Excalibur
Theatrical release poster by Bob Peak
Directed byJohn Boorman
Written by
Based onLe Morte d'Arthur
by Thomas Malory
Produced byJohn Boorman
Starring
CinematographyAlex Thomson
Edited byJohn Merritt
Donn Cambern (uncredited)
Music byTrevor Jones
Production
companies
Orion Pictures
Cinema ‘84
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • 10 April 1981 (1981-04-10)
Running time
141 minutes[1]
Countries
LanguageEnglish
Budget$11 million[6]
Box office$35 million[7]
A motif from Wagner's Götterdämmerung, which was used prominently in Excalibur as the theme for the sword

Excalibur is a 1981 epic medieval fantasy film directed, co-written and produced 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 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[8] and Carl Orff,[9] along with an original score by Trevor Jones.

Boorman's Excalibur began development as an unproduced adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.[10] The film was shot entirely on location in Ireland and at Ardmore Studios, 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.[6][obsolete source]

Film critics Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby criticised the film's plot and characters,[11][12] although they and other reviewers[13] 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.[7] It won the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival,[14] and received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography and a BAFTA nomination for Best Costume Design.

Plot

In the Dark Ages, the sorcerer Merlin retrieves the magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake for Uther Pendragon. Merlin also agrees to help Uther seduce Igrayne, the Duke of Cornwall's wife, in exchange for “what issues from your lust". With Merlin's magic, Uther tricks Igrayne into sleeping with him while the Duke dies in battle. Her daughter Morgana, however, sees through Uther's illusion. Months later, Igrayne gives birth to Arthur, and Merlin comes for the boy. Furious, Uther chases after Merlin, but is ambushed by the Duke's surviving men. Before dying, Uther thrusts Excalibur into a stone. Merlin declares that he who pulls the sword from the stone shall be king.

Years later, Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, proving he is Uther's son, the rightful ruler. Arthur's bravery and prowess at combat make him earn the trust of knights Leodegrance and Uryens, who swear fealty to the young king. During this time, Arthur also meets Guinevere and is smitten by her.

Later, the undefeated knight Lancelot blocks a bridge, seeking a king worthy of his sword. He defeats the king's knights and is challenged by Arthur to a fight. With the aid of Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake, Arthur is victorious, and Lancelot swears allegiance to him. Arthur and his knights unify the land. Arthur creates the Round Table, commissions the building of his castle Camelot and marries Guinevere. Meanwhile, his half-sister Morgana becomes apprenticed to Merlin.

Influenced by Morgana's magic, Gawain accuses Guinevere of treachery and a duel over her innocence is set. While Arthur is judge of the trial, Lancelot fights for her honour and wins. Guinevere is moved by this and the two make love. Arthur finds out about it and 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 and steal his secret Charm of Making. Taking the form of Guinevere, she seduces the unknowing Arthur.

She later gives birth to a son, Mordred, whose incestuous origin strikes the land with famine and sickness. Struck by a magical bolt of lightning, Arthur is reduced to a weakened state. He sends his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, hoping to restore the land and himself. While searching, many knights die or are bewitched by Morgana into entering her service. After reaching adulthood, Mordred demands Arthur's crown, to no avail. Before rebuking Arthur's attempt to recognise him as his son, Mordred vows to return with an army and take Camelot by force.

Perceval resists Morgana's attacks and soon becomes the final remaining knight questing for the Grail. Along the way, he nearly drowns and is transported to where the Grail is kept. He proves worthy, gains the Grail and takes it back to Arthur, who drinks from it and is revitalised, along with the land. Arthur calls upon his step-brother Kay to rally his remaining forces to battle Mordred and Morgana.

Arthur finds Guinevere at a convent, and they reconcile. She gives him back Excalibur, which she had kept, and he rides off with his men. At Stonehenge, Arthur falls asleep, and his love liberates Merlin from Morgana's magical prison. After a final conversation with Arthur, Merlin appears to Morgana and tricks her into speaking the Charm of Making. This exhausts her magical powers and summons 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, using the mist in their favour. During the battle, Lancelot arrives, reconciles with Arthur and dies fighting. Arthur manages to kill Mordred, but the fight leaves him mortally wounded. While dying, he commands Perceval, the only other survivor, to throw Excalibur into a lake, knowing that one day the sword will rise again when a worthy king comes to power. Perceval complies, and the Lady of the Lake catches the sword, 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.

Cast

Production

Development

Autographed armor from the movie Excalibur in a pub in Cahir, Ireland, 2004

John 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 his The Lord of the Rings project in mind.[10]

Writing

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."[15][16]

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 Corbenic, 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).[17]

The Charm of Making

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.[18][19][20] 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:[21]

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.

Casting

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.

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 appear in the cast: his daughter Katrine played Igraine, Arthur's mother, and his son Charley portrayed Mordred as a boy. Because of the number of Boormans involved with the film, it is sometimes called "The Boorman Family Project".[22]

Filming

Excalibur locations trail in County Wicklow, 28 years after filming
Cahir Castle during the siege battle sequence

Excalibur was filmed in 1980 on-location in County Wicklow, County Tipperary, and County Kerry, with the interiors shot at Ardmore Studios. The costumes were designed by Bob Ringwood.[23] The armor was designed by Terry English.

An early critical battle scene at 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.[24] 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.

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.

Release

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.[25] 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]

Reception

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.[26]

Excalibur was the number one film during its opening weekend of 10–12 April 1981, eventually earning $34,967,437 in the United States.[7] On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 72% score based on 93 reviews, with an average rating of 7.0/10.[27] On Metacritic, it has a weighted average score of 56 out of 100 based on reviews from 10 critics.[28]

Roger Ebert called it both a "wondrous vision" and "a mess".[11] 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."[29] 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".[30]

Others have praised the entire film, with Variety calling it "a near-perfect blend of action, romance, fantasy and philosophy".[13] 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."[31] 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".[32] 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.[33]

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."[34] 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".

Awards and nominations

Year Institution Category Nominee Outcome
1981 British Society of Cinematographers Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film Alex Thomson Nominated
1981[14] Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or John Boorman Nominated
Best Artistic Contribution Won
1982 Academy Awards Best Cinematography Alex Thomson Nominated
1982 British Academy Film Awards Best Costume Design Bob Ringwood Nominated
1982[35] Hugo Awards Best Dramatic Presentation John Boorman, Rospo Pallenberg, Thomas Malory Nominated
1982 Saturn Awards Best Fantasy Film Nominated
Best Director John Boorman Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Nicol Williamson Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Helen Mirren Nominated
Best Costume Design Bob Ringwood Won
Best Make-up Basil Newall, Anna Dryhurst Nominated

Legacy

The comedic 1989 teaser trailer for Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III directly parodies the lady of the lake scene from Excalibur.[36]

In 2009, filmmaker Zack Snyder said Excalibur was his favorite film, calling it "the perfect meeting of movies and mythology".[37] In his film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Bruce Wayne and his parents, Thomas and Martha, are walking home from seeing Excalibur when the latter two are killed by Joe Chill. The event later leads to Bruce becoming Batman. Moreover, the film parallels much of the film's major plot points, most notably Superman killing Doomsday with a Kryptonite Spear at the expense of his own life intended as a homage to Arthur killing Mordred with Excalibur at the cost of his.

During the shooting of the 2023 film Irati, inspired by Basque mythology and several medieval films including Excalibur, the crew nicknamed it Euskalibur, after euskal, ("Basque-language").[38]

Documentaries

Neil Jordan directed a 1981 documentary on the making of Excalibur, entitled The Making of Excalibur: Myth Into Movie. In 2013 another documentary entitled Behind the Sword in the Stone was released featuring interviews with director Boorman and many of the cast, such as Terry, Mirren, Stewart, Neeson, Byrne, Lunghi, and Charley Boorman.[39][40][41] 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

References

  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. ^ "Excalibur (1981)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 31 May 2017.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ a b c "Excalibur". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  8. ^ Extracts from Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Twilight of the Gods
  9. ^ Extract from Carmina Burana
  10. ^ a b Boorman, John (1 November 2003). Adventures of a Suburban Boy. Faber Books. pp. 178ff. ISBN 978-0571216956.
  11. ^ a b Ebert, Roger. "Excalibur". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014. What a wondrous vision EXCALIBUR is! And what a mess.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b "Excalibur". Variety. 31 December 1980. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  14. ^ a b "Festival de Cannes: Excalibur". Festival de Cannes. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  15. ^ Kennedy, Harlan (March 1981). "John Boorman in Interview". American Film. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  16. ^ "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.
  17. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, VII, 3.
  18. ^ Everson, Michael. "Merlin's Charm of Making". Evertype. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  19. ^ "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'
  20. ^ "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.'
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "Film Costume Design in 1982". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  24. ^ Manthey, Dirk, ed. (1981). Excalibur. pp. 15, 20. ((cite book)): |newspaper= ignored (help)
  25. ^ "EXCALIBUR | British Board of Film Classification". www.bbfc.co.uk.
  26. ^ "Cahir's Excalibur sword removed for repairs". www.tipperarylive.ie.
  27. ^ "Excalibur (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 7 July 2023.
  28. ^ "Excalibur". Metacritic. Fandom, Inc. Retrieved 7 July 2023.
  29. ^ Canby, Vincent (10 April 1981). "Boorman's 'Excalibur'". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  30. ^ Kael, Pauline (20 April 1981). "Boorman's Plunge". The New Yorker. pp. 146–151. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  31. ^ Axmaker, Sean. "Excalibur". Parallax View. Retrieved 19 March 2011.
  32. ^ Lazarus, David (7 September 2000). "Excalibur". Salon. Salon.com. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ John, Christopher (July 1981). "Film & Television". Ares Magazine. Simulations Publications, Inc. (9): 21.
  35. ^ "1982 Hugo Award". isfdb.org. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  36. ^ John Squires (2 January 2017). "The Original 'Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3' Teaser Was the Coolest". Bloody Disgusting. Retrieved 27 October 2022.
  37. ^ Newsweek Staff (7 March 2009). "A Life in Movies: Zack Snyder". Newsweek. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  38. ^ Belategui, Oskar (19 October 2021). "'Euskalibur' cobra vida: Paul Urkijo rueda 'Irati'". El Correo (in Spanish). Retrieved 31 March 2023.
  39. ^ "Behind the Sword in the Stone". Indiegogo. 1 December 2012. Archived from the original on 16 July 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  40. ^ Hall, Eva (20 December 2012). "'Excalibur' Documentary Wraps Principal Photography In Ireland". Irish Film and Television Network. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  41. ^ "Behind the Sword in the Stone". IMDb. Retrieved 3 May 2017.