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Film / Excalibur

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"I've often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man... that we may meet. You'll come to me, claim me yours, and know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have."
Arthur to Guenevere

A 1981 Heroic Fantasy film directed by John Boorman, an epic, Cult Classic retelling of the Arthurian myths. Notable at least for two aspects:

  • The movie covers a rather long span of time (60 years, at the very least) and thus, as Boorman put it, focuses on the story rather than on the characters. It can thus roughly be divided into five partially overlapping parts: the first part follows Uther Pendragon, the second follows Arthur, the third follows Lancelot, the fourth follows Perceval, and the last goes back to Arthur.
  • The source material (mostly Malory's Le Morte D Arthur) is treated in a very syncretist kind of way, merging many characters, events and elements. This arguably allows the movie to display many more Arthurian motifs than would have been possible to show in a two-hour movie by staying truer to the original story, all while cleverly avoiding the Compressed Adaptation effect.

Being based on the Malory tale, the film is a chivalric romance and has major elements of later Romanticism; it understandably and unashamedly yearns for the nobility and virtue of Arthur's court, and explicitly states that Arthur serves as an example from the past to future memory; though it leaves open the chance that one day humanity may once again return to Camelot's height.

Excalibur provides examples of:

  • 24-Hour Armor: To an almost crazy degree; suits of full plate are worn during feasts and even during sex.
  • The Ace: Lancelot is nearly unbeatable in single combat: he defeats every last one of Arthur's knights, one after the other, and still has more than enough elan to face the King himself. After a one-sided fight, Arthur has to call on the supernatural power of Excalibur to avoid certain defeat, breaking the sword in the process.
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  • Action Survivor: During the battle at Leondegrance's castle, Guenevere manages to fend off a knight with a shield until her father (Leondegrance) can arrive.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film sometimes takes liberties with the original legend (many of these alterations became canon in popular culture, and have later been re-used in other Arthurian movies), and as already mentioned, merges together many characters and elements of the Arthurian tales, most notably:
    • The sword in the stone/Excalibur (in Le Morte d'Arthur, the two were different swords)
    • King Arthur/the Fisher King
    • Morgana/Morgause/Nimue
    • Lancelot and Guinevere/Tristram and Isolde (see also the Suspiciously Apropos Music point)
    • Arthur's first meeting with Lancelot is based on his meeting with King Pellinore in Le Morte d'Arthur. Leondegrance also takes Pellinore's place as Arthur's main ally in his unification of Britain.
    • Perceval/Gareth/Galahad/Bedivere
  • Adaptational Heroism: Sir Kay is nicer here than in some medieval romances where he's a hotblooded arrogant jerk, although he's pretty rude to Percival.
  • After the End: The last third of the movie.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Find it unusual that Morgana sleeps in the same room as her mother, despite being four or five years old? Up until the 1800s, it was quite usual in Europe for entire families to sleep in the same bedroom, if a house even had divided rooms at all.
  • Anachronism Stew: Justified, as Boorman intentionally took an ahistorical and mythical approach with his portrayal of the time period.
  • Audible Sharpness: Excalibur. A sound between a regular sword being drawn and a thunderclap is heard whenever Excalibur is drawn.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Arthur's literal crowning is not shown, but he instead gets an awesome moment of Knighting done by a rebel warlord with Excalibur, after which the rebels submit to him as their King.
  • Badass Boast:
    Arthur: Are you just a dream, Merlin?
    Merlin: A dream to some... A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!
  • Bald of Awesome: King Leondegrance, played by Patrick Stewart, is the first to declare for Arthur.
  • Batman Gambit: Merlin tricks Morgana into using the Charm of Making to drive him away which depletes her magical power and strips her of her youthful beauty and produces an eerie fog over the land out of the breath of the dragon. When Mordred comes to investigate, he kills Morgana and the fog assists the small number of Arthur's army against Mordread's larger force.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Arthur defines this trope.
    Arthur: I was not born to live a man's life, but to be the stuff of future memory.
  • Bed Trick: Used twice — but magic is involved in both cases.
  • Big Bad: Morgana, a Femme Fatale sorceress seeking to destroy Camelot.
  • Big Damn Heroes: When Arthur's force is reduced to just him, Percival and Kay, Lancelot rides in and singlehandedly annihilates Mordred's army before finally succumbing to an old wound inflicted decades prior.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The Charm of Making is Old Irish for "serpent's breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making".
  • Bittersweet Ending: Almost every major character is dead by the end of the movie. But the Land has been replenished, and England (and the world) has a Legend built on the heroics of King Arthur and his knights.
  • Break the Haughty: Happens to Arthur when he fights Lancelot.
  • Breast Plate: Morgana's armor, which looks like a sheet-iron corset with nothing under it.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Between Arthur and Morgana, resulting in the birth of Mordred.
  • Canon Foreigner: The concepts of the Dragon and the Charm of Making are made for the film.
  • Catch-Phrase: Merlin says "Yes, that's it!" quite a few times after spouting off some nugget of wisdom.
  • The Cavalry: Lancelot at the end.
  • Cherry Blossoms: (Actually, in context, apple blossoms).
  • The Chosen One: Arthur
  • Color Motifs: Green shows up a lot with Excalibur, mainly through Power Glows.
  • Cool Sword: "The swooooooord!"
    • Later, when Arthur hands it over to Sir Uryens to knight him, the same guy who said the above line also says, "Keep it Uryeeeeeeens!"
  • Convection Schmonvection: Gee, the sex Igraine has with Uther must be pretty damn good for it to be worth the third-degree burns she'd have from banging him in his full armor right next to a roaring fireplace.
  • Composite Character: Let's see... Arthur takes the role of the Fisher King in Percival's story. Lancelot takes the bit about breaking Excalibur (forcing Arthur to get a new one) from Pellinore. And Morgan takes the roles of Morgause (though that's practically the norm in modern adaptations) and Nimue.
  • Crashing Dreams: Several, Merlin eventually becomes a walking crashing dream.
  • Creepy Child: Young Morgana watches, silently, as her mother and not-father have sex.
    • Mordred, who as a boy tempts Grail knights to their seduction at Morgana's hand, or to their deaths.
  • Crossover Cosmology: Celtic Mythology and Christian beliefs, in this case.
  • Dare to Be Badass: Said by Arthur before his first battle: "Any man who would be a knight... And follow a king... Follow me!"
  • Dark Age Europe: Justified and played straight in the last third of the movie.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Lancelot has the more satisfying fate of dying in battle reunited with Arthur, instead of outliving him and atoning for the rest of his life as a monk.
    • Mordred kills Morgana, whose death is usually left unmentioned, and is often identified as one of the women who take Arthur away by boat.
    • Gawain is killed off during the Grail Quest instead of during one of Arthur's battles.
  • Death of the Old Gods: Merlin mentions "One God driving out the many" when he decides his time in this world is over.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Twice - first with Uryens, later with Lancelot.
  • The Dragon:
    • Mordred is The Dragon in the classic sense, while The Dragon is, in the movie, a never seen but omnipresent Nature Spirit.
    • Lancelot could be seen as a heroic version for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
  • Dark Is Not Evil:
    • Merlin can be downright creepy but his main goal is to put a good king in charge of England.
    • "The Dragon", which is built up as some kind horrible monster, but ultimately isn't. Arthur's fear of it parallels his uncertainty about being King; once he overcomes his fear and "sleeps in the arms of the Dragon", he fully overcomes his doubts and embraces his destiny.
  • Dragons Are Divine: The film makes multiple references to the Dragon, who is described by Merlin as some kind of divine Nature Spirit. It is also the source of Merlin's and Morgana's magic.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Perceval, unarmed squire, wanting to champion Guinevere against a fully-armed, battle-hardened Sir Gawain.
  • End of an Age: The final minutes drive this home with a hammer, but leave open a glimmer of hope that mankind can once again reach its own Camelot; Arthur is taken off by three queens into the sunset, Excalibur is lost, and Magic is dying or already dead; however Perceval survives to tell Arthur's legend so as to serve as an example, Arthur makes a prophecy that a new King will come and the sword will rise again, and Merlin still lives in our dreams.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Gorlois the Duke of Cornwall is just called "Cornwall".
  • Evil Sorcerer: Morgana is a female example.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: The adult Mordred has a boyish face and a surprisingly deep and harsh voice.
  • Exact Words: "No weapon forged by man will harm you whilst you wear this armor." Unfortunately for Mordred, Arthur's sword was forged by the Lady of the Lake.
  • Fisher King: The secret of the Holy Grail is that Arthur is a Fisher King: "The king and the land are one."
  • Friend to All Living Things: Merlin, in a creepy kind of way — crows tend to show up when he's near.
  • Glamour Failure: The Charm of Making, the spell that Merlin uses to disguise Uther as the Duke of Cornwall fails for a second, allowing Morgana to see Uther as he rapes Igrayne.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: As it fully occurs to Lancelot what he has done, he becomes a raving bearded lunatic.
  • Good Old Ways: Arthur's plan to win the final battle, since they have the aid of the Dragon's breath for one last time: "We'll use the old ways! Speed of horse!"
  • Groin Attack: Arthur appears to do this to Lancelot at one point during their duel, complete with making Lancelot go "OOH!" in response. Later during Lancelot's nightmare of fighting his armor, his armor appears to be trying to castrate him, swinging the sword at his family jewels.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Arthur when he learns of Guinevere betraying him with Lancelot. Lancelot and Guinevere are not exactly proud of themselves for doing this.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: Uther is bad about this. The guy really can't make up his mind between being a selfish Blood Knight or The Good King. It gets especially bad toward the end of his arc.
    Uther: Take him! Take the devil child!
    (like, a minute later)
    Uther: Merlin! I want my son!
  • Hidden Depths: Perceval
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice:
    • Mordred runs Arthur through with his spear, but Arthur kills him with his sword. In fact, this is the reverse of what happens in Le Morte D'Arthur, so that Arthur strikes his last blow with Excalibur.
    • The Duke of Cornwall and some other knights also die this way.
  • In Love with Love: Guinevere could be accused of this when it comes to both Arthur and Lancelot, becoming infatuated with both for their courage and battle prowess, and in Lancelot's case his pretty boy looks.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Truces and friendships are broken, wars and plagues are started because of sex. The slow death of the Duke of Cornwall, impaled on a row of spears, interspersed with the scene of Uther, disguised as Cornwall, having sex with Igraine, is quite iconic.
  • Karma Houdini: The knights who killed Uther aren't punished for it.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Played with. The state of the knights' armor tends to reflect the state of the realm, and shines brightest when Arthur is at the height of his power.
  • The Lancer: Kay, Lancelot (naturally) and even Perceval all play this role to Arthur at some point during the movie.
  • Large Ham: Apparently, dark ages Britain was peopled entirely with Large Hams in plate armor.
  • The Last Dance: "Come Father, let us embrace at last."
  • Leap of Faith: The path to the Holy Grail requires that you take off all your gear and armor.
  • Light Is Not Good: Mordred's armor is golden and he's one of the main villains.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Now with its own Character Sheet.
  • Love Makes You Crazy:
    Igraine attempts to dance
    Uther: I must have her...
    Knight: Are you mad? The alliance!
  • Love Triangle: Between Arthur, Gwynevere, and Lancelot, as usual for a Maloray-influenced adaptation.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Morgana
  • Merlin and Nimue: Merlin and Morgana form this pair, complete with the eventual betrayal.
  • Mind Rape: Morgana does it to Merlin, then he later gets revenge by doing it back to her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Arthur laments after he invokes the power Excalibur out of rage and pride to beat Lancelot, breaking what couldn't be broken.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Lancelot just can't seem to keep his clothes on when he's alone in the woods at night.
  • Ms. Fanservice:
    • Some of Helen Mirren's outfits — of course, she might qualify as Ms. Fanservice wearing a burlap sack...
    • Guinevere ain't too shabby either, and displays herself quite nicely when she takes it all off for her love scene in the forest with Lancelot.
  • Naked People Trapped Outside: Guinevere and Lancelot make love and fall asleep in the forest. They're lucky their clothes weren't stolen.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere end up doing a lot of things that lead to Camelot's destruction.
    • When Guinevere is accused of adultery with Lancelot (at that point she was faithful, in body if not mind), Arthur puts her on trial to demonstrate that no one in the land is above the law. Guinevere, upset at Arthur's willingness to put his duty as a king above his love for her, is humiliated in front of the entire court when no one (sans Perceval) will fight for her honour, and then watches as Lancelot comes to her rescue and is badly injured in her defense. Naturally, the whole thing results in nothing but Guinevere falling (more) in love with Lancelot and deciding to consummate her relationship with him. Arthur's sense of duty might have been unimpeachable, but it would have saved them all a lot of hardship if he'd just stood up for his wife in the first place.
    • That's not even mentioning the fact that up until this point, Lancelot wasn't even in the kingdom. He had been deliberately avoiding Camelot in the hopes of staying away from Guinevere. Naturally Arthur's trial of Guinevere brings him racing straight back again.
    • And then Guinevere and Lancelot fool around in the woods, leaving Arthur heartbroken by their betrayal. Devastated but unwilling to kill his wife and best friend, he slams Excalibur into the ground between them (royally screwing over Merlin in the process, as he was tapping into the land's power to defeat Morgana) so that when they wake up in the morning they both know they've just royally screwed up the kingdom. Lancelot in particular is very ashamed of himself for betraying Arthur's trust, as seen by the fact that he did not take care of himself as the years went by.
    Lancelot: The king without a sword! The land without a King!
    • During his fight with Lancelot a frustrated Arthur literally breaks the unbreakable sword by using its power to defeat Lancelot, who up to that point had been dominating the fight, shattering it as he cuts through Lancelot's sword and then slams it right into his armor, knocking him down and almost killing him in the process. Fortunately when Arthur admits out loud that he let the sin of Pride get the better of him the Lady of the Lake comes along, fixes Excalibur and gives it back to him, upon which Arthur silently vows never to abuse the sword's power again and then hires Lancelot to be his right hand man.
  • No Immortal Inertia: Morgana
  • No Indoor Voice: Pretty much everyone in the entire movie. Justified since they spend a tiny portion of their time indoors.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: Merlin — justified, given his nature, and also subverted in a scene where we see him walking toward the camera, from a distant background, while other characters talk in the foreground, having not noticed him. He reaches them just as one of them asks "And who is Merlin?"; he also does onscreen teleportations.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: O Fortuna
  • One-Liner: Merlin and Arthur get a lot of those.
  • One-Man Army: Lancelot. He is able to best Arthur until he calls on Excalibur's power, and cuts his way through more than a dozen Saxons in the Final Battle.
  • The Oner: Perceval wandering around Camelot's market, with several impressively timed bits of business in both the background and foreground.
  • One-Word Title
  • Only the Worthy May Pass: Only the blood of Uther Pendragon may draw Excalibur from the stone. Also, only the worthy may attain the Holy Grail.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: Excalibur is to O Fortuna what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to Thus Spoke Zarustrutha.
  • Pride: Arthur gets so mad when he can't seem to beat Lancelot in their fight that he uses the power of Excalibur to knock Lancelot on his ass - which almost costs him the sword when it shatters and nearly gets Lancelot killed. Fortunately the Lady of the Lake hears him admit he was wrong to do this, fixes the sword and all is well. For a while at least.
  • Plot-Relevant Age-Up: Morgana ages her son Mordred from a child to a young adult in order to face Arthur in combat.
  • Public Domain Artifact: Excalibur and the Holy Grail, obviously.
  • Pull Yourself Down the Spear: After Mordred spears Arthur, Arthur rams the spear further into him to get within striking distance of Mordred.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Merlin
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Merlin puts Uther down when he points out that Uther royally screwed himself over by betraying the Duke and taking the Duke's wife Igrayne for himself, effectively alienating any and all of his allies.
  • Reconstruction: Sort of. Excalibur was a straight - if highly idiosyncratic - Arthurian epic made by a British director only five years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  • Re-Cut: The original cut was three hours long. John Boorman has confirmed that the original cut exists, but he has no plans to release it.
  • Recycled Trailer Music: O Fortuna
  • Redemption Equals Death:
    • Lancelot redeems himself from adultery in one last battle.
    • But not for Guenevere, who just became a nun.
  • Right Through His Pants: Justified, as Uther had to keep his armor on to maintain the illusion.
  • Rule of Cool: Mordred's golden armor — and generally, knights wearing their plate armors outside of battle whenever they can.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Merlin abandons Uther to his traitors (he apparently feels bad about this when he sees Uther slam Excalibur into the stone with his dying breath). "Merliiiiin! Where are you? Call your dragon... Weave a mist... to hide us..."
  • Self-Healing Phlebotinum: Arthur breaks Excalibur by using it to satisfy his ego and defeat Lancelot. Upon realising what he has done, he hurls it into a lake and repents, upon which it is returned to him in perfect condition.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Mordred kills both his parents, though he doesn't outlive his father.
  • Sentient Cosmic Force: "The Dragon" that Merlin talks about seems to be this. He describes it as being basically omnipresent, it's the source of his power, and it seems to be connected to destiny in some way.
  • Shapeshifting Seducer: Morgana and Uther ,thanks to Merlin‘s magic, disguised themselves as their targets’ (Arthur/Igraine) spouse (Guinevere/Cornwall) to seduce them.
  • Shout-Out: Several, notably (and surprisingly) to Star Wars (just watch the first sequence between Arthur and Merlin in the woods, or the fight between Lancelot and his Enemy Without), and (less surprisingly) to The Lord of the Rings (as Boorman's original project was indeed to adapt the latter, before he switched to Arthurian myths:
    Arthur: Merlin. Your wisdom has forged this ring. Hereafter, so that we remember our bonds, we shall always come together in a circle to hear and tell of deeds good and brave. I will build a round table where this fellowship shall meet.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: When a thief steals Sir Kay's sword, Kay's squire Arthur pursues him and bumps into Excalibur, casually pulling this other sword from the rock.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Uther, arguably — subverted in that he eventually admits that he is tired of wars and battles.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The lyrics to O Fortuna are about how fate is capricious and thus cruel, but the song is treated as something far more uplifting.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Perceval. In some versions of the legends including Malory's, he dies upon fulfilling the Grail Quest and never returns to Camelot. Here he's combined with Bedevere, the Sole Survivor of Arthur's last battle.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Both played straight and subverted with Merlin. In one scene the audience sees Merlin approaching but the characters don't, and when Arthur says, "Who is Merlin?", previously-unnoticed Merlin steps up and says, "I am Merlin." In a later scene Merlin says, "The time has come for me to go," then turns to leave. Normally one would expect Merlin to just vanish, but Morgana instead starts following him and asks where he's going.
  • Storming the Castle: The knights who oppose Arthur's kingship because of his youth and status as a bastard and their distrust of Merlin lay siege to and subsequently attempt to storm the castle of Arthur's ally, Leondegrance.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: Merlin, when talking to Arthur about the Dragon, says this line:
    "It is everywhere. It is everything. Its scales glisten in the bark of trees. Its roar is heard in the wind. And its forked tongue strikes like... *lightning strikes* like lightning... yes, that's it!"
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: The recurring music illustrating the impossible love between Lancelot and Guinevere is Richard Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde; Perceval finds the Grail while Wagner's Parsifal Overture is playing; and Siegfried's Funeral March (by Wagner) plays while Arthur is transported to Avalon.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Arthur is such a perfect king he respects the rule of law and will not arbitrarily break it; this leads to the tragedy of the destruction of his marriage and rise of Mordred by his pained refusal not to defend Guinevere's honor, as by law he has to be judge during the duel.
    Guinevere: Why can't you defend me?
    Arthur: The Law! My laws must bind everyone, high and low, or they're not laws at all!
    Guinevere: You are my husband.
    Arthur: I must be king first.
  • Tragic Hero: Poor Lancelot...
  • Training the Gift of Magic: When Merlin assesses Morgana as a possible magic-worker, he tests her knowledge of "the Art" — training in magic-related lore — and then attempts to determine if she has "the Sight" — innate magical sensitivity.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Arthur, when he first fights Lancelot.
  • Visible Invisibility: Merlin.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • A consequence of having Loads and Loads of Characters in a two-hours movie. Igraine is a notable example of this, since you could at least assume that many of the knights that go missing were slain in battle. The last we see of Igraine however, is her screaming: "I want my baby!" and urging Uther to go after Merlin (though she disappears at that point in the legends too).
    • A very unfortunate example is Arthur's adopted brother Sir Kay, who despite remaining steadfastly loyal disappears in the final battle. The last we see is him fighting back to back with Arthur and Perceval; then Lancelot appears and Kay disappears. It's jarring as Kay was clearly steadfast in loyalty and love for Arthur throughout the film, and all of a sudden he's gone without comment (of course he died, but he doesn't get a death scene of his own like others do).
      • This is in keeping with both Le Morte D Arthur and The Once and Future King, where he appears as a major character early on and then just kinda ... goes away, although Kay is in general a steadfast and decent fellow in this film, rather than the boorish jerk he is in other sources.
      • He does get a "pre-death scene": a conversation with Arthur in which he reveals that Merlin appears to a him in his dreams and told him he would fight valiantly for his brother, strongly implying he will die in battle.
  • World of Ham: The film aims for the medieval high fantasy/epic feel, which does tend towards haminess and grandioseness, with shouting as the informal language of the land. Uther and Leondegrance (Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart, respectively) are remarkably boisterous, while Merlin provides a more quirky and mixed theatricallity.
  • Woman in White: Igraine.