Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords – The Barbarian Boom (Part 1)

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords – The Barbarian Boom (Part 1)

Hawk the Slayer (1980)

The Eighties Barbarian Boom didn’t start with Conan the Barbarian (1982), though its long pre-release hype train certainly primed the pump. In truth, the market was ripe for such films, and by mid-1981, a number of other sword-and-sorcery movies were in production or pre-production. The genre had been bubbling its way up in other mass media throughout the Seventies, Dungeons & Dragons co-designer Gary Gygax had come to Hollywood talking it up, and the largely heroic fantasy Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks were selling millions of copies.

It was time. The barbarians were here, and they would rule the next decade. But they had a bit of a rocky start.

Hawk the Slayer

Rating: **
Origin: UK, 1980
Director: Terry Marcel
Source: Network DVD

This was the first movie of the Eighties Barbarian Boom, released fully a year and a half before Conan the Barbarian. It’s fondly remembered by fantasy fans of a certain age, but beyond nostalgia it doesn’t have much to offer.

It establishes its allegiance to the sword and sorcery genre in its first 30 seconds, which show a lone armored warrior riding through dark woods towards a castle where an old wise man sits by a glowing, mystic pool. The warrior is the evil Voltan (Jack Palance) and the wise man his father, who refuses to give him the “secret of power,” so Voltan deals him a mortal blow, laughs, and leaves. As he’s dying, in comes his second son, Hawk (John Terry, in his first role), to whom his father bequeaths a magic weapon, the Mindsword, which can do… magic stuff. “Voltan, you will die!” Hawk vows, his sword’s green gem glowing luridly.

Voltan is a bad man, he has a bad son, Drogo (Shane Briant), and a gang of bad warriors. They slaughter a village, but one good crossbowman escapes, and though wounded, he goes to warn an abbey of good nuns that the bad men are approaching. Voltan invades the abbey and kidnaps the abbess, despite the crossbowman’s attempts to defend her, demanding 2,000 gold pieces as the abbess’s ransom. The crossbowman sets out to find the one man who can save the abbess and stop Voltan, his brother Hawk, who is in the north woods protecting innocents from evil bandits by acting like a Spaghetti Western badass (only with a magic sword).

When he hears about Voltan’s warrior band, Hawk decides he needs backup and calls together his old D&D party, adding to the crossbowman a dwarf, an elf, a giant, and a spooky sorceress who comes and goes as needed. There follows a confused series of back-and-forth fights between Hawk’s party and Voltan’s thugs, interrupted by flashbacks explaining why Hawk and Voltan hate each other (thwarted jealous love, as usual), leading to a final confrontation between the brothers.

The main thing this film has going for it is a charming earnestness, a belief that you can hang a python on a branch and throw a handful of dry ice into a pool and thereby turn an English woodlot into a fantasy forest. Producer Harry Robertson and Director Terry Marcel, who wrote the script together, are in love with the tropes of the sword and sorcery genre and just thrilled to be able to put them on the screen. And their American stars have some capable support from British character actors like Roy Kinnear, Harry Andrews, and Patrick Magee — it’s just not enough.

John Terry aims for badassery but has all the charisma of a plank, while Jack Palance, at a low point in his career, is just awful, his delivery consisting of two levels of shouting, angry and angrier. The swordplay is perfunctory at best, and Hawk’s party has just one trick, a quick-cuts elf and a repeating crossbow, machine archery which mows down the bulk of their enemies before the mêlée boys wade in. This is kind of cool once, but then they keep repeating it, which is not cool. The sorcery employs the same zero-budget special effects seen in thousands of post-Star Wars student movies, while the synthesizer soundtrack just recycles themes from Ennio Morricone. The costumes are adequate, but you’ll see better at any Renaissance faire. Lesson: Halloween decorations do not a haunted forest make.

Sorceress

Rating: *
Origin: USA/Mexico, 1982
Director: Jack Hill
Source: Square Classics DVD

“This movie is so bad that it’s good!” You hear that a lot, usually when someone is defending a thoroughly mediocre film that they happen to enjoy. But can it really be said to be true? Well, here it is, folks, the exception that proves the rule, a movie so terrible that you can only gape at it and savor its unremitting terribleness.

This is a sword-and-sorcery flick shot at the same time as Conan the Barbarian, but so far beneath Conan as to be barely visible from it. In an unnamed ancient land, a woman is pursued by the soldiers of the evil wizard-king Traigon (Roberto Ballesteros), who fathered her infant twin children. To become all-powerful, Traigon has offered to sacrifice his firstborn child to the evil goddess Kalghara, but the mother of the twins refuses to tell him which babe was born first, so he wounds her mortally, only to find himself slain upon the appearance of the good wizard Krona (Martin LaSalle), who always shows up just a little too late. As Traigon dies, he vows he’ll be reborn when the stars are right and sacrifice that firstborn yet. The dying mother of the twins makes Krona swear they’ll be raised as warriors and avenge their mother. But, surprise twist time — the twins are girls!

Twins Leigh and Lynette Harris in Sorceress

Twenty years pass, and the now-mature twins, Mira and Mara (Leigh and Lynette Harris), are introduced to us in a nude swimming scene, because of course. Meanwhile, Traigon has been reborn and sends out his beak-helmeted goons to search for “the two who are one,” which they do by burning, raping, and murdering, because that’s how you know they’re bad. The goons kill the peasant family who had raised the twins in ignorance of… well, everything, including the difference between boys and girls, which will lead to some boffo yocks later, you betcha.

The twins had been granted combat powers by Krona and they use them to slay the goons, just before the aging Krona, a random Viking named Baldar (Bruno Rey,) and his friend, a leering, baa-ing satyr, show up too late to help. Krona gives the twins the powers he already gave them plus some exposition, tells them to remember the name “Vetal,” and dies. The twins and Baldar instantly decide to go after Traigon in his generic fantasy town, where they also pick up the film’s leading man, a surfer-dude barbarian prince named Erlick (Bob Nelson) who throws in his lot with the twins after taking a good look at them topless.

Then, a lot of stuff happens in a more-or-less random order. Traigon has an evil girlfriend named Delissia who is served by an evil ape-person in the worst ape-person costume ever, Baldar has a super iron sword whose powers are mentioned once and then forgotten, Mara and Erlick are given a glowing green aphrodisiac drink so that when they bang, Mira will feel it by sympathetic magic and writhe around, Baldar and Mira go on a dungeon crawl with zombies, and the satyr, with his pan-pipes, leads a platoon of sheep and goats to the rescue. Plus, more partial nudity.

A lot of low-budget fantasy films buff up their casts by hiring a few decent character actors, but not this one: in Sorceress, no one acts like they’ve ever acted in anything before, and based on this they never will again. The costumes are a random mixture of ancient, medieval, and barbaric, rented off the rack for about a dollar apiece, and the special effects — oh, lord, the special effects. The final celestial battle between Khalgara and the god Zetal, who looks like a sort of winged lion squeezy bath toy, will be seared into your cortex until the sweet release of death.

Conan the Barbarian

Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1982
Director: John Milius
Source: Universal DVD

Conan the barbarian was created by Texan pulp author Robert E. Howard in the Thirties for heroic fantasy stories published in Weird Tales. They were republished in the Sixties in paperbacks with fantastic and evocative covers by Frank Frazetta, and the character was picked up by Marvel Comics in the Seventies, with adventures running to hundreds of issues. Conan took a while to get to feature films due to rights tangles, but the 1982 film was the biggest sword-and-sorcery movie up to its time, establishing that fantasy subgenre as a viable film form and launching star Arnold Schwarzenegger on his acting career.

The film, directed and co-written by John Milius, is a mini-epic of the forging of a young man through hardship and suffering into a mighty warrior, a sword-swinging muscleman determined to avenge his parents’ death by slaying Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the charismatic evil cult leader who murdered them. Along the way he finds a lover in the nimble thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and two wise-cracking sidekicks in Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako Iwamatsu). They get into fights with cult warriors, wolves, giant snakes, and sky demons, in between a lot of philosophizing about life and man’s purpose and place in existence.

Conan fights his way through ancient cities and across barren wilderness to find the home of the cult, which has awesome serpent towers in the cities, and a snaky rural subterranean lair called the Mountain of Power. The impressive combats are inspired by Japanese swordwork and set against a driving, Carmina Burana-ish score by Basil Poledouris. The film set the standard for all the warrior-vs.-wizard movies to follow.

But for all that, Conan the Barbarian is also frequently cringey and embarrassingly dumb. The three main heroes, Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and Lopez, were all inexperienced actors, chosen by Milius for their fresh outlook on the job, but their line-readings are often awkward and amateurish. James Earl Jones as the archvillain is a solid and professional presence, but his long-haired hatchet men look and act like roadies for a heavy metal band. The story is rife with coincidental or unexplained plot events, and its philosophical maunderings are pompous and juvenile. “For us, there is no spring—just the wind that smells fresh before the storm.” Really?

The role of women is problematic; one the one hand, there’s Bergman’s Valeria, who is strong and competent and who takes the lead during the trio’s thieving — but every other woman is a victim, a whore, or a witch. It’s pretty much an adolescent male’s fantasy and nothing but. Milius’ direction is uneven, but he does have one trick so good he uses it twice: the heroes’ murderous infiltrations of a serpent tower and the Mountain of Power are wordless and deliberate dream dramas in which events unfold as if fated in time to Poledouris’ hallucinatory music. It works, and if it misses achieving the operatic, it at least reaches the level of a heavy metal concept album. Rock on.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

The Book Was Better
Shogunate’s End
Peak Musketeers
Lone Wolf and Cub, Part 2
Arthur, King of the Britons
Sinbads Three
Premium Peplum: Top Hercs
Fight Direction by William Hobbs
Mash-Up or Shut Up
Classics on Screen — 1977
Wuxia in the Time of Kung Fu
So Many Prisoners of Zenda
Seventies Hall of Shame
The Year of Shogun
1981: The Old Order Changeth


LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle, with the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, coming in July from Pegasus Books in the US and UK. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Matthew

The only one I’ve seen is Conan and that was a long time ago.

Thomas Parker

I think Lopez and Bergman did just fine in Conan – hell, they’re not doing Antigone, after all. Bergman’s dancer’s body makes her completely believable as someone who has to make her living by strength and stealth, and she nails her big “I have never had so much as now” speech. The emotion seems real; more polish might have muted it.

Plus, Arnold knocking a camel out with one punch has to be one of my all-time favorite movie moments.

Joe H.

I have a complicated relationship with Conan the Barbarian (the film) — at the time it came out, my main exposure to Conan was from seeing Marvel comics on the rack; I hadn’t had a chance to read any of the books. And I couldn’t see the film in theaters because it was rated R and I was too young. And then there was Gary Gygax’ less-than-enthusiastic review in Dragon Magazine which also colored my impressions.

I did eventually see it on VHS and later on DVD & Blu-ray, and I do have more of an appreciation for it now, even if I think it’s flawed. If nothing else, the soundtrack is EPIC (and I think I’ve bought at least three, maybe four, versions as they keep releasing increasingly complete multi-disc sets).

greengestalt

The Conan movie was EPIC. Sure a bit different from REHs stories – again the RULE is the book is always better than the movie…. (except in an alternative timeline where a Time Traveller finds the $ to give to Jodorowsky…) And REH’s stories are better for shorts, bloating them into a full movie would diminish. The few that are good as movies are for Conan fans already, like Red Nails, Scarlet Citadel, etc.

It was a life changing event for me. My area they didn’t whine if kids saw R rated movies, just kept them from X rated ones. I was young, ducking out from some … trouble. In a lonely theater I saw front row giant screen that movie, filling with popcorn and giant soda cup. The music, the powerful action, the laconic but perfect lines! Perfect movie to get a young man’s testosterone starting…!

Thomas Parker

Yes! And c’mon – MAKO! A month doesn’t go by that I don’t say, in my best Mako voice, “They told my Lord to throw down his sword and return to the earth. HA! Time enough for the earth in the grave!”

silentdante

i l ove all these movies, i love this whole era of bad fantasy movies, LOVE IT

Robin

Haven’t seen all these movies but have seen Conan. I loved it simply because of the very things you’ve described, bad acting, great JE Jones voice ( I still think of this movie when I hear him on an Arby’s commercial), dramatic music….And “simply” states it all…just entertainment. Your review is well written- you’ve found much to make me “think”about the movie! Well done and thanks for the list of previous installments! More to watch.

Robin

Just found out Ving Rhames does the Arby’s commercials…I’m crushed.

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