The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Sword and
sorcery is
about to cast
another spell

October 8, 1998
By Franklin Harris

Looking back, the early '80s were good years for sword-and-sorcery movies. Unfortunately, they also were almost the last years for sword-and-sorcery movies.

"Almost," I said.

There is hope. High fantasy may, like King Arthur, return when it is most needed.

But I was talking about the early '80s.

Those days saw Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian;" John Boorman's lush, Arthurian epic "Excalibur;" "Dragonslayer" and "Clash of the Titans" debut in rapid succession.

Unfortunately, it was only a last hurrah for a genre that special effects wizards like Ray Harryhausen had toiled to create.

Harryhausen was the master, something easy to forget in a day when computer effects have all but replaced his stop-motion techniques.

But Harryhausen didn't need computers to bring to life his giant saber-tooth tigers, bronze minotaurs and sword-wielding skeleton warriors. All he needed were steady hands and patience.

So fantasy flourished. Audiences sailed on Sinbad's voyages and faced down vicious hydras alongside Jason and his Argonauts.

Then, starting in 1981, fantasy became darker. It looked as if it had come of age.

The R-rated "Conan the Barbarian" showed that sword and sorcery need not be just children's fare. "Conan" was violent -- brutally violent. It was the sort of violent you should expect from a barbarian.

(Useless trivia: The script for "Conan the Barbarian" was co-written by Oliver Stone.)

"Excalibur" took the genre a step further; fantasy not only could be adult, it could be meaningful

But, suddenly, there was silence, broken only by the occasional death rattle.

"Conan the Destroyer" came out in 1984, but it was little more than a children's movie. A few other fantasy films followed, but most merit only footnotes.

What happened to fantasy?

Actually, it was still doing well if you looked hard enough.

The "Star Wars" films are sword-and-sorcery tales set in space instead of in ancient, mythical kingdoms. The Force stands in for magic. Jedi stand in for wizards. Jawas and Ewoks are trolls and dwarves. Rancors and wampas are dragons and frost giants.

But "Star Wars" was the exception; it was almost as much science fiction as it was fantasy.

And it was SF that killed fantasy.

The past two decades have produced numerous good science fiction films, not to mention scores of bad ones. "Gattica," "Strange Days," "The Truman Show," "Twelve Monkeys" and even "Star Trek: First Contact" are recent standouts.

It was as if with so much science fiction out there, old-fashioned fantasy
-- both good and bad -- had been squeezed out.

Only recently have sword-and-sorcery films reemerged.

But "Dragonheart" (1996) is no better than the drooling, idiot brother of 1981's "Dragonslayer." Never mind that the earlier film's puppet dragon is easily superior to the cartoonish, computer-generated dragon of the latter.

But there is, as I said, hope for lovers of sword and sorcery.

It begins with "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."

Yes, "Hercules" and "Xena" both see-saw between serious fantasy and camp, but they are both well-made, entertaining and -- surprise, surprise! -- wildly successful.

They have paved the way.

NBC entered the fray with its "Merlin" and "The Odyssey." While each could have been better, both were credible efforts.

And now comes word from Down Under: New Zealander Peter Jackson is helming a trilogy of films based upon J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." The plan is for the lavish movies to be filmed back-to-back-to-back, with the first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," due out in 2000.

When "Fellowship" hits theaters, it'll have been almost 20 years since the false start of the '80s. That's a long-enough wait for fans of sword and sorcery.

But at least it isn't as long as the wait for Arthur.

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