John Boorman's Excalibur
Directed by: John Boorman
Produced by: John Boorman
Written by: John Booreman
Starring: Nigel Terry
Helen Mirren
Nicol Williamson
Nicholas Clay
Cherie Lunghi
Liam Neeson
Patrick Stewart
Runtime: 140 mins.
Country: Ireland
Language: English
Distributed by: Warner Brothers

Excalibur is a 1981 film which retells the legend of King Arthur. Excalibur was directed by John Boorman and stars Nigel Terry (King Arthur), Helen Mirren (Arthur's half-sister Morgana), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot) and Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere). The film features some noted actors in early screen roles. Liam Neeson plays Gawain, Patrick Stewart plays King Leodegrance, and Gabriel Byrne plays Uther Pendragon. Several members of the Boorman family also appeared in the picture. Igrayne (Arthur's mother), the Lady of the Lake, Mordred as a boy, and the infant Arthur were both played by Boorman's children. Because of the number of Boormans involved with the film, it is sometimes called "The Boorman Family Project."

Excalibur was filmed in Irish locations in Wicklow, Tipperary, and County Kerry. The armour was designed by Bob Ringwood. The screenplay is by Rospo Pallenberg with John Boorman. The soundtrack is by Trevor Jones, with sound bytes and samples drawn from Orff's Carmina Burana and Wagnerian motifs, of fate (Ring) and fatal attraction (Tristan und Isolde). A portion of the Siegfried Funeral March from Götterdämmerung was used as the main theme music of the film over the opening and closing credits. The film grossed US$34,967,437 and was the 18th most successful film of 1981.

Plot summaryEdit

Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about
the entire movie.

It is a dark age and the land is without a king. Two great knights, Uther Pendragon and the Duke of Cornwall, fight for dominance. Uther is aided by the shadowy enchanter Merlin, who gives him Excalibur, the "sword of power", which he takes from a hand rising from a lake. Merlin arranges a truce between the two rivals, where Cornwall yields to Uther, who is proclaimed king.

During a feast at Cornwall's castle, Uther develops a mad lust for Igrayne, Cornwall's wife. This leads to the truce being broken, and fighting starts anew.

Uther begs Merlin for one night with Igrayne, and Merlin agrees - after Uther swears that "what issues" from Uther's lust would be his. That night, Cornwall is tricked into attacking Uther's camp, where he is killed. Uther, having taken Cornwall's appearance by Merlin's magic, beds Igrayne. However, her daughter Morgana sees through the deception.

After Cornwall's death, Uther takes his wife and his castle for his own. Nine moons later, their son is born. However, Merlin takes him away. Regretting his oath, Uther pursues him into a forest, but is ambushed by knights who mistrust him and want his sword. He is mortally wounded, but before he dies he thrusts Excalibur into a rock. The other knights then try to pull it out, but none of them can. "He who draws the sword from the stone, he shall be king" Merlin explains. Some years later, Sir Ector and his sons Kay and Arthur go to a tournament in that forest, where the winner gets a shot at pulling Excalibur out of the rock. After Kay's sword is stolen, Arthur goes looking for another one, and pulls Excalibur out of the rock with ease. Ector reveals that he adopted him at Merlin's bidding. Merlin then appears and tells Arthur of his true parentage, and that he is King.

Arthur is acclaimed by the common folk as their King; however, the nobles Lot and Uryens reject him, while Leondegrance supports him. After spending the night alone with Merlin in the forest, where he learns of the mystic "dragon" and that he "is the land", Arthur goes into battle for the first time. He comes to the aid of Leondegrance, whose castle is under siege by the two lords. He wins the respect and fealty of all of them. In this way, he meets Guenevere, Leondegrance's daughter, with whom he falls in love.

Some years later, Arthur meets and fights a duel with Lancelot, "the best knight in Christendom", who is looking for a king worthy of his service. Arthur cannot defeat him. In his anger and pride, he calls upon Excalibur's power, and Lancelot is knocked senseless by his blow, but the sword breaks in two. Despairing, Arthur throws the pieces into a nearby body of water and admits he was wrong to use Excalibur to serve his own pride and vanity when he should have used it to serve his kingdom. However, the Lady of the Lake appears and gives him back Excalibur, magically repaired. When Lancelot wakes up, he swears loyalty to Arthur.

Some time later, Arthur finally unifies the land under his rule. He institutes the fellowship of the Round Table, marries Guenevere, and builds Camelot, his castle. During his wedding, his half-sister Morgana, now a sorceress, comes to Camelot. Recognizing a kindred spirit as well his desire for her, Merlin trains her further in the magic arts.

During these years of peace and prosperity, Lancelot finds a wild, innocent youth named Perceval, and takes him to Camelot to be trained as a squire. Morgana cajoles Merlin to reveal his magical secrets to her, planning revenge on him for his deeds with Uther. Lancelot and the queen gradually develop a love for each other.

Morgana manipulates Sir Gawain to accuse the two of adultery, which they are innocent of, save in their hearts, as Lancelot puts it. Arthur decrees a trial by combat to prove Guenevere's innocence, with Lancelot championing her against Gawain. The night before the duel, Lancelot gravely wounds himself while dreaming, torn between his passion and his loyalty to his king. The next day, he is late, and Arthur calls for another champion to fight in his place. Nobody comes forward except Perceval, and he is knighted by Arthur. Just as he and Gawain are about to joust, Lancelot arrives. He defeats Gawain despite his deep wound, and Guenevere is declared innocent. However, all these events only serve to make their feelings for each other stronger.

Finally, the two make love in a forest. In his anguish, Arthur resolves to kill them. Merlin bids him farewell. He takes Morgana to his sanctuary, a crystal cave below Camelot, ostensibly to teach her his deepest magical secret, the 'Charm of Making'. Once there, he attacks her with sorcery, knowing her plans and ambitions all along. In the forest, Arthur comes across the sleeping lovers, but spares them and drives Excalibur into the ground between their bodies. This causes a small earthquake within the crystal cave. As if struck by Excalibur himself, Merlin is weakened, and Morgana tricks him into revealing the charm. She uses the charm to entomb him in crystal.

Guenevere and Lancelot wake up to discover Excalibur driven between them. Mad with guilt, Lancelot runs off into the forest, while Guenevere eventually joins a convent. Later, Morgana takes on her appearance and seduces a heartbroken Arthur, and then leaves Camelot, pregnant with his child.

Nine months later, their son Mordred is born. Arthur, already weakened by the preceding events, is struck by lightning. The land falters as the king does; it undergoes famine and suffering. A broken Arthur sends his knights on a quest for the Grail, which will make him and the land whole again.

Years pass. Many knights die on the quest; others Morgana bewitches, to serve her and her son. One day, Perceval meets the young Mordred, who takes him to his mother, ostensibly to give him the Grail. On the way, he sees several of Arthur's knights, dead and hanging on a tree, their corpses being devoured by birds. Morgana tries to dissuade him from his quest and enchant him with a potion, but Perceval resists. He is hung from the tree. Whilst on the tree, he has a vision of entering a bright, mysterious castle, where the Grail is floating in the air, filled with blood. Inside, a voice asks him for "the secret of the Grail". Terrified, he runs away - and his rope snaps, and he escapes, just as the quest has escaped him.

More years pass. The now adult Mordred comes to the weakened King and demands the throne. Arthur refuses, but offers him his love. Mordred rejects him, and promises to take the throne by force.

Wandering about, Perceval finds Uryens beset by Mordred and his men, who wound him and leave him for dead. Before he dies, Uryens urges him not to give up the quest. Later, he comes upon Lancelot, now a wild man railing against Arthur and his knights, among a procession of peasants. They attack him and he falls into a river.

Nearly drowning, he has another vision of the castle. This time, he does not run away. Walking into the castle, Perceval sees the Grail hovering above him. A voice asks Perceval, "What is the secret of the Grail? Who does it serve?" Perceval responds, "You my lord." With the answer given, the Grail begins to transform into the outline of a man. The voice then speaks again. "Who am I?" the voice asks. Perceval falls to his knees and replies, "You are my lord and king. You are Arthur." The outline of the man begins to become clearer and Perceval can see that it resembles Arthur. Then, the voice speaks one final time. "Have you found the secret that I have lost?", it asks. "Yes", says Perceval, "You and the land are one." The secret of the grail is the lesson Arthur first learned from Merlin, but had forgotten. The quest is achieved; Perceval wins the Grail.

Perceval returns (or is transported) to Camelot. A dis-spirited Arthur drinks from the cup and is revitalized. "I never knew how empty was my soul, until it was filled" he exclaims. He and his remaining knights ride to war against Mordred and Morgana. As they ride, the long-barren land bursts into life; it is reborn with its King.

Arthur goes to Guinevere's convent, where they are reconciled. Guinevere then gives Arthur Excalibur, which she has kept safe all these years. Reunited with his sword of power, Arthur and his army ride towards the battlefield and the day of reckoning. They find out that almost all of the nobles of the land have rallied to Mordred and Morgana.

The evening before the day of destiny, Arthur thinks of Merlin and wishes that he could help him for one more time. Merlin, still physically encased in Morgana's crystal prison, appears to Arthur, and tells him that thanks to him, he is back in the land of dreams, where he (Arthur) is now. He then appears to Morgana in her dreams and tricks her into uttering the Charm of Making. This creates a thick fog and also turns Morgana (who has been using magic to preserve her youth and beauty) into an old hag. Appalled, Mordred kills her.

The day of destiny comes. Arthur uses the fog to hide his much smaller army and to spread confusion among Mordred's forces. Battle is joined. By the end of the day, everyone is killed, except for Arthur, Perceval and Mordred. Lancelot, who returns to fight for Arthur, reconciles with him just before he dies. The fog lifts, and Arthur meets Mordred in combat. Mordred skewers Arthur with his spear, mortally wounding him, but Arthur stabs Mordred in the throat with Excalibur.

As Arthur lies dying, he asks Perceval to throw Excalibur in a pool of calm water. He initially relents, since it is too important to be lost, but Arthur tells him that someday, another King will come, and Excalibur will rise again. As Perceval finally throws the sword, the hand clad in samite catches it and takes it under. When Perceval returns, Arthur is gone. Gazing from a distance, he sees Arthur lying in a boat attended by ladies clad in white, which soon goes out of sight.

Spoilers end here.


Actor Role
Nigel Terry King Arthur
Cherie Lunghi Guenevere
Helen Mirren Morgana
Nicol Williamson Merlin
Nicholas Clay Lancelot
Liam Neeson Gawain
Patrick Stewart King Leodegrance
Gabriel Byrne Uther Pendragon

Selected quotesEdit

  • "Any man who would be a knight and follow a King, follow me!" - Nigel Terry as Arthur
  • "You will be the land, And the land will be you. If you fail, the land will perish; As you thrive, the land will blossom." - Nichol Williamson as Merlin
  • "The One God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. But that's the way of things. It's time for men and their ways." - Williamson as Merlin

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