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I think this is the favorite movie of every GenX guy who’s into renfaires and / or the SCA. That’s why I ended up watching it too many times because of too many dudes, and I find Excalibur (1981) to be boring, brutish, ugly, and dumb. This is the gritty reboot of Camelot (1967) that nobody asked for.
However, like those GenX boys, I too have a lingering fondness for tales of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Back in my childhood, these were the most common ye oldey-timey stories you’d see on TV or in movies. Plus, I’m a Tolkien nerd born and bred, which is a rehashing of Arthurian legend into pure high fantasy. So I can see the appeal of this flick, and yet, it just doesn’t do it for me.
Maybe because the story starts with a rape. Maybe because of all the daddy issues and battles. Maybe because it’s the first movie to use “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, thus starting a big, fat action movie cliché. It’s not a bad retelling of Le Morte d’Arthur, but rewatching it makes me wonder how this was possibly made AFTER Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), when it feels like Python is directly skewering Excalibur!
But maybe there’s something redeeming here that I’ve missed? Let’s break down what’s good and what’s bad about Excalibur and see how it sorts out…
Pro: The Cast Is Stacked!
So many excellent actors got their start or got a boost from this flick.
This was Gabriel Byrne‘s first movie, and he went on to play a wacky Lord Byron in Gothic (1986), the only Friedrich Bhaer that makes sense in Little Women (1994), and a fan-fave D’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), among other roles.
This was also Ciarán Hinds first movie, and he went on to melt our hearts as the one true Captain Wentworth in Persuasion (1995), got it going as Rochester in Jane Eyre (1997), charmed our pants off again in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008), and even suffered The Terror (2018)!
Yet another movie debut! Liam Neeson would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for his starring role in Schindler’s List (1993), then he’d battle the English in Rob Roy (1995) and again in Michael Collins (1996), plus he’s immortalized as a Jedi master in Star Wars.
Helen Mirren started her rise from Shakespearean theater to big box-office flicks with this role, working steadily in all genres, and finally revealing her queenly frock flick form in The Madness of King George (1994), Elizabeth I (2005), and Catherine the Great (2019). She even narrates the Barbie (2023) movie as essentially the voice of God!
Cherie Lunghi also had her film debut with Excalibur, and she’s been featured regularly in TV, especially historical dramas, but most of us remember her best as the thoughtful Miss Testvalley in The Buccaneers (1995).
Con: The Costumes Are Silly!
The men mostly wear armor, and y’all know we don’t have anything to say on that (though have at it in the comments and please confirm my suspicion that this movie’s armor is fantasy fest junk!). What’s especially silly is that they wear their armor ALL the time, not just for battle, which, y’know, that’s what it’s meant for. Uther rapes Igrayne, and he’s in full armor, on the bed. Arthur and his knights eat and drink while sitting wearing their armor. Lancelot sleeps in his armor (except when he sleeps totally naked).
The one time the knights are shown out of armor, it looks like they’re wearing yoga pants! C’mon, we can do better.
The women, however, get all kinds of wackadoodle garb that bears only a passing resemblance to medieval.
There’s a whole lot of sparkly shiny stuff that wouldn’t pass a burn test, such as this thing Guinevere wears to ride with Lancelot for her wedding.
Then her wedding veil glints and shimmers with the light of pure lurex!
Check out that sleeve of Guinevere’s wedding gown — gorgeous, if modern, Assuit fabric, which is an Egyptian textile. I rather doubt Dark Ages Briton had a lot of trade with Egypt, btw.
Many, many sari fabrics were harmed in the making of this film, such as this gown Guinevere wears for a feast:
See it in all it’s glory on PropStoreAuction.com:
When it’s really time to shine, Guinevere pulls out the gold sequin gown and matching wimple!
Is that supposed to be a cheap version of this:
Morgana gets a purple sari-fabric veil to skulk around in for the first part of the flick:
She does try to be demure in this furry cape, except it’s not “fur” it’s like a long eyelash fabric.
But mostly we get BDSM Morgana. I’m not saying it’s a bad look (I enjoy Helen Mirren in fishnet, leather cutouts, or armor as much as the next human person!), but it’s not a historically accurate medieval look, now is it?
Continuing on the silly theme, she’s wearing this armor in bed to sleep. Also, the armor has nipples.
Check it out on PropStoreAuction.com:
The only guy who regularly wears something other than armor is Merlin, and he just gets a big raggedy old robe.
Seeing it on PropStoreAuction.com shows that his robe is made of patchwork. Looks more like a Victorian crazy quilt than a medieval technique…
Pro: The Peasants’ Have Historical Headgear
Color me shocked when I did NOT see a plethora of unfortunate bigginses on the grubby crowdfolk! They wear a variety of cloth and leather hats that resemble period imagery, with minimal derp.
The chaperon hat is probably a bit late for this period, but I’ll accept it. A bunch of the fellas seem to have long liripipe tails on their hoods, which is also a bit more 13th-century or later but hey, it’s still better than a bunch of bigginses!
The only biggins that’s seen is on Morgana as a child, which means, by definition, that it’s not unfortunate.
Con: The Court Are All Team Head Necklace
The higher the status, the more likely they’ve got a circlet necklace plopped on their head. I’ve mentioned Guinevere and Morgana above, they wear various head necklaces in the movie:
Igrayne wears this same one through all of her (few) scenes.
You can quibble all you want that a circle isn’t a head necklace, but I call ’em like I see ’em! Especially with all the stuff hanging off ’em, these are goddamn head necklaces.
Then the guys get their own version — butch head necklaces? These braided-leather head necklaces really don’t add to the picture here.
Seems like a pseudo-medieval version of this:
Well how does Excalibur add up to you, pro or con?