English director John Boorman has had a lifelong obsession with Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century story Le Morte d'Arthur. Bits and pieces of the tale were woven into one of his early TV productions, "The Quarry." Three of Boorman's feature films, Point Blank, Leo the Last, and Deliverance, center around individuals trying to define their destiny in a wild world. And his two later movies, Zardoz (a futuristic handling of the Arthurian legend) and Exorcist II — The Heretic (with its magic and horror), each bear the imprint of Malory's thematic concerns.

With the release of Excalibur, John Boorman's fondest hopes were realized. Shot in Ireland, this is a visually stunning work of art with picturesque nature settings, an extravaganza of costumes and color, and enough optical tricks to bring out the child in us all. The screenplay by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg offers us an opportunity to appreciate and explore the spellbinding ideas and ideals of the Arthurian myth. Excalibur easily moves beyond all the other screen treatments of this universal story and, thanks to a mesmerizing performance by Nicol Williamson as Merlin, it contains the humor, irony, and intelligence to make it a modern classic.

The tale begins as Celtic lords are battling for power in the kingdom. Merlin (Nicol Williamson), a wily magician, chooses as his favorite Uther (Gabriel Byrne). But when the warrior throws away the honor of King for one night of passion with an enchanting married woman (Katrine Boorman), Merlin is shocked. The sorcerer gives Uther the appearance of her husband but then takes the son she later bears as his own.

Eighteen years later, Arthur (Nigel Terry) miraculously pulls the enchanted sword Excalibur from the stone in which it was implanted at Uther's death. The orphan boy becomes King. In a forest glade, he marries Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi). Guided by Merlin, Arthur unifies the Kingdom and ushers in the golden age of Camelot.

But the idealism and nobility of the Knights of the Round Table is soon tarnished. The King learns he has been betrayed by his Queen and his champion, the knight Lancelot (Nicholas Clay).

Morgana (Helen Mirren), the King's half-sister, steals Merlin's magic and triumphs over him. In the guise of Guenevere, she seduces Arthur and gives birth to Mordred. Her witchcraft sends many knights to their deaths until Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) unravels the riddle of the chalice and fulfills the quest.

The reinvigorated King, buoyed up by Merlin's presence in his dreams, defeats Mordred (Robert Addie) in battle. Although Arthur dies, Excalibur finds its home in a lake where a hand mysteriously rises to receive it.