When Sword & Sorcery Cast a Spell on the 1980s

It was a time of dungeons, dragons, and Dar (The Beastmaster)!

Child battling an evil sorcerer

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Between the time of the rise of disco and when the oceans drank the polar ice caps, there was an age undreamed of . . . and the name of this age was . . . The Eighties. And unto this age was born a seemingly sudden explosion of mystic tales about mighty warriors. For years, those stories shook the theaters with the strength of their steel before they diminished into perennial cable reruns and cult fandom. Now, forty years hence, cast your gaze back upon a time of stop-motion dragons and barbarian queens. Let me remind you of the days of HIGH ADVENTURE . . .

The Sword & Sorcery is a subgenre with an adventure-oriented style that contains elements of fantasy, like magic (hence the “sorcery” part). The name arose from correspondence between American writer Fritz Leiber and British writer Michael Moorcock in the 1960s as they debated what to call the kinds of tales that Robert E. Howard wrote (and which frequently featured his most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian). Leiber landed on “Sword and Sorcery” as a way to differentiate it from historical fantasy and “high fantasy” (which often dealt with world-shaking threats versus the more personal or sword-for-hire quests of “sword and sorcery”). It’s also a nod to the “sword and sandals” nickname that some myth and fantasy films had acquired in the 1950s and 1960s, generally movies featuring the likes of Steve Reeves or Reg Park as Hercules.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms original trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

Leading up to the 1980s, the pillars of fantasy in film generally came in three varieties: Disney movies, inexpensive imports, and films with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. The Disney segment speaks for itself, as the studio’s reliance on fairy tales for its animated output is well-documented by over 70 years of films. A lot of the “sword and sandals” films came by way of Italy (and were frequently the victims of bad dubbing). As for Ray Harryhausen, he was an authentic film effects genius and a pioneer in stop-motion photography; his work was the engine that made films like Jason and the Argonauts, the Sinbad “trilogy,” and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms work.

While fantasy on film was hit or miss, it was faring much better in the bookstores. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had become more popular than ever by the 1970s. Moorcock’s own Elric saga was influencing a new generation, and others were rediscovering Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and more. In 1977, Terry Brooks released The Sword of Shannara, the first book in that massively popular series. That same year, two other keystone events occurred that would radically expand the fantasy boom: the fabled Dungeons & Dragons split, and the arrival of Star Wars.


Black Angel (Uploaded to YouTube by Black Angel film)

Dungeons & Dragons had debuted in 1974, and was gaining popularity, but the mad geniuses at its publisher, TSR, made a radical change in 1977. They split the system into two distinct variations: the Basic Set, which was packaged for toy stores (and younger players), and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system, which was for experienced players and hobbyists. That kicked off a boom in popularity for the game among new players, and also, by association, expanded the fantasy audience. The success of Star Wars speaks for itself; its earthshaking box office told studios that there was most definitely a huge audience for science fiction and fantasy.

The post-Star Wars science fiction agenda in Hollywood is its own lengthy tale, but its immediate effects resulted in the creation of Battlestar Galactica and the return of Star Trek. Things took a little longer to move on the fantasy side; the most significant entries in the 1970s were Harryhausen’s last two Sinbad films and animated adaptations of The Hobbit (by Rankin/Bass) and The Lord of the Rings (or, roughly the first half, by Ralph Bakshi). But the increased quality of visual effects and the apparent audience interest in different stories fueled a new surge in S&S-derived cinema.


Hawk the Slayer trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by HD Retro Trailers)

While the real boom wouldn’t begin until 1981, 1980 had two interesting precursors. Black Angel was a medieval fantasy short film directed by Roger Christian; George Lucas placed it before The Empire Strikes Back in Europe and Australia, but it was essentially only a rumor in the States. Thought lost, the negative was rediscovered in 2011 and the film placed on streaming channels in 2014. The other was British film Hawk the Slayer, which came about when Terry Marcel and Harry Roberston discovered a mutual interest in the genre; the pair co-wrote the story while Roberston produced and Marcel directed. They envisioned their story as an S&S take on Sergio Leone films, and cast American leads, with John Terry playing the title hero and Jack Palance playing villain Voltan. Known for its occasionally goofy effects (a magic attack in one scene is represented by glowing vending machine-style bouncy balls) and Roberston’s insane score (a mix of Enrico Morricone and disco), the film maintains an ardent cult following.


Excalibur trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

In 1981, major studios began to weigh in with big releases. In April Warner Brothers offered John Boorman’s Excalibur, based primarily on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. While it obviously has swords (it’s named Excalibur, for example) and sorcery (Nicol Williamson’s excellent Merlin), Boorman had bigger aspirations for his film that a mere action feature, though it was action-packed. The score by Trevor Jones includes selections by Orff and Wagner, and the cast is a mix of Shakespearean heavy-hitters and new faces that include Williamson, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Ciarán Hinds, and Patrick Stewart. Highly praised for its lush visuals, the film performed well. Though it doesn’t fit in the fantasy genre so much as mythology, it served as a kind of prestige opening act for the decade to follow.

MGM/UA’s Clash of the Titans opened 40 years ago this month. Directed by Desmond Davis, the film features the last work done by Ray Harryhausen. Though the movie had the misfortune of opening on the same day as Raiders of the Lost Ark, it did quite well; it earned a lot of positive reviews (including two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert) and finished at #11 for the year-end box office. Held up in comparison to the films of Lucas and Spielberg at the time, Clash’s effects came off as charmingly old-fashioned.

Not so for Dragonslayer. Released on June 26, the co-production by Disney and Paramount had cutting-edge, Oscar-nominated effects and one of the best dragons ever put on film, courtesy of Phil Tippett and Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. In the face of insanely stiff box office competition, the movie didn’t do as well financially, but it remains highly regarded.

Throughout the rest of the decade there were (depending how you count) at least 37 major releases in the genre, making for one hitting screens every few months through 1989. Compared with the general scarcity of westerns at the time and its roughly equal footing with war films, Sword & Sorcery was a major subgenre of the 1980s. A number of the films that didn’t get wider release would also find second life in the newly vibrant after-market of home video and proliferating avenues of basic and pay cable. Some of the highlight films include:


Conan the Barbarian trailer (Uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Conan the Barbarian (April, 1982): Since a Robert E. Howard conversation got the genre its name, it’s only appropriate that his biggest character got a huge movie. Directed by John Milius with a script by Oliver Stone, the movie was a solid hit and set Arnold Schwarzenegger on the road to being one of the decade’s biggest stars. The actor returned to the role two years later in Conan the Destroyer. The movies have a strong following, and the first movie made many additional millions of dollars in the home video market.

The Beastmaster (1982): The poster-child for “second life on video,” The Beastmaster barely made its budget back on the big screen. But the action-packed movie about a hero that can talk to animals (including his constant companions: a black tiger, an eagle, and two wily ferrets) became the very definition of a cult classic. It’s omnipresence on HBO led comedians at the time to refer to the network as “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!,” while cable network TBS ran commercial promos joking about how many times they would run the movie in a month. The name remained popular enough for so long that original star Marc Singer returned for two 1990s sequels, and a syndicated TV series was launched in 1999 (with Singer guest-starring as a different character).

The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982): Made for only $4 million, The Sword and the Sorcerer became a comparatively big hit by making ten times its budget. The only thing everyone remembers is the hero’s crazy three-bladed sword (two of the blades could be shot off like, well, launching swords). Though heavy action scenes abound and the movie earns its R-rating, there’s a general sense that most of the cast is having a good time amidst the carnage.

Krull (1983): With another super-recognizable weapon, the spinning boomerang-like glaive, Krull leaned in on a combination of S&S and science fiction tropes by clearly identifying Krull as another world and directly acknowledging that the antagonists (the giant Beast and his Slayers) are alien invaders. Nevertheless, fantasy fixtures abound, including wizards, a Cyclops, magic horses, and a giant spider. While the movie failed at the box office (it had Return of the Jedi to contend with), it’s been praised for its energy and score (which was one of the first from the late Oscar and Grammy-winner James Horner).

The NeverEnding Story (1984)/The Princess Bride (1987): While these are certainly solid works of fantasy and you’ll occasionally see them on S&S lists, this is a mild refutation of that. Both films originate squarely in the “real modern world,” both use books and fairy tale tropes to enter the fantasy situation, and only one (Story) sees the “real world” character get directly involved in the narrative. That doesn’t change the fact that these are beloved movies with a life well beyond their debuts, with Story playing a crucial role in Stranger Things Season 3 and The Princess Bride featuring a quarantine remake in 2020.


Ladyhawke trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

Ladyhawke (1985): With an extremely strong cast (Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Broderick), Ladyhawke is one of the most overtly romantic 1980s entries. Hauer and Pfeiffer play cursed lovers; during the day, she’s stuck in the form of a hawk while he’s human, and she’s human at night and he’s a wolf, preventing them from ever being together. It’s an unusual fantasy with a solid comedic turn by Broderick.

Legend (1985): Just ahead of Top Gun, Tom Cruise made Legend with director Ridley Scott. Today, the film is most remembered for Tim Curry’s simply outstanding turn as Darkness (uh, the Devil). With make-up effects by Rob Bottin (The Howling, The Thing), Curry’s demonic presence is one for the ages. The film wasn’t a hit, but it’s a cult favorite. It’s hard, however, to see the theatrical version, as Scott has released directors cuts, there are three alternate endings, and even two versions of the score (one by Jerry Goldsmith, and one by electronic group Tangerine Dream). 2011’s “Ultimate Edition” Blu-ray purports to contain the director’s cut, the theatrical version, and both soundtracks.

Willow (1988): Ron Howard directed George Lucas’s story (with a script by Bob Dolman) to mixed reactions. You can’t argue that it wasn’t a hit (it grossed more than $100 million over its budget), but it was deemed something of a failure for not hitting Star Wars/Raiders levels of success. Nevertheless, it remains a charming action-adventure that’s well-suited for (most) kids. Warwick Davis stands out in the title role, and Val Kilmer appears to be having a tremendous time as loutish swordsman turned hero Madmartigan.

While Sword & Sorcery films have never gone away, they certainly went through a de-emphasis over time. Major successes have been few and far between at the box office (the High Fantasy of Peter Jackson’s six Tolkien adaptations notwithstanding), while several projects from similar neighborhoods (Game of Thrones, The Witcher, Shadow and Bone) have had more success on premium cable or streaming. However, one of the more eagerly awaited films of 2021 is A24’s production, The Green Knight; the David Lowery film is a reimagined take on a story from the King Arthur cycle, and stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain. If the movie breaks big, there’s a strong chance that it could initiate a new round of adventure fantasy in theaters. But that, my friends, is another story . . .

Featured image: Tithi Luadthong / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. In 1981 there was a made for TV movie, that was actually a pilot for a series that never got off the ground, that was called The Archer: Fugitive Of The Empire. Totally S&S. I remember it well, and I also remember waiting for more episodes that never came.

  2. You missed “Red Sonja”! Released in ‘85, it was probably my all time favorite of the era. So corny! So over-the-top! Co-starring Arnold Schwarzenegger with Brigitte Nielsen it was such great camp fun. I’ll never forget “I will never have a man until he can best me in single combat!” My friends and I wore out our VHS copy of it.
    As for Mr. Richie, what “positive message” was in “Gone With the Wind”? I saw it, and correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the core plot about a woman who spends her entire life trying to convince her BFF’s husband to commit adultery and run away with her? At least most of the movies in this list have a core message that good will always conquer evil and that life is always better with good friends and companions at your side. Much nicer than some of the “conflicted anti-heroes” of today. And the mess of GWtW.

  3. Are you kidding me? The list of films are not about devil worship. You pick a horrible film for comparison and claim it sends a positive message. Gone With the Wind is mired in racism and glorifies the prejudices of a past that should not be praised.

  4. Why are you supporting these movies to people, especially children? In my day, we knew that they encouraged wrongdoing and devil worship, just like that evil game Dungeons and Dragons! Clearly whoever wrote this has never seen quality films like Gone With the Wind. That was a film with a positive message! The Post I grew up with would never have supported these unamerican ideas and immoral films.

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