It’s 1982. Summer. I’m at the height of my teenage years – not too old but just old enough, you know – so hanging out with friends and catching the latest hits at the box office was all there was to do in our one-horse town. Like so many men of a certain age, we naturally gravitated toward Science Fiction and Fantasy films – Starlog was in publication, and it was practically required reading amongst my social set – and we’d risk our hard-earned cash on any flick that looked like it had even the most modest opportunity offered. With those few qualifiers, you can trust me when I say we saw just about anything.
Now, I can’t say if it’s uniquely common or not amongst all American towns and American youths, but after taking in a particular stunning piece of silver screen glory my group might spend the better part of an afternoon dissecting it. We’d talk about the actors, the actresses, our favorite sequences, etc. We’d spend a bit of time trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We weren’t budding filmmakers of any type, but having seen so many flicks together I think we figured we were just as good as anyone at figuring out what could make a production work. As you might imagine, such energy made for what we deemed pretty fascinating debate.
Maybe not all that surprisingly, we agreed more than we disagreed. Oh, we may’ve squabbled over essentially minor issues from time-to-time – such is the nature of life, after all – but being of the same age and similar mindset pretty much insured that we saw the world through a fairly common set of small-town eyes. If anything, casting issues were the most contentious confrontations; though we may’ve disagreed over a Tom Selleck lead – always preferring Harrison Ford when given the chance – we still tried to see past those faces to appreciate whatever goodness we could find in any individual motion picture.
There was one film where I found myself far outside the group. Oh my God, they loved this one particular flick; and – for the love of Pete (whoever that is) – I couldn’t bring myself anywhere near the same level of adoration. Mind you, I didn’t hate the picture; I just didn’t and couldn’t see it the same way they did, namely being one of the very best escapist journeys our small group had ever seen.
Forty years later: now that I’m much older and vastly wiser (less hair, though), maybe I’ll concede that I was a little hard on the feature. I still have some issues – ones I’m more than happy to discuss in a moment – but for now I’m willing to admit to any one of the friends of my youth still reading that, “Ok, you were right. I was wrong.”
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Meet Talon, a daring mercenary who conquers castles and dungeons alike with his lethal three-bladed sword. But when Talon learns that he is the prince of a kingdom controlled by an evil sorcerer, he is thrust into the wildest fight of his life. Can Talon rescue the beautiful princess and slay the warlock, or will he fall prey to the black magic of medieval mayhem?”
Alright, let’s get this straight right up front: it’s entirely inaccurate to say I never liked The Sword And The Sorcerer. Simply put, I’ve always found it passable fare. Not great. Not awful. An interesting cast. A mediocre story. I would argue that it’s probably the best genre director Albert Pyun has ever done – certainly the most fulfilling visual meal – a B-Movie feature that never quite revels in its excesses mostly because it doesn’t have them. All one need do is look at its sets, props, and costumes to know that it was a modestly budgeted affair, a film that possibly could’ve delivered even more if it had a little extra in the spending tank.
My issues with the film have always been (and remain today) some of its stylistic choices. Storytelling considerations. Casting missteps. Those kinds of drawbacks. And I’ll try to iron them out as specifically as I can … once and for all.
First, it’s important to put Sword in its proper historical context.
Pyun and company were smart to get the thing into theaters when they did because 1982 saw the emergence of big Fantasy on the silver screen with not only their feature but also John Milius’ adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s titular character Conan The Barbarian. 1984 would offer up the vastly inferior sequel – Conan The Destroyer, a bit of a cinematic tragedy by my estimation; and 1985 served up another slice of cheese from the Howard library – Red Sonja – with Arnold Schwarzenegger involved in a smaller, secondary role.
Second, it’s important to examine just how much story needed to be told.
From a narrative point of view alone, Conan The Barbarian and Sword tell nearly identical tales. (Again, that’s not an insult; it’s just an observation.) Both films present a parentless youth forced to grow up surrounded by hardship, and both men are rewarded with larger-than-life careers once their respective backstories have been dispensed. But a significant difference between the two is that Sword also traffics heavily in parallel journeys, namely the villainous undead Xusia (Richard Moll) and royal baddie would-be-king Cromwell (Richard Lynch). In contrast, Conan’s Thulsa Doom’s screentime is mostly limited to his experience with the film’s hero; but Sword invests several scenes and sequences with its rogues much in the same way the Tim Burton Batman films serve almost as ‘origin stories’ for the Dark Knight’s arch enemies.
Now, to a point, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Audiences can be drawn into any good yarn by ample exploration of multiple characters: my issue with the protracted time spent in Sword is that nothing new is learned from it. What Pyun’s script (the director collaborated with Tom Karnowski and John V. Stuckmeyer on it) does – to its detriment – is merely re-establish who the bad guys are even though it had already been established. While some may chalk this up to ‘world building,’ I see some of it as redundant, meaning that I’d question why any storyteller felt it necessary to remind me.
Also – and this has always been my sticking point – it’s very clear early on that Pyun and his partners had crafted a wide, wide world for which all of these characters were to come into conflict. Similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings (but not nearly as expansive), there are multiple kingdoms and multiple dynasties at play in the political and social structure. Though I’ve never plotted it out on paper, I suspect if I wanted to there could be enough material crammed into the film’s twenty-minute set-up – Talon’s youth – that another complete film could be spun off! (FYI: Sword ends with the promise of a follow-up, so I’ve no doubt this team crafted their own fictional universe to play in.) Because I had some trouble following these various relationships, I see this film individually as ‘biting off more than it could chew’ in a few critical areas. (Sometimes less is more.)
Lastly, it’s important to consider Lee Horsley as the lead.
Sword’s Talon comes off more as Sinbad than he does Hercules. (Hell, even David Whitaker’s score reminds me of pirate epics!) Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but when we’re given his backstory – that being one structurally similar to Conan – then why doesn’t he look the same? Talon only dressed bigger-than-life – with shoulder pads stacked up by various animal hides – but once you see him in his sweaty glory he’s a relatively average. Tall, yes, but otherwise pretty average. (Sorry to any of the ladies – or the men – who feel otherwise. I realize the actor did some modeling work, but I gotta call it how I see it.) Sure, he’s athletic, but he definitely doesn’t carry the same physique Schwarzenegger brought to his films; given the similarities between the characters, I’ve never been able to quite reconcile those two disparate forms.
Now … here’s where I’m willing to eat a bit of crow.
After watching it last night for review … I kinda/sorta liked it a lot more than I ever recall. Due to ownership issues, it’s a title that’s been very short in supply. A few years back, I remember picking up what I was told was the best release (a foreign cut), and I was decidedly underwhelmed. While much of that experience was owed to the fact that I found the transfer disappointing, it was still hard to ‘get into the spirit’ of adventure while wading through so much grain. But Shout Company’s excellent 4K Bluray really took me back to the days of my youth; instead of tossing and turning over the storytelling shortcomings, I dipped into B-Movie waters and had a great swim. My issues were still there; I just set them aside and enjoyed the action … camp and all.
In fact, I’m looking forward to spending some more time with it as it’s loaded with some extras. I might even pen a follow-up or two once I’ve digested them all.
In the interests of fairness … no, no, no! I purchased this one all of my own, peeps. Though I’ve tried to get into Shout Factory’s good graces, I’ve yet to be offered any complimentary screeners from them. This one was all my doing … and I’m glad I did it.