Browsed by
Author: Lawrence Ellsworth

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.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The New Zu Review

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The New Zu Review

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Hong Kong, 1983)

The worldwide success of the Star Wars movies, followed by that of Conan the Barbarian, opened the funding floodgates for fantasy films, not just in Hollywood and Europe, but in Asia as well. Of course, Asian cinema had a tradition of making movies of fables and horror stories dating back to the silent era, but the new, hot trend out of Hollywood was combining such themes with heavy special effects support. Filmmakers in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Indonesia were eager to follow that trend, and though they had solid experience with practical effects and models, building the capacity to add sophisticated animation would take time and investment. But Asian filmmakers had no shortage of wild visual ideas to portray with the new special effects, as we’ll see from the early examples below.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 2

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Barbarian Boom, Part 2

The Sword and the Sorcerer (USA, 1982)

The pre-release hype for Conan the Barbarian in 1981, and then its delayed release until the following year, meant that by the time it appeared, there were already plenty of imitations in the pipeline ready to take advantage of its success. As a result, 1982 abounded in barbarian adventures, and if none of these was better than merely good and you couldn’t get quality, you sure as Hyborea got quantity. If you were young and just getting your eyes opened to the sword and sorcery genre, that was good enough. A new fantasy genre was emerging, for both filmmakers and their mass audience.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Euro Dumas Trio

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Euro Dumas Trio

The Count of Monte-Cristo (UK, 1975)

Completing our survey of Seventies movies that attempted to recapture the fire (and the box office success) of Richard Lester’s Musketeers films, here are three European productions that are often overlooked, in America at least. All three are adaptations of novels by Alexandre Dumas, but the real gem here is D’Artagnan and Three Musketeers, a Russian adaptation of the master’s greatest novel, presented with Slavic brio and panache. If you’re a fan of cinematic adaptations of The Three Musketeers, you really owe it to yourself to track this one down.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Weird Samurai

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Weird Samurai

Lady Snowblood (Japan, 1973)

Japanese chanbara (samurai swordplay) adventure shows and movies had a long history of being adapted from popular manga series. As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, chanbara manga got increasingly bizarre and extreme, and the screen adaptations followed. These historical fantasies drew on the avant-garde film movements of the last Sixties, but also pulled imagery and characters from traditional sources, melding dream-logic with ghostly revenants. Bracing stuff, and if it’s sometimes hard to follow their abrupt 90-degree turns, the stories always sort themselves out in the end.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Old School Pirates

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Old School Pirates

The Spanish Main (Warner Bros, 1945)

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” –H. L. Mencken, 1919. And when more than during the winter holiday season, the Festival of the Taillights? Bring me my whetstone and cutlass! This week we celebrate old school Hollywood pirate epics, stories of charming rogues and swaggering scallywags. Come on, me lads, heave to and turn aside from It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, for it be time t’ wallow in a different nostalgia, one with more pointy edges to it. An’ ye can lay to that.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords – The Barbarian Boom (Part 1)

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords – The Barbarian Boom (Part 1)

Hawk the Slayer (1980)

The Eighties Barbarian Boom didn’t start with Conan the Barbarian (1982), though its long pre-release hype train certainly primed the pump. In truth, the market was ripe for such films, and by mid-1981, a number of other sword-and-sorcery movies were in production or pre-production. The genre had been bubbling its way up in other mass media throughout the Seventies, Dungeons & Dragons co-designer Gary Gygax had come to Hollywood talking it up, and the largely heroic fantasy Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks were selling millions of copies.

It was time. The barbarians were here, and they would rule the next decade. But they had a bit of a rocky start.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords – 1981: The Old Order Changeth

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords – 1981: The Old Order Changeth

Excalibur (Warner Bros, 1981)

1981 was a watershed year in fantasy films. The success of Star Wars had made it possible to fund and produce large-scale SF and fantasy movies, but it also heralded a change in the way such movies were made, placing high-quality (and thus expensive) special effects front and center. Prior to Star Wars, special effects in fantasy films were almost invariably low-budget and cheesy, reflecting movie producers’ almost invariable belief that such films appealed only to a niche and rather undiscerning market.

The conspicuous exception to this rule was the films of master animator Ray Harryhausen, but even in his movies, beyond the creature animation, the production values, script, and human performances were often afterthoughts. However, the creatures were magnificent, and that was considered enough.

Not anymore. Harryhausen’s painstaking stop-motion animation had been superseded by new approaches that integrated stop-motion with puppetry, classical animation, and most importantly computer graphics. And indeed, 1981’s Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s final film. If Clash wasn’t completely outdone by Dragonslayer, the effects in that film, largely produced by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, nonetheless pointed the way toward a new era in fantasy.

However, it wasn’t all about the special effects. John Boorman’s Excalibur showed that a film of heroic fantasy could also be cinematic art, aspiring to the best the medium was capable of. After Excalibur, plenty of critics would continue to sneer at fantasy films, but the proof was in: they were wrong.

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Year of Shogun

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: The Year of Shogun

TV Guide featuring Shogun (September 6-12, 1980)

Before 1980, few people in America and Europe knew much about Japan’s samurai era — if anything, they associated its warrior ethos with the hostile mindset that had led the country into its big mistake in World War II. The unarmed combat skills of judo and karate had been popularized during the Sixties, but little was known about the martial arts of the samurai that had preceded them until Shogun, James Clavell’s blockbuster novel and subsequent hit TV miniseries, hit the American and European mainstream.

Suddenly samurai were top-of-mind for mass market consumers, from low-culture exploitation videos (as they were regarded then) like Shogun Assassin to high-culture art-house darlings like Kagemusha, the triumphant return of director Akira Kurosawa to the genre of his breakthrough film Seven Samurai. After 1980, “samurai” was nearly as recognizable a historical concept as “cowboy.”

Read More Read More

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Seventies Hall of Shame

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Seventies Hall of Shame

Swashbuckler (US, 1976)

Let’s face it, in the spate of historical swashbucklers that followed Richard Lester’s Musketeers films, not everything was a classic like Robin and Marian. There were a few toads in the flower garden, some rotten apples in the barrel, and it’s only fair to warn you about them. However, even a terrible misfire can have its amusing side, as you’ll see in the sterling examples gathered below, three attempts to capture the that old swordplay magic that go astray in entirely different ways.

Read More Read More