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Excalibur – The Gold Standard of Arthurian Movies

Updated on August 11, 2019
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Theatrical Release Poster by Bob Peak.Castle siege scene.Armor from Excalibur autographed and on display in a Cahir, Ireland pub.The sword used in Excalibur on display at the London Film Museum.
Theatrical Release Poster by Bob Peak.
Theatrical Release Poster by Bob Peak. | Source
Castle siege scene.
Castle siege scene. | Source
Armor from Excalibur autographed and on display in a Cahir, Ireland pub.
Armor from Excalibur autographed and on display in a Cahir, Ireland pub. | Source
The sword used in Excalibur on display at the London Film Museum.
The sword used in Excalibur on display at the London Film Museum. | Source

Basic Information

Sword and Sorcery moves were popular in the 1980s. “Excalibur” led the way. It has a talented cast; many went on to become household names. It has beautiful scenery, impressive sets, a fantastic score, and credible looking fights. The movie was the saga of King Arthur from his conception to his death.

The film opened in America on April 10, 1981. Its budget was about $11 million.[i] It grossed $34.2 million.[ii] The Academy Awards nominated “Excalibur” cinematographer, Alex Thomson, for an Oscar. The movie was filmed in Ireland and it does a good job of showing off the Emerald Isle’s scenery. The film has an excellent soundtrack. The scene of an older King Arthur leading his knights to the song “O Fortuna” is classic. The movie has an MPAA rating of “R” and the UK rating is “15”[iii].

King Arthur was supposed to be a character in the 6th century. The Arthurian stories mostly came out of the 13th and 14th century. Many of the depictions of King Arthur are from the 13th & 14th century and show the characters in 13th & 14th century armor. This makes the “Excalibur” armor accurate and inaccurate depending on point of view. The full body armor cuts down on the gore somewhat.


[i] United States Movie Database, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/reference, last accessed 8/10/19.

[ii] The Numbers, https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Excalibur#tab=summary, last accessed 8/10/19.

[iii] There is a “television” version of the movie with a PG rating.

The Story – This Capsule Has Spoilers

The story begins with a nighttime battle in a forest. Merlin (Nicol Williamson) sadly watches the battle. Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) demands Merlin give him Excalibur. Merlin agrees if Uther agrees to a truce. Uther, Excalibur in hand, and Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) make an equally amicable truce. The truce lasts until the party celebrating the truce. Uther is infatuated with Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne (Kathrine Boorman). This breaks the truce.

Uther lays siege to Cornwall’s castle. Merlin agrees to use enchantment so Uther can have a night with Igrayne, for a price. Nine months later Cornwall is dead and Uther has Igrayne and an infant son. Then Merlin comes back demanding his price, the infant. Merlin explains Uther’s position. Uther has many enemies and Merlin can protect the child. Merlin takes the infant, Arthur, and Uther is ambushed. Uther’s dying move is driving Excalibur into a stone. Whoever removes the sword from the stone will be king.

Years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) is a squire. With his brother’s sword stolen Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone as a substitute. This leads to an argument among the knights whether Arthur should be recognized as the king. Merlin’s appearance adds fuel to the fire. This leads to a battle. Arthur has the opposition leader, Uryens (Keith Buckley), at sword point. A wise move, that even catches Merlin by surprise, causes Urgens to recognize Arthur’s kingship.

King Arthur repels the invaders and unites the land. He has a prosperous kingdom. He married Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi). All seems well in his kingdom. There are underlying problems. The greatest knight, Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), loves Guenevere. To keep from being tempted Lancelot stays away from King Arthur’s castle, Camelot.

King Arthur’s half-sister, Morgana (Helen Mirren), is plotting. She has Merlin’s clairvoyance and Merlin taught her most of his magic. Morgana tells Gawain (Liam Neeson) it’s Guenevere’s love for Lancelot that’s keeping Lancelot away from Camelot. This sets off a chain of events that leaves; Merlin entombed, Morgana with the knowledge Merlin had kept from her, Guenevere and Lancelot separated from King Arthur and each other, Excalibur missing, and Morgana pregnant by King Arthur.

The one bright spot was Perceval (Paul Geoffrey). Perceval was Lancelot’s squire who King Arthur knighted when Lancelot was late to champion Guenevere and none of the other knights would champion her. King Arthur sends Perceval and the other knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail.

Over the 20-year quest all the knights either perished or defected to Morgana, except for Perceval. There was disease and famine in the land. Lancelot had become a priest. Guenevere is living in a convent. Morgana’s son Mordred (Robert Addie) is now a man. Morgana decides it is time for Mordred to take the throne.

Perceval finds the Holy Grail and has King Arthur drink from it. King Arthur knows he and those loyal to him must take the fight to Mordred and Morgana. King Arthur visits Guenevere. To his surprise she has kept Excalibur all these years. Merlin’s spirit comes back to join the struggle. It will be a great battle of sword and sorcery.

Observations

Merlin can be surprised, left at a loss, and defeated. While “The Dragon” is mentioned often no physical dragon appears. “The Dragon” is like “The Force” in “Star Wars”. King Arthur when he is at his best is brilliant. Sometimes he makes what seems good decisions but since they are not the best decisions the results are catastrophic. His greatness comes when he realizes his decision wasn’t the best.

Moves that don’t involve fighting often have significant effects on the battle. This is also true of real battles and wars. Often when all seems to be going well for one side there is something happening that will reverse the fortunes. This is also true in real life.

Women, wittingly and unwittingly, play crucial roles in all events. There is Lady of the Lake (Hilary Joyalle) and The Fates. Igrayne sparked a battle and gave birth to the future king. Guenevere assisted in Morgana’s ascendency. She also kept Excalibur until King Arthur needed it again. Mongana dominated the course of events.

Excalibur

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Robert Sacchi

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    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      4 weeks ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      I have not seen this movie but enjoyed your review of it. Thanks!

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      5 weeks ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. These are good points. To pull a Yogi Berra, the way to make a story stand the test of time is to make the story timeless. The original Star Wars was a bit of a throwback to the Bick Rogers serials. A lot of Science Fiction before Star Wars had gotten into social messaging. There is nothing wrong with social messaging as long as the audience doesn't feel they're getting beaten over the head with it. To be The Dark Side's advocate, there may be a push on to the youth instinct of, "adults made a mess of the world and we know better and can do better."

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      5 weeks ago from Florida

      I agree, it is the gold standard still today.

      Excalibur from 80/81 and Blade Runner 81/82 are movies that tell fantasy without getting caught up in the particular era in which they are created... its a very hard thing to pull off, to make a movie that involves magic or future science and have the special effects hold up to the test of time, and have the acting and story remain sound and interesting for audiences of another era.

      The flaw in many movies coming out currently has been the heavy dose of current political and social justice messaging wrapped into them, they won't stand the test of time because they are testament to this current time and not true stories of fantasy or far off future.

      For example the new Star Wars trilogy, where the villains are inept emotionally unbalanced fools, which are knocked around by the hero right out of the gates, no story arc, no character development, pitiful villains that seem incapable of being anything more than punching bags and easily defeated fops... that they ruined an iconic character (Luke) in the process of making this new series was the nail in the coffin of what is a terrible story, with poor flow and no character development. This series is heavy on social and political messaging and light on substance or storytelling.

      In ten years, the original Star Wars movie from the 70s, will be more relevant and watched than the current series, which will soon be forgotten.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      5 weeks ago

      Thank you all for reading and commenting.

      FlourishAnyway - The suits of armor are a bit deceptive. A full suit weighs about 50 pounds and it is evenly distributed around the body. The plate armor afforded the wearer more mobility than the chain mail. Not the last word in comfort but in combat better than the alternative.

      Pamela Oglesby - Yes, to my mind if somebody is going to see 1 King Arthur movie this is the one to see.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      Now, you inspired me to watch this movie once more with your summary. I did enjoy it the first time I watched it but I think I will enjoy it more now.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      I think this might be the only Arthurian movie I have seen I think “Excalibur” is a very good movie that I saw so long ago. You did an excellent job of summarizing all the action and important points.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 weeks ago from USA

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Arthurian movie, but I have visited Ireland and Northern Ireland and have seen the armor, swords and helmets close up — lots of them! How incredibly heavy and awkward they must have been to wear. Thanks for reviewing this. I have nephews who would probably enjoy this.

    • John Plocar profile image

      John Plocar 

      5 weeks ago from Weatherford

      It's my favorite King Arthur film, hands down.

    • profile image

      Michael115 

      5 weeks ago

      Dad loved this movie! I gotta check it out eventually

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