No discussion of early ’80’s film and movie subgenres would be complete without mentioning the sword and sorcery segment of fantasy films that included such gems as Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster, both released in 1982.
Coinciding with the continued popularity of such fantasy role-playing games as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, both the subgenre and these films quickly found a devoted following. As contemporary sword and sorcery fans prepare for the latest book from George R. R. Martin, let’s take a look back at the 80’s swashbucklers which helped to establish modern trends.
But let’s settle something, too — which hulking, loincloth clad swashbuckler reigns supreme — The Beastmaster’s Dar, or Conan?
The Barbarian King of the Sword and Sorcery Subgenre
When considering this subgenre, inevitably Conan the Barbarian is one of the first names to pop up. Conan was a forerunner for many popular titles that came after. He first appeared in pulp stories penned by Robert E. Howard in the 1930’s (which even predated J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-known fantasy fiction).
Marvel comics published a couple of series inspired by Conan throughout the seventies and eighties. This source material provided Oliver Stone and John Milius with the script for the film Conan the Barbarian (1982), which was met with commercial and critical success, and even launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career.
Looking every bit the part of a hulking and vengeful barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger nailed the lead role with few words and much sword-swinging. Conan goes after the evil religious zealots who were responsible for the death of his parents, the destruction of his home village, and his being sold into slavery as a child.
While it wasn’t his first movie role, the actor’s name has become all but synonymous with the role of Conan for fans of the original.
While the main character is firmly established on the side of the sword, there’s plenty of supporting sorcery to provide balance. There’s the fortune-teller who tells Conan of his destiny early in the film, the sorcerer who helps protect and then heal Conan after his first ill-fated attempt to exact vengeance, and the evil sorcerer turned high priest who is the ultimate object of that vengeance. Nonetheless, the sword action should satisfy even the most action-minded purist.
From Barbarian to Beastmaster
As so often happens in Hollywood, one successful movie can spawn any number of imitations hoping to cash in on the original’s popularity — while it lasts.
Conan the Barbarian is no exception, and The Beastmaster is widely considered one of the better attempts at a Conan-like success story. It was directed by Don Coscarelli, and starred Marc Singer as the “beastmaster” Dar.
There are marked similarities between the two films — both involve a minimally-dressed and muscle-bound barbarian who ultimately seeks vengeance for the destruction of home and family by an sorcerer, who also happens to be the lead zealot of some mindless and evil religious cult. Both lead roles depend more heavily on sword than on sorcery, and both barbarians have to fend for themselves from a young age, with their skills and weapons coming from their own discoveries as much as from helpful strangers.
There are some marked differences worth mentioning as well. In The Beastmaster, Dar is affected by sorcery before he’s even born, being transplanted by sorcery from his mother’s womb into the womb of a cow. Dar is also the original target of the evil sorcerer arch-enemy, unlike Conan, because a prophecy about Dar threatens the sorcerer’s evil-doing future.
The other major difference of note lies in Dar’s ability to communicate, befriend, and command animals of various sorts, an ability that plays directly into his eventual success in exacting vengeance.
While it didn’t receive quite the same measure of critical praise as Conan, The Beastmaster is shown so frequently on TBS that the network has earned the nickname “The Beastmaster Station” (more details here), and it’s also being shown regularly on El Rey (more info here).
While both films are considered valid examples of the sword and sorcery films popular in the early 1980’s, Conan the Barbarian is clearly the superior choice to represent the subgenre.
Not only did it provide a template for countless imitators, (The Beastmaster included), but it captured the barbarian essence both in casting the quintessential ideal of brute strength in Arnold Schwarzenegger and in the handling of myth and archetypes.