Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Darkness Before the Dawn

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Darkness Before the Dawn

Dungeons & Dragons (USA/Czech Republic, 2000)

Heroic fantasy on the big screen was in a parlous state at the dawn of the 21st century, and anyone whose crystal ball was foggy about the immediate cinematic future could be forgiven for thinking that swords and sorcery films were at their nadir. The Barbarian Boom was long past, Kull the Conqueror had been terrible, the Merlin miniseries was mediocre, and Xena: Warrior Princess had run its course. It was a grim time, and especially if you were a fan of Dungeons & Dragons style adventure, the pickings were slim.

However, though 2001 would bring to the faithful Brotherhood of the Wolf, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mists of Avalon, and most spectacularly, The Fellowship of the Ring, in the darkness before that dawn, the options were thin gruel or highly spiced but raw meat — as you’ll see in the films we’re covering this time ‘round.

Dungeons & Dragons

Rating: *
Origin: USA/Czech Republic, 2000
Director: Courtney Solomon
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

There had been attempts to make a feature film based on the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons since the mid-‘80s, but it took until 2000 for this first D&D movie to finally flop limply onto the world’s movie screens. Along the way, most of the things that could go wrong did, and the result is this genuinely terrible film. You can tell that the filmmakers sincerely tried to make a movie authentic to the game, but because they lacked the time, or the budget, or frankly, the skill, they failed to pull it off, and delivered a feature so awful, and that did so poorly at the box office, that it would be over twenty years before another D&D film achieved a theatrical release.

There’s just so little to recommend this movie. The story is hackneyed, the dialogue is dreadful, the costumes are shiny plastic, the sets are mostly either cheap or bad CGI, the direction is awkward and confusing, and the acting, oh lord, the acting…. D&D has one bankable star in Jeremy Irons (more about him later), but the rest of the actors are rank novices hired because the director didn’t want the audience distracted by overfamiliar faces or some such nonsense, so he cast for nonentities and was entirely successful, possibly the only thing he tried to do that worked out as planned.

D&D, of course, is known for its fantastic creatures, but barring a couple of rubbery hovering beholders, all we get here of the game’s creatures are a few guys in orc suits and far too many bad CGI dragons. At the end there’s a long aerial battle over what looks like Fantasyland from Disney World between squadrons of gold and red dragons and it’s just so embarrassing — it looks like an extended commercial for toy dragon action figures.

Then there’s the tone problem. For the first two-thirds of the film’s run time it’s a wacky slapstick comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mad Wizard, in which a pair of hapless thieves get involved in sorcerous politics because one of them falls for the cute librarian mage whom the endangered empress has entrusted with a hopeless mission. That’s your plot. There are chases, escapes, silly disguises, ridiculous allies, sudden reversals, running jokes, and a lot of just plain running. And then abruptly one of the hapless thieves is killed, giving his life for the Cause, and the whole tone of the film shifts over to grimdark and serious. Which is a tone, let me tell you, that it can in no way support or sustain.

Okay, fine, so it’s a bad movie, there are a lot of bad movies, but you like D&D and would really like a reason to watch this anyway. I am here to oblige you. That reason is none other than the great Shakespearean-trained thespian Jeremy Irons, an actor who’s won nearly every conceivable award for his dramatic art, but who one day woke up to find that he’d signed on to act in this bona fide turkey, playing the part of an insane evil wizard hellbent on fantasy world domination, with a script that would make a high school drama class cringe.

So, what does Jeremy Irons do? Jeremy Irons totally inhabits this terrible role of a lifetime, because when Jeremy Irons is given a cheesy part to play, Jeremy Irons leans in and eats that cheese down to the last crumb. He dives so deep into the cheese that it’s kind of inspiring, reminding one of late-career Basil Rathbone when the great artist still gave it his all, no matter what low-budget claptrap he was chewing the scenery in.

So, there’s your pretext. I hope you’re happy.

The 13th Warrior (USA, 1999)

The 13th Warrior

Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1999
Director: John McTiernan
Source: Touchstone DVD

This is a divisive film: most people either love it or hate it. But I’m not here to pick a side, because though this movie is one steaming hot mess, there are compelling reasons to watch it anyway.

Novelist Michael Crichton had long been a favorite of Hollywood, and after the gigantic success of the film adaptation of his Jurassic Park (1993), he could do no wrong as far as Hollywood was concerned, and Crichton agreed with them. He decided to make a film adapting his 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead, an innovative mash-up of the legendary Saxon tale of Beowulf with the real autobiographical account of the Arab Ahmed ibn Fadlan’s medieval sojourn among the Volga Vikings.

The plot, in brief: Ahmed (Antonio Banderas), an Arab noble, is exiled from Baghdad for an amorous indiscretion and sent north as an “ambassador” to the Bulgars. On the way his caravan is pursued by a band of Tartars, but the mounted raiders back off at the approach along a river of a longship filled with Vikings. Ahmed and his interpreter, Melchisidek (Omar Sharif), take refuge in the Viking camp, where Ahmed is shocked by the violence of the Northmen, who are led by laconic clan chief named Buliwyf, i.e., Beowulf (Vladimir Kulich). Word comes from the far north that the settlement of King Hrothgar is under attack by a monster; an oracle woman says that thirteen warriors led by Buliwyf must go to face this menace, but the thirteenth must be no Northman, so suddenly Ahmed finds himself attached to the band.

This baker’s dozen adventurers arrive at Hrothgar’s realm in the deep north woods to find it under siege by the Wendol, mysterious cannibal tribesmen dressed like animals who attack from the mist. After staving off a major attack on Hrothgar’s village in scenes reminiscent of Seven Samurai, another oracle tells Buliwyf that he and his men must attack the Wendol in their lair, and won’t succeed until they slay both the cannibals’ horned leader and his priestess mother. Though dwindling in number, the Northmen and Ahmed find and infiltrate the Wendol camp, and go on a dungeon crawl through their caves to kill the mother. The result of this is a climactic assault on the town in which Buliwyf faces off against the horrific Wendol leader.

The tale is all told through the viewpoint of Ahmed, who gradually gets to know most of the Norse warriors, though not very well because, frankly, there isn’t much to know: they’re the usual simple cardboard adventurers defined by a repeated mannerism or a weapon specialty. Buliwyf himself, silent and stoic, is more archetype than person, there just isn’t much to him.

There’s a bold use of untranslated speech early in the film that conveys effectively how disoriented Ahmed is among these folk whose speech he doesn’t share, until he surprises them by learning their language, after which the dialogue is conducted in English. Initially disregarded as a weakling, Ahmed also earns the respect of the bluff Northmen by killing their enemies — you know, the usual method — but using his own approach to fighting rather than theirs.

It’s all very manly, with the Norse warriors shouting battle cries and wordless victory roars so you’ll either want to pump your fist or roll your eyes, or possibly both. The movie’s raw meat is the combat scenes, which are frequent, extended, and woefully inconsistent: some of the fights are sharp, clear, and genuinely exciting, but all too many others are dark, confusing, repetitive, and visually messy, and what just happened is rarely satisfactorily explained.

Where the fights do work, they hold up well, and the action scenes have flashes of brilliance; the dungeon crawl is particularly memorable. The one sure thing is that the film is never boring. The cinematography of the scenery, shot in British Columbia, is simply gorgeous, but most of the close-up work with the actors is awful. Banderas does all right with what he’s given, but everyone else just grunts macho quips at him like, “Get stronger!” Sure, bro.

The film was expensive to produce and had a difficult production: Crichton was unhappy with it and eventually took over the direction, spending millions in reshoots that give the final film an erratic, variable quality, a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts. But 13th Warrior is the biggest and most influential Norse adventure film since 1958’s The Vikings, and worth seeing on that basis alone. By Odin, you might even love it — I recommend watching it with a drinking horn full of mead and taking a swig every time you’re tempted to pump your fist.

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:

The Barbarian Boom, Part 7
Avenging Women
Mondo Mifune
Near Misses in the Near East
Zatoichi at Large
Invitation to a Keelhauling
Sequel Debacle
Deuces Wild
Beware of Greeks
Peak ‘90s Wuxia
Ashes of Time
Consider the Rapier
They Seek Him Here…

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is busily promoting the Cinema of Swords compilation from Applause Books that was born right here at Black Gate! The volume out now covers swordplay movies up through the ‘80s, but Ellsworth is continuing with new material for a Volume Two and is now working his way up through the 2000s. These later reviews are being published weekly on his new Cinema of Swords Substack blog, at cinemaofswords.substack.com.

Meanwhile, Ellsworth soldiers on at his mega-project of editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the seventh volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the eighth, Shadow of the Bastille, 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, and is Principal Narrative Designer for the Dungeons & Dragons videogame Baldur’s Gate 3.)

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Joe H.

The Dungeons and Dragons movie might be the worst thing I’ve ever paid good money to see in a theater. A few years ago, I started thinking, “Well, it couldn’t have been THAT bad, could it?”, so I picked it up on iTunes and rewatched it.

Reader, it was, in fact, that bad.

About the only thing it has to recommend it, aside from watching Jeremy Irons chew every piece of scenery in sight, is the fact that a couple of scenes were filmed at that cathedral in … is it Prague? … that was decorated with actual human skeletal remains.


The D&D movie was so bad that at the time people were genuinely worried that it would make an abortion out of Lord of the Rings by turning the public against fantasy movies all over again.

Joe H.

I guess we’re lucky that it tanked so hard that it couldn’t poison the public against fantasy movies because nobody actually saw it.

And it definitely DID poison the well for D&D movies for almost 25 years; and then, when they did finally make a new D&D movie, it was surprisingly good and, sigh, apparently didn’t do well enough at the box office to satisfy the bean counters.


Great piece, but quick correction: Pirates of the Caribbean came out in 2003

Lawrence Schick

You’re right!

Sarah Avery

I went to see The 13th Warrior with the Rutgers Pagan Student Association. The Heathens had a blast, and those of us who were not Heathens were happily along for the ride…until the dungeon crawl, when the cannibals’ evil idol, venerated by the conveniently monstrous priestess, turns out to be a 12 foot tall replica of the Venus of Willendorf. It was hard to say which was more boggling, the millennia worth of anachronism in a film that had worked so hard to be plausible about its historical moment, or the misogyny. As a sword and sorcery film it rocks. For a bunch of Pagans looking forward to a little representation, it was a mixed bag.

I have seen Jeremy Irons quoted saying that he took the role in Dungeons & Dragons because he’d just bought a run-down castle that was going to cost a fortune to restore. It takes a little sting out of the badness of that film to imagine it fixing up a for-real castle.

Lawrence Schick

Yes, Irons’ castle is here in Ireland, down Cork way. I’ve seen it from the distance. Looks nice.


such a bummer about the D&D movie. because it really was bad. I think it’s a little unfair to call the actors “rank amateurs”…but they were mostly TV actors with the exception of Irons (even Thora Birch had done little film work at this point, but she had already been in American Beauty). The far bigger problem was with the mismatched tone and deeply terrible writing.

Joe H.

I’m sure I’m stealing somebody else’s observation here, but the story & script feels like nothing so much as a 100% accurate transcript of the sort of D&D campaign that you & your friends played when you were in 6th grade and didn’t really understand the game rules, or narrative structure, or characterization or plotting or dialogue.

John E. Boyle

“didn’t really understand the game rules, or narrative structure, or characterization or plotting or dialogue.” Well said; may I use that?

Joe H.

Absolutely! Like I said, I’m pretty sure I was lifting it from elsewhere myself.

John E. Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Fantastic!

The DnD movie of 2000…I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing.
The 13th Warrior – I agree and I own a copy. I would recommend that you save the mead for your watch of the DnD movie and drink whenever you find yourself flinching at…whatever. It can only improve the movie.

Neil Houlton

My DVD copy of Dungeons and Dragons had a very quiet soundtrack which was an advantage when watching, I can’t belive that there were at least two sequels as well, also the chief villian in his blue lipstick, very scary.

The scene I remember most from the 13th Warrior are the lines of warrors snaking down throughthe snow covered hills carrying flaming torches, a place there for a touch of Viking metal.

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