Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons – Primary Sources


In the 1980s we had an embarrassment of riches when it came to printed material; everything from stacks of paperback books, comics, Frazetta posters and print books (and other artists, as well, but c’mon…FRAZETTA), and even maps that we could hang on our walls for inspiration.

Another thing happened in the 1980s and that was this: special effects took a quantum leap forward. Now it was possible to put stuff on screen that would have required Ray Harryhausen to pull off. This was entirely because of the astronomical success of movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and given that back then it took four to five years to make a major motion picture, 1977 plus 5 equals…1982. Prime Zeitgeist Real Estate for giant fantasy films and also the perfect sweet spot for wooing a horde of eager D&D players to the movies. Sword, knights, barbarians, magic, monsters…we were there, man. Even if we had to sneak in (or wait until HBO picked it up and ran it into the ground).

To be fair there was also television—Wizards and Warriors, that horrible “Mazes and Monsters” TV movie of the week, and even a Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon (!), but let’s be honest about it: these things were bad. I’m not saying that in a “oh, I went back and re-watched them and now I’m so much more sophisticated in my tastes that the simple pleasures the shows once afforded are forever lost to me.” No. These shows were bad right out of the gate. It’s cool if you liked them, and may even be nostalgic for them, but that does not make them quantifiably good. I was a teenager in the 1980s, and I didn’t like them back then, when I had no discernable taste in anything. I never understood why so many others did. Especially when we had these movies to compare them to:

Behold! The Sword of Power!
Excalibur (1981)
John Boorman’s decidedly grown-up interpretation of the Arthur legend featured a baby-faced Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, a youthful but balding Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, who was born with a hang-dog expression on his mug, and a nearly-naked Helen Mirren, which was more than enough for any teenager in 1981. Gory, chrome-plated, and bewildering by turns, this jacked-up turn on the formation of Camelot and the rise and fall of Arthur, as prophesied by Merlin, was unlike anything any of us had seen to date.

Uther Pendragon uses Merlin’s sorcery to change his physical appearance to sneak into to the castle of the Duke of Cornwall for a night of pleasure with his wife. He later dies, and Arthur is born from that one-night stand. The plot follows the Arthur legend well enough, but the decidedly adult subject matter elevated this film to legendary status. Boobs, sex, bloody sword fights, crazy armor, weird wizards (Merlin was decidedly Puckish in the movie), and mass battle scenes featuring people we now recognize as Captain Picard, Darkman, and Tom from Miller’s Crossing.

Excalibur drags a bit, but it has a lot of cool flourishes we all paid great attention to; the syntax they used when speaking was perfect for knights and kings; it sounded epic and had much gravitas, back before any of us knew what “gravitas” actually meant.  There were no monsters to speak of, but there  plenty of knights, swords, and a dash of sorcery (more implied than impactful) made this a big part of the style book for good DM’ing, if you could sneak around your parents to watch it. Thank God for HBO. 

Jeff Jones poster art! 
Dragonslayer (1981)
The flip side of Excalibur was an unapologetic fantasy, set in a Middle-Aged Kingdom, and featuring the great Sir Ralph Richardson as Ulrich the wizard and Peter MacNichol as Galen, his young apprentice, caught in a wild scheme to free a kingdom from the regular demands of the nearby dragon that holds them hostage. The first half of the movie is a slow burn as all of the moving parts come together, but when the dragon shows up, and the fight stars, holy shit, it’s the goods. The trailer wisely didn't give anything away.

This dragon design was a leap forward for visual effects, utilizing a “go-motion” camera rig that not only tracked camera movements for dynamic shots, but also gave a slight, very slight vibratory blur to smooth out the stop-motion strobing. This dragon design, by the way, was so successful that it imprinted itself on other cinematic dragons, right up to and including the beasts in the idiotic Reign of Fire (2002).

The best thing about Dragonslayer is the tone of the ending; a post-modern stab at “realism” in cinema that undercut the traditional message of the brave warrior slaying the dragon and then being rewarded with riches and the hand of the princess. No, at the end of Dragonslayer, the princess is dead, Galen’s father figure is dead, he’s got no money, no glory, no nothing. He gets to walk away with his girl and also a horse, and that’s about it. It’s a happy ending, but it’s not a fairy tale ending, particularly where the actions of the king are concerned. I grew up cynical for a reason, and it was underhanded shit like this.

After watching Dragonslayer, you couldn’t wait to pull out the dragons on your next group of adventurers.

Still one of the most successful
fantasy movies of all time.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
I’ve made a name for myself writing and talking about Robert E. Howard and Conan, so I don’t feel like covering the same ground here when it’s scattered across the internet like stray Legos in a double-wide trailer. Still, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this movie hitting the sub-cultural zeitgeist when it did. And despite being a Dino De Laurentiis production, there was juuust enough dough for some fair-to-middling special effects, like the giant serpent in Thulsa Doom’s tower.  It’s too bad the movie doesn’t have more of Robert E. Howard’s Conan in the script. Granted, there is Howardian stuff, including some borrowed themes from King Kull, but the movie hews more closely to Milius’ interest in the Code of Bushido and his love ofAkira Kurasawa.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t good. It’s fun, if you (a) forget everything you know about Robert E. Howard, Conan, or the eleven thousand terrible movies that this film spawned, and (b) watch the extended cut of the movie and never, ever, listen to the director’s commentary. I know that sounds mean as hell considering that Milius had a stroke a few years ago and can no longer articulate. I do not say this to be denigrating; only to emphasize that Milius never let the facts get in the way of a good story and his comments about Robert E. Howard and Conan are 98% inaccurate or out-and-out fabricated. Not maliciously; just in the interest of selling the movie and his involvement with it.

In any case, the battles are great and gory, and the decadence of the world is well-realized. Some talented people made the movie pull together, despite everything that was against it. Also, those above-mentioned imitators tended to tar and feather this movie. Watch it and let the Riddle of Steel wash over you. Fun fact: after multiple attempts in The Dragon magazine and many other unofficial sources to create barbarians cut from the cloth of the Hyborian Age, the powers-that-be eventually added a barbarian character class that has remained to this day.

I think this poster is probably the
best thing about the movie. The
sword is still stupid as hell, though.
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
This is the movie that effectively launched the career of Albert Pyun, a name that will only matter to any of you fans of Full Moon Video and the Dollman series. Pyun, a writer-director double threat, would go on to helm some amazingly memorable, um, movies, such as Cyborg (1991) and Captain America (1994), developed a reputation for writing gonzo material and having nearly special effects budget necessary to pull it off with.

Gygax disliked this movie, and famously trashed it, along with Conan the Barbarian in a review he wrote as page-filler in The Dragon #63.  Here’s an excerpt:
 Speaking of better titles, “The Rocket Propelled Sword” describes the true tenor of THE SWORD & THE SORCERER. I viewed the film about a week before seeing the long-awaited Conan movie, and when I left the theater I was only mildly displeased with the production. The movie certainly adds no luster to the swords & sorcery genre, but it does not give it a bad name — silly, possibly, but unsophisticated audiences have come to expect that from heroic fantasy films. I never intended to review THE SWORD & THE SORCERER, because it was neither good enough nor bad enough to rate such attention. Compared to the Conan film, however, it is superb. Actually it wasn’t all that much better, but one doesn’t expect too much from such a film.

He’s not wrong. The two biggest names in the movie are Richard Moll (“Bull” from Night Court) and Richard Lynch, whose face you recognize more than his name, as he is a veteran of numerous genre TV shows and low-budget movies. As for the movie itself; well, it follows what was quickly becoming the standard Sword and Sorcery flick plot-by-numbers formula. The sword is actually quite dumb, and terribly impractical, and stupid, and also just dumb. It doesn’t work as a weapon, nor as a magic item, nor as a plot device. That’s half of the name of the movie, right there. Still, back then, we took what we could get, even though it was sub-standard and silly. But they made it very clear from the trailer that are thowing a nod and a wink to the nascent D&D crowd. Watch the trailer and marvel at the herculean set of balls on the marketing department.

So many movie posters, so many
pose-swipes of better Frazetta art.
The Beastmaster (1982)
Now, if you want to get weird, let’s get weird. Don Coscarelli is one of those directors who could reasonably be considered an auteur, in that he’s got his own style, his own point of view, and his own outlook and it comes through in all of his work. It certainly came through in Phantasm, a nutty-as-fuck horror movie that was an instant cult classic in 1979. The Beastmaster came out three years later with a larger budget and bigger production, but it was no less nutty. Coscarelli may be best-known for Phantasm, but The Beastmaster spawned two sequels and a syndicated TV series, which certainly makes the franchise Coscarelli’s most successful.

Marc Singer is Dar, a young barbarian who has “the mark” branded on him as a baby, allowing him to communicate with animals and see through their eyes. Dar is spirited away from his mother, the queen, by a witch who magically transfers the unborn child from his mother's womb and into that of a cow. For those of you who have not seen this cinematic gem it looks exactly  as creepy as it sounds. 

Dar is raised by good-hearted simple folk and his adopted father gives him a cool folding knife to throw that boomerangs back to him. He also gets a scimitar, which is a nice change of pace from the other overcompensating swords you see in these movies. When Rip Torn burns down his village, Dar swears vengeance and goes on a quest to get his pound of flesh with the help of Tanya Roberts (fresh off of Charlie’s Angels) and JJ’s father from Good Times (John Amos) as the former captain of the guard turned staff-wielding monk. Dar also assembles a menagerie of animals (for he is The Beastmaster, you see) to help him and jump on things and steal things and pull his fat out of the fire. They are Batman's utility belt, if Batman's utility belt were made out of live animals.

The Beastmaster is arguably the most Sword and Sorcery movie of all the other Sword and Sorcery movies, owing much to Coscarelli's gonzo vision and horrific flourishes, like the weird-bat-bird men who worship Dar's eagle and the mindless feral guards that run through the narrow corridors of the lower dungeons. And who can forget the cadre of witches with nubile young bodies and horribly disfigured faces? Some of the things in The Beastmaster walk the fine line between horror and fantasy, which is exactly where you want a Sword and Sorcery movie to lie.

Unfortunately the movie allegedly tanked at the box office, but it found its way to cable, like Coscarelli’s other films, and became a staple on HBO. Dennis Miller is apocryphally said to have once remarked that in the early 1980’s, HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.” United Artists took a page from The Sword and the Sorcerer and signaled to the D&D crowd that hey, this movie is for y’all, too.  Listen closely and see if you can catch the shout-out.

The thing was this, though:  unlike The Sword and the Sorcerer, we strip-mined The Beastmaster for homebrew content and statted out or wrote up nearly everything from the movie. Hatchet-Headed boomerang that can be thrown up to 60’ for 1d8+1 damage and return to your hand? Check. Bird-Bat-Cultists who live in a grove of glowing pods and dissolve their foes in their membranous cape-wings? Check. A Beastmaster character class, half-druid, half barbarian, that can talk to creatures? Check. This movie gave and gave and gave of itself for the glory of the game. We watched it until our brains melted (and Tayna Roberts bobbing up out of the water, sans bikini top, had nothing to do with our repeated viewings, honest!) and then we watched it until we outgrew it. But the movie holds up as a kind of fever-dream that neither Conan the Barbarian nor The Sword and the Sorcerer quite matched, thanks to Coscarelli’s frenetic directing and just enough decent actors acting decently.  


Lest you think I overlooked Clash of the Titans, I didn't. But it deserves a different place, in a different grouping. Come back for Part 2 and see what I mean. 


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