Nov 19, 2012

Swordsmen and Sorcerers of the 1980s

For over a century, people have been rejecting naturalistic literature to write heroic fantasy.  In Britain, mostly  about unlikely heroes who travel through magic-laden Medieval landscapes to fight ultimate evil (e.g., The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings). In America, mostly about heavily-muscled barbarians who travel through magic-laden ancient worlds to settle personal vendettas (e.g., Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Conan the Barbarian).  

Neither type had much luck in the movies, maybe because of the need for special effects.  Or the difficulty in presenting an entire world without lengthy, boring exposition ("The kingdoms of Caldarand and Bobinur have been at war for centuries....)  Or the distinct preference for naturalism in movie-going audiences.

During the 1960s, I can think of only The Magic Sword (1962).

During the 1970s, Wizards (1977), and a terrible animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978).


Then Arnold Schwarzenegger tore up the scenery as Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), and suddenly every bodybuilder who could read a script was being squeezed into a loincloth and given a magic sword to wield: Clash of the Titans (1981), Beastmaster (1982), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Ator (1982),  Krull (1983), Hercules (1983), Deathstalker (1983), The Blade Master (1984), Ladyhawk (1985), Iron Warrior (1986), Masters of the Universe (1987), The Barbarians (1987)...well, you get the idea.

The plots were simple 1980s man-mountain plots, with an evil wizard instead of a drug lord, and a weirdly-named Medieval world instead of Southeast Asia.

And they had a similar appeal for gay kids and teenagers.


1. Endless quantities of beefcake. Muscle men, slim sidekicks, and little kids in loincloths or naked.  Unfortunately, also endless quantities of cheesecake, including lots of female breasts.  Bare. There's always a female warrior who fights semi-nude.

2. The buddy-bonding is strong and powerful, more emotionally compelling than the requisite romance with The Girl.  In Deathstalker, the Deathstalker (Richard Hill) is patently in love with Oghris (Richard Brooker).  In The Barbarians, Kutchek and Gore (Peter and David Paul) never fall in love with anyone (else).



  In Beastmaster, Dar (Marc Singer) forms an alternative family unit with Seth (John Amos) and young prince Tal (Josh Milrad).











3. There are usually kids around for the kids in the audience to identify with.  We see the barbarian hero's early childhood tragedies, to give them a personal motive for adult vendettas.

4. There is usually no fade-out kiss.  The Barbarian is a creature of the wilderness.  He saves civilization but does not reside there, so at the end of the movie, he usually moves on.

By 1995, the fad had run its course, along with the cinematic interest in man-mountains, as beefcake fashions returned to the trim and athletic.