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DVD cover art
|Written by||Edward Khmara|
|Directed by||Steve Barron|
Helena Bonham Carter
|Theme music composer||Trevor Jones|
|Country of origin||United States|
Robert Halmi Sr.
|Running time||182 minutes|
|Original release||April 26, 1998 – April 27, 1998|
|Followed by||Merlin's Apprentice|
The film deviates from more traditional versions of the legend, notably by including new characters such as Queen Mab and by keeping Merlin through the whole reign of King Arthur over Britain (whereas in older versions Merlin left earlier on in the king's reign). The film was followed by a sequel in 2006, Merlin's Apprentice, which was more loosely connected with traditional Arthurian legend.
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Merlin, an elderly man telling his life story, describes a Britain faced with rulers and invasion that are increasingly destructive to its people. Queen Mab seeks to reclaim her power by drawing people back to the "Old Ways". To do so, she creates a wizard named Merlin, whom she intends to champion her crusade. Merlin's mother dies giving birth to him and he is raised by his guardian, Ambrosia, until his magic emerges.
Years later, a teenage Merlin recounts to Ambrosia how he has rescued a nobleman's daughter, Nimue, from drowning by magically growing a small branch. Ambrosia tells him of his past and he is sent to Mab to begin his training with Frik, Mab's gnome servant; however, Merlin has little interest in helping Mab's crusade to restore the Old Ways, angering her. Merlin finds out from the Lady of the Lake that her sister Mab let his birth mother die and that Ambrosia is ill. Mab reaches Ambrosia's home before Merlin, but when Ambrosia refuses to convince Merlin to return to Mab, Mab lashes out fatally injuring Ambrosia. Merlin tries to attack Mab but can't defeat her; she dismisses the deaths of his mother and Ambrosia as "casualties of war" and vows that Merlin will help her in her quest for power. Merlin makes a blood-oath never to use magic.
Many years pass. Merlin is brought before the tyrant King Vortigern, who is having problems constructing his castle. Merlin tells the king his vision: a red dragon representing Uther Pendragon defeats the white dragon that represents Vortigern. Mab tells the king that he can vanquish Uther by sacrificing Nimue to a dragon, in the hope that Merlin will break his vow not to use magic. Merlin uses magic to save Nimue and she is sent to Avalon to recover from her burns. Merlin asks the Lady of the Lake for help, and she gives him the magical sword Excalibur.
Merlin warns Uther of Vortigern's intention to attack him under the cover of winter; Uther heeds Merlin's warning and uses Excalibur to defeat the king in battle.
Uther becomes obsessed with Igraine, the wife of Gorlois, Lord of Cornwall. Merlin tricks Uther out of the sword and plunges it into the Rock of Ages, who promises to keep it until a good man can withdraw it. Uther's mind is plagued by madness and lust, and Britain slides back into civil war. Merlin strikes a deal with Uther to let him bed Igraine in exchange for guardianship of the son born from the union, and for Gorlois and his men to be spared. Merlin transforms Uther's appearance into that of Gorlois, fooling everyone in Tintagel Castle except for Igraine's young daughter, Morgan le Fay. Uther later has Gorlois and his men slaughtered.
While Igraine is in labor, at Mab's behest, Frik convinces Morgan to place a black stone beneath the baby's sheets in his crib. Igraine dies giving birth to Arthur. Mab then confronts Merlin, proclaiming Arthur to be damned, but Merlin vows to raise him in the ways of good and hopes Arthur will help bring her down.
Arthur is tutored by Merlin. Uther commits suicide, leaving the kingdom in turmoil. The noblemen in the kingdom try to take Excalibur from the Rock of Ages, but none can until Merlin presents Arthur, who is allowed to take the sword.
After some initial hostility, the nobles unite behind Arthur as their rightful king. Merlin leaves, thinking the kingdom is finally at peace, but Mab instructs Frik to seek out Morgan (Helena Bonham Carter) and poison her mind by making her beautiful, and has her seduce Arthur, who is unaware of their relationship. Merlin races back to Camelot to confront Arthur. Morgan gives birth to Mordred (Jason Done), whom Mab raises to become Arthur's downfall. Arthur starts construction of his castle of Camelot and marries Guinevere.
Arthur decides to take his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, so he holds a tournament to crown a champion who will defend and complete Camelot in his absence. The Lady of the Lake vows to guide Merlin to a man worthy of being Camelot's guardian. Merlin meets a boy, Galahad, and his parents, Lancelot, a skilled rider and swordsman, and Elaine of Astolat, Lancelot's wife. Merlin brings Lancelot to Camelot, where he wins the tournament.
In Arthur's absence, Guinevere and Lancelot embark on a love affair. Mab makes sure Elaine sees his betrayal, and she is found dead at the shores of Camelot not long after. Merlin confronts Lancelot, who flees Camelot in his guilt and shame. Arthur and his knights return, their quest a failure.
Mordred introduces himself as Arthur's son and heir and reveals Guinevere's betrayal to all. Arthur is forced to condemn her to be burned at the stake for treason, but relents before she is harmed, causing him to lose respect among the people.
Mordred raises an army among those dissatisfied with Arthur and Merlin. Meanwhile, Frik and Morgan have fallen in love. When Morgan refuses to allow Mab to further use Mordred for her own ends, Mab kills her. Frik vows revenge on Mab and she takes his powers away.
Mab creates an idyllic wilderness home for Nimue, and asks her to persuade Merlin to stay there with her, hoping to stop him intervening in the coming battle. Wanting to be with him, Nimue agrees and sends for Merlin.
The armies of Mordred and Arthur begin the Battle of Camlann, where many on both sides are slain. Arthur defeats Mordred and kills him, but Mordred deals Arthur a fatal blow. Sensing his protégé is dying, Merlin leaves Nimue to go to Arthur. Mab's creation seals itself behind him, parting Merlin from Nimue. At the battlefield, Mab's magic is unable to save Mordred, and Arthur lives long enough to tell Merlin to return Excalibur to the place it was found. Merlin gives back the sword to the Lady of the Lake. She tells Merlin she is slowly dying as the Old Ways are rejected and forgotten. Merlin accuses her of lying to him about the guardian of Camelot, but she explains that it was Galahad who was the true guardian and could have averted all this, though she assures Merlin that Arthur's death is not his fault. Merlin encounters Frik among the survivors of Arthur's army, who warns him that although Mab is greatly weakened, she is still dangerous.
Merlin confronts Mab at Camelot but the ensuing magical duel ends in stalemate. Mab sneers that she is invulnerable to conventional means of destruction, but Merlin responds that she will be defeated when she is forgotten. Mab slowly fades into nothing as Merlin, Frik and the entire court of Camelot turn their backs on her and walk away.
Merlin is again shown back in the "present" finishing his story. Frik appears along with Merlin's aged magic horse, who Frik says will take him to Nimue. Frik explains that some time after Mab disappeared, the spells she had cast lost their effectiveness, and Nimue was set free. Merlin finds the elderly Nimue at Ambrosia's old forest home. He manages one last act of magic to restore them both to youth so they can live out their lives together.
- Sam Neill as Merlin
- Daniel Brocklebank as teenage Merlin
- Miranda Richardson as Queen Mab and The Lady of The Lake
- Isabella Rossellini as Nimue
- Agnieszka Kozon as teenage Nimue
- Martin Short as Frik
- Paul Curran as Arthur
- Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan le Fay
- Alice Hamilton as young Morgan le Fay
- Rutger Hauer as King Vortigern
- James Earl Jones as the Rock of Ages
- John Gielgud as King Constant
- Billie Whitelaw as Ambrosia
- Lena Headey as Guinevere
- Jason Done as Mordred
- Rachel De Thame as Igraine
- Jeremy Sheffield as Lancelot
- Sebastian Roché as Gawain
- John McEnery as Lord Ardente
- Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Sir Bors
- Nicholas Clay as Lord Leo
- Robert Addie as Sir Gilbert
- Nickolas Grace as Sir Egbert
- John Turner as Lord Lot
- Peter Woodthorpe as Soothsayer
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Illustrator Alan Lee served as the film's conceptual designer. Despite heavy fantasy elements, the production is historically accurate to a degree, in keeping with the probable origins of the Arthurian legend in Sub-Roman Britain. The costumes and props used in the film include Dark Age or Early Medieval Celtic and Roman-style weapons (e.g. Iron Age swords) and armor (e.g. mail, scale and leather), while other Arthurian films like Excalibur, Knights of the Round Table and First Knight use High Medieval or Late Medieval-style weapons (e.g. longswords) and armour (e.g. full suits of plate). However, some anachronisms are present, like the use of the terms "knight" and "Sir" and the presence of the Roman lorica segmentata armour years after it was discontinued. During the conflict between Vortigern and Uther, Uther is said to be invading from Normandy, despite the film taking place long before the age of the Vikings, and thus of the Norman colonization which gave Normandy its name.
Nicholas Clay, who plays Guinevere's father Lord Leo, and Robert Addie, who plays Sir Gilbert, both appeared in John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur, as (respectively) Lancelot and Mordred. Paul Curran, who played the adult King Arthur, played Kay alongside Jason Connery as Merlin in Merlin: The Quest Begins, an unrelated television film released the same year.
Three books were written as novelisations of the film by James Mallory. They included new ideas and characters including former priest Hearne and Lord Idath who rule Anoeth the land of Death and Winter. The books are as follows:
- Merlin: The Old Magic
Much of what occurs in this book is not in the film, Merlin's mother Elissa is introduced as a Princess and novice Nun to Avalon who moves out with Ambrosia to Barnstable Forest when she becomes pregnant with Merlin. We further see Ambrosia's life and her failing faith in Queen Mab who gets Vortigern to take the throne of Britain from its Christian King Constance. Naturally some of the early events unfold such as the Lady of the Lake and Mab not agreeing on creating Merlin, etc. but we get to explore Merlin's magic education in the Lands of Magic under the hollow hill. An important element is Merlin being half magic and half human, where Fairy magic relies on illusion Merlin can make illusion real melding fairy spellcraft with human feeling merging the powers together in reality. Frik hides this and Merlin only uses it once in this book by shapeshifting into a bird. We meet Lord Idath the god of death and the wild hunt, Mab's former consort who does not fear as Mab does knowing there is life for him as long as mortals fear the shadow of midnight. The story ends just before Vortigern's men are on their way to get Merlin.
- Merlin: The King's Wizard
This is more familiar with the film where Merlin meets Vortigern and is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. He and Nimue meet again and fall in love. Merlin becomes the King's Wizard and help Uther to become King only to be betrayed and manipulating events like Mab would by allowing him to sleep with the Duke of Cornwall's wife. Leading to the birth of Arthur and his tutoring as well as the building of Camelot and arrival of Lancelot. The book ends around this point with problems between the love triangle that is Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot as well as the birth of Mordred.
- Merlin: The End of Magic
The battle between Mab and Merlin continues and the disastrous love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere causes chaos. Mordred grows up and Morgan and Frik develop their relationship into true love. Naturally as the title suggests it leads to the end of magic but we learn of the thirteen treasures of Britain, one being Idath's horn which becomes more useful over time. Also Merlin uses his heart magic once more turning fairy illusion into reality and even becomes a wizard of pure thought.
Hallmark Entertainment filmed a subsequent miniseries in Vancouver, entitled Merlin's Apprentice, with Neill and Richardson returning, though Richardson played a somewhat different role. The miniseries was broadcast in 2006 on Hallmark Channel.