Friday, November 10, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: The Barbarian Age

"Don't blame me for 'Red Sonja'!"
What happens when you combine Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons? You get Conan the Barbarian of course. Ok, so that was kind of a trick question, but there is a method to my madness.

I like to think of the early 80s as the Barbarian Age of Fantasy. Within the years of 1982 and 1985 or so, we got a ton of fantasy films that featured muscular tunic-less guys wielding swords, fighting wizards, saving the (usually topless) girl from some evil creature (who may or may not be a puppet). Some of these films were backed by big budgets and major studios.  Others were made outside of Hollywood for a pittance and forged a name for themselves in the burgeoning world of direct to VHS releases. I’ll readily admit that I have a nostalgic place in my heart for these fun and often silly films. But I always wondered what caused this sudden explosion of fantasy films that hit hard and then faded away by the time 1989 rolled around.

The 70s were rough, even for Sinbad.
Like many things that occurred around this time in film history, I think it all starts with the astounding popularity of Star Wars in 1977. Prior to that film science fiction was seen as a low profit genre for major studios. There were some hits over the years, but they were few and far between. 20th Century Fox was hoping Star Wars would bring in a quarter of what Planet of the Apes made for them in merchandising and spin offs. But I don’t think they were holding their collective breath. Instead the film exploded in popularity, and a whole new group of filmgoers were exposed as a new target audience. Make a film packed with fun adventure, exotic visuals and a rollicking sense of fun and you had something.

D&D: 80s style!
Many studios took the most obvious route here, mimicking Star Wars as best they could with their own science fiction films. Disney unleashed The Black Hole. Paramount resurrected their television series into Star Trek:The Motion Picture and even Roger Corman’s production company got into the act with Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars. But a few other studios decided to expand their sights outside of science fiction and target another genre that had been forgotten: fantasy films.

Fantasy was always around in some form in filmmaking. But by the time the 1970s rolled around, audiences were demanding gritty and less glitzy. Fantasy films reminded them old Hollywood. It’s not hard to see why, when you watch the films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or all the sword and sandal films from the 1960s. They feel a bit stagey even if there is plenty of fun to be had with them. Not that the 70s were devoid of fantasy films. You still had movies like TheGolden Voyage of Sinbad, The Land Time Forgot and a handful of others. But they never brought in the money like other films did.

The other element that may have played a part in this was rise in popularity (infamy in some cases) of Dungeons and Dragons. The tabletop role playing game had been around for a while, but more and more folks were picking it up. Who could resist dungeon delving with your friends and slaying goblins by the dozen with fireballs? This same crowd was part of the group that made Star Wars the huge success it was. A fantasy film of the same caliber could also be a moneymaker.

Hawk's party is ready for dungeon delving.
One of the first of these new waves of fantasy films actually feels like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure brought to life. It is called Hawk the Slayer (1980) and hits all the requirements. You have a band of adventurers including a Hobbit sized thief, a towering giant, and an elf who can shoot rapid-fire arrows. Our hero, Hawk swings a sword with skill, and leads his band into a castle to face a deadly overlord played by Jack Palance. The movie is played pretty straight, but ends up being amusing because of the over the top acting, low budget special effects and wobbly sets. All in all it is one of my favorite fantasy films of the era, and I’m very sad I didn’t discover it until the 2000s. I’m not the only one who missed out on this flick, because it didn’t’ do well enough to deliver on a much hinted at sequel.

There was a breakdown in communication.
Right behind it was a bigger budget and much more impressive film, even if it did feel like a throwback to the 1950s style of filmmaking: Clash of the Titans (1981). Ray Harryhausen’s swansong features his amazing blend of stop motion animation and other visual effects that compete for screen time with Harry Hamlin’s hair and Laurence Olivier as Zeus. The movie is sluggish at times, but hits all the fantasy/mythological sweet spots. That Medusa scene manages a wonderful blend of suspense with the lighting, the effects and spine tingling music making it all work. As a kid, this movie was one of my absolute favorites, and I watched it over and over again. I wasn’t the only one, because I’ve seen quite a few writers, directors and artists talk about this movie being their gateway drug to all things Harryhausen and Greek mythology. That said, the film did Ok in its theatrical run, but not enough to convince other studios to jump on the bandwagon.

It wasn’t until the one-two punch of 1982 that we saw fantasy really take off. We got The Beastmaster and Conan the Barbarian in the same year. Both films were more entrenched in the sword and sorcery feel of pulp fiction by masters likes Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber. The two films featured physically strong characters seeking out revenge against tyrants who slaughtered their families. Both include magic, monsters and scantily clad women aplenty. Both films avoided the stodgy feeling of the earlier Hollywood fantasy style and went for a healthy dose of blood and nudity. The two films shared many stylistic similarities, and were successful in different ways.

"Ok, which one of you stole her fur bikini?"
The Beastmaster did moderately well in theaters, but really boomed in on home video and cable reruns. It has quite a bit of humor woven into the story and while it can get violent the film never gets too dark. It didn’t have the budget for stop motion effects, so it used animal actors and creative costume and makeup to delve into the magical aspects of the story. I think there were just as many fans of Tanya Robert’s bathing scene as there were for the cute ferret companions in the film. The Beastmaster stays fun all the way through, but also keeps a pretty solid tone of adventure.

He just had to wear the helmet for tribe picture day.
Where Conan the Barbarian exceeds is in the way it makes the world feel real. The film has a darker, more serious tone, and the violence is brutal at times. It captures the untamed savagery of the original stories, even if it isn’t based on any one of them. Director Milius keeps the dialogue to a minimum, focusing on visual storytelling and avoiding some of the poor acting that would infuse later fantasy films. Let’s not forget the wonderfully primal and powerful score by composer Basil Poledouris. Conan the Barbarian would be much less effective without tracks like Anvil of Crom and Riders of Doom. This film was a big success in theaters and on home video and cable. It was this film that brought about a boom in fantasy films in the early 1980s.

"If I don't make eye contact, maybe he'll go away."
Both films did eventually have sequels and spin offs. The Beastmaster didn’t see its sequels till the 1990s, well after the fantasy boom had ended. But there were enough fans to make The Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time a success on home video and get the sequel The Eye of Braxus five years later. Conan the Destroyer managed to arrive only two years after its original film, but suffered in a major shift in tone. Going for more of a mix between Hawk the Slayer and The Beastmaster, you end up with a film that ups the humor and tones down the brutality and sensuality of the previous film. It wasn’t received well, and plans for the third film were scuttled in favor of the spin off Red Sonja a year later. Sadly that film was even worse. This is one of those films that so much potential but a weak script, a jumbled tone and bizarre performances just keep the whole thing from coming together. It’s not even that riffable.

I couldn't make this up if I tried.
But many of the films that flooded the market afterwards are very riffable indeed. It seemed like every few months a new muscular hero exploded onto screens to fight monsters and save half naked women. Some films like Ator the Fighting Eagle (1982) featuring Miles O’Keefe were lower budget retellings of Conan the Barbarian. Others went to other sources, like Corman’s The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) which is based on Akira Kuroasawa’s Yojimbo, but with evil puppets and a four breasted witch. Sometime we got women warriors swinging swords like Hundra (1983) or Barbarian Queen (1985). In fact Corman's production company made quite a few of these films. Most popular were the Deathstalker movies, which started out as blatant Conan retells, but turned into more lighthearted films, with Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell even making it to MST3K. Speaking of the riffing puppet show, they also tackled Outlaw a sequel to the movie Gor which was based on a sword and planet series written by John Norman.Other times we got a film that managed to balance everything just about right, even on a low budget. The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) is a lot of fun, and manages to keep things moving and amusing for most of the running time. There were oddities like the ultra-dark Dragonslayer in 1981, where baby dragons devour a helpless princess. Then there were the odd fusions of robots, and lasers with fantasy that lead to movies like Krull (1983) and the Lou Ferrigno Hercules (1983). You also had movies that were more inspired by fairy tales like Ladyhawke (1985) and of course the wonderful Princess Bride (1987). Even Arthurian legends got a new coat of paint with the dreamlike Excalibur (1981) and Sean Connery as the sparkly Green Knight in Sword of the Valiant (1984).

"I know I dropped my eight sided dice somewhere."
A few fantasy films of the era dropped the muscly barbarian archetype and went for more Dungeons and Dragons inspired fantasy. You have a movie like Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985) which is aimed at a younger crowd, but filled with magic and action (as well as hilariously bad dialogue, goofy costumes and some wonderfully ripe acting). The animated film The Flight of Dragons (1982) actually includes a character who loves D&D and gets pulled into a fantasy world to fight wizards and monsters. The movie The Dungeonmaster (1984) fuses arcade games (inspired by Tron) and D&D into a weird anthology-kinda film with Richard Moll chewing scenery as the titular villain. And then there is the ridiculous television movie Mazes and Monsters in which a young Tom Hanks plays a teenager whose obsession with D&D drives him insane. Hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

Eventually the interest in fantasy films died down. While many of the low budget ones did all right on home video and cable, big studios were losing money. Films like Willow (1988) necessitated a lot of money for visual effects, costumes, location shooting and even with big names behind the camera (Ron Howard directing a story conceived of by George Lucas) they movie just didn’t make as much money as they wanted. This was really the last hurrah for the fantasy boom of the 1980s, and the genre once again sunk into the mists of time outshone by cheaper to make action flicks.

Hard to say which one is making the goofier face.
In the early 90s fantasy fans had to get their fix from anime like The Heroic Legend of Arislan (1991) and my favorite of the era The Record of Lodoss War (1990) (which wore its D&D roots on its cloak). But then a funny thing happened, a little movie called Jurassic Park (1993) showed that visual effects could be made to bring a whole new dimension of realism to fantasy films. Creators didn’t have to rely on puppets or stop motion any more – CG could bring dragons to life! Sure enough we got Dragonheart in 1996 And while the film wasn’t all that good, the dragon was fairly impressive for the time (and voiced by Sean Connery no less). But it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy helmed by Peter Jackson that brought fantasy films and television to the mainstream in a big way. And while I love where we are going visually with these fantasy films, I will always enjoy taking a trip back to the Barbarian Age of fantasy.

Don't mess with the Barbarian Queen!


  1. I think the series Game of Thrones also fits in here. It's also quite successful and has many fans. Even the movie Reign of Fire has some connection to the fantasy, SF genre, and a decent enough watch. The 80s did have their fair share and I have Conan and the first Beastmaster on DVD. Some of Howard's heroes even made it into the 90s like Kull the Conqueror (a flop for the most part), and later Solomon Kane (which I enjoyed).

    But there were some TV series that kept the fires burning as well like Hercules with Kevin Sorbo and Xena: Warrior Princess with Lucy Lawless. There was even a BBC series called Merlin, which I'd watch from time to time. The animated Pixar movies, How to Train Your Dragon is fun too.

    1. Oh yeah "Game of Thrones" is certainly the next level of fantasy entertainment on television. The fanbase is huge, and may even be bigger than the movie audience for the Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s.

      I need to check out those other two Howard films. I read the Solomon Kane stories a few years back for the first time and they were pretty entertaining. I can see how a fun flick could be made from them.

      Yeah I almost mentioned the Hercules and Xena shows, but they were just out of the range of the Barbarian Age in my book, more rooted in the 1990s. But you make a good point, fantasy seemed to hang in there on television through that decade. I know quite a few folks who loved those series. I never really got into them.

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  3. Yeah, the Solomon Kane movie isn't exactly a fun film, it's pretty drab really, but I thought it caught the atmosphere of the character pretty well by being so. He always seemed to be the introspective, dark type character.

    Another Howard movie to catch though more a biography is The Whole Wide World. I thought it was handled well.

  4. Impressive FX are cool and all, but they aren't essential -- and they definitely aren't enough. In a related way, I enjoy much 50s scifi with big bugs, obvious backscreens, stop-action disembodied brains, and so on. 80s fantasy flicks are simply fun -- even the bad ones.

    1. I'm in total agreement with you. A movie can be entertaining in many ways. Some of them intended, others not intended.