Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 3

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 3

Conan the Destroyer (Universal Pictures, 1984)

Filmmakers jump on a hot new genre with alacrity if it looks like it can be reduced to an easily replicated formula. That was certainly the case with Eighties sword-and-sorcery films, which were happily adopted as a replacement for the dying genre of Westerns. Producers of formulaic genre and exploitation movies, such as the notorious Roger Corman, practically started an assembly line to produce quickie barbarian pictures. Following the heroic fantasy formula probably reached its qualitative peak with 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, which has a story by Marvel comics writers who had already worked out every variation of standard sword and sorcery plots and characters, so they knew what worked best. Following that film, the best fantasy movies of the later Eighties would be those that broke formula to a greater or lesser extent.

The Sword of the Barbarians (or Barbarian Master)

Rating: **
Origin: Italy, 1982
Director: Michele Massimo Tarantini
Source: YouTube streaming video

This is a standard Italian peplum, a formulaic sword-and-sandal film from the Sixties given a sword-and-sorcery paintover to update it to the Eighties. It’s cheap, lurid, enthusiastic, and shameless, utterly unoriginal but nevertheless sporadically fun.

An opening narration informs us that some people are good, but there are others who are just plain bad. With that matter settled, we proceed to the story of one of the good ones, the barbarian hero Sangraal (Pietro Torrisi), who is leading his oppressed people, including his wife Lenna, across a wasteland in search of a place where they can live in peace. They find a likely looking valley but there’s a fight going on there: hunchbacked priests of Rani, the Topless Goddess of Fire (Sabrina Siani), are attempting to capture some peaceful valley folk to sacrifice to their insatiable deity. In a gory fight, Sangraal and company slaughter the priests and rescue Ati (Yvonne Fraschetti), the daughter of the local chieftain: Ati and Sangraal lock eyes, sparks fly, and you just know Lenna isn’t long for this world.

Sangraal’s good people join Ati’s good people, but the goddess Rani demands vengeance on Sangraal from her bad people, who are led by the ruthless warlord Nantuk (Mario Novelli). The bad people threaten the village of the good people, Sangraal rides out to defend them, falls into a trap like a complete sap and is captured. Nantuk crucifies Sangraal on the hill above the village and makes him watch while Lenna and assorted extras are massacred. Fortunately, a random Asian stealth archer named Li Wo Twan (Hal Yamanouchi) happens along and helps Ati de-crucify Sangraal and escape. Twan is an embarrassing caricature with a “funny” Asian accent, but he’s also the only one of the good people with a lick of sense, so one kind of likes having him around for as long as he lasts.

Time for mystic quests! To get his revenge, Sangraal must find Rudak, the Wizard of the Black Mountain, who says pompous stuff like, “Ask for justice rather than vengeance.” Right. Rudak sends Sangraal on another quest to the Forest of Aranda to seek the Ark in the Cavern of the Templars. Along the way Sangraal must fight blind troglodytes in a mystic cave, anthropoid tree-men who capture him in another simple trap (he never learns), and a topless witch in another mystic cave who looks like his dead wife Lenna. Whew! Finally, he reaches the Ark of the Templars, where his reward is… an oversized crossbow. This is confusing, because the name of the movie is Sword of the Barbarians and not Oversized Crossbow of the Barbarians, but whatever. Sangraal is now ready for his final confrontation with Nantuk, which is surprisingly well choreographed, the only decent fight in a film full of combat.

Director Tarantini tries to make up for his rock-bottom budget by swiping gimmicks from Italian horror films, shooting from weird perspectives and using wide-angle lenses, and that does help keep the visuals from being completely flat. Just don’t expect Mario Bava. In fact, keep all your expectations at moderate or below, and you might get through this all the way to the end.

Deathstalker

Rating: **
Origin: Argentina/USA, 1983
Director: James Sbardellati
Source: Shout! Factory DVD

In the early Eighties, filmmakers on the lower end of the budgetary spectrum seemed to assume that sword-and-sorcery movies appealed primarily to horny adolescent males, an audience interested in a muscular hero who pursues gory sword fights and a ready supply of bare-breasted women, all presented without unnecessary clutter like character development or social commentary. Deathstalker, produced by schlockmeister Roger Corman, follows that formula with slavish devotion, wasting no effort on being original, clever, or even fun.

The story is bare-bones cliché: a barbarian warrior whose only name is Deathstalker (Rick Hill) is informed by a witch that the evil ruler Munkar (Bernard Erhard) has two of the three Powers of Creation, an amulet and a chalice, and if Munkar gets the third, the Sword of Justice, he will become all-powerful. But if Deathstalker obtains the sword, he can defeat Munkar, take the other two magical objects, and wield all the power himself. The warrior initially refuses the quest but then changes his mind, defeats an ogre in a mystic cave to get the sword, and then sets off for Munkar’s generic fantasy city, where the ruler is holding a tournament to choose an heir to his throne. But the tournament is really a trick to eliminate rivals who might be strong enough to threaten Munkar’s power — and to lure Deathstalker to bring the Sword of Justice to the hands of the evil wizard.

Along the way Deathstalker picks up the usual barbarian-hero sidekicks, a rogue named Salmaron (Augusto Larreta) whose main job is to do double takes, and a barbarian swordswoman named Kaira (Lana Clarkson) who mostly goes shirtless and sleeps with Deathstalker on the first date. This film is the start of Clarkson’s brief career as the queen of barbarian movies, making an impression here because no one else in the cast has an ounce of charisma, including Playboy starlet Barbi Benton as a captive princess whose main function is to almost get raped a lot. Indeed, there’s a great deal of almost-sex going on, but except for the tryst between Kaira and Deathstalker it’s all coerced, which is distasteful at best and despicable at worst. Even Deathstalker, the putative hero, isn’t above forcing an unwilling woman if the opportunity arises. Not that this makes us think any less of him, because he’s already thoroughly unlikeable: mean, humorless, and dull.

So much for the sex, now what about the violence? There’s plenty of it, but it’s all terrible, just cheesy professional wrestling with pointy weapons added to the drops and slams. Ugh.

And yet, this film was popular enough to spawn three sequels, so mustn’t it have some good qualities? A few, the chief of which is its headlong pace, which piles on one incident after another so rapidly that you’re rarely tempted to make the mistake of thinking about what’s going on. Then, nobody has anything interesting to say, which keeps the dialogue taut. And there’s a beast-man warrior in a pig mask — a porc, we used to call ‘em back in the day — who is almost amusing. And apparently, that was enough.

Conan the Destroyer

Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1984
Director: Richard Fleischer
Source: Universal DVD

Conan the Barbarian (1982) established a new genre of film and introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to most of the world, but this sequel is in many ways superior to it. In fact, it’s one of the best movies of the Eighties barbarian boom.

Conan (Schwarzenegger again) is mourning his lost love Valeria when he and his thieving sidekick, Malak (Tracey Walter), are accosted by Taramis (Sarah Douglas), the witch-queen of Shadizar, who wants him to undertake a quest for her. Conan refuses until Taramis promises that if he succeeds, she’ll bring back Valeria from beyond the gates of death. The task: escort a prophesied princess, Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo), to retrieve a crystal key from an evil wizard, use that key to unlock a second MacGuffin, a magic horn, and then bring horn and princess safely back to Shadizar. Along with them, Taramis sends her guard captain, Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), a towering seven-foot-tall warrior.

On the way, Conan recruits additional help by saving from a band of cannibals the wizard Akiro (Mako, reprising his role from the first film), and then liberating the fierce raider Zula (Grace Jones) from her captors. Conan uses both brains and brawn to defeat the wizard Thoth-Amon in his island ice-castle, gaining the key, and then uses it, after a tense dungeon crawl through the trap-filled Temple of the Dreaming God, to obtain the horn. When Bombaata takes horn and princess and leaves Conan and the others behind to face a swarm of furious cultists, Conan realizes he’s been duped and sets out to Shadizar to save the princess before she can be sacrificed to the abyssal god Dagoth.

With a solid story by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, the Conan comic book writers, and direction by veteran Richard Fleischer (The Vikings), this is a very satisfying sword-and-sorcery romp. Fleischer is a better action director than Barbarian’s John Milius, and he foregoes the first film’s ponderous self-importance to maintain a brisker pace. Schwarzenegger’s English is more fluent this time around, and he’s backed by a solid cast, the standout being Grace Jones as Zula, who brings a thrilling feral edge and visual flair. The swordplay is as good as in the first film, and there’s more of it, plus Conan punches a camel and a horse. The set designs by concept artist William Stout are outstanding, and if you liked Basil Poledouris’ distinctive soundtrack in Barbarian, you’ll get more of it here.

Controversially, the sex and violence of the first film were toned down in the second to secure a PG rating, under the assumption that this would increase Destroyer’s audience. Many fans of the first movie considered this a sell-out, and in fact it seems to have hurt ticket sales more than it helped. But that doesn’t keep Conan the Destroyer from being first-rate entertainment — and if you want more nudity and gore, the Deathstalker films are always there.

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:

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
The Barbarian Boom, Part 1
Old School Pirates
Weird Samurai
Euro Dumas Trio
The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
The New Zu Review


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.

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Joe H.

Conan the Destroyer was my first real exposure to Conan (I’d seen the Ace paperbacks on bookstore shelves but never picked them up at the time — John Carter was more my thing — and might have read a random issue or two of the comic, but that was about it; and I wasn’t able to see Conan the Barbarian in theaters precisely because it was rated R), and I admit that I still find it more watchable than the first film, even if it doesn’t scale the first film’s operatic heights. And even though I find it kind of a shame that Malak finishes the film with his head attached to his shoulders.

John ONeill

Agreed — especially with that last bit! I found Malak consistently annoying during the entire movie, so much so that his whiny voice and grating on-screen presence is still the thing that first comes to mind when I think of this film.

John Bullard

I am of the group that didn’t enjoy Conan the Destroyer. I loved the first film for what it was, and eagerly was at the first showing of “The Destroyer” expecting more great S and S, and about 20 minutes into I was horrified at what I was seeing. While I like Tracy Walter in other stuff, his acting and part in this movie made me feel like I was watching someone do a really bad impression of the comedian, Arne Johnson from Laugh-In, and he hit me like I was getting a root canal with no anesthesia the entire movie. I didn’t care for the story at all and found the budget cuts by Rafaella De Laurentiis hurt the production a lot. That scene with the wizard in the bad ape mask caused me to break into laughs at the sheer ineptitude of it. It seemed to me like I was watching a bad, cut-rate pastiche of an average Roy Thomas comic book story. I understand the script that Thomas and Conway came up with originally is supposed to be good, but that it got destroyed by Rafaella cutting it for financial reasons and someone else re-writing it–horribly. I apologized profusely to my friend who I had dragged along with me to see the movie at its end. He never got interested in reading Howard or the Conan stories because of that movie. I’ve only watched the movie twice: at the original showing, and decades later on one of the movie channels just to make sure I hadn’t been wrong in my original take on it, or the years had softened me to accept it more. I found I hated it even more the second time.

John ONeill

I haven’t rewatched it since the first time in a theater, over 35 years ago. Lawrence’s review has intrigued me enough to take another look. I’ll see what side I come down on.

James McGlothlin

John Bullard, I wish you wouldn’t beat around the bush and just tell us what you really thought of Conan the Destroyrt!

John Bullard

Touche, good Sir!
How’s this: I’d rather watch Harvey Firestein and Tia Carrere masticate the Thurian scenery with giant mechanical beaver teeth in the horrible “Kull” movie than sit through a minute of Tracy Walter and Grace Jones making their tryout reel, “The Destroyer”, to get into the Lee Strasberg School of Acting.

James McGlothlin

😂

Thomas Parker

I will defend Conan the Barbarian to the death, but I have always found Conan the Destroyer all but unwatchable. Too damn much winking at the audience for my taste.

John E Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? With even MORE Barbarians?

Sword of the Barbarians sounds so dumb that I have to watch it at least once, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve watched Deathstalker (1, 2 &3) more than once but I haven’t been able to watch Conan the Destroyer all the way through since I paid to see it back in 1986.

What the heck, it’s been nearly forty years, maybe I was wrong about it, maybe my taste in movies has changed, I’ll give it another look.

Thanks for the post, Mr. Ellsworth!

Tony Den

I haven’t watched The Desteoyer in years. Maybe its time for a re watch, to be honest I don’t recall much about it.

I wonder if you will be covering The Barbarian Brothers in an upcoming post. Have a vague recollection of a movie with two brother bodybuilder barbarians.

Lawrence Schick

Yes, “The Barbarians” aka “The Barbarian Brothers” is on my list. Stay tuned!

Jeff Stehman

I’m not gonna lie. I’ve watched that crypt fight scene in Conan the Destroyer many, many times.

I thought Rick Hill did all right in Deathstalker, all things considered. I also saw II and III. (The Barbarians was the only thing in the science fiction / fantasy section of the video store I never convinced myself to rent.) The first Deathstalker was almost a work of art in comparison, although the outtakes of III are pretty funny. If I recall correctly, footage from the first one gets reused in the later movies. Think of the savings!

Adrian Simmons

“Conan the Destroyer” is an odd thing. It is one of those odd movies that is, somehow, less than the sum of its parts. Because it has great parts! An eeeevil queen, rescuing Akiro, Akiror vs. the other wizard, the mirror tower, Grace Jones, ax-powered showdown with the demon-lord at the end. And yet, and yet…. for each good thing there are bad things, the weird pro-wrestling sorcerer-ape fight, the inordinately innocent looking spirit dragon thing, the odd cheapness of it…

You know, I’m surprised that there isn’t some fan-made version with updated special effects/editing out there.

Adamantyr

Deathstalker was a bit dull, but for some reason, I really liked Deathstalker 2. It’s stupid and corny but all the actors on it are just rolling with it and having fun, and that comes out in the film.

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