Looking back on my childhood, there are several films which I can point to with absolute certainty as being the catalysts for my lifelong love of movies. The mythic filled, highly stylized “Excalibur,” directed by John Boorman (Deliverance) is one of those films which stirred something within me when I first viewed it on HBO. Based on the book “Le Morte d’Arthur,” written by Thomas Malory, and co-written for the screen by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (The Emerald Forest), Excalibur was released in America on April 10, 1981. The one-hundred and forty minute movie, which features innovative cinematography from Alex Thomson (A Shot at Glory), is a mix of adventure, drama, and fantasy. As an aside, Boorman initially wanted to direct a film based on “The Lord of the Rings,” but failing to obtain the necessary legal rights to the intellectual property, he opted to make “Excalibur” instead.
The movie begins with the character of Uther Pendragon portrayed by Golden Globe winner Gabriel Byrne (In Treatment), in his film debut. “Excalibur” also marks the film debut’s of Liam Neeson (Taken), Cherie Lunghi (The Mission), and Ciaran Hinds (Munich). Uther is waging a brutal and bloody war against the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) with the help of a wizard named Merlin. Portrayed in a commanding performance by Nicol Williamson (Laughter in the Dark), in a role originally given to actor Max von Sydow (Minority Report), Merlin gives Uther a magical sword of extreme power known as ‘Excalibur,’ which he uses to force Cornwall to halt the fighting. At the urging of Merlin, Uther decrees ‘one land, one king,’ and offers the Duke all of the land from where they have done battle to the sea, as long as he enforces the will of the king. A truce is struck, but it will be a fleeting one, because during a celebration honoring the agreed upon peace, Uther lays his eyes on Cornwall’s wife Igraine (Katrine Boorman); his lust for her will become all consuming.
Uther implores Merlin to use the necessary magic so that he may be with Igraine for one evening. Merlin agrees, only after Uther swears an oath to him that any child that is born as a result of Uther being with Igraine shall be turned over to him. Transforming Uther into Cornwall, who has left his castle for battle, Uther rides across a mist, which Merlin refers to as the ‘dragon’s breath.’ Even though there is no solid ground underneath his horse’s hooves, Merlin lets Uther know that his lust will carry him to the other side.
Before Uther arrives at the castle, Cornwall’s daughter Morgana (Barbara Byrne) cries out to her mother that her father is dead. No sooner does she do that, however, than the enchanted visage of Uther enters. Igraine comforts Morgana and tells her to go to sleep. Afterward, Uther proceeds to have his way with Igraine; it is a sexual encounter that will lead to the birth of a son, Arthur.
A short time later it is revealed that Cornwall was killed in battle just as the child Morgana had envisioned. Moving forward nine months, Arthur is born, but he is quickly taken by Merlin, who has come to claim his favor from Uther. Without any sort of hesitation, Uther allows Merlin to leave with his new born son, to do with him as he wishes. Morgana, however, who speaks to Merlin before he leaves with Arthur, lets the wizard know that she is aware of what really transpired. Uther’s lust, has not only led to the killing of the Duke of Cornwall, and eventually himself at the hands of his men who feel he has betrayed them, but has removed Arthur from the arms of his mother Igraine, and made a mortal enemy for both Arthur and Merlin in the form of Morgana, who, for the remainder of the film as an adult, will be played by Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren (The Queen).
When the viewer first sees Arthur (Nigel Terry) almost two decades later, he comes across as a bumbling squire, completely unaware of the place of importance he will hold during his lifetime. His brother Kay (Niall O’Brien) is about to enter a joust; if he wins, he will be given an opportunity to attempt to pull Excalibur from its stone encasement. Right before Uther died, in order to keep just anyone from getting Excalibur, he plunged it deep into a rock. The Legend that springs up as a result of his actions is that only the rightful king will be able to pull the sword from the stone.
Arthur, having forgotten Kay’s sword back at their tent, runs to retrieve it, but on his way, he spots a young thief running off with the sword. Following the boy into the woods, he loses sight of him, but comes across the Excalibur stone. Not giving it much thought, Arthur pulls on the sword’s handle, and lifts it out with ease. Word quickly spreads that Excalibur has been drawn and the villagers come rushing to see who their new king is. Completely doubting that a mere boy could be the king of all the land, Arthur puts the sword back into the stone and, this time in front of all of the spectators, removes it once again without any resistance. With the exception of Leondegrance, in a role acted by a pre-“Star Trek,” Patrick Stewart, the knights are not inspired to plead fealty to the young Arthur.
Engaging in battle with a knight, who refuse to recognize him as king, Arthur has a chance to kill Sir Uryens (Keith Buckley), who is down on his knees in the water. Arthur has merely to swing Excalibur and Uryens will be no more, but instead he offers to spare the knight if he will pledge his loyalty to him. Sir Uryens scoffs at the idea of pledging loyalty to a squire, and in Arthur’s wisdom he sees the logic of Uryen’s reasoning. Arthur hands Sir Uryens Excalibur, knowing full well that the man could murder him with the blade if he so chooses, but instead, Uryens knights Arthur; his once calm voice mere seconds earlier while staring death in the face, begins to tremble while reciting the words of knighthood.
In the ensuing years King Arthur has the legendary castle of Camelot constructed, forms the Knights of the Round Table whose greatest knight is Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) – and marries Leondegrance’s daughter, Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi). The land flourishes and its people are prosperous, but that is not something that shall remain intact forever. Like chinks in the armor the knights wear, bit by bit, things begin to deteriorate.
First Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) challenges the fidelity of Queen Guinevere, thanks to the idea being implanted in his head by the sorceress Morgana that Guinevere is in love with Sir Lancelot. King Arthur, furious at the accusations that Sir Gawain has made regarding his Queen’s supposed affections for Lancelot, makes the two face one another in a duel which Lancelot wins, but afterwards he leaves immediately. Guinevere follows, and the two give into their yearning for one another, a yearning which has been present since the moment they met. Arthur comes upon the lovers in a naked embrace and plunges Excalibur into the ground before leaving. His despondent mood and his physical well being, which seems to grow weaker by the day, have a mighty effect on the land. The lush greenery that has dominated the countryside during his reign as king begins to wither and die, and Arthur’s people lose their happiness and prosperity in the process. Merlin, who Arthur could normally call on to provide answers, thanks to Morgana, who tricked him by using magic he taught her, has been imprisoned in a tomb of ice. There is only one solution and that is for the Knights of the Round Table to go on the grand quest of finding the Holy Grail. Only the Grail’s restorative powers can give Arthur what he needs and, in turn, what the land and his people need in order to thrive once more.
The movie was filmed on location in Ireland in counties Kerry, Tipperary, and Wicklow; perfect locations, which offered, among other filming perks, castles, dense forests, scenic vistas lush with green, wide open fields, and waterfalls. In addition, the soundtrack that ran throughout the film further served to enhance the epic feel of the production. Along with Wagner’s “Prelude to Parsifal,” “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde,” and “Siegfried’s Funeral March” from “The Ring,” original music, composed by Trevor Jones, could be heard impacting scenes. The music was specially recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra which was conducted by Norman Del Mar. Also used was “Carmen Burana” by Carl Orff, performed by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which was conducted by Herbert Kegel.
Will the Knights of the Round Table succeed in finding the Holy Grail? Will Merlin escape his icy confinement? Does Morgana get to carry out her revenge, having already tricked Arthur into giving her a child, using the same deceptive dark magic Uther used on Igraine? Does Arthur and Morgana’s son, Mordred (Robert Addie), the result of their incestuous union, a child that has been brainwashed to think like his evil mother, come to claim the kingdom for his own? All of those questions and more will be answered if you invest the time in watching this film; and if you do, I hope, that as I did, you will get caught up in this version of the Arthurian legend.