The Barbarians (1987) -****
It isn’t often that you see a movie exemplify this many moribund things at the same time. By 1987, the vogue for fantasy adventure films that arose at the beginning of the decade was very nearly played out, and the barbarian subgenre specifically was in such a sorry state that guys like Jim Wynorski and Harry Alan Towers were getting involved. Within another three years or so, not even the direct-to-video market would have any more use for swords and sorcery (although Deathstalker IV and a couple much-belated Beastmaster sequels would do sad little belly-flops into the home video pool in the early 90’s). The Great Italian Rip-Off Machine was winding down, too, after a glorious 30-year run. Again, it would sputter on for a little while yet, but The Barbarians was among the last small group of Italian exploitation movies to gain a wide overseas release, or to attract much international attention. And then there was the looming demise of this movie’s American distributors, the Cannon Group. That part of the equation wouldn’t have been obvious at the time, save perhaps to the company’s accountants. 1986 and 1987 were actually banner years for Cannon, a time of grandiose projects and big acquisitions. The firm released no fewer than 43 films in ‘86, and bought Thorn EMI’s Screen Entertainment division, which had not been performing up to the parent company’s expectations. Meanwhile, Cannon leased the similarly underperforming Superman movie franchise from Warner Brothers, and purchased film-rights options on some other potentially important properties: Spider-Man and Captain America from Marvel Comics, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe from Mattel. Nevertheless, the warning signs were there, if you knew where to look. Far too many of those 43 movies from the 1986 lineup flopped. Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment was no better a moneymaker for its new owners than it was for the previous ones. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had its budget cut in half, from $34 million to $17 million, and still crashed and burned at the box office. Cannon’s Spider-Man and Captain America never got made at all. And although Masters of the Universe came out on schedule despite a sharp back-and-forth battle of cost overruns and budget cuts, Cannon turned a profit on it only by stiffing Mattel on the character license. (Which is part of how Masters of the Universe 2 mutated into Cyborg, but that’s another story.) So all in all, this was not a healthy company. The Barbarians thus heralded not the end of an era, but the end of three eras, and given which specific ones we’re talking about, this amiably witless picture seems a fitting conclusion to all of them.
The setting is an unnamed land in an unnamed time more or less equivalent to Robert E. Howard’s Hyborean Age. Wandering across this primeval world are a Gypsy-like tribe called the Ragniks, who (in sharp contradistinction to actual Gypsies) are loved wherever they go because of their mastery of the lively arts. That mastery is partly symbolized and partly enabled by a magical ruby once given to the Ragniks by a grateful king, which apparently stores the creative energy of all who ever perform within reach of its power, then puts it forth again in a positive feedback loop of ever more dazzling music, dance, acrobatics, and so forth. The ruby— called the Belly Stone, for that is how it’s traditionally worn— is handed down from one Ragnik queen to the next, and even plays some vaguely defined mystical role in the succession process. Now you might think something like the Belly Stone had a chance at being the one magical treasure in the cosmos of no interest to evil warlords. I mean, I can’t seriously picture Thulsa Doom hanging out on his Mountain of Power and saying, “To tell you the truth, all I ever really wanted was a career in the theater.” You never can tell what some people will covet, however. The country through which the Ragniks are currently trekking is indeed ruled by an evil warlord, and Kadar (Richard Lynch, from The Sword and the Sorcerer and Trancers II) has for some reason decided that he must have the Belly Stone. Of course, since Kadar’s appearance suggests that his character design began with somebody wondering what Richard Lynch’s Madonna impression would look like, I suppose it shouldn’t shock us to see that he has a rather eccentric approach to warlordship. Anyway, Kadar’s men attack the Ragnik caravan (the attendant carnage providing the sole evidence outside the credits themselves that The Barbarians was directed by Ruggero “Cannibal Holocaust” Deodato), and kidnap Queen Canary (Virginia Bryant). This does not win Kadar the Belly Stone, however, because Canary sent one of her subjects away to hide the gem while everyone’s attention was on the fighting. One of three orphan children recently adopted by the Ragniks— a girl named Kara— also escaped amid the chaos, but that won’t matter for a while, and its full significance won’t be felt until the third act. As for the other two orphans, Kutchek and Gore, they hurl themselves at Kadar in defense of Canary, and one of them even bites off some of the warlord’s fingers, but their heroism doesn’t avail them much. After Kadar’s pet sorceress, China (Sheeba Alahari), ascertains that they don’t know where the Belly Stone was taken, the twin boys are handed over to the Dirtmaster (Michael Berryman, of The Devil’s Rejects and Weird Science) for training as pit-fighters.
The Dirtmaster doesn’t just train the boys to fight, either. Via behaviorist conditioning techniques, he inculcates them with a burning hatred for anyone who wears a particular armored mask— a brass mask for one, and an iron mask for the other. The arena staff also keep the twins apart, allowing them to believe each other dead. The object, of course, is to lay the groundwork for the greatest show of the Dirtmaster’s career, in which Kutchek and Gore (who by this time have grown into Peter and David Paul) will be sent into the arena, each wearing the mask loathed by his brother. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone that the twins might lose or remove their helmets, however, or grasp the significance of the identical faces beneath them. In point of fact, Gore— very much the less intelligent of the two— needs Kutchek to walk him through the latter part (he assumes at first that Kutchek somehow stole his visage), but once the twins are finally on the same page, heaven help anyone who tries to steer the spectacle back on script. Kutchek and Gore do a lot of damage around Kadar’s capital while making their getaway.
Mind you, being the geniuses that they are, it doesn’t take the brothers long to fall into somebody else’s trap. Luckily, the next bunch to capture them are the Ragniks. Ibar (The Nun of Monza’s Franca Pistoni), now the de facto leader of the tribe, doesn’t recognize them at first; he also doesn’t recognize Kara, whom he similarly caught earlier that day. The misunderstanding nearly proves fatal for all concerned, but it does eventually get sorted out, and sorting it out launches the trio of orphans on an epic Plot Coupon quest with the ultimate aim of recovering the Belly Stone. First they’ll have to return to Kadar’s capital and infiltrate the palace, preferably to rescue Canary, but at the very least to learn from her what became of the ruby. Then they’ll have to journey to the gem’s picturesquely lethal hiding place, but before they reach the Belly Stone itself, they’ll need to detour to a secret cave where some ancient personage considerately stashed an arsenal of magical arms and armor. That’s because the ruby is guarded by a dragon far too powerful to be fought with conventional weaponry. The trouble is, Kadar and his minions will be undertaking much the same quest, for China has finally grown impatient enough to disregard her master’s orders regarding the terms of Canary’s captivity. Whereas His Fabulousness has been content to rely thus far on his nonexistent charm to loosen Canary’s tongue on the subject of the Belly Stone, China takes the direct approach, and tortures the desired information out of her. Oh— and as if Kadar, his army, a witch, and a dragon weren’t trouble enough for Kutchek, Gore, and Kara, there’s also the small matter of Jocko the bandit chieftain (George Eastman, from Ironmaster and Hands of Steel).
Sometimes, when filmmakers realize that a genre is past its sell-by date, they become absolutely fearless about throwing every idea they can think of into its framework, regardless of whether those ideas make any sense either individually or in combination. The Barbarians is right up there with The Face of Marble as an example of such creative abandon. Richard Lynch as a bronze-age disco diva? Why not? A talisman conferring the Power of Showmanship as the motivating force of the plot? Sure, that too! Two constantly bickering morons as the heroes? Of course— gotta have something for the kids, after all! This movie’s plot structure is almost video game-like in its progression through a succession of incrementally greater challenges, and in its breezy disregard for the notion that any of these events should have significance beyond moving Kutchek and Gore along toward the next set-piece. The production design is beautifully off-kilter, as only the Italians were sufficiently shameless to manage. And I can practically hear Ruggero Deodato saying, “For real? You seriously mean to tell me that no barbarian movie this whole decade had a fire-breathing dragon in it?! Alright, then— that’s what our boys are going to fight to get that ruby.” Just about everything in The Barbarians is ridiculous, cheap, and fairly shitty, but there’s so much here, and it’s all done with such sincere (if often misguided) enthusiasm that I can picture nobody but the most determined grump failing to find something to entertain them.
It would be remiss of me, however, not to point out that The Barbarians also manages to do just a few things truly right. Kara, to start with, actually gets to be useful. Obviously this movie does have, in the form of Canary, a mostly passive damsel in distress who exists mainly to be rescued, but the point is, it has a heroine who’s good for something, too. Kara is the brains of the operation when she and the twins set off on their quest, keeping Kutchek and Gore on task and thinking their way through situations that can’t be resolved via the boys’ brawn. Unusually among heroines in genre fantasy, she genuinely earns the rewards that eventually come her way. Also, truth be told, The Barbarians does a few unexpected things with Canary— although discussing them would mean delving deeper into spoiler territory than I want to here. All the major villains have their moments of effectiveness despite their absurd appearances and frequently nonsensical motivations, even Jocko, whose presence in the story is little more than setup for a sight gag playing on George Eastman’s nearly freakish height. Most importantly, The Barbarians succeeds in one place where nearly every other 80’s barbarian movie failed— it’s funny when it actually tries to be.
I’ve observed before that the vast majority of the films made to cash in on Conan the Barbarian abandoned their model’s dead-serious tone, and injected at least a trace of deliberate camp. In most cases, the results weren’t pretty. The Barbarians is unusual because it comes by its camp without resorting to comic relief characters in the ordinary sense, and because its principal heroes don’t have to break character to get a laugh. Think about that terrible scene in Conan the Destroyer where Conan gets drunk beside the campfire, and makes an ass of himself like a moonshiner in a 1930’s Warner Brothers cartoon. The Barbarians never does anything like that. Instead, it goes for sort of a “Beavis and Butt Head” vibe with Kutcheck and Gore, relying on their relationship and personalities to power the humor. What we have here are two extremely stupid men (although Kutchek isn’t quite as dim as his brother) with a strong sibling rivalry, who are always trying to put one over on each other despite their visible mutual affection. Obviously, that flies in the face of our normal expectations regarding the heroes in stories of this type, but The Barbarians does it with perfect consistency. The twins don’t gain and lose IQ points according to the momentary needs of the plot, as so often happens in sloppily written exploitation movies (which The Barbarians certainly is otherwise). Thinking is never their strong suit, and cooperation is something they’re good at only when someone is actively trying to kill them. What’s more, Peter and David Paul have their shtick developed to a very high degree. It’s hard to imagine them ever not playing some variation on these characters, and I’m sure that would get old faster than a mayfly. But this one time, in this one film, it works.