I’ll never forget the first time I saw Beastmaster. I caught it on television sometime in in my early teens. I first thought it was a Conan rip off (I later learned that it came out the same year), but it completely shattered my expectations. I knew then and there that it was everything I wanted in a movie: action, sword fighting, quests, courageous animals, inexplicably terrifying flying creatures, evil villains, etc. Hopefully this explains why I am going to spend the next month writing about 1980s sword and sorcery films.
The ‘80s are known for a long run of successful fantasy films, but there are a couple of things that set the sword and sorcery subgenre apart. These films typically deal with sword-fighting, a hero, an evil, usually supernatural villain, violence, occasional romance, magic, and a plot that centers around the problems of one person (unlike epic fantasy, which concerns the fate of a world or a people). And scantily clad babes.
Though there are a couple of exceptions, these films are generally known for their low budgets and a certain so-bad-it’s-good quality. It is nearly impossible not to enjoy them if you grew up on a steady diet of comics, fantasy novels and horror films. The stories are comfortingly unoriginal and have more influences than I can count, though Greek mythology, the Norse sagas, Old English literature, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, modern fantasy literature and Italian peplum films from the ‘60s are some of the most important. “Sword and sorcery” was coined in the early ‘60s during a written discussion between authors Moorcook and Fritz Leiber and many of the films in this sub-genre are based on fiction that got its start in pulp magazines like Weird Tales.
In addition to the literary origins, there are a number of filmic influences. Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) is the first film close to this genre, though Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Baghdad from the same year deals with similar themes: sword fighting, magic and rescuing damsels in distress. Fantasy-adventure films really kicked off in the ‘50s with a long series of Sinbad films, beginning with Sinbad the Sailor (1947) and Russian fantasy like The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1953) and Ilya Muromets (1956). Films like Knights of the Round Table (1953) and Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword (1962) began to look at other aspects of fantasy, namely British legends.
Perhaps the biggest cinematic influence on this sub-genre are the Italian peplum films (also known as sword and sandal movies; the plural is pepla if you see it written later on and are confused) from the ‘60s, though these focus more on biblical and mythological epics more than the later sword and sorcery films. Most of these revolve around a main hero - Maciste, Hercules, Ursus, Samson - played by a body builder, which continued in sword and sandal films. Many plots are taken from Greek mythology and pit overly muscled heroes with supernatural strength against monsters and evil kings. If you want to check out this genre, I recommend Mario Bava’s Hercules and the Haunted World (1961) or his Erik the Conqueror (1961), which is Viking/Barbarian-themed.
Finally, there were a number of animated fantasy films in the ‘70s that seemed to kick of the trend, like Rankin and Bass’s The Hobbit (1977) and Return of the King (1980), Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (1977) and Lord of the Rings (1978), and Terry Gilliam’s non-animated Jabberwocky (1977).
This month I’m going to cover a number of films that range in plot and country of origin, but have a similar tone.
Hawk the Slayer (1980) - An unbelievably bad, yet entertaining film that pits master swordsman Hawk against his insane brother (Jack Palance).
Dragonslayer (1981) - The best dragon film ever made, which isn't really that much of an accomplishment when you consider that there are hardly any dragon films.
Excalibur (1981) - I’m leaving out films focused on the Arthurian mythos (it is a different sub-genre) with the exception of this interesting, influential film about a troubled King Arthur.
Conan the Barbarian (1982) - This film did not necessarily define the genre (though its source material from writer Robert E. Howard did), but it is certainly one of the best and is responsible for the onslaught of low budget sword and sorcery films.
Ator the Fighting Eagle (1982) - Italian exploitation director Joe D’Amato churned out a series of these bad, laughable films to compete with Conan. They must be seen to be believed.
The Beastmaster (1982), greatest film of all time, and its sequels - Don Coscarelli should be given a lifetime achievement award.
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) - Mindless entertainment, marketed as the greatest duel ever fought between deathless courage and endless evil.
Sorceress (1982) - The amazing Jack Hill’s wild attempt at a sword and sorcery film has everything crammed in it: buxom twins, an evil wizard, a Viking and a barbarian.
Conquest (1983) - Godfather of Gore Lucio Fulci delivers one of the most violent entries in the series; as this is an Italian (and Spanish and Mexican) production, it is more heavenly influenced by pepla.
Deathstalker (1983) and its sequels - This Roger Corman-produced, Argentinian-U.S. film is the first of an increasingly ridiculous four part series.
Yor the Hunter from the Future (1983) - Directed by Italian horror master Antonio Margheriti, Yor is actually pieced together from an Italian sci-fi/prehistoric miniseries.
Ironmaster (1983) - Another Italian horror director, Umberto Lenzi, helmed this ridiculous film about a tribe who learns to create swords and the mayhem that ensues.
Krull (1983) - Second only to Beastmaster, Krull concerns a band of warriors who have to rescue their princess from a demonic alien.
Fire and Ice (1983) - This Frank Frazetta-Ralph Bakshi collaboration is the only animated film on this list, but with good reason.
Conan the Destroyer (1984) - Conan returns and must look after another princess. Though the sequel just isn’t the same without Conan's beloved Valeria, it's still a Conan film.
The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) - Another Argentinian-American co-production, but this one stars the late, great David Carradine.
The Devil’s Sword (1984) - This absurd Indonesian sword and sorcery film has everything from crocodile people to cannibal sex slaves, as well as some martial arts.
Red Sonja (1985) - A Conan spin off that is almost as entertaining as its predecessor and includes many of the same actors.
Ladyhawke (1985) - Why did I include this and leave out Willow? Because Rutger Hauer is a sword fighter by day and cursed to turn into a wolf at night. Enough said.
The Barbarian Queen (1985) - Though I couldn’t bear to watch Hector Olivera’s Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, this Roman-themed, Argentinian film from the same director is awful, but also unintentionally delightful, particularly if alcohol is part of the viewing experience.
Highlander (1986) and its sequels - Technically there is no sorcery, but the two main characters are inexplicably immortal and there is definitely a lot of sword fighting. And there's a Queen soundtrack.
Amazons (1986) - I just couldn’t leave this Argentinian film about a tribe of naughty Amazons off my list. Produced by both Hector Olivera and Roger Corman.
The Barbarians (1987) - Cannibal Holocaust’s Ruggero Deodato tries his hand at the sword and sorcery genre with a surprisingly great entry in the series. A pair of burly twins are sent to find some mystical weapons.
Gor (1987) - Oliver Reed makes a surprise appearance as a villain in another utterly ridiculous sword and sorcery film about a professor (Urbano Barberini from Opera and Demons) magically transported to a fantastical planet in peril.
Masters of the Universe (1987) - There’s no way I could forget about this cheese-filled, live-action He-Man masterpiece with Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella (the 1979 version of Dracula).
Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991) - I realize 1991 is not in the ‘80s, but it’s close enough that I had to include Fred Olen Ray’s insane attempt at a sword and sorcery film. It's no Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988).
Quest of the Delta Knights (1993) - Another exception. Delta Knights was made famous by its inclusion in a Mystery Science Theater episode and should only be watched while under the influence of massive quantities of alcohol (or your drug of choice).
Understandably, there are quite a few films I'm unable to include. Some of these just don’t comply with my (agreeably loose) genre standards. Some movies, like Hearts and Armour (1983) or Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood (1985), involve sword fighting and medieval settings, but lack supernatural fantasy elements. I’m also avoiding films that sort of fit in the genre, but don’t have major sword fighting elements like The Archer and the Sorceress (1981) and Sorceress (1987). I’m also trying to avoid most Arthurian films, like Sword of the Valiant (1984) even though Sean Connery is in it, as I feel they belong in their own genre. I’m also avoiding all sci-fi or post-apocalyptic films from the period that I would love to write about another time and have similar elements, like Flash Gordon (1980), She (1982), Patrick Swayze vehicle Steel Dawn (1987) and the slew of Italian post-apocalyptic Mad Max (1979) rip offs.
Sadly I am also leaving out many of the Italian fantasy films from this period, as they fit more closely in the peplum genre. A lot of them are also really bad and difficult to get ahold of for home viewing. If you’re interested in these, check out Franco Prosperi’s Throne of Fire (1983) and his The Invincible Barbarian (1982), as well as Sword of the Barbarians (1984). Some of the worst offenders are the Hercules films, starring Lou Ferrigno and helmed by director Luigi Cozzi, who also directed the Dario Argento documentary, Dario Argento: Master of Horror (1991). Ferrigno teamed up with more Italian horror directors: Bruno Mattei for Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1985) and Enzo Castellari for Sinbad of the Seven Seas (1989). Do yourself a favor and don’t watch them. It’s similar with the Argentinian film Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985). Just don’t do it to yourself.
The importance of ‘80s fantasy films on my young mind is incalculable (only my dad could come up with an accurate estimate of the number of times I’ve seen The Last Unicorn) and as much as I wanted to include some of these, there is simply no space or time. Animated films like The Dark Crystal (1982), The Flight of Dragons (1982), The Last Unicorn (1982), and The Black Cauldron (1985) all come highly recommended and many of these include both sorcery and sword fighting. I also left out a lot of the popular ‘80s fantasy movies like The NeverEnding Story (1984), Legend (1985), Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), and Willow (1988), though one could make a case that there is magic and sword play in nearly all of these.
Though the ‘80s saw the biggest recent boom of fantasy and sword and sorcery films, filmmakers have not stopped making them, though the quality and entertainment value have deteriorated dramatically. Some of these are worthy of attention, but generally in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. Rob Cohen’s DragonHeart (1996) was a worthwhile attempt to make a dragon film (why are there so few of these?), but is a bit silly. A knight and a dragon, who happens to be Sean Connery, team up to bring down a corrupt king. Steve Barron’s miniseries Merlin (1998) is not strictly sword and sorcery, but is yet another interesting look at the Arthurian mythos. This benefits from a talented cast, made up of Sam Neill, Rutger Hauer, Helena Bonham Carter, John Gielgud, and Miranda Richardson.
And let’s not forget about Kull The Conqueror (1997), which I think was an attempt to capitalize on Kevin Sorbo’s success in the fantasy shows Hercules and Xena. Krull it is not. There are a number of disappointing action-fantasy films from this period: The 13th Warrior (1999), based on a lousy Michael Crichton novel, the ill-advised Dungeons & Dragons (2000), and The Scorpion King (2002), an offshoot of Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy series.
And even though the 2000s were dominated by Peter Jackson’s untouchable Lord of the Ring series, lesser directors still tried. Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf is has a great cast and a script co-written by Neil Gaiman, but bizarrely stuck 3-D animation over top of the actors, which ruined what might have been a decent film. The infamous Uwe Boll even tried his hand at the genre with In the Name of the King (2007), a vehicle for Jason Statham.
In the last few years there have been a series of odd fantasy remakes and adaptations: Solomon Kane (2009), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), Clash of the Titans (2010) and its sequel, and a pointless remake of Conan the Barbarian (2011). The fantasy/sword and sorcery HBO series Games of Thrones has also become quite popular (which is probably why we had to suffer through Jason Momoa as Conan). There has also been a return to medieval sword fighting and witchcraft films with the odd Sean Bean vehicle Black Death (2010) and the ridiculous Nicholas Cage-fronted Season of the Witch (2011). Later this December there will hopefully be a return to greatness with the release of part one of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I have no idea why he has turned one small book into three films, but if he and Benedict Cumberbatch get Smaug right, I will have no complaints.
If you’d like to learn more, there are a lot of great resources out there. There are some useful blogs: Sword Cinema, The Cimmerion fantasy blog, which has a great article about the development of the sword and sorcery genre since the ‘80s, and Sword & Sorcery, which focuses mostly on fiction. As far as books go, John Clute and John Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy covers everything you can probably think of, while fantasy-writer Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy is a more specific and in-depth look at the genre from one of its most important writers.
And never forget that the best thing in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women.