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KING ARTHUR
BOORMAN'S EXCALIBUR (1981) VERSION

Last modified: 04/04/89

This project attempts to recreate King Arthur's armor as seen in John Boorman's 1981 movie "Excalibur". It's not intended to be historically accurate, since King Arthur is a legend, and was probably not an actual person. From my shallow bit of research, the armor worn in the movie is maybe a 15th or 16th century style? It's not ornate, but it's massive and looks very cool, design-wise. Modeling this genre and this particular movie opens up a lot of possibilities and challenges-- a knight needs a horse with matching armor, right? Unfortunately, I have less time to work on customizing these days, so the project may be very slow in developing, and more modest in scope.

Imagine, if you will, a wire. This wire is wrapped around a rod to form a long, spring-like coil. This coil is removed from the rod, and snipped lengthwise. One by one, each ring falls away. Four rings are closed and slipped onto a fifth ring, which is then closed. Each assembly of five rings is carefully laid out, and joined by an open ring with another assembly of five rings, also carefully laid out in a precise pattern. Imagine trying to form the pattern with rings so small that they need to be manipulated with tweezers. Imagine trying to make sense of the pattern which shifts between your fingers. Imagine doing this thousands upon thousands of times. Imagine rings becoming unlinked because they haven't been soldered. Imagine going insane.

Yes, you can begin your journey down this path of madness at Sunshyn's chainmail construction web site. Bear in mind that it's probably easier when you're making 1:1 scale stuff.

I, on the other hand, value my sanity and don't mind paying for a butcher's safety glove which has soldered chainmail links (Thanks for the tip, MERK!). Hopefully this will prove to be a useful timesaver, and maybe I'll even glue the frickin' stuff in place, just to bite my thumb at the mavens of medieval fashion. Authenticity? Not at the expense of sanity... Perhaps in the fullness of time, when my hair is has turned snowy white and drool flows freely from my open mouth, sanity will no longer be of importance and I will once again turn to the Internet for instructions on the latest trends and fashions in the construction of chainmail.

Above, the left picture shows my attempts to fashion mail at various sizes, with the prefab glove at the bottom. Making the smallest links would obviously drive you crazy, since they're so fragile and difficult to manipulate-- I had a hard enough time laying out the link pattern for the photo, since the @#$!! rings kept flip-flopping. The center picture shows the prefab glove, suggesting all the time & work it could conceivably save me.

The picture on the right comes from Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight by David Edge & John Miles Paddock (Saturn Books Ltd. ISBN 0-517-10319-2). It shows how the links were closed with a pin since they didn't have arc welding or superglue back then. (It makes sense that if wire were malleable enough to be bent to form rings, the point of a sword would have little difficulty opening links which weren't pinned closed.) According to the text, a mail shirt would require over 30,000 of these! Maybe people had longer attention spans back then?

 

PLANNING THE PROJECT: A project like this requires quite a bit of advance planning with regard to the types of materials you're going to use, and ways in which you might tackle certain problems. It's sort of like a feasibility study, since you don't want to invest a lot of work and run up against a project-killing problem which you could have foreseen. Part of this involves having vague work-around alternatives in mind, just in case.

With this project, the problem of chain mail was the biggest concern. Minimally, it would need to be visible as sheets projecting from the bottom of the breast plate armor to protect the groin region, front & back. The head covering or coif should also be made of this. Other areas like the shoulders and arms might be acceptable as leather or quilted padding, since it's difficult to discern from the movie what's actually going on there. I'd already thought of alternate ways to produce or simulate it (flexible castings, metallic ribbon), none of which were satisfactory. Although I knew it could be hand-made, I knew I didn't want to spend the time doing it -- the project just isn't that important to me! So the chainmail glove gives me a feasible option-- I may hand-make the coif, but it's nice to know that I could get by with something which simulates its most important qualities-- the heft & drape. That's enough confirmation to proceed with other exploratory project tests.

BREAST ARMOR: This picture shows a first attempt at making the plate armor (note the awful misalignment of the center crease-- dirty clay makes this hard to see as you're working on it, and is a good reason not to sculpt while you're barbequing. (I refuse to give up either though.)). I chose vacuforming for this instead of casting, since this would yield a thin & light piece, be quicker & cheaper, and because vacuforming is a new "toy" for me. As you can see, the process smooths over sharp edges at the junction of the armor plates, so detail is lost. That's why I decided to detail the rivets later, instead of including them in the sculpture. The plate's seam detail can be restored by engraving, or by cutting the panels and gluing them back together.. Why not sculpt & vacuform the plates on the armor separately? It was easier and quicker this way. Because the plates are fixed to each other, it's unnecessary to recreate any of the unseen area where the plates rest on top of each other. This is unlike the right shoulder armor, which consists of three overlapping curved plates. Those have to be created separately since the articulation will let you see beyond where the parts overlap.

I considered using actual metal for the plates-- of course, it would be much cooler just to know it was made of metal! But it's difficult to achieve curvature with sheet metal and I don't know anything about that technique. I imagine you'd have to shape it over a wooden form with a lot of hammering & banging? Alternately, you could cut metal, fold it, and putty over the seam, but I don't see any advantage in that over a plastic part-- you'd still need to paint the part, and plastic is easier to finish & paint. Plastic would also hold its shape better and take a more durable paint job.

One observation-- styrene vacuforms well over polymer clay. However, when forming over resin castings, a small amount of heat may cause chemicals to weep from the resin, particularly if you're using fairly old resin. These chemicals do react with styrene plastic, and will mar the contacting surface, appearing to "melt" it. For this reason, it's probably not a good idea to mix construction of the two materials, unless you're certain that your resin is very stable, or there's a barrier coating between the two.

Boorman Excalibur Arthur helmet 1/6 scale construction THE HELMET: The close helmet poses an interesting construction problem. There are several ways this could turn out, but ideally: 1) a head should be able to fit within the helmet with enough internal clearance for the coif; 2) the helmet should be removeable; 3) the helmet's base must fit within the collar plates; 4) the visor should be articulated.

Making the helmet removeable shouldn't be a problem, since the lower chin and neck guard is a separate piece which pivots upwards like the visor. Therefore, the main piece only covers the back half of the head. However, the big problem is this: The standard stylized Joe head is oversized, and putting a bubble of plastic around it really exaggerates the pumpkin-headedness. To keep this from looking ridiculous, it's necessary to use the more realistically-sized "pinhead Joe" head as the basis. (Optimistically, a similarly-sized headsculpt resembling the actor Nigel Terry will be attempted later, with the neck scaled for a tighter fit with the headpin.) It's unknown whether the coif will be able to fit within the helmet-- the thickness of out-of-scale chainmail is a real problem, compounded by the fact that the hair has to fit in there too! That's one of those "ya don't know until ya get there" problems. As a "last ditch effort" alternative, different versions of head & head-in-helmet could be made. But who wants to do that?

Therefore, the plan is to use heat-formed plastic for the parts because it's uniformly thin. Its ability to flex is important too, since this will more readily accommodate the vague tolerances. I chose to do the visor first since this kept the pieces separate, and would allow me to test fit the formed plastic version onto the back piece as I sculpted it. I suppose it could have been done either way though.

The hardest part to vacuform was the back piece-- it wraps more than 50% of the way around the head, so the leading edge curvatures were compromised, especially at the top. Fortunately, the visor is large and hides the flaw in both positions. The fit of the assembled helmet is okay-- it's too wide at the neck, but that's not surprising since pinhead Joe's neck is wide. Fortunately, the pivot points were well placed (a lucky guess), so the visor and chinpiece have good clearance, yet close snugly. Amazingly, the eyes actually line up with the visor slits too... Damn, I'm lucky!

Notice the general strategy I've used: I'm first tackling a sampling of areas which are unknown to me in small doses-- like the vacuforming, the finish, the helmet. This is done to experiment and test procedures to shake out the problems. It's better to run across these early so you can back out more readily, if you should find an unsurmountable problem.

FIRST DRAFT: At this point things are tacked together with gum, and pretty raw-looking. It seemed logical to do all the rough construction first, and then work on the details. Naturally, I was concerned about whether the figure was going to look dorky (which is grounds for abandonment!), so anxiety had a lot to do with this strategy, too. Okay, he looks like Jason, but that's only because I haven't made the horns or painted it.

I recently came across some metallic mesh ribbon, which you can see in the picture... I'm impressed with the way it looks, particularly for the in-scale texture. It doesn't have that draping quality of chainmail, but is a lot easier to work with... Uhhhhh, I'd sure hate to retract all that stuff that I wrote at the top of this article! But it just goes to show that ya never know...

Another bright idea that might bite the dust: a modified metal letter opener would look good as a sword, and would be really cool on account of its weight and the 'tingggg!' sound it makes when you hit it against something. However, the weight might not be such a good thing if the elbow hinge can't support it. I'll probably try it anyway before grousing about the time I wasted making it.

Boorman Excalibur Arthur armour 1/6 scale in styrene PREVIEW: He's actually nekkid down below, and I may redo the shoulder armor, but this gives an idea of what the final piece will look like. The left arm covering is fixed at the angle, with no articulation whatsoever. My guess is that it's some kind of specialized jousting thing, and I may make a regular articulated version. At this point, I'm not very concerned with precisely replicating the Excalibur/Arthur version 1 armor -- I want it to look similar, but I feel free to modify it here & there, based on other examples I've seen.

Underneath, he's wearing underwear made of a quilted-looking ribbon. This appears to have some of the look of chainmail-- actually, it looks very much like the stylized way medieval artists used to represent chainmail. I'm still hoping to find a use for that real chainmail glove I bought, but if I don't, it still makes a neat massaging toy.

I'll probably use this Joe head instead of sculpting my own since it's squishy, which is a real aid when putting the helmet on: I feel better about squishing the rubber head than prying open the helmet. It's kind of hard to tell from the pic, but he's already got scraggly blond hair, beard & moustache, but the eyes need to be worked on some more to kill that "deer in headlights" look that most of the factory paint jobs have.

More pictures...


MEDIEVAL