By the mid-Eighties, fantasy films for adults had become a legit commercial genre releasing around a dozen medium to high-budget titles a year. For fantasy fans who’d lived through the slim pickings of the Sixties and Seventies, this was an embarrassment of riches. The fact that about half of these movies were embarrassments in other ways was something one could overlook, because if this week’s fantasy film was disappointing, next week’s might show you things you’d never before seen on the big screen. Which brings us to our current decidedly mixed bag of flicks of the fantastic, offering equal amounts of thrills and cringes. Wizardry ahead!
Origin: UK/USA, 1983
Director: Peter Yates
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD
Where to start with Krull? Let’s try with the beginning, where the title sequence clearly informs us that this is a Star Wars-style space fantasy — but then we land on the planet Krull and it seems it’s actually a sort of Dungeons & Dragons film. Then it’s a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, then it’s back to Star Wars, then we’re in Greek myths and Clash of the Titans territory, then on to Robin Hood, to Excalibur, to Thief of Bagdad — even The Beastmaster rears its feline head.
If Columbia Pictures’ idea was to make a film that incorporated every type of Eighties fantasy movie into one, laden with every kind of special effect available at the time, they reached their goal. But did they, as the wizard-mentor Ynyr advises, use their power wisely? The medieval fantasy planet Krull is invaded by a flying mountain space cathedral bearing armored alien warriors called Slayers that are to all intents and purposes Imperial Storm Troopers, only slower and kind of goofy. They are ruled by a giant reptilian titan called the Beast who likes to conquer worlds and abduct princesses, just ‘cause.
To resist the Beast, the two warring states on Krull decide to unite by wedding their heirs, Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony), who fall in love at first sight — and it’s a good thing they don’t need any more time than that, because before the ceremony can be completed, Lyssa is captured by the Slayers and whisked off to the Black Fortress.
Colwyn, the lone survivor of the Slayer raid, is rescued by Ynyr (Freddie Jones), the aforementioned wizard-mentor, who informs him that his only chance of slaying the Beast and recovering Lyssa is to go on a quest to retrieve the Glaive, a legendary magical weapon. That turns into about four successive fantasy quests, action that takes up the bulk of the picture before the inevitable climactic battle.
The viewer is offered precious little context for any of this. There’s almost no history or background of the Beast or of the planet he’s invaded, and even in the vast sets where everyone runs around waving weapons, the walls are bare and virtually unornamented, as if built by a people without a culture. The place is a nullity.
As he proceeds on his heroic quest, fighting Slayers and changelings, quicksand and traps, Colwyn acquires an entourage of assorted sidekicks, some grim, some humorous, but none of them have more than one-sentence motivations, and it’s hard to feel upset as they one-by-one sacrifice themselves for their callow young leader. The near-exception is a tall cyclops named Rell (Bernard Bresslaw), who blinks wryly at all the hijinks and whose plot function is repeatedly saving Colwyn’s butt, a sort of cyclops-ex-machina.
Krull is basically a two-hour parade of wonders, one fantasy obstacle after another until Colwyn finally gets his trusty band to the Black Fortress, where Lyssa has spent the whole time wandering around in a wedding dress while listening to the Beast say stuff like, “Love is fleeting, but power is eternal!” Colwyn had acquired the Glaive, a sort of starfish switchblade frisbee, about ninety minutes earlier, and now he finally whips it out and in short order makes hash of the Beast in an orgy of special effects. Cue the victory fanfare.
Speaking of which, the soundtrack, by James Horner in full-on John Williams mode, is catchy and memorable, though loud and ever-present. And though the leads, Marshall and Anthony, are shallow, the supporting actors are mostly pretty decent, including Francesca Annis as a mournful spider-queen, and Liam Neeson, charming as usual, in a bit part as a bandit. Plus, there’s one really lovely sequence in which Colwyn’s merrie men have to corral and tame a herd of magnificent and spirited Clydesdale horses. It stands out as the most real thing in the film, which otherwise is a mere collection of unrelated scenes, loud and colorful though they are. Mediocre.
Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Origin: UK, 1984
Director: Stephen Weeks
Source: Koch Media DVD
This isn’t a good movie, flawed in script, acting, and direction, but it is a sincere attempt to capture the feel of medieval Arthurian romances in a film. Shot in striking period locations such as Cardiff Castle and the Château de Pierrefonds, it’s loosely based on the epic 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — heck, they even hired noted novelist Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote a whole shelf of Arthurian literature, to help with the dialogue.
All for naught: mistakes were made. Director Stephen Weeks wanted Mark Hamill for the role of Sir Gawain, but producers Golan and Globus insisted on Miles O’Keeffe, a dimpled muscleman in a blond page-boy haircut with no discernible talent. The part of the magical Green Knight goes to Sean Connery, who clearly knows he’s in a junk flick but puts what gusto he can into it anyway. Certainly, the glitter frosting his beard and outrageous wig do him no favors. The fine John Rhys-Davies and Peter Cushing are utterly wasted in bit parts, while the rest of the cast is filled out by nonentities except for Trevor Howard, who plays the grumpiest King Arthur ever.
The story starts as the poem does: King Arthur, at his midwinter feast, decries the sloth and gluttony of his knights and is asking if none still have the spark of heroism in them, when his court is invaded by a glowing knight in green who challenges all present to a bizarre game: try to behead him with a single blow, and if he survives, he gets to do the same to his would-be executioner.
No one accepts this challenge until Gawain, a squire, steps forth, and Arthur knights him on the spot so he’ll be a fit representative of his court. Sir Gawain takes up the Green Knight’s axe and duly lops off his head, but the knight just laughs, reaches down and replaces his head on his body. Then he gives Sir Gawain a riddle and one year to solve it before he must face his own beheading.
So, Sir Gawain goes a-questing, in a series of episodes that evoke the Arthurian tales but are undercut by cheap special effects, a cheesy all-synthesizer soundtrack, and weak, anachronistic jokes. Gawain is fooled by Morgan le Fay (Emma Sutton), falls in love with Lady Linet of Lyonesse (Cyrielle Clair), fights a Black Knight and a Red, loses his love and goes mad in the forest for a while, and collects both enemies and allies, who all fight in a pointless skirmish near the end.
Despite having directed several episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood in the late Fifties, action director Anthony Squires seems unaware that medieval combat consisted of anything other than graceless hacking, so the fight scenes are rather silly. To quote Peter Cushing as the Seneschal: “Take me away.”
Wizards and Warriors
Origin: USA, 1983
Director: Bill Bixby, et al.
Source: Warner Archive DVD
This short-lived American TV series shows how influential the game Dungeons & Dragons had become on popular culture in less than ten years. A fantasy comedy with an ensemble cast, it portrays a conflict between neighboring kingdoms with cartoonishly good and evil rulers. The Warriors are the nice Prince Erik Greystone (Jeff Conaway) versus the nasty Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr, the Nineties TV Zorro), and the Wizards are the good but old and always-late Traquil (Ian Wolfe) and Blackpool’s evil henchman Vector (well-known voice actor Clive Revill), occasionally allied with the glamorous witch Bethel (Randi Brooks), who is barely clad in a few scraps of silver polyester.
All the trappings of heroic fantasy are duly included and broadly parodied: magic weapons and mystical gems, monsters grim and goofy, undead menaces, invisible dragons, even green slime. The deliberately tacky costumes are a hoot and won the show an Emmy. There are frequent dungeon crawls, and in episode 7, “Dungeon of Death,” Prince Greystone even recruits a D&D party of variously skilled adventurers to brave the threats and traps under Castle Blackpool.
There’s a lot of action, all exaggerated and ridiculous, but the reason to watch this show is the witty and knowing dialogue, particularly the repartee between Greystone and his sidekick Marko (Walter Olkewicz), the darkly humorous exchanges between Blackpool and Revel, and the comic banter of Greystone with his fiancée, the vain and rather dim Princess Ariel (Julia Duffy), who is frequently hilarious.
The tenor of the humor might be most usefully compared to that of the British show Blackadder, which debuted just a few months after this series. Where Wizards and Warriors goes wrong is that its episodes are an hour long compared to Blackadder’s half-hour, and the result is comparatively slow-paced and often padded, with the comedy losing its momentum.
But when the characters get some good lines, it’s a laff riot. The best episode is probably the fourth, “Night of Terror,” in which Greystone and Ariel are trapped in a haunted castle and confronted by skeletons, animated suits of armor, and illusory visions of their friends and enemies, all camping it up with evil laughter. Meanwhile, Blackpool and Vector, drinking in their own castle to celebrate their victory over the forces of good, get increasingly blotto while playing an absurd board game using Eighties glow sticks as pieces, the stake being Vector’s magic monocle, which he desperately wants back from Blackpool. The evil prince in his turn wants Vector’s black and begemmed skullcap, and when he wins the game and drunkenly demands the hat, Vector just grimaces and says, “I don’t wear a hat.”
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
The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
The New Zu Review
The Barbarian Boom, Part 3
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
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.