In the 1970s and 80s, no force had a firmer grip on the hearts (and wallets) of American youths than Star Wars. Of course, that didn’t stop other properties and genres from trying to supplant Star Wars, and few came closer than swords and sorcery fantasy, newly emboldened by the advent of Dungeons and Dragons. A few months back, we looked at some of the various attempts to cash in on the space opera craze with a month-long look at Star Wars knockoffs, but for June we’ll be devoting our time to that franchise’s chief competition at the time, with a look back at some of the best – and strangest – swords and sorcery epics that the 1970s and 80s have to offer. It is I, their chronicler, who alone can tell thee of their sagas. Let me enthrall you with the Days of High Adventure…….
Something doesn’t necessarily need to innovate in order to be worth your time. Media that takes a confrontational or critical approach to genre or formal conventions can obviously be more thought-provoking, but there’s still room for movies and other media that slavishly conform to the tropes and expectations of their genre. If absolutely nothing else, it helps to establish a baseline, a standard operating procedure, if you will, to help forms of media that do innovate to stand out. When it comes to swords-and-sorcery fantasy, you’d have a hard time finding a more archetypal example than 1982’s The Sword and the Sorcerer, a film with a title just a few scant letters and conjunctions away from the name of its genre.
The film opens with the evil King Cromwell overthrowing the kingdom of the good King Richard, thanks to the help of a demonic sorcerer named Xusia. However, before wrapping things up by beheading Richard, Cromwell betrays Xusia with a swift dagger to the gut. Flash forward years later, and Richard’s orphan son Talon has grown up and become an adventurer for hire who has gotten himself embroiled in another deposed prince’s war of rebellion. Behind the scenes of all this, Xusia has secretly survived and is plotting revenge.
The Sword and the Sorcerer has, as we mentioned before, an almost passionate love for the genre conventions of swords and sorcery, indulging in as many of the tropes and conventions as it can in an hour and forty minutes. You’ve got your dashing, womanizing, sword-swinging hero, the wicked sorcerer, swooning maidens, and more or less everything else adherents of the genre will have come to expect, all set to a booming soundtrack composed almost entirely of heroic fanfares. This isn’t a bad thing, mind, but the make or break for individual viewers will probably end up being the similar indulgence in all the more juvenile aspects of the genre. The film often feels like the concoction of an overstimulated 15-year-old, from the hero’s triple-bladed sword to the copious amounts of gratuitous nudity – which is fine if you’re in the mindset for that kind of thing, but be prepared to roll your eyes out of your skull at the film’s ridiculous gender politics. It’s the kind of thing you really have to be able to smirk along with.
As far as production values go, The Sword and The Sorcerer is neither cheap enough to be all that comical nor lavish enough to be noteworthy. There are some decent and striking special effects here and there, and at no point do you spot any strings, though the incredibly blurry print you’ll probably be watching doubtlessly goes a long way toward hiding the seams. By the same coin, the acting is neither inept enough to be that funny or decent enough to be surprising. The only recognizable face is Richard Lynch as Cromwell (for various definitions of recognizable). There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Reb Brown, whose glorious buffoonery this film was clearly unworthy of. Don’t worry, Reb –your time in the spotlight will come…
Ultimately, The Sword and the Sorcerer‘s true value comes in the form of that base line we talked about before. Through its devotion to genre, it is in many ways the exact film that other swords and sorcery movies, past and future, would define themselves against. Along with stuff like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, it represents the genre at its most archetypal, its most devoted to itself. The film doesn’t innovate, either willingly or through laziness, but that only adds to the sense of indulgence. And while that doesn’t make it bad, it does mean that it works best as a point of comparison with other films that would take the genre to different places. Other films would innovate, either through grounded revisionism, more nuanced characters, or even just letting the female cast wear clothes most of the time. The Sword and the Sorcerer, meanwhile, is content to be as silly, as skeevy, and as unambitious as its core audience probably wants it to be.