help, leaving the unworthy Uther to his fate. Not wanting anyone else to have it, Uther thrusts Excalibur into a large stone just before he dies, crying that "Nobody shall wield Excalibur, but me!" Merlin declares that he who pulls the sword from the stone shall be king.

Years later, Arthur is squire to his step-brother Kay, but loses his brother's sword before a jousting match. To replace it, Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone and attempts to present it to Kay. Kay initially pretends he did pull out the sword, but his honor quickly compels him to tell the truth. Merlin arrives and 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, Arthur follows Merlin and falls into a long sleep. When he wakes, Arthur helps Leondegrance, whose castle is under siege by Arthur's enemies led by Uryens. Prevailing over Uryens forces, when he has the rebel commander at his mercy Arthur spares him, and to Merlin's surprise is knighted in turn with Excalibur by Uryens, who swears fealty to Arthur along with the rest of the rebels. Arthur then meets Leondegrance's daughter Guinevere and is smitten; but, Merlin foresees trouble.

Later, the undefeated knight Lancelot blocks a bridge, seeking a king worthy of his sword. Lancelot defeats King Arthur's knights, so Arthur challenges Lancelot in a fight to the death. During the battle, Arthur summons Excalibur's magic and breaks Excalibur against Lancelot's armor in victory, presaging how Lancelot will break his Kingdom. Overcome by guilt that he used the power of the sword to alter fate, destroying Excalibur as a result, Arthur throws the pieces into a nearby lake and displays his remorse and penance. The Lady of the Lake then appears and restores Excalibur to the repentant king, Lancelot is revived and swears allegiance to Arthur after being defeated at last, and Arthur and his knights unify the land with Lancelot as their champion. Arthur creates the Round Table, and commissions the building of his castle fortress of Camelot. Arthur marries Guinevere; Lancelot confesses that he has fallen in love with her too. Arthur's half-sister Morgana, a budding sorceress still bitter towards Arthur, comes to Camelot and becomes apprenticed to Merlin, yet harbors dark intentions for the kingdom.

Lancelot meets Perceval, a peasant boy, and takes him to Camelot to become his squire. Guinevere is accused of treachery by Gawain, influenced by Morgana's manipulation, and a duel over her innocence or guilt is set. Arthur is lawfully unable to champion her as king and judge of the trial, thus Lancelot becomes her champion. When he is seemingly late for the duel, Perceval volunteers to fight in Guinevere's honor in his stead, and is knighted by Arthur, before Lancelot shows up in time for the duel. Lancelot manages to defeat Gawain in the duel but is badly wounded in the process. Overcome by her feelings for Lancelot, Guinevere later gives in to them and follows him into the forest where they succumb to their desires.

Arthur later finds Guinevere and Lancelot asleep together, and at the sight of the betrayal, spitefully 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, stealing the secret Charm of Making from Merlin in the process. Morgana later takes the form of Guinevere and seduces and rapes the unknowing Arthur, her half-brother, to bear a child, before revealing her identity to the king and her intent to usurp the kingdom through their child.

Morgana births a son, Mordred, whose incestuous origin strikes the land with famine and sickness, and Arthur is struck by a magical bolt of lightning. Arthur is reduced to a weakened state, and is forced to send his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail in hopes of restoring the land and himself. Many of his knights die over the years questing for the Grail or are seduced and bewitched by Morgana into entering her service. As Mordred grows to adulthood, Morgana provides him with an enchanted suit of golden armor impenetrable to any weapon forged by man. Once he is an adult, Mordred rides to Camelot with some of his forces and demands that the weakened Arthur give him the crown, but he is denied, before coldly rebuking Arthur's attempt to recognize Mordred as his son, spitefully vowing to return with an army to take Camelot by force.

Perceval manages to resist Morgana's attempts to seduce him into giving up the quest, and is able to survive her attempt to execute him. Before long he is the final remaining knight questing for the Grail, after Uryens is murdered by Mordred for refusing to renounce Arthur as the king, with the dying Uryens pleading for Perceval not to give up. Along the way, he finds Lancelot during his search for the Holy Grail but seemingly fails to convince Lancelot to return to Arthur and help them. Perceval nearly drowns but is transported to where the Grail is kept, proves worthy, gains the Grail and takes it back to Arthur, who drinks from it and is revitalized in an instant, along with the land. Arthur calls upon Kay to rally his remaining forces to ride out to do battle with Mordred, Morgana and their forces to restore the kingdom in full.

Arthur finds Guinevere at a convent, and they reconcile. She gives him back Excalibur, which she had kept, and after wistfully pondering who he might have been if not for his destiny, he rides off with his men to do battle. At Stonehenge on the eve of battle, Arthur falls asleep, and his love for Merlin brings him back from the magical prison that Morgana trapped him into the dream world. After a final conversation with Arthur, Merlin appears to Morgana as a shadow and tricks her into speaking the Charm of Making and exhausting her magical powers, summoning a mist that envelops her camp and the battlefield. Mordred discovers her aged, true self and murders her in disgust.

Arthur and his men wage war on Mordred's forces at Camlann, using the mist to conceal their small numbers. Lancelot arrives unexpectedly, turning the tide of battle. Arthur and Lancelot reconcile just before Lancelot dies in his arms. Arthur faces off against Mordred and is mortally wounded in the process when he is impaled by Mordred's spear. But Arthur uses Excalibur's magical powers to pierce Mordred's armor, killing him as well. In the aftermath of the battle, as he is slowly dying, he commands Perceval, the only other survivor, to throw Excalibur into a lake. Though initially refusing to follow Arthur's final command, Perceval complies when Arthur promises him that one day the sword will rise again when a worthy king comes to power. Perceval throws Excalibur into a lake, and the Lady of the Lake catches it, dragging it into the depths. Perceval returns to the battlefield in time to glimpse Arthur being carried away on a ship, sailing towards his rest on 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 appear: his daughter Katrine Boorman played Igraine, 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".[12]



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 The Lord of the Rings in mind,[13] and it has been noted that certain scenes are reminiscent of Monty Python's 1975 comedy film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.[citation needed]

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 the set would come through in the actors' performances. Boorman also cast his daughter Katrine Boorman as Igraine, Arthur's mother.


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, the 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.[14] 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.[15] 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."[16][17]

The film's sword Excalibur at the London Film Museum

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 Carbone, is 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).[18]

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.[19][20][21] 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:[22]

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

In modern English, this can be translated as:

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

During The Undertaker's run in the World Wrestling Federation with the Ministry of Darkness in 1999, the first and third line of the chant would be used as him "speaking in tongues" during rituals and sacrifices.


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.[23]

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] On Rotten Tomatoes it has a 73% "Certified fresh" rating based on 90 reviews.[24] On Metacritic it has a score of 56% based on reviews from 10 critics.[25]

Roger Ebert called it both a "wondrous vision" and "a mess."[9] 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."[26] 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 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."[27]

Others have praised the entire film, with Variety calling it "a near-perfect blend of action, romance, fantasy and philosophy".[11] 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."[28] 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."[29] 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.[30]

Christopher John reviewed Excalibur in Ares Magazine #9 and commented that "Excalibur is a shockingly large film and an 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."[31] 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". In 2009, Zack Snyder said Excalibur was his favorite film, calling it "the perfect meeting of movies and mythology".[32]


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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[35][36][37] 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 (1981)". British Board of Film Classification. 22 February 2017. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
  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. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  6. ^ a b c "Excalibur". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  7. ^ Extracts from Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Twilight of the Gods
  8. ^ Extract from Carmina Burana
  9. ^ a b Ebert, Roger. "Excalibur". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014. What a wondrous vision EXCALIBUR is! And what a mess.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b "Excalibur". Variety. 31 December 1980. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Boorman, John (1 November 2003). Adventures of a Suburban Boy. Faber Books. pp. 178ff. ISBN 978-0571216956.
  14. ^ Manthey, Dirk, ed. (1981). Excalibur. Cinema Programme 27. pp. 15, 20.
  15. ^ "Film Costume Design in 1982". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  16. ^ Kennedy, Harlan (March 1981). "John Boorman in Interview". American Film. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, VII, 3.
  19. ^ Everson, Michael. "Merlin's Charm of Making". Evertype. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  20. ^ "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'
  21. ^ "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.'
  22. ^ 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). Vol. 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
  23. ^ "Cahir's Excalibur sword removed for repairs". www.tipperarylive.ie.
  24. ^ "Excalibur (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 17 June 2022.
  25. ^ "Excalibur". Metacritic.
  26. ^ Canby, Vincent (10 April 1981). "Boorman's 'Excalibur'". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  27. ^ Kael, Pauline (20 April 1981). "Boorman's Plunge". The New Yorker. pp. 146–151. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  28. ^ Axmaker, Sean. "Excalibur". Parallax View. Retrieved 19 March 2011.
  29. ^ Lazarus, David (7 September 2000). "Excalibur". Salon. Salon.com. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ John, Christopher (July 1981). "Film & Television". Ares Magazine. Simulations Publications, Inc. (9): 21.
  32. ^ Newsweek Staff (7 March 2009). "A Life in Movies: Zack Snyder". Newsweek. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  33. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Excalibur". Festival de Cannes. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  34. ^ "EXCALIBUR | British Board of Film Classification". www.bbfc.co.uk.
  35. ^ "Behind the Sword in the Stone". Indiegogo. 1 December 2012. Archived from the original on 16 July 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  36. ^ Hall, Eva (20 December 2012). "'Excalibur' Documentary Wraps Principal Photography In Ireland". Irish Film and Television Network. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  37. ^ "Behind the Sword in the Stone". IMDb. Retrieved 3 May 2017.

External links[edit]