Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons, Part 4: The Best of the Rest

There were, in the middle of all this epic swordplay, a handful of near misses and one-offs, as well as a couple of Science-Fantasy “epics” that seemed more like an attempt to pander to the Star Wars crowd as well as offer up mediocre swordplay and derring-do (or bad jump kicks). Hollywood wasn’t interested in making the next fantasy blockbuster; they were obsessed with remaking that last fantasy blockbuster, only much cheaper than before. We ended up renting these at the video stores because, come on, no one saw this in the theater. How on Earth could we have? They were rated R for nudity, and/or they were shown at the drive-in (we had no car at the time), and so we had to wait until they made it to VHS or HBO. Or both.

Thankfully, my parents owned and operated a video rental store throughout my high school years, which was great for me, since I was allowed to advise as to the movies we stocked in the horror and science fiction sections. This made me the go-to guy for staying caught up on the latest nerd-films, from cult classics like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to the magnum opuses listed below. What they provided for us gamers, more than anything, was laughs—hoots of derision or just knowing, rueful chuckles. After all, we had seen better films, hadn’t we? Maybe we weren’t the most discerning of audiences, but we did have some taste, right?

What a horrible
piece of shit.
I know there’s probably one or two of you out there right now saying to yourself, very smugly, “That fool! Two installments in and he forgot all about Yor, Hunter from the Future from 1983 starring Reb Brown!” No. No I did not. There are dumb movies. There are great movies. There are dumb movies that go all the way around the dial until they are inexplicably great again. And then there are movies that don’t even deserve to be on that dial in the first place. That’s where Yor goes, him and his appalling theme song. There is no metric by which this movie can be measured that would mark it as anything other than a waste of good 35mm film. Craft services had to assemble sandwiches for this movie to be made. Someone ought to sue. Instead, like the Czech Judge’s Figure Skating Scores at the Winter Olympics, we’re going to drop the lowest one so as to preserve a better statistical average. The movies below (even Hawk the Slayer) look exponentially better as a result.

"The Tale of Sir Lancelot" is my
favorite Vignette in this movie.
"Well, I got A note..."
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Granted, this movie wasn’t made in the 1980s, and it’s not at all sword and sorcery, but thanks to the VCR revolution, it was available for repeat viewings whenever we wanted to watch it, and watch it, we did, over and over and over again. I’m dropping it on the “so bad that it’s good” list because it has to go somewhere. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you: there was no other movie more influential to the hobby of tabletop gaming.

No film responsible for more quotes, both in character and out-of-game, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Try to think of another movie so ubiquitous that you can utter a single line of dialogue to a group of strangers at a convention and not only receive the next line of dialogue in return, but get it as a chorus, complete with horrible British accents. I once sang out, in a game room at a convention, “Pie Lesu Domine…” and watched as six or seven people, not at the same table, stood up and chanted back, “Dona Eis Requiem,” and then hit themselves in the face with their game books, notebooks, and in one case, his GM’s clipboard. That doesn’t happen with any other movie, folks.

This movie does not get the proper credit as a major contributing influence to the emerging culture of tabletop gaming. It is, perhaps the most important movie of all time in that regard. Granted, it’s also responsible for the proliferation of people who love to lapse into an English, or worse, an Irish or Scottish accent, break into the song about “Knights of the Round Table,” or just torture everyone around them by repeating the most strident lines of dialogue with the outright worst comic timing and delivery ever attempted by humans anywhere.

On the plus side, there is a lot of social value to breaking the tension, sometimes as a serious moment in the game, when things look dire, and your fighter is absorbing the damage that other characters aren’t taking so that they can cast spells, pick locks, or what have you, and the DM rolls damage…”the sword grazes you for 2 points,” and your fighter says, chest puffed up, “Tis but a scratch!” He gets the laugh, and everyone remembers that, yeah, it’s still just a game. From Tim the Enchanter to the Killer Bunny, from the Guardian of the Bridge to the Tale of Brave Sir Robin, Monty Python and the Holy Grail made it okay to laugh at the game table, and moreover, it showed us how.

Original poster art. What a fantastic lie.
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
This “fan favorite” and “cult classic” may be the only one of these movies to deserve that appellation. John Terry plays Hawk, the much younger brother of Voltan (and can we just pause for a minute to reflect on the damage done to these two by their parents? Who names their kids “Hawk” and “Voltan?”), who is played by Jack Palance. Ordinarily, he’d be the guy who is out-acting everyone, but not here. And it’s sure not John Terry, who has been much better in other movies and TV shows, but in this film, he acts like he’s reading Ikea instructions to his drunk brother-in-law who is trying to build a Flurken Chair without an Allen wrench. 

The best actor award is a tie between Bernard Bresslaw and Peter O'Farrell--the "giant" and the "dwarf." Their banter and chemistry is practically the glue that holds this think-piece together. Other minor but celebrated actors and actresses (Patricia Quinn? Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Anyone? Anyone?) round out the cast of this British Made-for-TV movie that got a limited theatrical release before being shunted into VHS and Betamax for the remainder of the 1980s. It’s important to take note of the fact that this was (A) British and (B) made for TV, because it explains why the special effects look like they were made by the A/V club and Seventy-five dollars. The single best use of a special effect is the re-purposing of the Kryptonian Prison Bands from the opening of Superman (1978) into a serviceable dimension door. That probably cost someone a week's worth of food.

The plot is ludicrous. The acting is wooden. The motivation is ridiculous—Voltan instigates the “final confrontation” with his brother over a ransom of two thousand gold pieces? Forget the fate of the kingdom, the prophesy, the special secret magic that only Hawk knows—spoiler alert: it’s a sword that leaps into Hawk’s hand—forget all of that. Hawk’s special ladyfriend burned Voltan’s eye while he was trying to have his way with her, and so he’s taking it out on everyone. This world is a land full of assholes, and Hawk is the good guy because he’s the least asshole asshole of the bunch. His friends, the “elf” and the “giant” and the “dwarf” are merely the skinny guy, the tall guy, and the short guy, but you let that go because, when you were thirteen years old in the early 1980s, you wanted Hawk the Slayer to be much better than it was. 

In some ways, this movie was more of a spirit animal to the rapidly-evolving Dungeons and Dragons game than any other 1980s film property, but for two really important factors: its chintziness, and its slap-dash story.  And yet…despite this movie being a hot mess that’s held together with silly string and rubber balls, if you deconstruct Hawk the Slayer, preferably with the sound off, and listening to better music, there’s a lot to pick out and re-purpose for your D&D games. The mindsword’s pommel is a metal fist that opens and then clenches a green gem that presumably gives it magic powers—er, power. Old Man Ranulf’s crossbow fires a clip of bolts, like a machine gun (this was probably the most ripped-off weapon from the movie).

And owing to the wisp of a budget all of the magical and special effects were accomplished with stop-action photography, quick edits, slow-motion, and when nothing else worked, silly string, I shit you not. Ultimately, there is a genuine sincerity to the movie, in the exact same emotional range as watching an Ed Wood science fiction film and knowing that there was a creative drive behind it, however botched that drive was in the execution.

Contrast this with, say, Flash Gordon, released the same year, with a twenty million dollar budget, and being so completely insincere that De Laurentiis couldn't get anyone to work on the movie because he specifically wanted it to be campy and jokey and not at all in the style of Alex Raymond's original comic strips. No one wanted to be associated with taking a hatchet to another creative genius' vision. I'd rather re-watch Hawk the Slayer, laughing at the same kinds of things I would have laughed at in Flash Gordon (why does the lizard man have eyes in his mouth? It's imbecilic!) and not feel as though I'm kicking Alex Raymond's corpse in the face. Hawk the Slayer co-creator and director Terry Marcel and co-creator and producer Harry Robertson made the movie they wanted to make and, if nothing else, got the tone of the movie exactly right.

None of this happens in the movie.
Also, none of these people are the
actors in the film. 
Deathstalker (1983)
By 1983, he sword and sorcery “craze” was rapidly becoming a drive-in exploitation sub-genre, as this Roger Corman quickie ably demonstrates. Corman was famous for not spending a lot of money on his movies, and it shows in Deathstalker, where the biggest name on the marquee was Barbi Benton. Ironically, despite gossamer, diaphanous robes that were generous with the side-boob, the former Playboy playmate is the only woman in the movie who doesn’t get nekkid at some point. Apparently, she was in her “legitimate actress” phase, which is telling, since she’s the second-best actress in this mess.

The movie tries, and it knows, when to be clever—it gets a lot of special effects magic done with camera angles. This movie looks like a student film made by drunken Italians. Corman’s most impressive expense is the mediocre Foley work. The first twenty minutes of this movie is a ham-fisted non-sequitur; it’s not until the witch shows up that Deathstalker (or “Stalker” to his friends) is supposed to go after a sword, an amulet, and a chalice and get them all together, like the Deathly Hallows. Oh, and Barbi Benton, because, um…you know what? It doesn’t matter. The most powerful spell in the kingdom is apparently Polymorph, and the movie has more sexual assaults than the Game of Thrones Spring Break Special.  If you got anything of substance from this movie, aside from some prurient existentialism, I’m terrified to see how that made it into your weekly game.

There is a weirdly sad and bittersweet coda to watching this movie, and that’s seeing Lana Clarkson, who played the vivacious Kaira in the movie, and was so popular (no need to explain it to you why that was so) that she starred in a string of Roger Corman B-pictures including a title role in the 1985 schlock-fest that is Barbarian Queen. If you have seen these movies, you know instantly who I’m talking about, as she was very likely, um, instrumental, in your developmental years, if you know what I mean and I think you do. You may also recognize her name as the woman who was shot and killed by legendary record producer Phil Specter in 2003, which is not the way I wished to remember her, nor I’m sure anyone else, either. She deserved far better than an untimely death at the hands of that deranged homunculus.

Here's how you know this is a
fantasy movie: look at David
Carradine's rippling muscles. 
The Warrior & the Sorceress (1984)
Another Roger Corman masterpiece, starring David Carradine, who somehow fails to elevate the meager material, acting in a story co-written by William Stout—yes, THAT William Stout, legendary dinosaur artist who worked on the Conan the Barbarian production as well as a ton of other movies and great comics. William Stout! This movie is going to be awesome, right? Carradine plays a wandering warrior (see the title) named Kain (really, guys? Kain?) who enters a “town” and deals with bullies guarding a well. That sets off a chain of events that culminates in a massive battle in town with Kain in the middle of things.

For those of you who have no intention of ever re-watching this again (if you ever did in the first place), I’ll tell you what this is. It’s Yojimbo for the Sword and Sorcery crowd. That is to say, it’s the sword and sorcery version of A Fistful of Dollars. It’s a sword and sorcery version of Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” for folks who don’t read. Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Carradine is clearly just out of rehab—or maybe he was about to go in (he did have a fractured hand for the filming) and his awkward swordplay and nearly-martial arts moves are not crisp and fast, but he is greased lightning compared to the rest of the “stuntmen” he has to fight. He sets the pace, and that pace is weirdly laconic for so simple a story. The rival gang leaders at least embrace their roles; one of them has a muppet for a best friend, for crying out loud!

The “Sorceress’” sole contribution to the plot is largely that of a Maguffin, to be passed back and forth like a hot potato, but she later reveals that she is actually a plot coupon—for rescuing her, Kain is given the magic sword that only SHE can create. This sword, we are told, is the key to unfucking the town. Riiiiight.

Now, having said all that, and accepting the fact that this movie is woefully Crap-tastic, there is (or was, or will be) a thing to learn from this that you can apply to your D&D game: good plots have no home. If it’s a good story, you can make a game out of it. As gaming ever has been (and in particular, back in the day) a borrowing culture, this movie is a blueprint for swiping, say, Akira Kurasawa (or Dashiell Hammett, or Sergio Leone…) and shoehorning dynamic plots into your epic campaign.

The British quad almost conveys that classic sense of a
historical epic. Then you see Miles O'Keefe's face...
Sword of the Valiant (1984)
This list ends much as it began: with tales of the knights of the round table. In this case, it’s only one knight, Sir Gawain, but the movie itself borrows heavily from several conflating and overlapping legends in the various Arthurian tales. Sword of the Valiant was a Cannon Film Group cash grab starring Miles O’Keefe, back when the producers, Golan and Globus, were in their…well, let’s call it their “creative heyday.” Yeah, that’s it.

The story follows O’Keefe as the newly-knighted Sir Gawain and his encounter with the Green Knight, including the exchange of blows to the neck, the Green Knight’s delaying of the return blow, and Sir Gawain’s exploration of a year and a day, riding hither and yon, doing the deeds that have been assigned to other knights in the annals of our history and literature. This screenplay, written by director Stephen Weeks, is a shuffled deck of stories involving bits and pieces cobbled together from Le Morte d'Arthur and The Mabinogion, blending everything into a Cornish smoothie, or if you prefer, and kind of Cinematic Stone Soup.

Incidentally, Sword of the Valiant marks the second time Stephen Weeks tackled this subject; the first, made in 1973, was called (wait for it) Gawain and the Green Knight and starred Murray Head as Sir Gawain. You know, “One Night in Bangkok?” Yeah. On the other hand, Nigel Green is the Green Knight. I mention this because if you want something less cheesy and better acted, it’s not a bad version to track down.

Why am I even talking about this nearly-forgotten cinematic gem? Because it’s actually one of the better lesser efforts of any of the films. I’m not saying it’s great; after all, it’s got Miles O’Keefe in it. And he’s at his Miles O’Keefiest, with his chiseled good looks, Olympic diver’s physique, and all the charm and charisma of an eighth grader’s gym bag. There is not one single line of dialogue he utters that sounds like he believes it, or that it came from a human being. His career peaked at Tarzan, the Ape Man. In this movie, he’s rocking this blonde pageboy cut, sort of an Ubermensch Prince Valiant Look, and when he’s not strapped into plate armor of one kind or another, his “courtly clothes” and blonde hair make him look like he’s in an ABBA Tribute band.

Now, I told you that to tell you this: the movie also stars Sean Connery, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, David Rappaport, Emma Sutton, Cyrielle Claire, Trevor Howard and Peter-Freaking-Cushing. Full stop.

Or to put it another way, every single actor in this movie is a better one than the lead, and together, they are greater than the sum of their parts. And they mitigate (but do not obliterate) O’Keefe’s Spam-tastic performance.

The other thing this movie could have used less of, aside from Miles O’Keefe, is special effects. If there was ever a movie to use dramatic lighting, simple camera tricks, and absolutely no optical compositing, this would have been that movie. But magical things have to glow, apparently, and we’ve just got to use this expensive process to do it, only it’s shoddily handled in the movie, so it just draws a lot of attention to itself. Unlike Miles O’Keefe. They should have spent more time and money teaching O’Keefe how to sword fight instead.

The rest of the movie isn’t bad—it’s certainly way better than it has a right to be—and aside from a couple of logic leaps in the service of a story, for this is a Traditional Romance, at its heart—the mass battles work, as do the jousts, Connery is awesome as per usual, Brian Cobern (from Fiddler on the Roof) evidently didn’t get the memo that John Rhys-Davies was in the movie and he turns his mischievous Friar Vosper into Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie ends by simply ending, and it is sufficiently artsy, but mostly, it’s a relief that we are spared some more of what would have been the worst emoting ever from someone in an ABBA Tribute Band. Did I mention that O’Keefe sucks? 

Here’s the real take-away: despite the script playing very fast and very loose with all of that lovely source material, this movie shows what can be done with actual mythology and legend to bend it into the shape of a story, or a series of adventures, or both. If Sword of the Valiant doesn’t inspire you to read up on the tales of King Arthur, then you are missing out on primo source material for your Dungeons and Dragons games.

Later in the decade, these movies and their ilk would all return with recycled plots and female leads, because like any exploitation genre, when the initial interest wanes, add more naked flesh. Around the same time, another genre was being capitalized upon by the emerging direct-to-video market: the post-apocalypse flick, (presumably because motorcycles were easier and cheaper to crash than horses) often set in the same desert as sword and sorcery films and utilizing the same costumes in an effort to squeeze as much money out of the shrinking budget as possible. The women in these clunkers were either despotic rulers or inarticulate savages. Or is that the men? I can’t keep them straight, and neither could anyone else. But it all coalesced and conspired to render sword and sorcery and fantasy films as little more than a punch line for more than ten years. 

___________

Assuming you are still engaged after wading through all that, here are the other articles in the series:

The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 1: Primary Sources
The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 2: The Ray Harryhausen Playbook
The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 3: Secondary Sources
The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 4: The Best of the Rest
The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 5: The End of an Era

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