Into the 80s: A Look at Some of the Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery films of the Decade

Into the 80s: A Look at Some of the Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery films of the Decade

Hawk the Slayer-small

After a comment I made on John O’Neill’s Facebook post regarding John Searle’s July 25 Black Gate article Conjure Puberty: The Sword and the Sorcerer (from 1982), Mister O’Neill asked me to do an article on some of the other films of that decade. Naturally, I said I would be happy to. I decided to write about only a handful of the films I’ve seen: my impressions and opinions are based solely on what I remember about them, having decided not to watch said films again.

In the 1980s I was in my 30s and naturally of a different “mindset” back then. If I ever do watch any of these films again, that could possibly inspire another article about what I think of certain films now that I’m in my mid-60s. My only source of research is Wikipedia, just to refresh my aging memory as to plot, year a film was released, cast, director, etc. Some of these films I’m sure are held in high regard by many people, and I’ll be probably be shooting a few “sacred cows” here. But remember: this is all based on thoughts, memories and impressions from three decades ago.

All that being said, let’s get started. Shall we?

[Click the images for 80s-sized versions.]

Conan the Barbarian-small

Although the success of Conan the Barbarian (1982) really got the ball rolling, it was not the first film rooted in Sword & Sorcery, what Lin Carter called the “Sacred Genre.”

In 1980 there were two films: Black Angel, a short British film I’ve never seen, that was shown in certain locales before The Empire Strikes Back. The other is a film I remember rather fondly: Hawk the Slayer, which starred one of my favorites, Jack Palance. The lead was played by Terry Marcel, who also directed the film and collaborated on both the story and screenplay with Harry Robertson. This was a low-budget film with a decent plot, okay Special FX, some good performances, and plenty of action. The film featured such characters as Gort (not the robot), a dour giant; Crow, an elf with a deadly bow (sound familiar?), and Baldin, a wise-cracking dwarf with a whip. (Indiana Dwarf?)Veteran actors Harry Andrews and Patrick Magee were also in the film. Hawk the Slayer has become a cult favorite, and although sequels were planned, none were ever made. This one I highly recommend. It’s a lot of fun and very enjoyable.

Dragonslayer-small

1981 brought us the excellent Dragonslayer. This film was directed by Matthew Robbins from a screenplay he co-wrote with Hal Barwood. It stars Peter MacNicol, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam and Caitlin Clarke. The story, set in a fictional medieval kingdom, follows a young wizard who experiences danger and opposition as he attempts to defeat a dragon. Solid performances by the entire cast, it features a strong plot, plenty of action, interesting characters, some violence and nudity, and outstanding “Go-Motion” FX by Industrial Light and Magic. The effects were nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was also nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, once again losing to Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have fond memories of this film, and other than Clash of the Titans, Dark Crystal, and Ladyhawke, it’s the only movie in this article that I’ve seen more than once. It still holds up for me quite well, and the dragon remains as convincing as it did back in the day.

Clash of the Titans poster-small

The original Clash of the Titans (1982) was, sadly, Special FX maestro Ray Harryhausen’s last film. (I was always hoping he’d do his version of the Hercules myth, but alas…) One-time TV star and heartthrob Harry Hamlin led an all-star cast that included Burgess Meredith, Ursula Andress, Claire Bloom, Judi Bowker, Maggie Smith, Sian Phillips, Flora Robson, Freda Jackson and Laurence Olivier. This was a big-budget MGM film, rather than a less-expensive Columbia Pictures presentation, the studio that produced many of the Schneer-Harryhausen films. This film was directed by Desmond Davis and written by Beverly Cross, who wrote or co-wrote many of the screenplays for the Harryhausen films. This is also my least favorite of Harryhausen’s films. Although I enjoyed it a lot, it left me wanting more. FX sequences were often too short-lived, and I felt that the film would have benefitted from a less stellar and costly cast, had the money been put into a larger, more epic production that allowed for longer and more fantastical FX sequences. Neil McCarthy’s performance as Caliban is a stand-out, and I often wonder why they didn’t just build him a full costume instead of switching back and forth between him and the “slo-mo” animated version of his character, even though that was very well done. I could have done without Bobo, the mechanical owl. Still, it’s a worthy effort, a classic in its own right. It was also a big success — the 11th highest-grossing film of the year.

The Dark Crystal-small

That same year brought us Jim Henson’s strange and weirdly beautiful Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Frank Oz. The primary concept artist for this project was the incredible fantasy illustrator, Brian Froud, who worked with Henson again several years later on Labyrinth. The plot is fairly straightforward: A thousand years ago on the planet Thra, a magical crystal is cracked, which allows two new races to appear: the malevolent Skeksis, who use the power of the Dark Crystal to continually replenish themselves, and kind wizards called Mystics. The story is built around Jen, an elf-like “Gelfling,” who embarks on a quest to restore balance to his alien world by returning the lost shard of the powerful but broken crystal. Although it was marketed as a family film, it was much darker than the creators’ previous material. There’s one scene in particular that took me by surprise with its gruesomeness: the Skeksis literally suck the life out of a little creature—a Podling, I believe—using some sort of pseudo-scientific device. Gotta love the Skeksis! There’s a lot of old-school science-fantasy to this film, which I like, and the production design is exquisite. The animatronics used in the film were considered groundbreaking in those days, and upon my last viewing some years ago, held up quite well, in my humble opinion. I never was too crazy about the Gelflings, however, and the film would have worked on a much deeper level if young actors in make-up and costume had actually played these elf-like characters. The “muppets” don’t quite come off as being real creatures; something about the lack of expressions in their faces, which I think are a bit too mask-like. Still, I consider this is a truly original and marvelous film.

The Beastmaster-small

The year 1982 also brought us a number of films that for me became forgettable during the first moments of the closing credits. Two of these were Ator, The Fighting Eagle, and The Beastmaster. All I remember about Ator is that it starred Miles O’Keefe — whatever happened to him? — in a film obviously influenced by Conan the Barbarian. Ator is, to quote Wikipedia, “a mockbuster of the film Conan the Barbarian, which was released in the same year.” I remember nothing at all about this film other than the fact that I didn’t like it, returned the VHS to the rental store and never rented it again. Same thing with The Beastmaster: another Conan rip-off, directed by Don Coscarelli and starring Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, John Amos and Rip Torn.

As for Conan the Barbarian… what can I say that hasn’t been discussed already? Sandahl Bergman was the stand-out, and production design was pretty epic. The special effects were decent, the action set pieces pretty well choreographed, Arnold looked the part, James Earl Jones was poorly used, and Sandahl Bergman looked fantastic! (Did I mention her already?) The film was directed and co-written by John Milius. Raffaella De Laurentiis produced the film for her father, Dino, with Edward R. Pressman as an executive producer. Basil Poledouris composed the music, which is an awesome film score. My complaint: Milius borrowed here and there from different Conan stories, borrowed from King Kull, and if there is the rumored uncut, original theatrical release version, I’d like to see it. But this was not the Robert E. Howard Conan I wanted to see.

Krull-small

Krull hit the theaters in 1983, directed by Peter Yates. The main characters starred actors unfamiliar to me, but it did feature Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane in early screen roles as members of a group of bandits. This is a film many people I know love and revere. I didn’t and I don’t. Looked too much like a made-for-TV movie for my tastes. It’s based on an original screenplay—another Sword & Sorcery film inspired by Conan the Barbarian—with a bit of Sword & Planet added to the mix. This movie also attained a large cult following, but I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid on this one. It just didn’t work for me on any level. Another film of 1983 that left me cold was Fire and Ice, the interesting collaboration between Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta. Yes, this film has also attainted great cult status, but again, for me it didn’t work. I didn’t like the story, the art-design or the rotoscoping. And I felt that Bakshi didn’t do justice to Frazetta. I can’t remember hardly anything about this film except that it didn’t reel me in. (No cinematic pun intended. Okay. The pun is intentional.)

The Warrior and the Sorceress-small

I truly enjoyed 1984’s The Warrior and the Sorceress, an Argentine-American fantasy-action film directed by John C. Broderick and starring David Carradine, María Socas and Luke Askew. It was written by Broderick (story and screenplay) and William Stout (story). Being a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, The Warrior and the Sorceress is a sword and sorcery remake of his classic, Yojimbo, which starred the great Toshiro Mifune. The film’s setting is a desert planet called Ura, which has two suns. Two rival warlords constantly fight against each other over the only well in their village. The mercenary warrior Kain (Carradine) emerges and announces that his skills are for hire to the highest bidder. A beautiful sorceress who has been taken captive by one of the warlords changes Kain’s original purpose of taking the well for himself to saving her and the village people. Kain starts to tangle the situation, taking advantage of the ongoing feud while seeking to debilitate the rival warlords and defeat them by playing on both teams and not actually standing true to either one. This is a fun little film, with a grittiness, sly sense of humor, decent performances, and plenty of action. I like it because it reminds me of some old-school, Sword and Planet adventure.

Ladyhawke-small

In 1985 Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke arrived on the scene. It stars Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer, and Leo McKern. Set in the real world, this is a great little story, a character-based, action-adventure-romance with a big heart. I’m sure everyone knows the plot by now because this was a very popular film at the time, and from what I hear, it still is. Briefly, then… an insanely jealous Bishop in love with Pfeiffer’s character made a demonic pact to ensure that she and Hauer’s character, her true love, would be “Always together; eternally apart.” By day Pfeiffer becomes a hawk, and by night Hauer becomes a wolf. Neither one has any memory of their half-life in animal form. Only at dusk and dawn of each day can they see each other in human form for one fleeting moment, but they can never touch. The curse can only be lifted if both Hauer and Pfeiffer appear before the Bishop in their human form, which is the centerpiece of the film, and where Broderick’s and McKern’s characters really come into play. I’ve heard Broderick get a bad rap for his role in the film, but I think he does just fine. Hauer is at his best, and the action, climax and finale are perfect. My only complaint is Andrew Powell’s musical score. It’s too modern, and I find it not only distracting but it also takes me out of the milieu of this otherwise wonderful motion picture.

Legend Tom Cruise-small

Ridley Scott’s Legend, also from 1985, is a dark fantasy adventure film starring Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry and Billy Barty. I remember very little about this film, other than Tim Curry’s wonderful performance as Darkness. Basically, in order to establish eternal night, Darkness sends a goblin on a mission to kill the unicorns that guard the Light and bring him their horns. I remember that Cruise seemed out of place in the film and I found his portrayal of Jack to be a little too weak, a bit too “method” and modern for the timeline of the film. Legend has attained a large cult following over the years, and I hear there’s a Director’s Cut that is far superior to the original theatrical release. I may have to check that out. The less said about that same year’s Red Sonja, the better. I thought the whole film was a mess. Directed by Richard Fleischer, an old-school veteran of Hollywood, the film introduces Brigitte Nielsen as the title character. I must admit, she looked great, but not even Sandahl Bergman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a warrior named Kalidor (come on, we all know he was really Conan!) could save this picture.

Highlander-small

In 1986 the first Highlander film appeared, starring Michael Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown, and it was directed by Russell Mulcahy. The story concerns the ages-old battle between immortal warriors, and is depicted through interwoven past and present-day storylines. Lambert plays swordsman Connor MacLeod from the Scottish Highlands; thus, call him Highlander. He’s one of the immortal warriors who can only be killed by decapitation. Connery plays Ramirez, another highly skilled immortal swordsman, who trains MacLeod, who then lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in modern-day New York City, where he manages an antiques shop and falls in love with a policewoman. MacLeod later discovers that he must face his greatest enemy, Kurgan (played by Brown), who wishes to kill him and obtain “the Prize”—a special ability which is given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. I truly enjoyed this film at the time: it was well-made, well-acted, and had some good set pieces. But I never kept up with the subsequent films or the TV show they spawned.

Labyrinth-small

Brain Henson directed 1987’s Labyrinth, which was produced by George Lucas, with conceptual designs by Brian Froud. It starred Jennifer Connelly, but was mostly a musical showcase for David Bowie, as Jareth the Goblin King. (I wish someone would have turned his Diamond Dogs album into a film!) I think most of the other characters were played by “muppets.” I remember very little about this film, other than Bowie’s character. The movie left me cold and bored. This is another cinematic fantasy that has gained in popularity over the years, especially after Bowie passed away. Although I’m a huge fan of David Bowie, and for all of this film’s cult status, I have no desire to see it again.

Masters of the Universe-small

Masters of the Universe, in 1987, was a worthy effort, and fairly well-made, as I recall. This one featured Dolph Lundgren (in his first leading role following his appearance in Rocky IV), Frank Langella, Jon Cypher, Chelsea Field, Billy Barty, Courteney Cox, Robert Duncan McNeill and Meg Foster. As we all know, it’s based on Mattel’s line of same-name toys, as well as the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe television show that ran from 1983 to 1985. I enjoyed the first part of the film, which is set on the planet Eternia that’s located at the center of the Universe. Skeletor and his army seize Castle Grayskull, scatter the remaining Eternian defenders and capture the Sorceress of Grayskull, planning to add her power to his own by the next moonrise. I didn’t care for the shift from Eternia to our world and thought the film might have fared better had the story remained on that planet. There were at least two other TV cartoon shows that followed, and I’ve heard talk about cinematic remakes and reboots and re-imaginings. No thanks. Not interested. I did like Frank Langella’s performance as Skeletor, however.

Willow-small

This brings me to a big-budget affair that I thought could have been so much better than it was: 1988’s Willow. Directed by Ron Howard, the film was produced and with a story by George Lucas. Warwick Davis starred, alongside Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Jean Marsh and Billy Barty. In short, no pun intended (I mean it this time!), Davis plays “the eponymous lead character and hero: a reluctant farmer who plays a critical role in protecting a special baby from a tyrannical queen who vows to destroy her and take over the world in a high fantasy setting.” I was torn over this film, because there was so much to like about it. I thought Val Kilmer and Jean Marsh well-chosen for their roles, and Davis wasn’t bad at all. But there were two freaking Brownie characters thrown in mostly for comic relief that turned me off to this one. Veteran actor Billy Barty (who once played Mickey Rooney’s brother in the Mickey McGuire series of short kids’ films that ran from 1927 to 1934), was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award, but lost to Dan Aykroyd for Caddyshack II. The script was also nominated for Worst Screenplay, only to lose out to Cocktail. If not for Barty’s performance—and worse, those two damned Brownies that upset the film with their hijinks, I might have enjoyed this a lot more. However, I do think Ron Howard was still a bit uncertain of his skills and somewhat in over his head on this one. James Horner’s musical score was nicely done, and based on a number of classical themes and inspirations. While the film was a critical flop, it did turn a profit. I hear rumors of a remake or reboot, and if that comes to pass I hope they get it right this time—and please… leave out those two accursed Brownies!

Excalibur poster-small

Well, that’s enough from me. The 1980s spawned a dragon’s horde of films, many of which I haven’t mentioned, many of which I have never seen. I have no energy to discuss Excalibur (1981), director John Boorman’s controversial yet intriguing re-imagining of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. As I recall, 1984’s The Neverending Story was a most worthy effort, a film geared for both kids and adults, with production values that gave it a magic, fairy-tale look. Lastly, there is the now classic The Princess Bride (1987), the fantasy-romance directed and co-produced by Rob Reiner, and adapted by William Goldman from his 1973 novel. What else can be said about a film that stars Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Wallace Shawn, André the Giant, and Christopher Guest, other than… have fun storming the castle!

The Neverending Story-small

You can read John Searle’s look-back at The Sword and the Sorcerer here.

If you’re interested in the heroic fantasy, sword and sorcery, horror, space opera, and children’s novels I’ve written and co-written, please visit my Amazon Author’s page.

Please visit our blog, A Small Gang of Writers, which everyday features a diversity of articles written by the members, as well as all kinds of book recommendations and guest authors.

asmallgangofauthors.blogspot.com


Joe Bonadonna’s last article for Black Gate was his review of George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream.

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MorgonMax

I haven’t seen Willow in 15 years, but I loved it as a child and still liked it in my early twenties…”Hawk the Slayer” is a great one, very inspirational, in its own way.

CMR

I just wish these movies were as good as their cover art. Some of them were great like the Conan movies, but then you had stuff like Outlaw of Gor. To push back a bit, I like both Krull and Fire and Ice. I also really liked Red Sonya and Lou Ferrigno’s first Hercules movie. Those stop motion mechanical monsters are awesome.

I remember Masters of the Universe was a big disappointment for me as a kid. It was a huge let down when they got transported to modern day earth. Even as a kid I knew this was a major cop out. I heard a rumor years later that the producer and director had blown all the film’s original budget up their noses, and that’s why it turned out so bad. I don’t know if that’s true or not though.

I haven’t seen Hawk the slayer, or The Warrior and the Sorceress, but I pretty much like all the other films on this list to some extent.

My biggest pet peeve with other films in this genre is that I like my heroes jacked. There’s nothing worse than trying suspend a sense of disbelief when the hero is played by a skinny dude with a farmer’s tan and no muscle tone, trying to swing a sword that is way too big for him.

silentdante

man… i love beastmaster, i have watched it recently and to me, it holds up, not as a film masterpiece, but as an interesting story with interesting characters… though maybe my imagination helps fill in blanks, i dont know. but i am not a critical person really when i already know something is a “b” movie, so i guess my naivete helps me in that regard haha

Joe H.

Nice list! Although for my part I’d put Krull, Clash of the Titans & Labyrinth higher, relatively speaking, and also Beastmaster, albeit not so much.

There was also Conan the Destroyer, which was … not great. But it had its moments, and in some ways it probably hewed closer to the REH stories than Conan the Barbarian.

John Hocking

Wonderful stuff. Thanks.

The next time someone asks me, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you keep striking awkwardly heroic poses while raking the lawn? Why is your skull so misshapen?” I can just point them to this post and tell them it’s because I’ve seen All of These Films.

CMR

Where I think people tend to mess up with Conan in Barbarian and the newest film is that they want to tell his origin. You can’t do that. In REH stories, Cimmeria was the childhood home you can never go back to. Forcing your way back to it ends up with the creation of an entirely new character that is only Conan in name only.

I like Conan the Barbarian and Destroyer, but that isn’t Conan from the books.

It’s a little OT, but I would also recommend an italian movie called Anthar L’invincible AKA, The Slave Merchants AKA, Devil of the Desert Against the Son of Hercules. It’s a fun sword and sandals romp that I wish got more love.

Joe H.

That was also a problem with the James Purefoy Solomon Kane film — it tacked on an entirely unnecessary origin story. Ironically, I’m pretty sure that the Kevin Sorbo Kull film (while kind of terrible) did _not_ feel the need to begin with an origin (except maybe a title card?).

I really like Jason Momoa’s performance as Conan and just wish it would’ve been contained in a better film.

Speaking of not-very-good films of the era: Yor, the Hunter from the Future, which is, sadly, probably as close as we’ll ever get to a Thundarr the Barbarian live-action film.

Joe H.

Yeah, the Solomon Kane film (and, for the matter, the John Carter film) I would probably enjoy more to the degree that I could completely divorce myself from thinking of the source material.

CMR

@Joe Bonadonna, that was Joe H. that made the post about the Solomon Kane film, but I still agree with both of you. One reason I think Hollywood likes origin stories is because they can draw it out and it’s cheaper to do. One of the reasons the second Nolan Batman film was so good, is that it wasn’t an origin story in any way. The third wasn’t either, technically, but it had the same structure as one and suffered for it.

It’s gotten to the point where I tend to avoid origin stories in films like the plague.

Joe H.

Well, I think John Carter, moreso than the others, needs at least a bit of an origin story to explain why a Civil War veteran wakes up naked on Mars; but I would’ve dropped the Edgar Rice Burroughs framing device. Instead, my unfilmed (and unwritten) Princess of Mars screenplay would probably begin with Carter riding hell-bent for leather through the Arizona desert at night, pursued by unseen adversaries, and have him finding the cave within the first five minutes or so.

CMR

I want more JC too, but it bombed. My favorite origin story is probably Robocop, but in that case the origin is the story. It doesn’t come off as an unnecessary anecdote you feel like you have to get past to get to the good stuff. That’s the proper way to do an origin story.

John E. Boyle

“Didn’t reel me in”

Have you no shame, Sir?

Thanks for a great article. I enjoyed many of these movies when they came out and might go take a 2nd look at them now (how could it hurt?)

I enjoyed John Carter as well, but it seemed the director and writers went off track when they added things to the movie that don’t exist in the books. For example, Carter’s wife doesn’t exist in the book, they made that up for the movie to give him motivation in the big dustup with the Warhoons. Like Woola a lot though, just as I did as a boy reading A Princess of Mars for the first time.

Thanks again.

ScottW

Covered ALL of these and SEVERAL others (EXCEPT Masters of the Universe, because we decided it was science fiction, NOT sword and sorcery) in our 480-page, ENnie Award-nominated book, CINEMA AND SORCERY: THE COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO FANTASY FILM (Green Ronin Publishing). A huge undertaking, but one that we REALLY enjoyed writing!!!

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