Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 7
Oliver Reed in Gor (USA/South Africa, 1987)
We’ve come to the end of the ‘80s and the last of our Barbarian Boom articles, as fantasy films in the ‘90s diversified to offer a broader portfolio after the waning of Conan fever. And as you’ll see from the movies covered this week, by 1987 the barbarian flick genre had definitely passed into a period of decadence, with filmmakers straining to find ways to keep pumping life into it. Not that there aren’t some weird delights to be had in these desperate final outings, as you’ll see.
Origin: USA/South Africa, 1987
Director: Fritz Kiersch
Source: MGM DVD
Edgar Rice Burroughs published the first sword-and-planet story in 1912 with A Princess of Mars, establishing a genre in which a sword-wielding hero typically finds himself on a distant planet where he must contend with barbarians, humanoid aliens, and bizarre ancient cultures. John Lange, writing as John Norman, wrote a popular sword-and-planet series about a world called Gor starting with Tarnsman of Gor in 1966. The books were notorious among SF and fantasy fans for their regressive attitudes toward slavery and the domination of submissive women, but they found an audience despite general intellectual disapproval.
In 1987, late in the ‘80s barbarian boom, the series finally made its way to the movie screen; the resulting film, while it had plenty of slavery and the abuse of partially clad women, was milder in that regard than other films of the period such as Barbarian Queen (1985). For all the opprobrium heaped on the Gor books over the years, the movie when it came was mainly just… boring.
Tarl Cabot (Urbano Barberini) is a nerdy university professor with a mystic ring inherited from his father said to be able to open a way to another world, a “counter-Earth.” After being humiliated by a cooler dude who drives off with his girlfriend, Cabot is heading out alone on a camping trip when the ring starts to glow and he is transported, John Carter-style, to Gor. The hapless Cabot wanders a barren wasteland until he stumbles upon a slave-raid-in-progress, gets mixed up with Talena (Rebecca Ferratti), a fugitive warrior, and then accidentally kills the nasty son of the nasty slavelord, Sarm (Oliver Reed, nooooo!), who vows vengeance. However, Sarm has already gotten what he wanted from the village besides slaves, the town’s mystic “home stone,” a glowing piece of melty pink plastic that resembles the stone in Cabot’s ring.
Cabot joins the fugitive villagers on a quest to free the slaves and retrieve their home stone, which he’s assured has the power to return him to Earth, but he’s petulant and useless, which is supposed to be funny but is just tiresome. No problem! Cue a three-minute training montage, at the end of which Cabot is skillful enough with a sword and bow to be a match for any fighter on Gor.
An aside about the swords in this movie: a lot of low-budget fantasy films feature cheap-looking and unbelievable medieval weapons, but the swords in Gor are the cheapest and most unbelievable ever, looking like plywood laths wrapped with foil, which maybe they are. Ugh. A second aside, this one about Oliver Reed: before getting up in arms about the great artist lowering himself to participate in this trash, remember that he started out dedicating his art to acting in Hammer exploitation films. And only a real actor like Reed could wear that ridiculous protuberant slave-king’s helmet and still keep a straight face as he orders helpless sacrifices to their deaths.
Anyway, there’s really nothing going on here but an ill-conceived and poorly executed action flick with an overwrought soundtrack, no story, and no characters. Don’t blink or you’ll miss Jack Palance at the end being set up as the villain for the sequel.
Ator 3: The Iron Warrior
Origin: UK/Italy, 1987
Director: Alfonso Brescia (Al Bradley)
Source: YouTube streaming video
Other than starring Miles O’Keeffe, this action fantasy has almost nothing to do with its two predecessors: Ator is given an entirely new origin, and stylistically this film is completely different from the previous barbarian adventures. In fact, it’s more like an artsy Italian horror film than a heroic fantasy, a hallucinogenic series of weird nightmare scenes loosely connected by dream logic, in which many strange events occur with little or no explanation.
In other words, this thang don’t make a lick o’ sense. In the opening scene, twin boys play ball amid crumbling ruins until one of them is abducted by a cackling hag. The hag, Phaedra (Elisabeth Kaza, in an unhinged performance), is then judged by her fellow witches in a tediously talky trial and sentenced by Good Witch Deeva (Iris Peynado) to eighteen years on a desert island.
When her time is served, Phaedra is collected by metal-skull-masked Trogar (Franco Daddi), “part man, part machine,” and then goes to attend the 18th name day celebration of the kingdom’s Princess Janna (Savina Gersak), who for some reason has one scarlet eyebrow. After cackling out assorted curses and threats, Phaedra summons Trogar, who kills the king and abducts the princess. But meanwhile Good Witch Deeva has summoned Ator, who mounts a white steed and rides to the princess’ aid.
A bunch of stuff happens, much of it illusory, inexplicable, and filmed with cheap yet pretentious camera tricks. Ator repeatedly fights Trogar, who apparently can’t be killed, and is of course Ator’s abducted twin brother from the first scene, a fact that’s eventually just put out there rather than revealed for effect. Phaedra has an apparently unlimited number of burly goons armed with broadswords and wearing Evil Armor™, and they chase Ator and Janna around every scenic site on the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo.
Ator fights lots of sluggish and unexciting duels with the goons, sometimes moving in slo-mo so you know he must actually be moving really, really fast. Janna leads Ator to a town where she expects to be able to raise some loyal troops to take back her throne, and ohmygod my head’s spinning because it’s the town of Sweethaven from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) with Robin Williams! Except instead of a population of E.C. Segar’s cartoon characters, Sweethaven’s only inhabitants are corpses because Phaedra’s goons got there first. But what the hell?
Though this film is tonally at utter variance with the first two Ator films, there’s one thing you can depend on being the same: O’Keeffe can’t act worth a damn and doesn’t even try. Fortunately, he doesn’t have much to say here. “What if they kill you?” Janna asks. “Then I’ll be dead,” Ator replies. (A real philosopher, that Ator.) The longer this film goes on, the closer it comes to achieving its apparent goal of resembling a never-ending nightmare. But hey, at least, when it finally does finish, the ending is pointlessly ambiguous. Thanks for that!
Deathstalker III: The Warriors from Hell
Origin: USA/Mexico, 1988
Director: Alfonso Corona
Source: YouTube streaming video
A barbarian flick, Deathstalker III
Was suitable only for mockery
With swordplay amusing
But story confusing
It impressed everyone with its suckery.
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:
Barbarian Boom Part 6
Valiant Avenging Chivalry
For the Horde!
The Princess Bride Redeems the 80s
Samurai Stocking Stuffers
Moonraker! (No, Not That One)
Cinema of Swords Book Announcement!
Fury of the Norsemen
Samurai With a Twist
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; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!
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 a Narrative Design Expert for Larian Studios, writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Baldur’s Gate 3.
I love low budget B movies – inclduing the Deathstalker ones. IMO they should take the Simon Green books and use todays cheap CGI and make the future Deathstalker where he’s a space barbarian. All the re-makes, prequels, sequels, etc. Why not Deathstalker? He’d be improved.
Of all these I love the Gor movies the best. Not for anything anyone who knows me here might think for my tastes but that I love how Prof Norman was so Stoic. Most other writers went berserk with rage at 85% or less Story to Movie. Last Unicorn. Clan of the Cave Bear. His movie was -kindly- 5% Gor. To be fair if they made it 1:1 it would have cost $100M not adjusted for inflation and been banned everywhere. (Flying birds and skyscraper buildings to hold them, giant Insect creatures…) There was a similar compromise to Croneburg doing Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” making it more about Burroughs himself and the Beats as much as his literary works.
Prof Norman had just had his books cancelled and he was blacklisted because he refused to maim his vision to various social movements still being rammed worse than today. He saw those two movies and he just smiled and worked with everyone and made sure they all got along. He sat back and waited and got a tiny but not dismissive royalty…for decades. The movies acted as advertisement for his books and the blacklist made them collector’s value. I worked briefly at a bookstore in the 90s and the books were sometimes going for $300+ each. Parted with a few extras from my “Bucket” full I’d bought dirt cheap at a used bookstore a few years back. Not something a kid should read but hey, liked it! Thus I see the Gor movies as kind of “If somehow I ever get my works made into a movie in my lifetime…” Maybe I can avoid losing my temper, not at halfway sane changes like adding ‘token’ ones but baffling stuff seemingly there to derail and add stupid… Last Unicorn, imagine if instead of the warped “Tree” thing they’d had Mabruk give a bigger speech on knowing Schmendrick…?
Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? No, not these Barbarians!
I think I’ve managed to miss all three of these stinkers (thought I saw all the Deathstalkers, but I don’t recognize the title or picture for this one) and I think I’ll keep it that way. Thanks again for warning us about just how bad some of these flicks are, but I’m starting to worry if you might not have suffered permanent damage.
Thank you, Mr. Ellsworth.
Ah, Oliver Reed, the Laurence Olivier of utter crap.
Ah, Oliver Reed, when he was sober and committed to his role, he was brilliant. Sadly that Oliver Reed became increasingly hard to find as he descended further towards the bottom of the bottle. Greatness cut short by addiction, a tragedy.
He was the greatest Athos ever.
Yep, Oliver Reed was apparently such a bad alcoholic that few directors would work with him. He even made a movie for Colonel Gaddafi at one point, along with the equally difficult Anthony Quinn.
Way back when we joked about Ator 3: The Iron Warrior being an artsy-fartsy fantasy movie. Janna, dressed all in gauzy scarves, would slowly lose scarves throughout a location. Then jump to a new location, she’d have reloaded the scarves but in a new color. Rinse and repeat. At least that’s how I remember it playing out.
I saw Gor once in a video store and passed. If I’d have noticed Oliver Reed’s name, I probably would have rented it.
I watched Gor in VHS way back. Don’t think I even knew there were Gor books at the time. Just saw it as a possible S&S movie. Literally immemorable. Maybe I need to locate a copy and rematch.
I never saw Ator 3. I did see the first Ator on the big screen. It remains the worst film I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. And I’m old.
I watched two on TV, once. That was enough. What a turd of a series.