Excalibur (1981), a recap (part 1 of 7): The rise and fall of Uther Pendragon

NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!

Our film opens with text:

It is the Dark Ages
The land was divided
And without a King
Out of those centuries
rose a legend…
of the sorcerer, Merlin…
of the coming of a King…
of the Sword of Power…

I’d say that the film is attempting to give us a serious tone with real weight, but considering director John Boorman’s choice in fonts…

…I just don’t know? I get that Herkules here is a classic font, but it’s hard for me to take it ser—

Well, heck, if it’s good enough for AC/DC, then darn it, it’s good enough for me!

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The film opens proper on woods at night, lit by torchlight borne by knights on horses. Steam explodes out of the horses’ nostrils into the frosty night air as the knights line up… and wait. Then another figure strides up a hill, but it’s not a knight. No, it’s something else, wearing a cloak instead of armor, bearing a staff rather than sword, axe, torch, or standard:

Other knights show up, galloping in while others charge in on foot. Torches are thrown down and soon fire breaks out, illuminating the carnage as armored men hack into one another with swords and axes, with one poor bastard getting it in the chest with a blazing lance. And here’s your first fun fact: director John Boorman wasn’t exactly a “detail” person when it came to fight choreography, preferring to let guys improvise. Improvise with melee weapons. In the dark. I’m starting to wonder how many bodies were left hidden in the Irish peat bogs.

The cloaked man scans the carnage and then murmurs, “Uther”. “Uther” then responds with, “Merlin!” and then cries out he’s the strongest and “the one”. He casually takes out a knight or two with his axe before riding up to the cloaked man and demanding “the sword”. And Merlin says he’ll have it, but in order to heal, not hack, and then says there will be a truce by the river tomorrow. Uther’s not the least bit happy about this.

The following day, Merlin heads down to the lake and waits. For what? For the sword:

And as I watch this majestic scene, which should fill me with awe and wonder, the words “watery tart” pop into my head. Sometimes I wish I could just compartmentalize my memory and lock Monty Python away and take them out whenever I want, but throughout the film that other King Arthur movie keeps intruding.

Later at the river, which really is more like a brook or a creek—I mean, it might even be considered a stream, except it is pretty rocky, and to me a stream is—

Right. Uther’s party is arrayed on one side of the free flowing body of water some might charitably call a river, while another man’s knights hold the other side. Uther draws the sword and everyone is suitably impressed. Uther’s counterpart takes note and seems a bit worried as Merlin launches into his spiel.

Merlin: Behold, Excalibur! Forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with man! And death was but a dream…

Nicol Williamson’s cadence is compelling. And it isn’t like this is how he normally speaks. I’ve seen him in other films and heard him in interviews; this is a deliberate aspect of Merlin’s character and it’s one of the many things that makes his portrayal so memorable. Merlin looks up at Uther and murmurs “speak the words” and Uther, looking decidedly uncomfortable because he normally lets his melee weapon of the moment do the talking for him, cries out, “One land, one peace!” And he says this to his counterpart, Cornwall. This is Gabriel Byrne in his first major motion picture. You’ll discover he’s not unique in that regard.

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Cornwall wants to know what’s in it for him if he goes along with this, and at Merlin’s urging, Uther agrees that the land from the brook creek stream river to the sea will be the other knight’s, provided he enforces the king’s will. Cornwall is down with that, and there is much rejoicing.

Later at Cornwall’s castle, he and Uther cut their own wrists and press them together in a primitive pact. Cornwall calls for his wife Igrayne to dance for them, and as the medieval version of a wedding band throw down a jam, the young wife proceeds to gambol with great abandon as the men stare. Uther in particular is captivated, and drunken Cornwall begins to regret bragging about 1) how hot his wife is, and 2) how Uther would never score a queen as awesome as her. Uther turns to the guy next to him…

…and says he must have her, and the guy’s totally freaking out, knowing he’s watching the alliance getting flushed because his drunken boss is thinking with the wrong head.

Igrayne is not helping matters any with her hip thrusts—

—and finally, Cornwall realizes Uther won’t be satisfied with ruling just the land. Cornwall and Uther’s eyes meet, Cornwall growls, and Uther spits.

And the next day, Uther is laying siege to Cornwall’s castle. I’m guessing some law of hospitality prevented the two from throwing down the night before. We’ve got a classic battering ram going on and a wicked trebuchet is tossing flaming rocks at the wall, while Cornwall’s men are rolling stones down on Uther’s men. Merlin shows up, and boy howdy, he is not happy. It took him years to put that truce together, and Uther managed to wreck it in one night. Uther claims Merlin doesn’t understand because, “He’s not a man,” and Merlin’s like, “I have walked my way since the beginning of time,” which seems to bear that out.

Uther only wants one night with Igrayne, and I’m wondering just how atrocious looking the women are where Uther comes from that he’s fixated on this one. Merlin agrees to help, but only if Uther swears to give him what he wants. Uther does so, and Merlin says he wants whatever comes of Uther’s lust. And Uther’s so horny he swears again, even after Merlin proposes that condition. Uther’s people retreat, and Cornwall senses it’s not over.

That night, Merlin and Uther are alone on a hill near Cornwall’s castle, and between them is the sea. Merlin begins to chant the “charm of making”:

Merlin: Anál nathrach,
orth’ bháis’s bethad,
do chél dénmha

According to an Irish-American linguist and all around big brain, this is Old Irish and in modern English can be translated to:

Serpent’s breath,
charm of death and life,
thy omen of making.

Uther falls asleep, but whether it’s because of the effects of the spell or he’s just tired from a long day of sieging is hard to say. But he awakens with a scream and looks around, saying he dreamt of a dragon. Merlin says, “I have awoken him. Can’t you see all around the dragon’s breath?”

From the cadence and wording, it’s almost like a completely different screenwriter is penning Nicol Williamson’s dialogue. That’s by no means a criticism, because it adds a different element to his character, as if he’s truly from an earlier time and is speaking another dialect.

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The pair watch as Duke Cornwall rides out with his men in pursuit of Uther. Merlin tells Uther to mount his horse, and that he will appear to be Cornwall to fool Igrayne. Uther points out there’s this little matter of the sea in front of him, but Merlin says his lust will allow him to ride up on the dragon’s breath. Uther hesitates only a moment, and then he rides off the cliff. And then he dies and Merlin starts all over again.

But no! As promised, the mist bears the weight of horse and rider, and soon Uther’s appearance changes to the Duke, armor and all. Here’s another fun fact: when these scenes were being shot, Boorman decided to change the camera angle, and one or two lights from the city of Bray in county Wicklow, Ireland could be seen. So naturally he switched back to the original angle, right? Wrong! Boorman’s people called the Electricity Service Board, and after being told what was up, utility workers blacked out sections of the city until the right lights had gone out. The power people then told Boorman’s people to give them a ring when they were done shooting for the night. So yeah, thousands of people lost power for hours so a director could get the perfect shot.

Uther as Cornwall reaches the castle’s cliff and the guards are completely fooled, and he walks right into the castle and tracks down Igrayne. Elsewhere, the actual Duke rides through Uther’s camp in search of him, when two ravens fly into his face, causing him to fall off his horse. But it’s okay, because the pikes break his fall.

This causes a young girl to sit up and cry out that her father is dead. Igrayne rushes over to the girl, Morgana, and comforts her. So… Morgana is, what, six maybe? Or maybe she’s supposed to be four? And Igrayne is, according to actress Katrine Boorman (and yes, she’s the director daughter), seventeen. So Igrayne was maybe twelve when Cornwall married her. Yeah, that sadly sounds pretty accurate.

Uther approaches Igrayne, and let’s be real here, he rapes her as her husband dies on the battlefield. I’m trying to imagine how uncomfortable shooting these scenes was for all parties involved. I don’t mean physically uncomfortable, either. Uther climaxes as Duke Cornwall dies, and on his hill, Merlin murmurs, “The future has taken root in the present; it is done.”

The next morning, Duke Cornwall’s body is brought in, pointy bits and all, much to Igrayne’s shock and horror, both at the fact that her husband is dead and the realization that it wasn’t her husband she lay with last night.

Nine months later, King Uther shows up and discovers Igrayne has given birth to a boy. He sends Morgana away, saying, “She stares at me with her Father’s eyes.” Guilty conscience there, Uther? He takes his son in his arms and talks of how he will learn to “love men” and how tired he is of fighting. Yup, it’s a new day! Uther’s going to be a changed man, yes sir! Only…

…Merlin, who has slept for “nine moons” for what he did for Uther, has come to collect. Igrayne’s suspicions are proven true and Merlin points out all of Uther’s crimes, and how no one trusts him now. Merlin then employs his final argument: he can protect the child. It’s a compelling case; once Uther’s enemies find out the boy is his, they’ll kill him to end the line of succession.

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Uther tears the boy from Igrayne’s arms and hands him over to Merlin while the mother howls. As Merlin leaves, Morgana asks if Merlin is the baby’s mother and father.

Merlin turns to regard the girl, and you can see it in his face: it’s fear. Or it’s the realization that he hadn’t taken Cornwall’s daughter into consideration when he came up with this plan. Merlin departs with Igrayne behind him screaming for Uther to go after him. Uther finally does, riding out after Merlin, but he outpaces his bodyguards and gets ambushed. Wounded, he draws Excalibur and slices an arm off an opponent (which tells me Excalibur is a variation of a Vorpal Blade, in Dungeons & Dragons terms) and staggers off after Merlin again.

Uther pleads for Merlin to conjure the dragon and weave a mist to hide him from his pursuers. The sorcerer at last turns, perhaps sensing the end. Dying of his wounds, Uther plunges Excalibur’s blade into a stone; it sinks in with a metallic hiss as Merlin stares in shock.

Uther staggers away and dies ignobly, with his enemies futilely tugging at the blade. Merlin mutters that whoever draws the sword from the stone will be king. He slips away with the babe, whose name happens to be Arthur.

Next time: We get to know the Boy King.

Multi-Part Article: Excalibur (1981), a recap

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