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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

Excalibur is a 1981 Heroic Fantasy film directed by John Boorman. An epic retelling of the Arthurian Legend, it is notable at least for two aspects:

  • It 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 therefore be roughly 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 (Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is credited, but many other sources are drawn upon) 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 that stayed truer to the text of a particular author or retelling, all while cleverly avoiding the Compressed Adaptation effect.

Being largely based on the Arthurian chivalric romances, the film 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.

The All-Star Cast includes Nigel Terry as Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, Paul Geoffrey as Perceval, Nicol Williamson as Merlin, Corin Redgrave as Gorlois, Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance, Keith Buckley as Uryens, Liam Neeson as Gawain, and Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon.

Excalibur provides examples of:

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  • 24-Hour Armor: The knights are the poster boys for this. They eat, sleep, quest and have sex while wearing armor. After several of them spend years questing for the Holy Grail, their armor has become all rusty.
  • Absurdly Sharp Blade:
    • Justified with Excalibur, given it's a magical sword. It's one of the few weapons in the film that can invoke Armor Is Useless. Its magical nature allows it to bypass Mordred's Armor of Invincibility.
    • Mordred's spear, which like his armor was provided by his mother and is likewise magical, can pierce armor easily.
  • 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. note 
  • Achilles in His Tent: Lancelot becomes a partially insane vagrant who blames the king for bringing a pestilence upon the land. At the climatic battle, he returns to fight by the king's side.
  • 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:
  • 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 Action Patch Up: After his first battle as king, Arthur is treated for his wounds by Guinevere, leading to his falling in love with her.
  • After the End: The last third of the movie.
  • The Ageless: Merlin looks the same before Arthur's birth as he does when Arthur's a grown man with grey in his beard. Likewise with Morgana, at least until the end, when Merlin tricks her into neutralizing said enchantment.
  • Allegiance Affirmation: Early in the film, the noble knight Sir Leondegrance wins a jousting tournament and is given the chance to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone, but fails. When a young squire named Arthur succeeds in drawing the sword and word spreads, the knights begin arguing over whether to proclaim him king. Leondegrance IMMEDIATELY proclaims his allegiance to Arthur (and eventually his daughter Guinevere marries him).
  • Always Someone Better: Merlin warns Arthur, "You must remember, there's always something cleverer than yourself." This was a particularly prescient warning since it was the first time Arthur faced Lancelot.
  • Anachronism Stew: Justified, as Boorman intentionally took an ahistorical and mythical approach with his portrayal of the time period, to the point that no real-world place names like Britain or England are ever mentioned. It's just "the land", which is in "the dark ages".
  • Animated Armor: Used in a heavily symbolic way in a dream sequence. The bare armor represents Lancelot fighting himself.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: The film takes the "Mordred is Arthur's bastard" version of the story and runs with it, playing Mordred as a half-crazed Bastard Bastard who wants his father's throne, sword, and power, but rejects his love, ultimately leading to a very messy Mutual Kill.
    Arthur: I cannot give you the land. Only my love.
    Mordred: That's the only thing of yours that I don't want.
  • Arch-Enemy: King Arthur has Morgana le Fey, whose father was killed by his father and who intends to destroy Arthur's kingdom due to that.
  • Armor Is Useless: Subverted: even the fabric gambeson Arthur wears early in the movie protects him to a degree from a thrust from an enemy knight and most of the knights take a realistic amount of punishment to die. Justified with Excalibur and Mordred's spear, as both are magical weapons and thus mundane armor can't defend against them as effectively.
  • Armor of Invincibility: Morgana gives Mordred a suit of this that renders him invincible to any weapon made by man. Unfortunately for him, Excalibur is a magical weapon forged by the Lady of the Lake, and thus doesn't count.
  • 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: Merlin knows damn well how cool he is. When Arthur asks "Are you just a dream?" Merlin replies, "A dream to some... A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS! "
  • Batman Gambit:
    • Early in the film, Arthur has pulled the sword from the stone, and while some are willing to follow him, others are not. He joins the fight against one of the holdouts, and has the man at swordpoint, but he refuses to yield to a man who is not a knight. Arthur says he's right, and then pulls off an incredibly dangerous move; he gives Excalibur to his enemy so he can be knighted, simultaneously acknowledging the necessity of being a knight, while also showing everyone present that he is willing to put his trust in his own enemy's hands. Sir Uryens can't simply kill him, as it would be dishonorable, and he also recognizes the truth of what Arthur is doing (being a Magnetic Hero helps, as Merlin himself seems aware that something magical is happening).
    • 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 Mordred'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.
  • Becoming the Mask: Ector explains that originally he raised Arthur because he feared Merlin, but eventually because he loved him as his own son.
  • Bed Trick: Used twice — but magic is involved in both cases.
    • The first had Uther Pendragon, with Merlin's help, using an illusion spell to take on the appearance of his enemy Gorlois and bed Gorlois' wife Igrayne, resulting in the conception of Arthur.
    • The second occasion has Morgana using a similar spell to make her appear as Guinevere in Arthur's eyes and allow her to proceed to rape him.
  • Beneath the Mask: The knights' elaborate, mask-like helmets show the real personae of the wearers.
  • BFS: Cornwall's Number Two wields one when leading the ambush on Uther.
  • 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 the rest of Mordred's army before finally succumbing to an old wound inflicted decades prior.
  • Big "NEVER!": As befits a World of Ham.
    • When Arthur holds Excalibur to the neck of rebelling knight Sir Uryens, demanding he swear fealty, this is the response he gets:
    Sir Uryens: A noble knight, swear faith to a squire?
    Sir Lot (not the Lancey kind): NEEVVVEEEER! NEEVVVEEEER!
    • Later, when Merlin refuses to use is magic to make Guinevere fall in love with Arthur:
      Merlin: Now look, I once stood exposed to the Dragon's Breath so that a man could lie one night with a woman. It took me nine moons to recover. And all for this lunacy called 'love', this mad distemper that strikes down both beggar and king. Never again! Never!
  • 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.
  • Cassandra Truth: Morgana knows her father has been killed on the very night Uther impersonates him and rapes her mother. No one believes her until it's too late.
  • Cast from Hit Points: The magic of the Dragon, which both Merlin and Morgana use. Merlin uses it with care; the act of summoning the Dragon's Breath for one night (so Uther could ravish Igrayne) demanded nine months' recovery for the wizard. Merlin uses this to his advantage later, after breaking out of Morgana's prison, he visits her in a dream and tricks her into summoning the Dragon's Breath in sleep. Not only does this cover the land in fog, but it drains Morgana's life force until she's a hideous old crone, unrecognizable and babbling.
  • Catchphrase: Merlin says "Yes, that's it!" quite a few times after spouting off some nugget of wisdom.
  • The Cavalry: Lancelot at the end.
  • Chainmail Bikini: Towards the end, Morgana appears to be dressed in nothing more than a sheet metal corset.
  • Chaste Separating Sword: Arthur finds his unfaithful wife Guinevere asleep with her lover Lancelot. Devastated, he Sword Plants his sword Excalibur into the ground between their sleeping bodies. It's an Inverted Trope, the meaning flipped from a symbol of chastity to infidelity.
  • Cherry Blossoms: Actually, in context, apple blossoms.
  • Child by Rape: Arthur and Mordred are both examples of this. Arthur was conceived when Uther raped Igrayne and Mordred was conceived when Morgana raped Arthur! Uther and Morgana did so through magical illusions which made them look like someone else so Igrayne and Arthur would have sex with their respective spouses.
  • The Chosen One: Arthur
  • Color Motifs: Green shows up a lot with Excalibur, mainly through Power Glows.
  • Coming and Going: Merlin shapeshifts Uther into a likeness of Cornwall so that he can have his way with Cornwall's wife, Igrayne, while the real Cornwall is ambushed and mortally wounded by Uther's men. The camera cuts back and forth between the bedroom, where Uther is sating his lust for Igrayne, and the battlefield, where Cornwall lies dying.
  • 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. Gawain is merged with his brother Agravain as the one who tries to espose Lancelot's affair with Guinevere. And Morgan takes the roles of Morgause (though that's practically the norm in modern adaptations) and Nimue.
  • Cool Sword: The eponymous sword is ... well ... Excalibur! It often reflects green light to make it look otherworldly. "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!"
  • 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.
  • 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 of 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.
  • Darker and Edgier: The film combines Magical Realism with gritty, bloody violence, reaching a peak of dark edginess in an early scene in which a knight in blood-stained armour tricks the wife of his nemesis into having sex with him. There are plenty of impalings and crow-pecked corpses to go around as well.
  • 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.
    • Uther's lieutenant Ulfius is presumably killed when his king is ambushed. According to Malory, however, he survived and continued to serve under King Arthur, even becoming his chamberlain.
    • Gawain is killed off during the Grail Quest instead of during one of Arthur's battles.
  • Death of the Old Gods: Merlin says to Morganna, who is trying to learn his secrets of sorcery, that many old ways are being lost because the One God (of Christianity) is driving out the many gods (of nature).
  • Death Seeker: Sir Lancelot. He's more of a defeat seeker than a death seeker though, having traveled around looking for a King who was good enough to beat him and thereby win his fealty. He claims he was Cursed with Awesome.
  • Defeat Means Friendship:
    • Lancelot is seeking to serve the man who can best him in combat. Arthur loses to Lancelot, then cheats by using Excalibur's power to knock Lancelot silly. Lancelot doesn't realize what happened when he wakes up and agrees to join Arthur. Things don't turn out so great in the end...
    • The first knight Arthur bests in battle — Sir Uryens, who knights him — winds up being Arthur's lifelong ally, and one of the first to obey Arthur's order to find the Holy Grail. He ultimately dies on the quest to find it.
  • Deliberate Injury Gambit: Arthur does this after getting speared by his bastard son Mordred, sliding on the spear and then giving Mordred what for with the titular sword. This is an inversion of the scene in Le Morte D Arthur.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The knights who follow Arthur are noble for their time but quite worshipful of the violent Uther Pendragon and speak praises of Arthur for being his son despite Uther's Might Makes Right conquest and the inference that Arthur is his child meaning he deceived Igrayne into sleeping with him.
  • Demoted to Extra: Unavoidable due to having to condense the large cast of Arthurian legends into a two-hours movie. For example, Sirs Bors and Meliot only gets a single mention each in the movie. Many others are not even named.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When they are reunited for the last time, Guinevere presents Excalibur to Arthur as a mother might present a newborn baby to its father; wrapped in a white sheet and cradled in her arms.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Dual Wielding: Arthur dual-wields Excalibur and a mace while dueling Lancelot, showing that he's become rather kill-crazy.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Queen Guinevere stands accused by Sir Gawain of treason by adultery, and was to have Sir Lancelot champion her in trial by combat. Sir Lancelot is late to the field and King Arthur is dismayed when no other individual is willing to champion Guinevere — except for the newly-arrived, unarmored, untrained apprentice Perceval, who asks to champion Guinevere and is knighted by King Arthur for that purpose. He then readies himself to charge a fully-armored, battle-hardened Sir Gawain when (fortunately) Lancelot shows up to prevent it from happening.
  • Empathic Weapon: Excalibur is treated this way. When Arthur uses the sword to strike down Lancelot in anger, it shatters. Arthur immediately realizes that he made a big mistake in using the sword to destroy an honorable knight (and Merlin hangs a lampshade on it with his statement "You have broken what could not be broken."). His admission of that fact allows the Lady of the Lake to repair Excalibur and revive Lancelot.
  • 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 Percival 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 Makes You Ugly: Morgan Le Fay uses the magic she stole from Merlin to keep herself beautiful. When he tricks her to create a fog, her looks deteriorate to show her as an ugly, old woman, so much that her own son strangles her because he couldn't recognize her.
  • Evil Plan: Morgana le Fey seeks to destroy Camelot in revenge for Uther killing her father.
  • 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.
  • Excalibur in the Stone: Excalibur is retrieved from the Lady of the Lake by Merlin and given to Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. Uther thrusts the sword into the proverbial stone before he dies of his wounds. Arthur then draws the sword from the stone years later. Later, in a duel with Lancelot, Arthur in a fit of pride uses the sword's mystic powers to change the destined outcome of the duel (Lancelot should have won). Although Arthur succeeds, Excalibur breaks from being so used. In a fit of grief, Arthur hurls the broken sword into a nearby lake — where the Lady of the Lake restores the weapon and hands it back to Arthur from the waters, thus fulfilling both legends.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Arthur grows a beard after his "Wart" stage to show that he's become King Arthur and not the callow youth he was in the early parts of the film.
  • Fatal Flaw: Lust does some heavy lifting.
    • When Uther sees Cornwall's wife Igrayne, he absolutely has to have her, and doesn't think about the consequences.
    • Arthur's queen Guenevere and champion Lancelot cannot resist each other, even after Lancelot has to fight a duel to prove that they are not having an affair. Arthur finds out.
  • Fertile Feet: After Arthur's wound is healed by the Holy Grail.
  • Fisher King: The secret of the Holy Grail is that Arthur is a Fisher King: "The king and the land are one."
  • Forged by the Gods: Excalibur was forged by the Gods before the dawn of time.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Merlin, in a creepy kind of way — crows tend to show up when he's near.

  • Giving Them the Strip: Sir Percival is thrown into a river and is forced to remove his armor to be light enough to swim to the surface.
  • 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!
  • Homage Shot: The scene of Morgana giving birth to Mordred is staged similarly to the birth scene near the end of Boorman's earlier film Zardoz.
  • Honor Before Reason: Queen Guinevere has been accused of treason by adultery with Sir Lancelot, but not one person will champion her in Trial By Battle against Sir Gawain ... except the unarmored, untrained page Percival who appears to be operating either under the simple principle that the Queen must be championed, or The Dulcinea Effect. King Arthur knights him for this purpose ... although the battle is averted by the arrival of Sir Lancelot to take his place.
    • Come to think of it, King Arthur refusing to champion his own wife against the accusation — on the basis he is king and must be her judge in this — is probably a potent illustration of Honor Before Reason.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: When Arthur and his knights ride out to face Mordred for the final battle, a flower slowly blooms in the corner of the shot.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: A Ho Yay version when Sir Uryens swears allegiance to King Arthur, he kisses both of Arthur's gauntlets, overwhelmed by the bravery of this young king and his Cool Sword.
  • 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.
  • Inbred and Evil: Mordred is the son of Arthur and his half-sister Morgana (rather than his half-sister Morgause) and even more insane than he usually is. In the end he not only destroys Camelot, but murders his mother in a fit of rage before going down to a Mutual Kill with his father.
    "Come father, let us embrace at last!"
  • Insert Cameo: The hand that holds Excalibur belongs to John Boorman's daughter Telsche, lying under water.
  • 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 Igrayne, is quite iconic.
  • Jousting Lance: Two knights jousted for Guinevere's honor.
  • Karma Houdini: The knights who killed Uther aren't punished for it (justified somewhat in that they were originally Cornwall's knights who had no intention of swearing fealty to Uther).
  • 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.
  • Knighting: Uryens knights Arthur with Excalibur, because he can't surrender to a mere squire. Arthur later knights Percival, hurriedly, in the same fashion.
    "In the name of God, Saint Michael and Saint George, I give you the right to bear arms and the power to mete justice!"
  • 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.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: Discussed by King Arthur, explaining to Guinevere that he and his colleagues were not meant to live the lives of mortals, but have their exploits turned into legend.
  • Leitmotif: Snippets from Siegfried's Funeral March are often used in conjunction with acts taken with Excalibur, such as Uther ramming it into the Stone, Arthur drawing it from the Stone, Uryens knighting Arthur with Excalibur, and finally Arthur ending Mordred's reign of terror by stabbing him with Excalibur.
  • Let Them Die Happy: Arthur tells the dying Lancelot that Guinevere was reinstated as Queen, when in reality she became a nun.
  • Light Is Not Good: Mordred's armor is golden and he's one of the main villains.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Merlin fervently believes this. Pretty much every main character does something stupid because of love.
    Igrayne attempts to dance
    Uther: I must have her...
    Knight: Are you mad? The alliance!
  • Love Ruins the Realm:
    • Uther's desperation for one night with a married woman provokes a war.
    • Camelot's unprecedented peace and prosperity get destroyed by Lancelot and Guinevere's love for each other.
  • Love Triangle: Between Arthur, Gwynevere, and Lancelot, as usual for a Malory-influenced adaptation.

  • The Magic Goes Away: Merlin mourns the passage of magic from England:
    "The days of our kind are numbered. The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It's the way of things. Yes... it's a time for men, and their ways."
  • Magnetic Hero: King Arthur. If you're fighting a fully-armed knight, get the better of him, and demand he swear faith to you with your sword at his neck, you generally don't ask him to knight you and hand over your Infinity +1 Sword to him when he objects to giving you his allegiance because you're a squire and thus he outranks you. On the other hand, if you're the knight in question you generally don't use said sword to knight said squire when he kneels before you to accept your knighting and then kiss his hand in fealty ... unless the squire, of course, is a Magnetic Hero.
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Morgana, Mordred, and their minions capture Sir Percival and hang him from a tree where several other knights have already been hanged. Percival hangs from the tree in absolute agony until his rope is accidentally cut by a hanged knight's spurs.
  • Master Swordsman: Lancelot is the best fighter of Arthur's round table.
  • 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.
  • 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 as Morgana are especially revealing; Guinevere displays herself quite nicely when she takes it all off for her love scene in the forest with Lancelot.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • 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.
    • 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!
  • No Immortal Inertia: The grisly fate of Morgan Le Fay, rendered in a very Nightmare Fuel-efficient way.
  • No Indoor Voice: Pretty much everyone in the entire movie. Justified since they spend a tiny portion of their time indoors.
  • No Man of Woman Born: "No weapon forged by man" can hurt Mordred. He's killed by Excalibur, which is divinely forged.
  • Oathbound Power: Arthur's possession of the titular sword grants him the right of kingship. At one point in the film, he uses the sword for a selfish purpose- to defeat Lancelot- and it breaks. When he realizes his error and repents, it is returned to him whole.
  • 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 Chosen May Wield: Not only was Arthur the only one who could draw the titular sword from the stone, he pulled it from the stone again just to prove he could, since no one was around the first time. When he did something unworthy (using the sword's power to defeat Lancelot, who should rightly have won their duel), the sword broke, and when he repented it was fixed.
  • 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.
  • Opening Scroll: The movie opens with text fading in and out, leading into the title logo:
    The Dark Ages
    The Land Was Divided And Without A King
    Out Of Those Lost Centuries Rose A Legend...
    Of The Sorcerer, Merlin,
    Of The Coming Of A King,
    Of The Sword Of Power...
  • Parent-Child Team: Sir Ector fights alongside his son Kay and foster son Arthur in the battle at Leondegrance's castle.
  • 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.
  • Primitive Clubs: During the final battle, Lancelot uses a spiked club as his main weapon. While he isn't a barbaric character, he looks the part after spending years in exile, and getting a more stereotypically brutish and primitive looking weapon like a spiked club rather than a more stereotypically refined and elegant looking weapon like the sword he previously emphasizes his fall from grace.
  • 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.
  • Rapid Aging: Morgana uses the magic she stole from Merlin to keep her looking young and beautiful. However, on the eve of the final battle, Merlin (in dream form) tricks her into repeating The Charm of Making, which ages her to an ugly old hag, so much that her son, Mordred, kills her on sight.
  • 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.
  • Related Differently in the Adaptation: Like many Arthurian adaptations it turns Morgana into a Composite Character with Morgause, making her Mordred's mother rather than aunt. Excalibur helped popularize the version of the legend where Mordred is conceived by Brother–Sister Incest between Morgana and Arthur (unwitting in Arthur's case).
  • Ret-Canon: In order to manage the large cast in Arthurian legend, the film merged the characters of Morgause of Orkney and Morgana le Fay into one Composite Character, keeping the latter's name and powers of sorcery, but giving her the former's role of mothering Mordred after an incestuous affair with Arthur. Though he may not have been the first to make this change, his film popularized the incestuous angle between Morgana and Arthur in many adaptations to come.
  • Right Through His Pants: Justified, as Uther had to keep his armor on to maintain the illusion.
  • Rocket-Tag Gameplay: The final battle between Arthur and Mordred, where both of them are wielding weapons of legendary power which cut through their armor like wet paper.
  • Rule of Cool: Mordred's golden armor — and generally, knights wearing their plate armors outside of battle whenever they can.

  • Savage Spiked Weapons:
    • One of the weapons Arthur uses during his first battle with Lancelot is a spiked mace, which accentuates his insane rage during the scene (Lancelot even points out that Arthur is willing to kill a man that isn't even his enemy).
    • Lancelot plays with this trope during the final battle where he arrives and uses a spiked club as his main weapon. While Lancelot isn't a stereotypically barbaric or lower class character, he LOOKS the part after spending years in exile, and getting a more stereotypically brutish and primitive looking weapon like a spiked club rather than a more stereotypically refined and elegant looking weapon like the sword he previously used might be a way to emphasize his fall from grace.
  • Scars are Forever: Sir Lancelot's sword wound never heals, eventually resulting in his death.
  • Scenery Porn: The use of strong primary colors, moody lighting, striking shot compositions and all the Costume Porn with shining armors make Excalibur one of the most lavish Fantasy movies of the '80s.
  • 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) as he takes the infant Arthur to be raised by another family. "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/Igrayne) spouse (Guinevere/Cornwall) to seduce them.
  • Shapeshifting Squick: As in the standard folklore, King Arthur is son of Igrayne and Uther Pendragon. He is shapeshifted by Merlin as Igrayne's husband (that, at the moment, is painfully dying on the battlefield for extra drama); because Squick was not already hitting the eleven, Uther is in full metal plate armor, with the queen laying under him. Ouch. No time to undress?
  • 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 — for instance, Lancelot's return has him resembling Beorn):
    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 the legendary sword from the rock.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Uther, arguably — subverted in that he eventually admits that he is tired of wars and battles.
  • Sole Survivor: Perceval is the only knight who survives the final battle.
  • 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!"
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Despite Arthur validating himself as King by pulling Excalibur from the stone, there are plenty of people who don't want him there because he isn't a knight (he's a mere squire) and a bastard to boot. This causes a rebellion that Arthur has to defeat within hours of pulling Excalibur from the stone.
  • Sword Plant: Devastated but unwilling to kill his wife and best friend, King Arthur slams Excalibur into the ground between Guinevere and Lancelot so that when they wake up in the morning they both know they've just royally screwed up the kingdom.
    Lancelot: The king without a sword! The land without a King!
  • 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: But 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.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Having to say farewell to Merlin, discovering that Guinevere is indeed cheating on him with Lancelot, and then being raped by his sister a few hours later turns Arthur nearly catatonic. And that's before getting hit by a lightning.
  • Trial by Combat: Queen Guinivere is accused of adultery against King Arthur with Lancelot. All of the knights had been afraid to level this accusation because her champion was Lancelot himself, whom no other knight can defeat.
  • The Unchosen One: Uther's fling with Igrayne convinces Merlin that he isn't going to be the king England needs.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Arthur, when he first fights Lancelot.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Guinevere broke her husband's heart and helped kick off the Dark Age of Camelot's ruin because she just had to go sleep with Lancelot in the woods.
  • Vain Sorceress: Morgana Le Fay uses her magical powers to keep herself looking young into middle age. Interestingly, when Merlin goes into her dream and tricks her into casting a powerful mist spell, she releases so much energy that she ages far beyond what her natural age was originally.
  • Villainous Incest: Morgana is power-hungry and vain, and has a child with her own half-brother. She can also be seen sitting rather... suggestively with Gawain, who is her nephew in most tellings (though no mention of that relationship is made in the film).
  • Warrior Prince: It's very much a part of the plot that Uther Pendragon is a far better warrior than he is a king. Arthur, while certainly a capable warrior, is also good at actually ruling a nation.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Arthur ends up in a fight "to the death" against "a knight who is not [his] enemy" for a bridge he could "easily ride around," and ends up not only almost killing Lancelot, but, more importantly (to him), shattering Excalibur. Luckily, the Lady of the Lake forgives him and mends the sword.
  • Weather of War: The dragon's breath created via magic, most notably in the final battle. Merlin tricks Morgana into raising the fog, concealing the paucity of King Arthur's force and the direction from which they are attacking.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • A consequence of having too many characters in a two-hours movie. Igrayne 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 Igrayne 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.
      • The final draft of the movie's script reveals that Kay was intended to get a horse and ride out to join Lancelot. Arthur and Perceval would have found his body, being born away by squires, just before finding the mortally wounded Lancelot.
    • Mordred's lieutenant disappears after the beginning of the final battle, presumably killed off screen. The mentioned draft, however, had him survive all the way up to the final confrontation between Arthur and Mordred, and flee after the latter is killed.
  • With Us or Against Us: Uryens asks this verbatim to Leondegrance when he challenges Arthur's claim as king which Leondegrance supports.
    Uryens: Are you with us or against us?!
    Leondegrance: Against you.
  • World of Ham: The film aims for the medieval high fantasy/epic feel, which does tend towards hamminess and grandioseness, with shouting as the informal language of the land. Uther and Leondegrance are remarkably boisterous, while Merlin provides a more quirky and mixed theatricality.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Lancelot suffers this fate. (It may be a metaphorical wound, though. He sustained it while wracked with guilt about sleeping with Guinevere, and it was done by Excalibur which couldn't have been in his physical possession at the time.)
  • Wrecked Weapon: Excalibur is broken when Arthur uses it for an unjust purpose — namely, killing Lancelot to satisfy his ego. When he realises the depth of his error, the knight is revived and his sword returned to him in one piece by the Lady of the Lake. This sequence was added so that Arthur could receive Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake as well as pull it from the stone earlier in the film.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Merlin describes the Dragon, the source of his magic, as "a beast of such power that if you were to see it whole and all complete in a single glance, it would burn you to cinders."


Video Example(s):


It is a dream I have

Arthur tells Guinevere of the life he wishes he could have with her, knowing that as the Once and Future King it can never be.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / TragicDream

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