By John Fountain
Tales of magic, mystery and heroes have always been with us: from Greek mythology to Tolkien, Robert E Howard and George RR Martin, we seem to be drawn to high adventure. This may be due to the pure escapism offered, or there may be deeper reasons for the enduring popularity of the genre.
My fascination with the genre began as a child, when my parents would take me to the cinema to see the latest Sinbad movie, and I would sit enthralled at the stop-motion genius of Ray Harryhausen on the big screen. Tales of Greek myth, such as Jason and The Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) would see heroes battling skeletal warriors, giant scorpions, and of course… the Kraken.
Those were the 70s, but sword and sorcery cinema had existed prior to this initial golden age. Early cinema had precedents even as far back as the silent era with the popular Maciste series of more than twenty films. However, these swords and sandals, or “peplum” genre pictures would really see their heyday in the 1950s and 60s, following Hercules (1957) with Steve Reeves as the titular character.
These ran alongside big budget, American-made Biblical epics such as The Robe (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959), and rather than dealing with Judeo-Christian mythology, they drank from the rich well-spring of Grecian myths and legends. When the American studios turned their eyes to that same source, the golden age of sword and sorcery began, albeit with a certain Olympian flavour. However, Greek Myth was not the only source that could be tapped for tales of adventure and magic: also during this period were the Sinbad stories, which harked back to Middle-Eastern folk-tales found in the Arabian Nights. The first of the classic Sinbad stories, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), would see the introduction of sorcery (as opposed to Divine Power) into the mix, with the heroic Captain fighting an evil wizard, as well as stop-motion monsters. There were two later Sinbad films, each showcasing Ray Harryhausen’s special effects genius, which would influence creature fans and special effects technicians for decades to come.
However, these movies had yet to be given a name, other than “fantasy adventure”, and it would be 1961 before the phrase “sword and sorcery” entered the lexicon, courtesy of fantasy author Fritz Leiber. Still, the vast amount of high fantasy stories that existed in literature had yet to be tapped, with film-makers still relying on Greek, Biblical and Arabian myths for their material. That was soon to change, however, in 1982 when a certain muscle-bound barbarian, given life in the late 1920s and early 30s by tragic author Robert E Howard, stomped onto the big screen. His name, as if it wasn’t obvious, was Conan, and was portrayed by a then 35 year old former body-builder called Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Conan The Barbarian(1982) was so popular it kick-started a wave of “barbarian” movies from the low-budget Italian exploitation circuit such as The Barbarians (1987), as well as more accomplished copies such as The Beastmaster (1982).
The 1980s became the decade of sword and sorcery as we would think of it: films set in second-worlds, with magic and monsters as well depicted as budget would allow. We saw American fantasy such as The Sword And The Sorcerer (1982) alongside American-Argentine co-production Deathstalker (1983) and British effort Hawk The Slayer (1980) which pre-dated Conan by two years, yet failed to set the world alight.
In the wake of this resurgence of fantasy, it was inevitable that the glut would produce some absolute stinkers, most of which came from Italian stables, and others that simply used the fantasy genre as an excuse for soft-core titillation such as Barbarian Queen (1985), and hard-core porn such as the New Barbarians (1990). Septic with such indignities, the sword and sorcery genre seemed to melt away. That was, until a Hobbit poked his head out of a hole…
J R.R Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937; a children’s fantasy story drawing on epic poetry and Norse sagas. It was hugely popular, and so spawned an epic sequel in three parts, which would collectively be known as The Lord of The Rings. There was a resurgence in its popularity in the 1970s, when an ecological message was drawn from the books which may have been the reason that legendary animator Ralph Bakshi made the first part of a proposed series in 1978. Although successful, the tale remained unfinished. However, this was not Bakshi’s first foray into sword & sorcery: this came a year earlier with the imaginative cult classic Wizards (1977). Wizards did something unusual as it crossed swords and sorcery with a post-apocalyptic setting, something still very rare to this day.
It would be another two decades until Lord of the Rings would see cinematic light again. During this interim Bakshi continued his sword & sorcery theme in Fire and Ice (1983), which saw him collaborating with famed fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Alongside this we would have to endure more low-budget fare based (loosely) on literature in the shape of the two Gor movies, drawing their inspiration from the erotic novels of John Norman. Fans of the books were not pleased. Neither, it seemed were audiences of the movies. 1988 also gave us a superior fantasy product in the diminutive shape of Willow (1988), which introduced the world to one of the hardest working genre stars of the last 30 years, Warwick Davis. Willow was George Lucas’ attempt to recreate the fan-passion he found in Star Wars, yet the reactions to the film were mixed.
The 1990s proved to be a barren decade for fans of the genre. Exploitation hype had evaporated, as there were no stand-out successes to be cloned. Instead, there were the odd genre piece such as Dragonheart (1996) which despite winning awards for its visual effects was criticised for being cliché. Nevertheless, it was successful enough to warrant a sequel which went direct-to-video in 2000. That year was an interesting one for role-players of sword and sorcery games, as a film version of one of the quintessential RPGs was released. Dungeons & Dragons (2000) had a lot going for it: a rich background to be mined, and a loyal, even fanatical, ready-made audience in the shape of tabletop gamers. Unfortunately, the film turned out to be terrible, with uniformly derided performances and effects. So, sword and sorcery was finally dead in the water. Except that it was around about that time when a certain hobbit arrived on the scene…
It was in 2001 that the first of the Lord of The Rings films hit the cinemas. And film was never the same again. It was the culmination of years of work by a director almost unknown except to fans of low-budget horror, who had only recently branched out into more mainstream movies. Peter Jackson had cut his teeth in his native New Zealand with the gross-out splatter comedy Bad Taste (1987), sick and wonderfully twisted Muppet parody Meet The Feebles (1989) and “bloodiest film ever”, the even splatterier (it’s a word now) Braindead (1992). Given the helm of lyrical drama Heavenly Creatures (1994) Jackson proved that he could direct in genres other than horror. Still, directing three movies being filmed concurrently over 8 years was a mammoth task, and there were rumblings that he would fail to bring Tolkien’s epic to the screen. Those rumblings were proven false with the release of the first movie The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), with the second film, The Two Towers (2002) coming in a year later, and the final movie, The Return of the King another year later in 2003. The final movie, regarded as being the weakest of the three, nevertheless won every Academy Award nomination, and culminated in the series being the most successful and highest grossing of all time. Surely, following this, there would be another massive influx of cheap knock-offs?
We didn’t have long to wait for the sword and sorcery genre to flex its absurdly large muscles, but after the Lord of the Rings, everything would be a pale imitation. The Chronicles of Narnia, based on the work of Tolkien’s friend C.S Lewis would emerge as a trilogy in 2005, 2008 and 2010. These were successful in their own right, but lacked Jackson’s sense of humour. Other sources were being mined to adapt, such as Frank Millar’s graphic novel 300 (2006), which presented a highly stylised and brutal account of the battle of Thermopylae, and which warranted a sequel 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) eight years later. Of course, the genre was not without its cinematic turds: serial shite-peddler Uwe Boll turned out his own lacklustre effort called Dungeon Siege: In The Name of the King (2007) which has somehow managed to squeeze out another two sequels despite being universally panned.
In 2003 we saw the rise of another film series with sword and sorcery roots, albeit this time with a distinctly fishy, nautical flavour: The Pirates of The Caribbean (2003). Taking inspiration from, of all things, a theme-park ride, the success of the films is almost entirely down to a crazy yet charismatic central performance from Johnny Depp as Cap’n Jack Sparrow. There are sword-fights and derring-do aplenty, with magic and mystery woven into the plots of four (to date) movies.
As a new decade dawned, and with it advances in cheap-to-produce special effects, still more fantasy films were made. In 2010 the classic Clash of The Titans was remade, although this time with up to date CGI. Somehow, it lost its heart to flashy spectacle and forgot something called “a decent plot”. This decade would be one for remakes, with a box-office bomb in the form of Conan (2011). Finally, Jackson would return to Middle-Earth to make three more movies, stretching out the tale of The Hobbit to buttock-numbing lengths. Lacking the heart of the first trilogy, and relying too much on overblown action sequences, The Hobbit films (2012, 2013, 2014) were visually sumptuous but emotionally empty. Interestingly, colossal crap-factory The Asylum tried to cash-in on Jackson’s films in their typically tedious fashion by producing the bowel-rupturingly poor The Age of Hobbits, which caused a legal battle with the makers of The Hobbit.
Yet there are some low-budget sword and sorcery films being made that actually have some sense of fun and a modicum of skill. Orcs (2011) is very silly, yet amusing, and the similarly themed Orc Wars (2013) is likewise a great little movie. Also based on Dungeons & Dragons, The Gamers (2002) is a nerd-in-joke heavy comedy, which follows the imaginary adventures of the characters created by a group of RPG gamers. It was so successful amongst the gaming fraternity, that a sequel, Dorkness Rising (2008) was produced. Following a Kickstarter campaign a third movie, this time related to collectible card-games, called Hands Of Fate (2013) also found an audience. The production company, Dead Gentlemen Productions, are also behind the innovative and equally amusing JourneyQuest web-series, which again sees a group of adventurers who roughly equate to D&D character-classes as they participate on a quest… which is a journey.
The small screen has also been home to a number of successful sword and sorcery series. Most famous of these are the two series produced by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-99), and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001).
Both saw broadly comic adventures in a realm based once again in Greek mythology. These were not the only small screen fantasies, however, as companies tried to produce successful shows modelled on these templates. The Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog (1998-99) which was based on ancient Irish legends was not a hit, nor was the comedy Krod Mandoon and The Flaming Sword of Fire (2009), which only lasted six episodes. More traditional, being based on a work of literature, was Legend of The Seeker (2008-10), based on Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series. Cancelled after only 2 seasons, it seemed as if small screen sword & sorcery just couldn’t survive. However, only a year after the demise of Legend of The Seeker new blood would be splashed over the small screen, alongside a great deal of naked flesh, and some rather fetching CGI dragons…
Fantasy writer George R R Martin began an epic series of novels in 1996 with A Song of Fire and Ice, and has reached five books so far, with two still more to come. In 2011, the incredible world created by Martin reached the television. Now called Game of Thrones it follows the tribulations of a second-world family called The Starks, and how they are brought low by the machinations of other noble Houses. Game of Thrones is an astoundingly ambitious piece of work, outstripping The Lord of The Rings in complexity and length, and designed for a far more adult audience. Shown on US cable channel HBO, there is nudity, sex, violence, more nudity, dragons, homosexual relationships, nudity, violence and incest. Yet it is made with such care and reverence for the source material that it never feels like exploitation television.
Winning a vast array of awards, Game of Thrones is reputed to be the most illegally downloaded show in history, proving that sword and sorcery is not a dead genre, that it is not even a genre for the young or overly nerdy, that it can encompass great tales of adventure and drama while firing the imagination at the same time. Currently in its fifth year, Game of Thrones will no doubt cause another massive influx of cheaply made inferior copies, but the show is so well made, so sumptuous to look at, that even half-professional movies will appear lacking.
From Greek myths to Tolkien, from Sinbad to Conan, and from Xena to Game of Thrones, sword and sorcery has been with us since ancient times, and seems as if it will continue as long as there are people willing to devour such tales of high adventure. While The Lord of The Rings may dominate the big-screen, Game of Thrones dominates the small; between them, a new resurgence in the popularity of a subgenre that seemed played out in the 1990s has given fans hope for the future. Indeed, recently the director of Hawk The Slayer (1980), Terry Marcel, announced a sequel, Hawk The Hunter would hopefully be made in the next year. Not only does the future look as bright as a blade, but it seems that the old magic is rising once more. These may yet be looked back upon in years to come as the real glory-days of sword and sorcery cinema.
©John Fountain 2015