G. W. Thomas
THE KINGS OF THE NIGHT
TOP TEN SWORD & SORCERY FILMS OFALL TIME
A list of the great Sword & Sorcery films leaves me thinking: "What great films? There aren't any!" Starting with Conan the Barbarian in 1982, it just gets worse from there. I can think of bits and pieces here and there but that is all. The opening of Beastmaster III is good, but after that dull and silly. I'm trying to recall Kull the Destroyer with Kevin Sorbo. Not one scene. Why is that film so forgettable? And all those direct to video monstrosities -- let's not even go there.
Hollywood doesn't get what makes S&S great. The films look wonderful (Conan, Fire & ice) but the plot is always dull, stupid or hack. And I think I know why:
1) S&S was first off a short story genre. Conan stories hobbled together don't work. The film makers should look to longer works.
2) S&S needs a delicate touch. Like good SF films, "suspension of disbelief" must be watched carefully. The background must be convincing. The director shouldn't go for 'Thud and Blunder'. The whole thing comes off like an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. (I was so disappointed when I saw the first episode. Politically-correct pretty-boys in a Hollywood-esque version of Greece. Yuch!) Having real characters played by good actors helps too. (Look at Gladiator. It just needed a supernatural element and -- bam!)
3) Write a plot that is intelligent, exciting and visually astounding. With the new CGI effects of The Mummy II or The Lord of the Rings, a director can have an army that looks convincing. Until then, we have Gor films.
The one film I can call a "near miss" is The Thiteenth Warrior with Antonio Banderas. I have a soft spot for this film since the opening scene was shot twenty miles from where I live. The only big gripe I have with the film was the lack of a great monster. I wanted CGI Grendels or something. Still, over all, it proved that a S&S film could be more than crap. And can be successful at the Box Office. (Michael Crichton's name doesn't hurt. Perhaps the film received more credibility because it wasn't immediately associated with Conan.) The film has the right amount of convincing violence. The characters were people and not cardboard beauty queens. I'm not surprised that a historical film would be successful because the designers can lean on history for help.
So, #10: The Thirteenth Warrior.
The other 9, you'll have to wait.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson, the exquisite writer of fantasy and horror, has these comments to make about this article:
Hello G W:
For the top ten s&s films, worth considering is Ray Harryhausen's Jason & the Argonauts. But for something stunning in the genre, look for the DVD of The Saragaso Manuscript, swordplay & vampirism in the Napoleonic age, absolutely gorgeously filmed & acted.
Other possibilities, the first of the three Daimajin films. All three films are on DVD. They mix the "monster stomps Toyko" genre with dead-serious samurai genre, & get Stone God comes to life & fights samurai films. The first one is brilliant; the second is aimed at children, still kind of nice; the third one regains some of the first one's brilliance. In the first one Daimajin is the earth; in the second he is Storm; in the third he is Water.
I agree The Mummy film starring The Rock is actually a very fine sword & sorcery film. One difficult thing with films like these is for the sons-of-hercules type central figures often look just dorky as all hell, like faggoty body builders all dressed up to go buggering in the park on Halloween. The actors in this one really looked like heroic figures, and had the voices and physical movements to back up the look.
For Arthurian sword & sorcery films, John Boarman's version [Excalibur] is probably the best. He attempts to film the entire story from conception of Arthur to the end of his reign, so some of it gets short changed. But it always looks right; the scenes of magic & mayhem are always convincing. The hanging tree for the grail knights was truly horrifying.
And the first two installments of The Lord of the Rings have already raised the level of heroic fantasy imagery to a vastly higher level than cinema usually delivers. One can hope its success inspires a few more films that look like more than cheap sets emulating bad comic books, Barbi style "amazons," and grunting muscle builders who can't act.