In John Boorman's Excalibur, war rages between the young Uther Pendragon and his chief rival, Cornwall. To bring peace, Merlin, the wizard, secures the mystical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake and gives it to Uther. This is just the beginning of an intriguing, eventful, awe inspiring story of ancient power, treachery, and finally, peace.
Impressed by Excalibur and Uther's promise of land, Cornwall surrenders and recognizes Uther as king. Cornwall hosts a banquet, where his wife, Igrayne dances. Uther lusts for her and the fragile truce is shattered. Uther attacks Cornwall's castle. Merlin agrees to give him Igrayne but only if Merlin will receive the result of Uther's lust, which is the main character, Arthur. That night, Uther's men draw Cornwall out of his castle and attack and kill him. Merlin transforms Uther to resemble Cornwall. Uther enters the castle, makes love to Igrayne, and impregnates her as Cornwall lay dying outside. Nine months later, Igrayne gives birth to a son, Arthur. Upon seeing Arthur for the first time, Uther vows to become a peaceful king and secure his kingdom for his son. Merlin, who has not been seen since the night Cornwall died, appears and takes Arthur, as part of their agreement. As Merlin dissolves into the forest, Uther tries to stop him but is ambushed by enemy knights still loyal to Cornwall. Badly wounded, Uther drives Excalibur into a stone, declaring no one will have the sword but him. Standing nearby, Merlin recites a spell that will keep the sword in the stone until Arthur is mature and can claim it. For the next sixteen years, no one is able to pull the sword from the stone. This leads to an annual contest to see who will try; if any succeed, they will be crowned king. Sir Ector brings his son, Kay and his squire, Arthur. When Arthur forgets Kay's sword, he goes to the stone and draws Excalibur for Kay to use in the contest. Stunned, the crowd sees that Arthur has removed the sword. Ector reveals that Arthur was brought to him as a baby by Merlin, who begged him to raise Arthur and protect him. Many of the other knights refuse to recognize Arthur, who is not a knight, as their king. Only Leondegrance acknowledges Arthur as the rightful king. After a quick lesson in the arts, Merlin leads Arthur to Leondegrance's castle, which is attacked by the other knights. Arthur fights bravely but wins the battle when he admits that he is not a knight and kneels to ask one of the rebel knights, Uryens, to knight him. Uryens recognizes Uther Pendragon's courage flowing through Arthur's veins and knights him. That night, Arthur begins his courtship of Guenevere, Leondegrance's daughter.
Under Arthur, the kingdom prospers, the various people are united, and many people flock to his castle, Camelot. The land's mightiest knights have joined Arthur's fold. These knights include Lancelot, who had taught Arthur an important lesson in humility. Lancelot, the best knight in the world, had defeated all of Arthur's knights; Arthur himself won only by calling on Excalibur's mystical powers. The sword shattered because of Arthur's misuse. Recognizing this, Arthur repented and the Lady of the Lake returned Excalibur to Arthur, whole. Lancelot swore his allegiance to Arthur that very day. However, he spends little time in Camelot because of his love for Guenevere. In order to maintain honor, Lancelot stays in self-imposed exile. In the meantime, Arthur married Guenevere, established the Round Table, and united the kingdom.
Merlin has grown tired of helping men create kingdoms and accepts that the Christian God will take the place of magic. Morgana, Arthur's evil half-sister rejects this and seduces Merlin into revealing all of his secrets, tricking him into reciting the ancient spell of "making", the very same spell Merlin had used to alter Uther's likeness to that of Cornwall. She learns the chant and uses it to imprison Merlin. Meanwhile, Guenevere has slipped into the forest to find Lancelot. They end up making love and falling asleep. Not long after, Arthur finds them, becomes distraught and, rather than kill them, drives Excalibur into the ground between them. When they awake, the two are driven apart by grief. That night, Morgana takes the disguise of Guenevere, has sex with a demoralized Arthur and conceives a child by him. Without Excalibur and despondent over the treachery of his queen and best knight, Arthur is an ineffective king and the land suffers. Crops fail and disease spreads. Arthur sends his knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used during the Last Supper, which will heal Arthur and the land. All of the knights search for the Grail for 10 years, and most of them die at the hands of Morgana, who has raised her and Arthur's son, Mordred to hate Arthur. Together they lure Arthur's knights to their lair and hang the ones that cannot be enticed from a tree. Perceval is among these. As he slowly strangles, he has a vision of the Grail. It asks him "What is the secret of the Grail? Who does it serve?" Perceval is too frightened to answer the question. However, the spurs on another hanged knight's armor severs the rope hanging Perceval, and he escapes.
He finds himself at the Grail Castle from his near-death vision. This time, Perceval understands the secret of the Grail: it is the faith that sustains Arthur, and through him the land flourishes. Perceval returns to Camelot with the Grail. Arthur drinks from it and regains his health and the land blooms to life. Arthur visits Guenevere, who retired to a convent after her infidelity. Arthur forgives her and asks her forgiveness. She returns Excalibur to him, having kept it with her through the years. Mordred has challenged Arthur to the throne and has built a massive army. The next morning, Arthur's forces, though vastly outnumbered, meet and vanquish Mordred's army at Camlann. They are aided by the timely intervention of Lancelot, who single-handedly kills many. Lancelot, however, succumbs to the wound he'd given himself in the forest when trying to hide his love for Guenevere, and collapses. A grateful Arthur forgives him and Lancelot dies, having found peace. Only Mordred himself remains. He impales Arthur on a spear and Arthur stabs him with Excalibur, killing him. Dying, Arthur commands Perceval to take Excalibur and throw it into the nearest still body of water. Perceval takes the sword to a nearby lake but is unable to follow the command; he returns to Arthur saying that Excalibur cannot be lost again. Arthur reassures his knight that the sword will be safe and will be presented to the next worthy king. Perceval returns to the lake and casts the sword in where it's caught by the Lady of the Lake and taken beneath the water. Perceval rides back to Camlann in time to see the Fates sailing away to Avalon with Arthur's body.
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