Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Fables and Fairy Tales

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Fables and Fairy Tales

Legend (Universal, 1985)

The fantasy film boom of the Eighties mostly drew upon pulp sword and sorcery tales, but some harked back farther to earlier traditions of myth, fables, and fairy tales, often because the filmmakers had a more vividly enchanted look in mind. Whether hit or miss, these movies and their typically rich visuals provided a welcome diversion from the then-prevailing norm of mounted barbarians thundering across windswept steppes.

Arabian Adventure

Rating: ***
Origin: UK, 1979
Director: Kevin Connor
Source: StudioCanal DVD

This is a movie that isn’t afraid to ask the question, “If one magic carpet is good, wouldn’t nine be better?”

Arabian Adventure is an utter throwback to the Fifties, a love letter to The Thief of Bagdad and its ilk. You’ve seen just about every bit in it in earlier Arabian Nights-inspired films, and that’s the whole point, really — it’s Bagdad fairy tale comfort food. There’s a hero, Prince Hasan, played by Oliver Tobias (Arthur in Arthur of the Britons), and a plucky princess, Zuleira (Emma Samms), and a villain, Caliph Alquazar (top-billed Christoper Lee), but the real protagonist is an eleven-year-old beggar boy named Majeed played with charm and brio by the charismatic young Puneet Sira. Who has, of course, a mischievous pet monkey.

It’s the kind of movie in which the hero invades the caliph’s palace and fights a running scimitar battle with black-clad guards, engaging in athletic swashbuckling until he stumbles into the boudoir of the beautiful princess. It’s the kind of movie where the hero gets thrown into the dungeon and finds that his scruffy fellow prisoner is a former wazir played by Peter Cushing. The kind of movie where a street urchin’s kindness to a ragged old beggar woman is repaid with a magic sapphire containing a lovely female jinni. The kind of movie where the sets are right out of Technicolor-era Hollywood, and all the magic and monsters are old-school practical effects. That kind of movie.

An Arabian city’s despotic caliph has only one desire: a magical MacGuffin called the Rose of Al-Il that will make him all-powerful — but he needs a hero to get it for him. Heroic Prince Hasan of Bagdad comes to town, and he and the caliph’s daughter fall in love at first sight, so Alquazar offers him his daughter’s hand if he’ll go into dire peril and bring back the Rose. Quest time! Young Majeed joins Hasan’s expedition, and with the help of his sapphire jinni, the adventure is on.

They encounter an evil jinni, a laughing giant clearly inspired by Rex Ingram’s genie in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, but the princess advises them on how to beat it by speaking through her father’s haunted magic mirror. And then, an hour into the movie, just as it’s all becoming a bit over-familiar and you think it’s never going to show you anything you haven’t seen before, there it is: three fire-breathing mechanical brasspunk demons controlled by a deranged engineer-wizard, played in an absolutely unhinged performance by none other than Mickey Rooney. (No lie.)

The evil caliph commences a long-range betrayal of the heroes, with Christopher Lee relishing such commands to his minions as, “Do not fail me!” (just before, inevitably, they fail him). Despite his efforts, Hasan and Majeed return to the city with the magical rose and hook up with the desperate citizen freedom-fighters who’ve only been waiting for a leader, and we get a climax with a flying carpet dogfight over the city with multiple carpets on each side. Created with all practical effects, it’s actually kind of awkward, but you have to give them credit for the idea.

Arabian Adventure was not a box-office success — it was a film past its time, and its uninspired title didn’t help matters. But, man alive, brasspunk fire demons.

Legend

Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1985
Director: Ridley Scott
Source: Universal DVD

Director Ridley Scott (The Duellists, Blade Runner) is brilliant but not infallible, as this movie demonstrates. Scott wanted to shoot a fairy tale, a film with the fanciful air and gemlike colors of an animated Disney fable, and in that he was largely successful: the visuals, particularly in the first half of the film, are rich and sumptuous, every scene a painting. The problem is that beneath this glossy surface, there just isn’t much going on.

Into an enchanted forest singing enchanting songs comes Princess Lili (Mia Sara), looking for her special friend, forest child Jack o’ the Green (a young Tom Cruise), who tells her he has a surprise for her. Intrigued, Lili allows Jack to blindfold her and take her to meet a pair of magical unicorns — but though she’s warned to stay away from them, Lili insists on approaching and touching the stallion. Unbeknownst to Lili and Jack, the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry), who also knows of the coming of the unicorns, has sent his goblins to kill them and harvest their horns, for with the power of those “alicorns” he can plunge the world into eternal night.

Lili’s fatal distraction of the unicorn stallion enables the goblins to shoot it with a poisoned dart. Chaos ensues, the goblins take the stallion’s alicorn, and the forest freezes in a sudden blizzard. Lili, following the goblins, is captured along with the unicorn mare and dragged off to Darkness’ Big Tree of Evil. Meanwhile, Jack falls in with fairies Honeythorn Gump, Tom Brown, Screwball, and Oona, who tell him (often speaking in rhyme) that he must be the hero fated to undertake the quest to recover the horns, rescue Lili, and save the world.

This film is mostly gorgeous, a delight to look at, though once the questers enter the underworld of Darkness, the visuals get rather muddy and some clarity is lost. A bigger problem is that the characters are all mere archetypes and, frankly, they have nothing interesting to say. They look wonderful, the costumes are spectacular, but their lines are uniformly flat and dull. There’s great potential here: Darkness falls for Lili and tries to woo her to become his queen, which is a fabulous setup. Here’s Tim Curry in the infernal costume and makeup of a lifetime, playing tempter and having a conversation that should sparkle with witty repartee, and instead we get a flat exchange of desire and refusal. It ranks as one of the greatest failed opportunities in the history of fantasy cinema.

If there’s anything the last thirty years of revisionist fairy tales have taught us, it’s that their iconic characters can be given personalities of fascinating depth and their situations, when looked at with fresh eyes, can have a lot to say about life, the human condition, and humanity itself. Sadly, Legend doesn’t even begin to aspire to that level of nuance.

To sum up: beautiful but shallow and unsatisfying. Look for the director’s cut which has twenty extra minutes of shallow beauty, but best of all the bewitching original soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, which was replaced by Eighties synth-pop for the American theatrical release. (Sorry, Tangerine Dream.)

Ladyhawke

Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1985
Director: Richard Donner
Source: 20th Century Fox DVD

This is a historical fantasy, less a sword-and-sorcery adventure than a romantic fable. In the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, in the northern Italy hill town of Aquila, a teenage thief known as Mouse (Matthew Broderick) escapes from the dungeons of the tyrannical Bishop of Aquila (John Wood) — an event which has never happened before, so the bishop sends Marquet (Ken Hutchison), his ruthless guard captain, to recapture Mouse lest his reputation suffer. Nearly caught by the guards, Mouse is rescued by a knight, Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer), who has a spirited hunting hawk, a great black charger named Goliath, and an impressive begemmed bastard sword. Navarre also has a secret: after dark he’s cursed to become a large black wolf, while during the day his ladylove, Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), must assume the shape of the hawk. Thus, they can never meet in human form.

They encounter an outrageously scruffy fallen friar named Imperius (Leo McKern) who reveals to Mouse the secret of the curse: in Aquila, the bishop had conceived an obsessive desire for Isabeau, but she loved Navarre, his captain of the guard, so the bishop had pledged a Satanic pact to curse the pair. In despair, Navarre wants to use Mouse’s knowledge of the secret ways of Aquila to help him assassinate the bishop, though that will make the curse endure forever — but Imperius believes he’s figured out how the curse can be broken.

Ladyhawke is a fine, self-contained fantasy fable, well-written, superbly cast, and beautifully filmed amid the mountains and castles of northern Italy. The story is told from the viewpoint of the young thief, and Mouse, an inveterate liar who carries on an ironic one-sided dialogue with God, could have been over-arch and irritating, but Broderick pulls it off in a performance that’s equal parts canny and endearing. He carries the film, which is just as well, as the gorgeous Pfeiffer and Hauer spend most of their screen time in yearning looks (though Hauer swings a mean sword). And if you have an eccentric monk in your cast, Leo McKern should be at the top of your list to play the part.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke

The task of counterweight to all these adorable good guys goes to John Wood as the villainous Bishop of Aquila, and fortunately he’s more than up to the task. At first, he seems a man with a nearly impassive stone face, until you realize that beneath the surface, he’s consumed by passions conveyed by tiny flickers of expression, subtle quivers that convey his inner seething more effectively than if he foamed with rage and chewed the scenery. He’s remarkable. He seems carved from sandstone, an integral part of his domain, the brooding hilltop castle of Torrechiara (near Parma).

The film is not without its flaws: the pacing is erratic, it sags a bit in the middle, and the Alan Parsons-style prog-rock soundtrack is a trifle incongruous, though it’s not as distracting as some make it out to be. The leads’ outfits are all fine, but the costumes and weapons of the bishop’s guards look gaudy and cheap. However, the fight direction is by the great William Hobbs, and if you’ve always wanted to see two mounted knights clashing in the crowded nave of a cathedral during an eclipse, your wish has been granted.

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:

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
The Barbarian Boom, Part 3
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
Fantasy Salmagundi
Warmongers


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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Thomas Parker

Ladyhawke is the best over-the-counter sleep aid ever marketed.

smitty59

So glad you reviewed “Ladyhawke”! Despite its flaws, I love this film! Best thing I’ve seen Matthew Broderick do. My wife and I saw this together early on in our marriage, and it became one of our favorite movies, along with “The Princess Bride.”

Thomas Parker

“Best Matthew Broderick?” C’mon, Smitty – Glory!

smitty59

Oh — Gotta admit: I have yet to see “Glory.” I do own a copy; I’ll watch it later this year.

silentdante

another Rutger Hauer movie i enjoy

John E Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? With Brass Punk Fire Demons???

I have never heard of the movie Arabian Adventure but now that I know that it exists, I MUST SEE IT.
Emma Samms, Christopher Lee, Mickey Rooney and BRASS PUNK FIRE DEMONS? Sign me up, Bwana.

I saw Legend when it came out and as you have indicated, it struck me as a series of pretty pictures in need of a decent script. I’ve never sat all the way through it since, but I want to watch that director’s cut, if only to hear the original score.

Ladyhawke – For a number of reasons, this is one of my favorite movies, period. The casting is just about perfect and the performances by the five leads are my favorites of their film careers. Not to mention the great William Hobbs.

Thank you again, Mr. Ellsworth, for pointing me at a film treasure I never knew existed. Great post!

Joe H.

I rewatched Legend recently and it actually held up a bit better than I was expecting, mostly as a series of really great images. And there was SO MUCH GLITTER floating in the air …

Andy

I enjoy Legend more thanks to the director’s cut, but even without that, Rob Bottin’s makeup effects ensure it has a place in history. Especially Tim Curry as Darkness.

Adrian Simmons

I watched both “Legend” and “Ladyhawke” in the theater when they came out–and was disappointed by them both. However, as I’ve caught it as reruns or rented it myself, I’ve become more impressed with them.

Ladyhawke does have an unfortunate soundtrack, but it makes up for it with some great action scenes.

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