My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
This week focuses on four films I watched in the Sword & Sorcery genre.
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
I’m curious to see some of the Sword & Sorcery films I missed over the years, hoping to find some gems of the genre, and it felt like no better place to start than Albert Pyun’s early 80s effort.
The film was a pleasant surprise, the kind of fantasy adventure I would have loved as a kid (too bad I wasn’t introduced to it then) and that I still enjoyed as an adult. The greatest revelation is leading man Lee Horsley. His athleticism and charisma begs the question of why this performer didn’t go on to be a big star yet Hollywood is littered with such could-have-beens. The Sword and the Sorcerer is a testament his ability to carry a picture on his shoulders and keep us engaged from beginning to end.
Script-wise, the film is hardly original, recycling every trick in the book (a few of them too many times, like how often our hero is magically rescued by long lost friends) but the characters are solid and the imagery is strong enough to make this a sturdy, B-movie entry in the Sword and Sorcery genre. It also spurs me on to watch more of Pyun’s early work.
Watched on Tubi.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
As a boy, I didn’t appreciate this dark fantasy tale as much as I do now. From the start, it has a moodier, more adult tone than its 80s Sword & Sorcery counterparts.
George R.R. Martin named this as one of the best fantasy films ever made. I agree with two of his points about the picture: 1. It features what might be the best-visualized dragon in a movie. 2. The antagonists are surprisingly complex, not superficially evil villains, whose motivations make logical sense.
I’d add that Peter MacNicol is an unusual protagonist. He’s not the kind of charming hero who is easy to root for, however he pulls off the naive apprentice and also the courageous youth. He’s the kind of casting choice I would have objected to if I was at the creative table and later admitted my mistake.
The best part of the movie involves MacNicol’s sorcerer in his first attempt to kill the dragon. It’s a thrilling sequence that had my eyes glued to the screen. Unfortunately, the film’s climax pales in comparison. I would have given the movie a higher rating if it wasn’t for the last fifteen minutes which descend into true Disney hokiness. The stop motion dragon effects hold up but the use of fake backgrounds behind the human characters had dated terribly. In its final moments, Dragonslayer sadly loses its edge and don’t even get me started about the silly last scene…
Watched on Amazon Prime
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
I haven’t seen this film for at least twenty years. It was a favorite of mine when I was young and those are the films I’m always hesitant to revisit, curious if they’ll hold up or ruin my fond memories. But as I turn my attention to the Sword & Sorcery genre, it was necessary to have another look at Willow and I’m glad that it mostly held up to my recollection.
From an adult perspective, the best parts of this fantasy are the Nelwyn characters, the baby’s expressions, Gavan O’Herlihy, the action, and of course Val Kilmer as Madmartigan. On this watch, I was so impressed by the little people who portrayed the Nelwyn characters from Warwick Davis to his wife to all of the townspeople. They truly bring the film to life from the very beginning and create a vibrant world which I wanted to spend more time in. I was also surprised at how important the baby’s reactions were to telling the story. The child, played by three babies, is such a key element to the suspense and charm of this film. In retrospect, I wish we’d filmed more cutaway expressions for the baby in Terror on the Prairie to enhance the drama.
For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to Gavan O’Herlihy since I was a kid. His Airk character was a favorite of mine and I liked the actor a lot in Conagher too. Something about his gruff exterior which hides a sincere side has stuck in my mind all these years. It has been a dream of mine to work with Gavan and I was sad to see he died in 2021… only in dreams we will make movies together.
And then there’s Val. Madmartigan makes this film. He’s the Han Solo of Willow, lighting up the screen with humor and reckless abandon. There’s now Willow without Val and I have no interest in seeing or even acknowledging an iteration that doesn’t including him.
Speaking of Solo, George Lucas has his fingerprints all over this film. Well-directed by Ron Howard, Willow still falls into all the Lucas tropes, for better or worse. On this watch, I did not care at all for the Brownie characters, wishing they’d been relegated to only five minutes of the movie. Also, there’s a huge plot hole that could have easily been filled with a couple lines of dialog: why is it necessary to performance a super long ritual to kill the child? A short explanation could have solved this issue but instead it comes off as a screenplay device to give the heroes more time and force more drama into the finale.
Anyway, it’s still a fun time and a solid entry in the Sword & Sorcery genre.
Watched on DVD
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Of the Sword & Sorcery films I’ve watched in the last few weeks, Hawk the Slayer is the most fun. Its creators don’t seem to take themselves seriously and their main ambition seems to be making an entertaining fantasy adventure rather than leaving their mark on the genre in a signifcant way.
Whereas some might find it distracting, I like the 80s music and overall aesthetic. It shows how to work at the genre in a simple way without extravagant locations or epic battle scenes. What amounts to a fantasy version of the men-on-a-mission genre serves its purpose even if it never astonishes.
Perhaps its greatest weakness is that other than Jack Palance as the villain and William Morgan Sheppard, the cast is rather flat. A couple supporting players have their moments but overall this doesn’t have standout characters/performances like other films in the genre (Willow and Krull come to mind). The actor who plays Hawk might be the flattest of them all. B-movies have to rely on their characters and this one, though fun, falls short in that category.
Watched on Tubi.