By Charles Cassady Jr.,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Epic King Arthur saga with illicit affairs and brutality.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Staying true to source material, the narrative endorses and dramatizes medieval notions of the divine right of a king to rule as a monarch literally chosen by God. Still, there's an original-sin suggestion that Arthur's birth (a result of his father's treacherous lust and Merlin's sorcery) has sewn the seeds of his destruction. Plenty of illicit behavior that's all part of the mythology.
Positive Role Models
Sharp, simplified lines between good (Arthur, Percival) and evil (Morgana, Mordred), with the shades of gray being the adulterous lovers Lancelot and Guinevere, whose taboo affair seems to happen out of sheer destiny and inevitability. Fighting/yielding is the usual solution to arguments.
Violence & Scariness
Frequent jousting and sword-battling, some of which results in blood spilling, throat slashing, impalements, decapitations, near-drownings, and hacked-off limbs, though everything has a less-than-realistic look thanks to the vintage effects. Rotting corpses, one of which is shown getting an eyeball pecked out. A villain beats and strangles his own mother.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Intercourse between knights, queens and kings -- one guy is fully armored, the woman is completely nude. Sir Lancelot shown naked from the rear. Lancelot and Guinevere have nude adultrous sex. While not depicted explicitly, Morgana bewitches her own half-brother, King Arthur, and deliberately gets pregnant by him.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Social drinking, cups around the Round Table. Communion-style drinking in a wedding ceremony and from the Holy Grail.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Excalibur is no bedtime-fairy tale. Sex, gore, and death are fairly explicit in this version of the Arthur story, with bare breasts and buttocks especially in the Lancelot-Guinevere affair. Violence in combat includes impalings, sword- and axe-thrusts, throat slashings, beheadings, and a near-drowning, though the edge is taken off by the old-fashioned special effects. A matricide by strangulation. Nightmare imagery of rotting corpses dead in their armor. Christianity -- at least a Dark Ages brand of it -- is treated respectfully.
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Where to Watch
Videos and Photos
Based on 2 parent reviews
Explicit, violent, visually stunning film
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Excellent Arthurian version, but full of violence and sex
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What's the Story?
In the Dark-Age British Isles, ageless wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) gives warlord Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) the invincible sword EXCALIBUR, forged at the dawn of time, a weapon-symbol to unite the squabbling fiefdoms. Pendragon makes peace with his main rival, only to grow obsessed with the man's wife, and he resumes fighting -- over her. The wizard casts a spell that grants Pendragon's lusts, on the condition Merlin take custody of the child that results. He is Arthur (Nigel Terry), raised ignorant of his royalty, a humble squire in a noble knight's family. Arthur accidentally proves his right to the throne by pulling Excalibur from the stone in which a dying Pendragon embedded it. Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table build a kingdom and of peace and prosperity, until his treacherous half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and a forbidden love affair between Queen Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and champion knight Lancelot (Nicolas Clay) bring evil and unrest upon the land.
Is It Any Good?
Don't expect this to be a modern "thrill ride" action epic crowd pleaser, but what such a saga would look like if some bard from 1100 A.D. or so hopped into a time machine to go to film school. The story of Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and Lancelot has been done so often, in print and on film (even as a Broadway musical and a devastating spoof) that Excalibur filmmaker John Boorman must have decided not to waste time/dialogue evoking the iconic characters as real people. Only Merlin, a capering, trickster-like creature (providing the lone comic relief) has a personality; the rest of the cast (such distinctive actors as Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Gabriel Byrne, anonymously encased in armor) are as flat as figures in a tapestry, perhaps intentionally so. Emphasis is instead on the Celtic natural-world backdrop -- the mythic, emerald-green Irish shooting locations -- and a medieval mindset of brutal violence, might making right, and paganism (just barely) surrendering to Christianity.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the centuries-old appeal of the story of King Arthur. How does Excalibur compare to other versions?
How does the violence in this movie compare to more modern movies? Is it less intense because it's less sophisticated?
How does the period clothing and setting affect the way the sex is depicted, if at all? Does it seem less realistic than if it were depicted in a modern setting? Or more shocking? Romantic?
- In theaters: April 10, 1981
- On DVD or streaming: September 21, 1999
- Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Nigel Terry, Patrick Stewart
- Director: John Boorman
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Genre: Fantasy
- Run time: 143 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- Last updated: October 8, 2022
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