"The film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth." ~John Boorman (so no comments about the historical innacuracies of the plate armor are allowed)
Uthur Pendragon is given the mystical sword Excalibur by the wizard Merlyn. At his death Uthur buries the sword into a stone, and the next man that can pull it out will be King of England. Years later Arthur, Uthur's bastard son draws Excalibur and becomes king. Guided by Merlyn, Arthur marries Guenivere and gathers the Knights of the Round Table until Arthur's evil half-sister Morgana sires a son with him, which may prove to be his downfall.
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No mortal could possess it! No kingdom could command it!
Forged by a god. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a king.
Boorman's original intention was to make a adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In the script, written by Boorman and his colleague Rospo Pallenberg, many new elements were inserted or were modified. The first half is largely based on The Fellowship of the Ring. Following the intermission, the writers “dropped things out” and “invented as they went along”. Among other things, Frodo and the Lady Galadriel have sexual intercourse (her husband Celeborn is omitted), the Lord of the Nazgûl rides a bleeding, skinless horse in lieu of a flying pterodactylic creature, Gimli is put in a hole and beaten so he can retrieve the password to Moria from his ancestral memory, and Arwen is made into a spiritual guide for the Fellowship and her role as Aragorn's love interest is wholly transferred to Éowyn, who becomes the latter's queen.
The project ultimately proved too expensive to finance at that time. Boorman ended up making the Arthurian epic Excalibur instead, also with Pallenberg's help - where in a draft for that movie’s script they use similar concepts; a "duel of words" originally planned between Gandalf and Saruman becomes a duel between Merlin and Morgana, albeit rephrased. This duel as written does not appear in the final film. Also the trial by combat set in the woods was originally to be the set for the Rivendel counsel chamber. A copy of the script is stored in the Tolkien papers collection of Marquette University.
Igrayne, The Lady of the Lake, and young Mordred were all played by director John Boorman's real-life children: Katrine Boorman, Telsche Boorman, and Charley Boorman.
The initial fight scene in the movie had to be filmed three times. It was filmed at night and the first two times, all the film came out underexposed due to a fault in the exposure meter. The cameraman had a nervous breakdown over the issue and quit.
United Artists told John Boorman that he could cast anyone as Merlin except Nicol Williamson who was never-the-less cast as Merlin.
The Charm of Making spoken by Merlin & Morgana is an attempt at Old Irish that translates to: "Serpent's breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making." The phonetic rendering, as spoken in the movie, is: /ana:l nathrakh, u:rth va:s bethud, dokhje:l djenve:/. In Irish, the phrase is: 'An?il nathrach, ortha bh?is bheatha, do thuar dhéanamh', which is pronounced similarly but not exactly as in the movie.
John Boorman wanted the story to be the focus of the movie rather than the actors. Therefore, he cast actors that were relatively unknown at the time to American audiences. Among them were Gabriel Byrne (Uther), Patrick Stewart (Leondegrance), Liam Neeson (Gawain), Helen Mirren (Morgana), and Nicholas Clay (Launcelot). Only Nicol Williamson (Merlin) was relatively familiar to American moviegoers.
Merlin: STAND BACK! Be silent! Be still! (he pauses) That's it... and look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then... this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, 'I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!' For it is the doom of men that they forget.
Merlin: Remember, there's always something cleverer than yourself.
Merlin: When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.
Arthur: Now, once more, I must ride with my knights to defend what was, and the dream of what could be.
Arthur: Swear faith to me, and you shall have mercy! I need battle lords such as you!
Uryenes: A noble knight swear faith to a squire?
Mador: NEVER... NEVER!
Arthur: You are right.
Arthur: (Hands Excalibur to Uyrenes and kneels) I'm not yet a knight. You, Uryenes, will knight me. Then as knight to knight... I can offer you mercy!
Merlin: What's this? What's this?
Mador: Keep it, Uryenes!
Uryenes: (hesitates and then touches Excalibur to Arthur's shoulder) In the name of God, St Michael and St George, I give you the right to bear arms and the power to meet justice!
Arthur: That duty I will solemnly obey, as knight and king.
Merlin: I never saw this.
Uryenes: Rise... King Arthur.
(Uryenes kneels before Arthur)
Uryenes: I am your humble knight, and I swear allegiance to the courage in your veins. So strong it is, its source must be Uther Pendragon's. I doubt you no more!