Excalibur (1981)


During the Middle Ages, a young man named Arthur (Nigel Terry, The Lion in Winter) retrieves the mysterious sword Excalibur from a stone, and immediately he is proclaimed King. Using Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson, The Seven-Percent Solution) as his advisor and confidant, King Arthur initiates the unification of England under one kingdom, culminating with the creation of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. But Arthur is betrayed by the people closest to him and not even the powerful Merlin can save Camelot.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Historians have debated for years about the truthfulness of the Arthurian legend. Although most scholars have concluded that the stories about Camelot and the Knights of the Round Tables are mostly part of a mystical fantasy, there is evidence that the often-told story has basis on real people and real events.

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur remains the best-known book about the subject, and is the primary inspiration for Excalibur, a brooding, super-stylish, sometimes phantasmagorical retelling of the famous fable.

With all legends, it is impossible to know what is true or what is fiction. What remains important is that this superb film attempts to explain a period of transition in human history that seems missing from history books. That transition represents an end of an era of darkness and mysticism (represented by the Dark Ages) and the beginning of a period of renaissance and enlightenment (triggered by the discovery of America in 1492) — it’s an ambitious approach for any filmmaker.

Director John Boorman (Deliverance and Hope and Glory) clearly understands the dilemma, and he succeeds in presenting the story as an allegory of mankind losing its sense of wonder, and the price that we eventually paid. It’s an interesting movie that, I think, will puzzle and fascinate audiences for years to come.

Snazzy and spellbinding, Excalibur, written by director Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, is an astonishing accomplishment and it breathes much-needed new life into the well-known legend. Boorman and company have not only given new form and resonance to the popular story and characters; they have managed to create a perfect fusion of legend and historical accuracy.

Boorman’s idiosyncratic interpretation keeps all the mysticism of the story intact, while placing the fantastic events in their real-time and place. The movie shows the grimness of the Dark Ages like no other film has done before or after. Realism and mysticism have never been realized so vividly and in such great harmony.

Considering the scope and opulence that the entire production radiates, it comes as a shock to learn that the movie had a relatively tight budget. Much of the film was shot on location in Ireland. Alex Thomson’s exquisite, Oscar-nominated cinematography is one of the film’s greatest achievements. I also loved Trevor Jones’s thunderous musical score, which really shows off during the magnificent battle scenes. There are significant scenes played against the powerful classical compositions by Wagner and Orff.

Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren (The Queen) nearly steal the film as Merlin and Morgana respectivly. Williamson and Mirren (allegedly) hated each other in real life and since the actors play adversaries, the film actually benefits from their uncomfortable situation — the scenes between actors are packed with tension.

The cast also includes many familar faces: Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) as Gawain, Patrick Stewart (X-Men) as King Leondegrance, Nicholas Clay (The Night Digger) as Sir Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Queen Guenevere, and Gabriel Byrne (Miller’s Crossing) as Uther Pendragon. Boorman’s daughter, Katrine, plays Igrayne, and his son, Charley (The Emerald Forest), plays Mordred as a boy.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Excalibur is a smart, provocative and stimulating film — it will give you something to think about for days to come. It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive film about the Arthurian legend. Highly recommended! Color, 140 minutes, Rated R.

9 responses to “Excalibur (1981)

  1. Oddly enough, the movie wasn’t much liked on release, and this seems to have been because it differed so much from the standard romantic-epic treatment such topics usually got (think El Cid or, for that matter, Lancelot and Guinevere). Add in oddities like Merlin being as much a comic as an epic figure, and you can see why so many of the critics were puzzled. What Boorman set out to do, I think (and this was John Clute’s insight, not mine, when I was writing about the movie for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy), was to put Le Morte d’Arthur up on screen — not the Arthurian legend as since prettified by Victorian sensibilities and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, etc., but the raw original. And that is probably why the movie has survived so well — indeed, is admired far more today I believe than it was in 1981.

    I hadn’t known that Mirren and Williamson loathed each other. I wonder why they did?

    PS: Aaargh! In quickly checking my memory of the movie’s original critical reception against its Wikipedia entry, I’ve discovered that someone’s planning a remake. Why, Lord, oh why?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the info. I saw it at the cinema, but yes, many people discovered it on Home Video. It predates the sword-and-sorcery craze of the 1980s, which was initiated by the release of Conan The Barbarian the following year. Like Blade Runner, another great ’80s movie that was ignored by the masses, its reputation keeps growing.

      The DVD (R1) comes with an audio commentary by Boorman. He explains in detail the animosity between Mirren and Williamson. According to the director, the feud was intense!

      Remake? Oh, dear! Have you seen King Arthur, with Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, and Keira Knightley? That was awful! No more, please.


      • Have you seen King Arthur, with Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, and Keira Knightley?

        Ha! I quite liked that — for some of the same reasons I liked Excalibur, oddly enough. I agree it didn’t help that it seemed to take Owen until about the second reel before he decided to join the party, but I loved the depiction of Guinevere as a potentially vicious pagan princess rather than some well hairdressed blonde bimbo.

        Liked by 1 person

        • For me, at least, King Arthur went too far in de-glamorizing the Arthurian legend. I really love Owen and Knightley, and I appreciated how they tried to re-invent the beloved characters. I just prefer my sword-and-sorcery with a touch of magic realism (I didn’t care for First Knight either). IMHO, Excalibur achieved the perfect balance between gritty realism and fantasy. That’s why I skipped Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood (have you seen it? Is it any good?). I figured it was going to be too “real” for my taste. The 1938 version is perfect anyway — don’t mess with perfection … 😉


  2. I haven’t seen the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie. I was quite excited about it when I first heard of its premise (the tale told from the viewpoint of the Sheriff of Nottingham) but, when I learned that Scott had decided to make it as just another Robin Hood movie, I lost all interest.

    Obviously that same groundedness that I liked in King Arthur was what turned you off it. Fair nuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice review of a fascinating film. Have to watch my Blu again. Helen Mirren is a favorite of mine and goodness she is stunning looking in this.

    Liked by 1 person

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