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What Is Best In Life: Why Sword And Sorcery Films Deserve Your Respect
Mat Colegate , March 17th, 2022 09:16

Long derided as fantasy's young, dumb, full of cum idiot brother, at its best, this supercharged, supernatural cinema is sublime

Hawk The Slayer

“If you steer clear of quality, you’re alright.”
Pete Townshend

It is called The Glory, and it exists outside of your outrage and your judgment. Outside of nominations and budgets and time. Outside the "language of cinema". It’s there when Ator fights his chrome-skulled twin Trogar under the heat of a Spartan sun. When the evil Voltan, bathed in crimson light, implores the sorcerer to heal his shattered visage. When the Deathstalker sits brooding in the mead hall of Munkar’s fortress. You cannot saddle it or tame it. Or drain its elements into your mise-en-scene. It thrives outside of attention to detail, outside of irony, outside of respectability and artful construction. It is brutal and hilarious and if it is unintentional, then a mountain is an accident.

It is a strong truth that most films would be improved with the addition of a scene in which warriors on horseback attack a village. If, however, you happen to think that a film already replete with a scene of warriors on horseback attacking a village would be improved with the addition of another scene of warriors on horseback attacking a village, then your genre, even if you don’t know it yet, is sword and sorcery. And you are a loser.

For those cosmopolitan enough not to know, and according to popular perception, sword and sorcery is fantasy’s horny idiot brother. It consists of all the basest elements of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy – the fighting, the questing, the wondering what was up Lady Galadriel’s skirt – boiled down into a brackish grog suitable only for libidinally enraged teenagers and people who breathe exclusively out of their mouths. As most would have it – on those rare occasions when "most" give a shit – sword and sorcery is an occasionally entertaining but intellectually moribund branch of medieval fantasy. If, as the genre historian Mick Garris has observed, horror is a "gutter genre"’ then sword and sorcery is thrashing around at sewer level, drinking its own refuse for the entertainment of mice. Put simply, the idea of "elevated" sword and sorcery is ridiculous.

But this is bullshit.

Even at its very, very worst (and it can get very, very bad), sword and sorcery has enough inherent high weirdness, enough lightning-struck, do-it-right-now-don’t-think energy to push it to visionary heights. Simple enough in construction to bend to a lunatic’s will, bold enough to always be recognisable, sword and sorcery’s limited set of influences and blinkered worldview provide a ready-primed canvas for all kinds of strange textures and eruptions of irregularity.

But what is sword and sorcery? And how does it differ from traditional fantasy? The answer is simple: tits.

But before we get to those, a working definition. It was the American author Fritz Leiber who, in 1961, coined the term "sword and sorcery" in order to describe the kind of stories written in the 1920s by Robert E Howard, creator of Conan The Barbarian, whom I imagine even the least fantasy-inclined among you have some inkling of. Howard’s stories still provide the template for the genre: fast paced, full of violent action and set against a quasi-historical or mythological background. However, unlike in Tolkien’s trilogy, or Game Of Thrones, to use a more recent example, the events are on a comparatively small scale and the threats less geopolitical. A classic Conan story will consist of our muscular hero hearing about a treasure, looking for the treasure, killing everything that stops him from getting to the treasure, and then getting the treasure. If Sauron had ever presented a problem for Conan, the barbarian would have head-butted him to death, stolen the one ring and then used it to pay a prostitute.

Mat Colegate

However, what we think of when we think of sword and sorcery is tits. Man-tits, bulging, browned under the heat of a desert sun. Woman-tits, heaving, flecked with perspiration, barely covered by uncomfortable-looking chainmail bikini tops. Sword and sorcery is a haven for the muscular and stab-happy. It’s how the genre has been presented since its inception, due mainly to the paintings of Frank Frazetta, who provided the covers of the first Conan paperbacks. With its savage sensuality and focus on heroic bloodshed, Frazetta’s work defined the aesthetics of sword and sorcery from the off. For all that Howard set the parameters of the genre, it was Frazetta who provided the set dressing, as well as a weird, undulating sexuality that the frigid Howard could never have imagined. And it was this kind of racy imagery, painted in hyperrealistic detail by Frazetta acolytes such as Chris Achilleos and Boris Vallejo, that loomed down at me from the shelves of my local video shop at a time when I was barely able to comprehend it. It hid from view videotapes that my mum would never – ever – let me watch.

I am, to this day, extremely jealous of people who grew up in the age before streaming and whose parents let them rent any video they wanted – not to even mention those Fauntleroys whose folks let them have a TV in their bedrooms. Films were regulated contraband around my house growing up. PG ratings were fine, but anything beyond that? No way, little man. There was no flexibility to this rule. When I think back, I can still feel the heartbreak and disappointment of the 1989 Batman being released as the UK’s first ever 12-certificate film. I was just nine years old, and no gore auteur or peddler of smut has ever rued the decisions of the BBFC more than my parents did during the long, dreadful summer of 89.

So you can imagine the reaction when, eyes brimming with pathetic hope, I would hold up the awesome painted covers of sword and sorcery films like Deathstalker, or The Throne Of Fire, or Ator: The Fighting Eagle for my mum to inspect. No way. No dice. Not on your nelly. Or the surely ironic “When you’re old enough.” (“There’s no way he’s going to want to watch that when he’s 18,” she chuckles to herself. Well the joke’s on you, Mum, I’ve seen Deathstalker loads of times. And I’m being paid to write about it at the age of 42. So I win.)

Deathstalker

So like any kid confronted with something they’re not allowed, I used my imagination. And I picked a fine time for it. Those forbidden videos were just one aspect of a sword and sorcery boom that swept through the 1980s like an army of nerdy wraiths, and it felt like everywhere you looked, poorly insulated adventurers were hacking away at badly drawn skeletons. The formidable imaginative terrain opened up by the release of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game (RPG for short) in 1974 had been populated by a whole generation of fans and game designers, which had eventually led to the birth of the behemoth Games Workshop, a company that has now effectively blocked out the sun when it comes to having a monopoly on fantasy wargaming, but which at the time was a pleasingly subversive, home-brewed exercise, mostly visible to kids in the form of White Dwarf magazine, whose photos of beautifully painted lead miniatures would be pored over in the playground by young adventurers too financially immobile to be able to afford any of the models themselves.

Sadly – tragically – I didn’t have enough friends interested in RPGs to ever be able to do more than dip a toe in that world. My much cooler – "cool" being a relative term in this instance –– older cousins would regale me and my rapt younger brother with tales of hard-fought campaigns and adventures, but more relevant and accessible to us were the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which could be played solo with no need for miniatures or game aides (unless you were one of those weirdos who bothered rolling dice for the combat, in which case I imagine you grew up to be a "military tactician" who lives in a basement.) The titles of those books still sound like litany to me now: The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, Scorpion Swamp, Trial Of Champions, Deathtrap Dungeon, The Forest Of Doom, Creature Of Havoc – pulp poetry, perfectly engineered to appeal to eight-year-olds who didn’t like football or going outside.

In terms of fiction, there was always Lord Of The Rings, of course. But even back then I was aware that Tolkien’s world was oddly prim, and I suspected that my favourite aspects of the story – the raid on the Prancing Pony, the death of flawed, heroic Boromir, the majestic sweep of the battles – were perhaps not what the author thought were most important. The novels of Michael Moorcock were far more full-blooded, and his tales of the albino prince Elric of Melniboné chimed nicely with my nascent adolescent predilection toward pretentious solemnity, while his The History Of The Runestaff books, featuring Prince Dorian Hawkmoon – which had been helpfully left lying on a low shelf by my dad – updated the fantasy adventure template with a decadent, European flair and florid sexuality that would have made Professor Tolkien swallow his big pipe.

A less obvious, if impossible to overstate, factor that hardened my love of the genre was living on the edge of a wilderness. Tavistock, the market town where I grew up, exists right on the edge of Dartmoor, one of the most eerie, godforsaken places in the country. A film set consisting of blasted heaths, haunted woods, caves of immeasurable age and rock formations that might have been erected by some ancient deity in aeons past, Dartmoor held a hypnotic power over me when I was young. It had a feeling of desolate mystery and unexpected danger that chimed with all the fiction I was absorbing, and which was heightened by school visits from members of the Dartmoor Rescue team, who would inform us in terms that could not be misinterpreted that wandering onto the moor and getting lost would be a cold, lonely and horrible way to die. Which was extremely fucking cool.

A young Mat Colegate

So all I had to do was wait out the years and eventually I’d be able to enter our local video shop (the snicker-inspiringly named "BJ Videos") and, in a low manly voice, request the copy of Gunan: King Of The Barbarians that was mine by right. However time – winged and accursed – had other plans and cast before me obstacles in the form of girls, who suddenly became interesting even if they weren’t carrying axes, and who seemed completely unimpressed by the fascinating history of my chosen genre. Times have changed perhaps, but back then to be seen reading a book with a Frazetta-style painting of a half-naked barbarian prince on the front flap was not a way to pick up the chicks. You might as well have painted yourself in shit for all the luck you were going to have getting a snog.

(As an aside, it’s been generally acknowledged that one of the reasons Game Of Thrones was successful enough to get its own TV series was that the books were done up to look like bog-standard historical fiction. Thus no one had to sit on the tube reading a book with a crap centaur painted on the jacket.)

So it was many years, and an extremely hungover exposure to Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster one Sunday afternoon at my brother’s grotty flat in Deptford, south London, before I came back to where those grounds had been laid, all those years before, and rediscovered an essential truth: sword and sorcery fucking rocks.

Weirdly.

Yes, sword and sorcery is extremely naff. It’s a nostril-stinging cocktail of adolescent power fantasy, exploitative imagery, tasteless violence and even more tasteless sex. It smells of old socks and mouldy bedrooms. It is irredeemable. But if you buy in, if you turn off the conscious part of the self that craves sense and order and taste and "quality", and pay closer attention to that segment of the brain that deals in texture, play, atmosphere and raw, unfocused energy, you’ll start to notice the vein of near-accidental visionary greatness that runs through it. You will start to see The Glory. And nowhere is this more visible than in the avalanche of films that followed in the wake of – and in rare cases preceded – John Milius and Oliver Stone’s Conan The Barbarian in 1982.

Let me apologise now if, during the course of what follows, I don’t mention one of your favourites. My criteria for what constitutes sword and sorcery are personal and strict. Hence no Krull (too science fiction-y), no Excalibur (too mythological-y) and no Willow (too shitty). However, no omission can be less justifiable than that of Conan The Barbarian, which surely defined the sword and sorcery movie and inspired all the films that came in its wake?

Well, yes and no. While Stone and Milius’s stoic portrayal of the barbarian was the reason a lot of the films I’m talking about got hastily green-lit, and Schwarzenegger’s performance is definitive enough that he’s still the textbook image of the character to this day, the films that followed had a crunchy low-budget energy that the 1982 Howard adaptation did not. Even at the time, the critic Alan Jones referred to Conan’s “ponderous, heavy-handed, neo-Germanic approach”. Conan is a terrific film, beautifully shot, with a transportive mythic quality, but it doesn’t have the demented, dangerous feel that, to my mind at least, is the hallmark of great sword and sorcery.

These are the names: The Beastmaster, Iron Warrior, The Sword And The Sorcerer, Throne Of Fire, Deathstalker, Thor The Conqueror, Hundra, Conquest, Barbarian Queen, Fire And Ice, Ator: The Fighting Eagle, Hawk The Slayer.

What does a sword and sorcery film need to sit at the table with this pantheon of the dirty greats? A scattering of the following: shirtless men fighting, people jumping off horses onto other people, a villain with a vowel-mangling name, fog, amateurish dubbing, a cavalier approach to animal cruelty, a bunch of blokes who look like the Tygers Of Pan Tang raiding a village, gore, solarisation effects, actors in monster costumes going "rrrgh", pointlessly complicated medieval weaponry, a wicked sorcerer and some poorly defined magical objects. As with all good low-budget exploitation, there should be a sense of seedy desperation running through the film like the "Blackpool" in a stick of rock. A mixture of amateurish ebullience, casual cruelty and weary cynicism that, when all the elements are in place, culminates in scenes of surreal beauty and rude spectacle. Those are the moments when, putting aside our waking lives, we can see The Glory and feel the heat of madness on our brows. The moments where we can touch the pulp sublime.

1980’s Hawk The Slayer has this grotty majesty in abundance, despite it being a relative outlier in terms of its release – beating Conan to the cinemas by a year – and its origins: it is British, and features a cast of solidly recognisable UK character actors. Unusually for the genre it also bore a family-friendly PG rating. But any initial disappointment is stomped like an overripe satsuma upon witnessing Jack Palance’s turn as the evil Voltan, a performance so full of weight and velocity that it could possibly be linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding Palance’s performance choices can be difficult – his line deliveries often achieve an almost koan-like inscrutability – but in Hawk The Slayer he brings the ruckus to a mesmerising degree, seemingly shocking the film’s star, John Terry – sadly not the footballer – into a kind of mute trance.

There’s an earthiness to the classic sword and sorcery villain that I love. Not for these warlocks and warlords the lurking on the sidelines of Tolkien’s evil shit-stirrers. No, dudes like Voltan or Deathstalker’s hissingly camp John Peel -lookalike Munkar love to get their hands dirty with the mucky stuff of villainy. It's all part and parcel of the nasty, brutish worlds of the films themselves. Sword and sorcery bad guys aren’t neo-deities, or faceless representations of pure evil, they’re just assholes. Assholes in possession of magical amulets, and with an armour-clad gang of goons who look like the backstage area of Donington Monsters of Rock circa 1984, for sure, but assholes all the same. Palance’s Voltan is a hilariously petty presence, bullying dwarves, shooting his brother’s wife with a crossbow and, at one point, demonstrating his displeasure by attacking a bread roll with a broadsword. He’s a cross between the worst school bully in the playground and a PCP-maddened baboon, and his performance yanks Hawk The Slayer into greatness.

While some of the genre’s villains take a nominally classier approach – in a touch of glorious stupidity, one of the bad guys in The Sword And The Sorcerer is named "Cromwell of Aragon" – most are content to stew in the mire along with their respective film’s budgets. The success of these movies – "success" as it concerns us here at any rate – hinges upon their combination of crude production flourishes and weird, miasmic energy. Hawk The Slayer’s paucity of scenery might be due to Jack Palance eating it all, but its bare means and overuse of cheap fog effects give it an atmosphere akin to that of a strange school play being performed in the middle of a forest to an absent audience, possibly for therapeutic reasons.

Mat Colegate in the pub with his Sword And Sorcery, with thanks to the Red Lion, Bristol

This weird theatricality carried through to several other examples of the genre, Lucio Fulci’s 1983 outsider fantasy epic Conquest being one of the most transportively fascinating. Fulci was one of a handful of Italian genre legends to bring his considerable talents to sword and sorcery, all of whom managed to do to this low form of filmmaking what Italian exploitation directors do to any genre they set their mind to: up the violence and nudity, remove any last coherent strands of plot, and turn the films into bizarre battlegrounds for their particular neuroses. The results were mixed – Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato’s The Barbarians never quite comes together, despite some nice artistic touches – but with Conquest, Fulci brings the full force of his demented vision to bear, and the result edges closer to avant-garde theatre than anything Tolkien or Howard could have dreamed up, feeling at points like a production of Jane Arden’s punishing The Other Side Of The Underneath recast by a nerdy child with a severe fever.

Dreamlike, laden with surreal imagery, and making about as much sense playing forward as it would with the reels in reverse order, Conquest is one of Fulci’s masterpieces, and a worthy companion to his Gates Of Hell trilogy – The Beyond, City Of The Living Dead and The House By The Cemetery – in terms of nightmarish atmosphere. Fulci removes all the humanity from his quasi-iron age setting. Characters are expendable, merely ciphers against a landscape of ever-shifting barbarism and cruelty, at the mercy of sinister forces they can’t understand. In this respect, Conquest reflects its chosen genre’s background in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, where Howard’s Conan tales would be featured alongside the cosmic horror stories of HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

It’s worth pointing out here that one of the elements that gives sword and sorcery its richness is its close relationship to horror, both of the cosmic and more gruesomely expressive varieties. Despite its Saturday teatime adventure vibe, The Sword And The Sorcerer features heads being torn in half, hearts being ripped from bodies and Simon MacCorkindale from Manimal being brutally whipped. Even Don Coscarelli’s PG-rated The Beastmaster features some deeply weird scenes starring a clan of flesh-melting, bat-winged monstrosities, whose leathery folds and bizarrely soulful eyes were undoubtedly a prime cause of nerd nightmares during the Reagan era.

Sword and sorcery’s avant-pulp credentials are further strengthened by Alfonso Brescia’s underseen 1987 epic Iron Warrior, a loose sequel in the Ator series, which looks like a medieval Duran Duran video directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Despite a plot which basically boils down to “Oh no, some guys!” and an excessive use of slow motion that suggests the initial cut was under running by about half an hour, Iron Warrior features an instantly iconic chrome-skulled villain, some groovy special effects and a sun-bleached Mediterranean aesthetic that gives a searing glow to everything it touches, lending the film an iconic, tarot-like solidity, while still stubbornly refusing to make much in the way of dramatic sense.

Ator: The Fighting Eagle

This haphazard approach to storytelling runs through sword and sorcery, reflecting its origins in the amateur fiction magazines of the 20s as well as the make-it-up-as-you-go-along structure of RPGs. There’s an essential brokenness in the genre that isn’t there in science fiction, say, or westerns, or horror, which makes it easy to roll with stories that dodge respectability and go straight for the jugular with their crudely effective synthesis of over-the-top violence, pseudo-mystical nonsense and tacky excess.

But this is not so-bad-it’s-good ironic flexing, nor is it about "transcending genre" – that ghastly, patronising phrase. You can look at this stuff and giggle. You can chuckle at the sets that won’t sit straight, and the costumes that don’t fit, and the performers performing dialogue that a child wouldn’t write, and the sheer, stinking awfulness of it all. You can give it the thumbs down, it doesn’t matter. Because at any moment, when all the gross and broken elements are held in front of the sun, The Glory will be the shadow that is cast.

The triumph of these films is in their reckless majesty. Their gaudy clashes of texture. The way they smash the highbrow and the lowbrow together to make stories that only make sense when viewed through the lens of a dream. A pedal-to-the-metal accidental avant garde that has more in common with cheaply recorded garage punk, or the sun-basted crunch of Zamrock than with other, more picked-over cinematic genres. Caught somewhere between the theatre of cruelty and "let’s do the show right here", sword and sorcery will never gain the respect afforded its more elevated peers, but it has something that shines much, much brighter, that beautiful balance between caring too much and not caring at all. A beautiful, dangerous fireworks display, a sword in the air in a lightning storm, divine fucking stupidity. I give you The Glory.