Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
The Sword and the Sorcerer (USA, 1982)
The pre-release hype for Conan the Barbarian in 1981, and then its delayed release until the following year, meant that by the time it appeared, there were already plenty of imitations in the pipeline ready to take advantage of its success. As a result, 1982 abounded in barbarian adventures, and if none of these was better than merely good and you couldn’t get quality, you sure as Hyborea got quantity. If you were young and just getting your eyes opened to the sword and sorcery genre, that was good enough. A new fantasy genre was emerging, for both filmmakers and their mass audience.
The Sword and the Sorcerer
Origin: USA, 1982
Director: Albert Pyun
Source: Laser Paradise DVD
After Conan the Barbarian, this movie is the second essential pillar of the Eighties Barbarian Boom, because it proved there was a ready market for heroic fantasy films even if they were low budget, indifferently acted, and rather cheesy. Released nearly coincident with Conan, The Sword and the Sorcerer is true to its name, a largely successful attempt to incorporate every trope and stereotype of the sword-and-sorcery genre into a single feature, shamelessly plundering the works of Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard and his many pulpy imitators.
It’s not that this is a bad movie, it’s just that it doesn’t bother to aim for good, settling in every aspect for good enough. Director Albert Pyun, a journeyman specializing in B-movies, doesn’t have an original bone in his body, and every scene is swiped from somewhere else, a relentless succession of clichés presented with the absolute confidence that that’s exactly what you came to see. The hero, a prince-turned-mercenary named Talon (Lee Horsley), is a swaggering Spaghetti Western badass with a sword instead of a gun — and what a sword, an oversized triple-bladed aluminum contraption that looks more like a kitchen implement than a weapon. Bonus: it’s spring-loaded and can shoot its extra blades as missiles — but that’s fine, given that the combat here is on the level of Saturday morning live-action TV shows. Talon’s enemies are the evil King Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch), who killed Talon’s parents (of course), Cromwell’s evil war chancellor Machelli (George Maharis), who lives for treachery and sneering, and the slime-covered demon wizard Xusia (Richard Moll), who lives for vengeance and comes back from the dead on the regular to get it.
Talon’s allies are likewise right off the sword-and-sorcery rack: Mikah the Rightful Prince of Ehdan (Simon MacCorkindale), who never wears a shirt despite being a prince, Alana the Rightful Prince’s Hot Sister (Kathleen Beller), who promises her virtue to Talon if the hero will save her brother from Cromwell, and Brave but Feckless Stripling Rodrigo (Anthony De Longis), who wants to join Talon’s hardbitten mercenary band. Some of these folks, such as Maharis and MacCorkindale, are actually decent actors, but given lines like, “Let’s finish this,” and “No! It lives!”, they just mug their way through it without working too hard.
Nonetheless, this movie is nearly essential if you want to understand the cinematic origins of the genre, because it set the standard for the decade of budget fantasy films to follow. It was a big fat surprise hit, the most successful independent film of 1982, earning over ten times what it cost to make, and producers of quickie genre films like Roger Corman and his ilk were quick to take notice. Everything in it may be utterly predictable, but the film’s insouciant disregard for being anything but an enthusiastic cheese-fest gives it an undeniable charm. Assuming you like cheese.
Ator, The Fighting Eagle
Origin: Italy, 1982
Director: Joe D’Amato
Source: Cine DVD
Wow, this is really bad. Even the fact that the hero has an adorable bear cub sidekick can’t save it.
The story follows standard sword-and-sorcery plot B: a fantasy realm is oppressed by an evil high priest, but a prophecy foretells that a son shall be born who will slay him. When the signs indicate the birth of the child, the priest sends forth his wicked minions to slay it, but the child is borne off to a remote village to be raised by foster parents. When the child, a mighty warrior, comes of age, the priest’s wicked minions find the village and slaughter his foster parents, so the young warrior vows revenge.
Aside from the aforementioned bear cub, this lazy Conan knockoff has nothing whatsoever to recommend it. Its star, Miles O’Keeffe, had first afflicted movie screens the year before in the Bo Derek Tarzan travesty, and he does no better here; he’s handsome, muscular, and has a winning smile, but acts like someone who’s never in his life had to work hard and can’t think why he should start now. His costar, Italian horror flick actress Sabrina Siani, who plays the Amazon thief Roon, does her best to imitate Sandahl Bergman but can’t seem to stay interested from one scene to the next, and who can blame her? Ator’s quest to slay the priest of the Spider Cult takes the pair on a series of disconnected adventures in one damn mystic cave after another, fighting zombies, a witch, Spider Cult goons, blind shrine guards, and a giant spider called the Ancient One. These would-be adventures are tired and tiresome. For example, Roon tells Ator, “Now we must pass through the Lands of the Walking Dead,” to which Ator replies, “Well, if we gotta go….” In this flick, that counts as snappy patter. They then wander through a series of mystic caves while zombies stagger after them until suddenly they don’t, and Ator remarks with unconcern, “They disappeared. C’mon, let’s get outta here.”
Characters come and go without motive or explanation, the main example being Griba (Edmund Purdom, nearly unrecognizable in a terrible blue-black wig), who saves the infant Ator and then shows up at random points thereafter to advance the plot with cryptic utterances about destiny, finally flipping without warning from mentor to villain. Why? The costumes are cheesy and ridiculous, the sluggish combat looks like nobody cares, and the giant spider is a farcical puppet that wouldn’t scare a toddler. If you shoot a film like this in Italy, at least you get to use ancient, ruined amphitheaters and aqueducts as backgrounds, which is cool but, in that case, why bother with all the shabby mystic caves? Pfah.
Cute bear cub, though.
Origin: USA/West Germany, 1982
Director: Don Coscarelli
Source: Magic Sign DVD
This is a sword-and-sorcery film about a hero who has a telepathic connection with a squad of loyal animal allies. Maax (Rip Torn), evil high priest of the god Ar of the desert city of Aruk, hears a prophecy that he will die at the hands of the unborn son of the city’s King Zed (Rod Loomis). Maax tells Zed that Ar demands his unborn son as a sacrifice, so Zed banishes Maax — but the priest’s witchy ally magically steals the fetus from its mother’s womb by transferring it to that of a cow! The infant is cut from the cow by the witch and its hand is branded, but before it can be slain, a passing warrior kills the witch and takes the babe.
The warrior names the child Dar and raises it in his remote village as his own son, concealing the boy’s origins but teaching him his combat skills. When Dar (Marc Singer) reaches maturity, so does his telepathic connection with animals. Then the villagers are massacred by barbaric Jun warriors commanded by the exiled Maax, so Dar vows revenge and sets out to follow them, collecting along the way a gang of beasts that includes an eagle, a pair of clever ferrets, and a gigantic black panther. When he nears Aruk, Dar also collects a love interest in Kiri (Tanya Roberts), a condemned slave of the priests of Ar.
Reaching Aruk and its pyramid of sacrifice, Dar soon finds that even with his beasts he’s no match for the power of Maax, and though he saves a sacrificial child, the rightful King Zed is held prisoner. Dar is forced to retreat back into the desert, but fortunately, there he finds more allies in Zed’s loyal war leader Seth (John Amos) and Zed’s young son Tal (Josh Milrad). He’s going to need them, for in addition to Maax’s sorcery, Dar must face his undead Death Guards, fanatical priests, uncanny witches, and barbaric Jun allies.
This film is based on a 1959 young-adult SF novel by Andre Norton, but she disagreed with adapter and director Don Coscarelli’s changes to the story and asked to have her name removed from the credits. One can see her point, as despite the strong plot, the film’s story has serious problems with structure and pacing. The movie shines during its action scenes, but otherwise the storytelling is muddled and wanders all over the place. The beasts are more charismatic than the actors and frequently steal the show, though star Marc Singer is personable enough and Rip Torn makes a fine villain. The sorcery, mostly practical effects, is restrained and effective, and for a low-budget barbarian flick, the fight direction is solid. The film looks good, the American Southwest providing a vast and scenic setting that is matched by Lee Holdridge’s grandly epic soundtrack.
The Beastmaster didn’t do very well in its initial theatrical release, but it found new life in repeat on TV’s cable channels (the joke was that HBO stood for “Hey! Beastmaster’s on!”), where it developed enough of a following to spawn two sequels and a TV show in the Nineties. Plus, it makes everyone who watches it yearn for a pet ferret. See if you don’t.
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:
Lone Wolf and Cub, Part 2
Arthur, King of the Britons
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
The Barbarian Boom, Part 1
Old School Pirates
Euro Dumas Trio
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, available now 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.
I loved The Sword and the Sorcerer when it was first released and was always upset that it (like Buckaroo Banzai a couple years later) promised a sequel that never materialized. However, in 2010, Pyun finally released Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire, the promised sequel to The Sword and the Sorcerer.
Unfortunately, while The Sword and the Sorcerer may not “bother to aim for good, settling in every aspect for good enough,” Abelar: The Tales of the Ancient Empire doesn’t even aim that high, and often fails to miss its target.
I had a cousin who really liked Beatmaster.
I really liked The Sword and the Sorceror (and I’m a Lee Horsley fan), even though, looking back, modern visual effects make it about impossible for me to watch. The much-delayed sequel is a mix of jetsam and flotsam.
Ator, so many years later, remains the worst movie I ever saw at the theater.
I just preordered the 4K disc release of The Sword and the Sorcerer; may God have mercy on my soul.
Beastmaster is the only one of these three that I saw in the theater — S&S was rated R, so a no-no for me, assuming it even came to the theater in my (small, southern Minnesotan) hometown. Ditto Ator, I assume. Beastmaster isn’t necessarily _good_, but it’s at least generally entertaining and has some striking imagery that has stuck with me over the years — the hallway of spiked gauntlets, e.g.
i maintain that Beastmaster is a great movie, it could be some nostalgia, but i am always entertained when re-watching it. i am not sure if i ever watched the sequels or not…
i know Pyun is a hack but man do i love his movie Nemesis, i found myself renting that movie over and over from the mom and pop video place i hung out at. that and Krull, so maybe i am just partial to bad movies i dont know. maybe hanging out at a video place makes you appreciate all thelow budget movies that would release every week to fill up the video shelves, it was a huge business back then, DVD while easier/cheaper to make i feel like ruined the b movie scene.
sorry rambled there.
Of course, a not insignificant reason for the appeal of Beastmaster to those of us of A Certain Age is because Tanya Roberts awakened certain … feelings in us, especially in her first appearance in the movie.
I was about to say the same thing about Marc Singer. LOL.
What made me love The Sword and the Sorcerer was Lee Horsley’s portrayal of Talon. Both the actor and the character understood what kind of movie they were in!
I still think Beastmaster is a pretty good movie. I would go so far as to call it a B-movie. But like others here, I was 13 when I first saw it and heavily into DnD. The girl in the movie probably didn’t help either . . . .
Sword and Sorcerer I saw around the same time but at a friend’s house late night on HBO or Cinemax. The horror beginning stuck with me for years and I like the three blade concept. Other than that, it’s a highly forgettable pic.
The poster tells it all, with that weird distorted muscular of our hero’s back. ‘Hey, where’s Bob,? He’s got an airbrush, he can do the poster! But tell him to do it quick, we need it done today !’
I wasn’t able to see Sword and the Sorcerer because I was too young for R-Rated movies and it was playing at the one theater that it was impossible to sneak into R-Rated moves at. However, the novelization was one of my cherished possessions for several months that year. I don’t know how it would stand up to a re-read, but at the time I thought it rocked.
I was able to see Beastmaster at the theater though. I credit Beastmaster (and Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart video ) with jump starting my puberty.
In Ator 2 (aka The Blade Master, aka Cave Dwellers), Ator gets a hang glider. Made of animal skins, but still really effective at bombing runs on castles.
Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? BeastMaster!
Like Bob, I have never paid to see a worse movie that Ator. Ever. I like the Sword & the Sorceror well enough but it is BeastMaster that is burned into my brain. The local grindhouse used to have BeastMaster nights if it wasn’t raining too hard (water would run down the projection screen) and I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve seen it.
That might explain a number of things, actually.
Thanks for the post, Mr. Ellsworth; no hidden gems here but your reviews are always welcome.