Sunday Matinee: Excalibur (1981)

Of all the adaptations of the King Arthur legend, Excalibur is perhaps the least historically accurate. And for all that, it’s probably one of the most visually stunning.

Famed among aficionados for the scene where the disguised King Uther has sex with Igrayne while wearing full plate armor, this film sort of takes all the bits and pieces of the Arthur legend and plucks out whatever it damn well pleases to make a story. There are pieces of Thomas Mallory, T.H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Alan Jay Lerner, and a lot more besides to be found here.

The film starts with Uther Pendragon struggling to bring all of England under his rule. Merlin (who, tellingly, refers to himself as “the Merlin” at one point) has worked for years to bring peace to the land, and gives Uther the sword Excalibur to cow the reluctant warlords to accept his rule. Alas, his victory is short-lived, as lust for the lady Igrayne, wife of the duke of Cornwall, leads him to break the hard-won truce. Arthur is fathered, Cornwall is slain, and eventually Uther himself is assassinated, but not after he embeds Excalibur into a boulder, stuck there for decades.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and Arthur, serving as a squire at a tournament where the winner gets to try to pull the sword from the stone, does so accidentally and effortlessly. Merlin re-appears and mentors the young king. Most of the knights oppose his new-found kingship, but his strength and courage wins them over in the end. He weds Guenevere, breaks Excalibur trying to defeat Lancelot (the Lady of the Lake mends the sword and returns it to him, after a frantic Merlin declares that “hope is broken”), and eventually forms the Round Table, once England is brought to peace.

More years pass, and after Lancelot and Guenevere betray Arthur by sleeping together (at which point Arthur loses Excalibur), and Morgana (Arthur’s half-sister) not only orchestrates the downfall of Merlin but fathers a son (Mordred) with Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail, which would heal the now-wounded land, begins. Morgana, it turns out, has suborned or slain the various knights who have stumbled upon her lair, but Percival overcomes them and eventually finds the grail.

Arthur finds Guenevere, Excalibur is restored to the king, and Arthur and his few remaining loyal knights ride out to meet Morgana and Mordred. With Lancelot’s unexpected return, Arthur is victorious, albeit sorely wounded, and eventually dies, taken to Albion in a viking-esque funeral scene after Excalibur is finally returned to the Lady of the Lake.

One of the most outstanding features of this film is the performance of Nicol Williamson as Merlin. With his rolling baritone voice and skull-fitting chrome helmet, he embodied the character of Merlin for me for years after seeing him. The score draws heavily on Wagner (the Ring cycle, Parsifal, and Tristan and Isolde), and works very well for such a ponderous movie.

I say “ponderous” here not in an entirely negative connotation. The film has a very “heavy” feel, partly because of the costuming (the armor worn by the knights is a very unhistorical solid iron and later chrome-plated full plate armor), and also because of the almost oppressive feel of some of the locations. Woods are always deep and thick, the castles are cyclopean in their design, and even the parts in the wastelands are dark and claustrophobic. Liberal use of fog adds to the feeling. Wagner’s music feels right at home in the setting.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “Sunday Matinee: Excalibur (1981)

  1. Excalibur remains one of my favorite films for many reasons. Partially because there is no pretense about it. It doesn't even try to portray the story as being based on "historical" Arthur at all. It is unashamedly, unapologetically a grittier, sexier, more lusty version of the medieval French Romance.
    Love it. Absolutely love it.
    And as an aside, although it was rated 18 in the UK, I remember my parents letting me watch it. They fast forward some bits of course. But many years later I realised that the Uther/Igraine sex scene was the very first one I ever witnessed. Old dad must have figured that, since Uther kept his armour on, eight year old me wouldn't have a clue what they were up to. Turns out he was right after all.

  2. One addendum: I personally credit this movie for being the single greatest influence on my interest in fantasy/sci-fi and gaming. Without seeing this film when I did, I might never have been a gamer. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was talking about this film with my older cousin that led to his giving me the Red Box as a gift.

  3. Excalibur has always been the one movie that really captured the feel of the Arthurian legends in all their glory and strangeness for me; The eldritch glow of the magic sword, knights in full plate, the shaggy, emerald green forests which really give the impression of an ancient Druidic land, the mixture of Christianity and 'Old Lore' – the old gods fading as the 'one' comes into power….also the best Merlin I've ever seen done. It had the right mixture of everything from each of the differing sources and it's still one of my all time favorite movies.

  4. My feelings mirror those of Brian and Patternwalker. Additionally, the fight scene when Arthur meets Lancelot has informed countless sessions of man-to-man combat for me, both as a player and as a DM. It was what prompted me to have a rule in my 2e games that everyone gets an additional 'non-weapon' attack in each round.

  5. I just love this movie, I have seen it untold times, but I still remember the first time I saw it, it was 1982 and I was just 14 years old, my father took all the family to see this stunning movie… I was deeply impressed, it is a fond memory and a beautiful movie, and yes one of the best telling of the Arthurian myth 🙂

  6. This movie is so good that Greg Stafford lifted wholes scenes from it when writing The Great Pendragon Campaign. 😉

    I absolutely love this movie and I'll watch it whenever I have a chance. The music choice was wonderful, especially O, Furtuna, which isn't a real happy song if you know the translation, but gives this not-a-happy movie such an epic feel. The trees and flowers blooming as Arthur rides to the final battle with his knights.

    And who can forget Patrick Stewart as King Leodegrance of Camileyard? "If a boy has been shosen, then a boy shall be king!" Great stuff!

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