Hawk the Slayer (1980) -***
I’d always been a bit skeptical of the claim that the 1980’s sword-and-sorcery craze was an extreme mutation of the Star Wars phenomenon, that producers who wanted a piece of the retro-pulp sci-fi action, but had no taste or talent for lasers and rocketships, decided to try getting rich by mining the culture’s legends of the distant past instead of its fantasies of the distant future. I mean, if you look at the movies that got the ball rolling in 1981— Excalibur, Dragonslayer, and Clash of the Titans— none of them seem to owe anything specific to George Lucas’s example beyond Industrial Light and Magic getting the monster-making contract for the second one. I therefore found Hawk the Slayer interesting far beyond its intrinsic merits as a cheap and cheesy fantasy flick, because this movie is the missing evolutionary link between post-Star Wars sci-fi and post-Excalibur sword-and-sorcery. Hawk the Slayer’s release predates those of all the trendsetting 80’s fantasy movies, and although it appeared late enough (premiering on British television in December of 1980 before going into theatrical release overseas) that it might possibly have been green-lit in response to rumors of John Boorman’s Arthurian epic, the evidence of a Star Wars and even Empire Strikes Back influence is plain enough to convince me. Equally remarkable, though, is the other big influence that Hawk the Slayer displays in lieu of the otherwise standard nods to films that it couldn’t copy because they didn’t yet exist. In its plotting, its score, its characterization of the heroes, its handling of the fight scenes, and even its casting of the primary villain, Hawk the Slayer is a Medieval spaghetti Western!
Lord Whatshisname of Somewheria (Ferdy Mayne, of Conan the Destroyer and Howling II) has two sons, one good, the other evil. When the elder brother, Voltan (Jack Palance, from Cyborg 2 and Outlaw of Gor) comes around demanding “the key to the ancient power,” Dad replies that it is not for such as him to possess. Voltan runs his father through with his sword at that point, demonstrating that he’s the bad kid for anyone too thick to figure it out from either his name or his appearance. Luckily, little brother Hawk (The Resurrected’s John Terry, looking disturbingly like a young and athletic John Cleese) happens along before His Lordship expires, and although it’s too late to do anything for the old man, a short time remains for him to pass along to Hawk that secret Voltan wanted. Lord Whatshisname happens to own the last of the Elven Mindstones, which when installed in the pommel of the Great Sword will transform it into the Mindsword. The enchanted weapon reads the intentions of the man who wields it, and can even move about on its own in response to those intentions. You can see why the old nobleman would want to keep such power very far out of Voltan’s reach. Hawk does as his father instructs, and vows that Voltan will someday die by the Mindsword’s blade.
Later and elsewhere, Voltan, his son Drogo (Shane Briant, from Demons of the Mind and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), and his army lay waste to a village, slaughtering all of its inhabitants save one. Naturally they meant to kill Ranulf (Morgan Sheppard, of The Doctor and the Devils and The Keep) too, but he gave them the slip. Badly wounded, Ranulf nevertheless reaches the relative sanctuary of Cadonbury, convent of the Sisterhood of the Holy Word. The nuns there treat his injuries, but soon have reason to regret their intervention. That’s because Voltan comes in pursuit of the escapee, and after working him over sufficiently that he can be credibly left for dead, the warlord seizes the Abbess of Cadonbury (Annette Crosbie) to hold for ransom. Voltan knows the church has plenty of money, and unless the Sisterhood forks over 2000 gold pieces within 30 days, the abbess will die nastily. Sister Monica (Cheryl Campbell) and the rest of the nuns are driven nearly to panic; rich or not, their church strictly forbids paying ransom for any of its officials, for fear that it would otherwise become the target of every villain, scoundrel, and rat-bastard in the land. Nevertheless, Ranulf (who isn’t half as dead as he looks) assures the sisters that Voltan means business. Not knowing what else to do, Monica has the man patched up again, and directs him to the holy fortress of Danesford for a consultation with the High Abbott (Harry Andrews, from Theater of Blood and The Medusa Touch).
The High Abbott in turn sends Ranulf out after somebody else, this time a mighty warrior who has helped his sect in the past. Yes, that would be Hawk, who at this particular moment is rescuing a blind woman (Patricia Quinn, of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Shock Treatment) from two ruffians who mean to burn her as a witch. Actually, they’re right about her as far as that goes, but she’s a good witch, a concept that her persecutors are unprepared to recognize. In gratitude for chasing off the Matthew Hopkins wannabes, the witch tells Hawk his fortune, pointing him toward Ranulf— who is also afflicted by ruffians when Hawk catches up to him. Indeed, this whole territory seems veritably infested with ruffians today, to the extent that the next three people Hawk meets all require his immediate aid in dealing with them. Those three are old friends of his whom he decides to enlist for the fight against Voltan: the giant Gort (Bernard Breslaw, from Moon Zero Two and Krull), Crow the Elf (Ray Charleson, from Dark Corners and Prisoners of the Lost Universe), and Baldin the Dwarf (Peter O’Farrell, of Legend and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). With them, the witch, and Ranulf at his side, Hawk figures he’ll be in a strong enough position to tackle whatever surprises his brother might throw at him.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the first thing Hawk recommends for the Sisterhood of the Holy Word is to scrape together the two grand for the abbess’s ransom. That’s not because he sees any point in paying it— we’re dealing, after all, with the guy who murdered Hawk’s wife (played in flashbacks by Catriona MacCall, from The House by the Cemetery and Afraid of the Dark) simply for having the temerity to love Hawk instead of him— but because it never hurts to have a Plan B. Now we already know the church won’t be loosening the purse strings any time soon, so Hawk proposes to steal the money from Chak the hunchback (Eddie Stacey, of Flash Gordon and Alien Prey), leader of the local slave traders. Mugging and shakedowns might seem a little outside the proper repertoire of heroes, but it’s not like Hawk is suggesting they rob the Girl Scouts. Once the gold is in their possession, Hawk wants the Sisterhood of the Holy Word to sit tight until Voltan’s deadline elapses. Then, as the tyrant marches his forces in the direction of Cadonbury, Hawk and his associates will whittle the army down with guerilla raids until the opportunity arises to take out Voltan himself. The one flaw in this scheme is that Sister Monica is sure it’s suicide. The closer Voltan and his troops approach, the more strongly tempted she is to trust in the villain’s nonexistent mercy, and hand over both the ransom money and Cadonbury’s self-appointed defenders.
The Star Wars influence on Hawk the Slayer probably isn’t obvious from the plotline alone. After all, “Oddball heroes band together to rescue female authority figure from evil warlord’s captivity” is hardly a premise original to George Lucas. No, with this movie, the copying is in the details. To get it, you’d have to watch Hawk wielding the Mindsword, knocking arrows and crossbow bolts out of the air like Luke Skywalker parrying blaster fire, and calling the sword to his hand by telekinesis. You’d have to know that Mrs. Hawk whapped Voltan upside the head with a burning torch while he was killing her, so that he now can’t go out in public without wearing a broadly flanged helmet that conceals about three fifths of his face— and you’d have to observe Voltan’s habit of strangling subordinates who piss him off. I’d have to tell you about a character who exists for absolutely no reason but to update the Darth Vader resemblance to Empire Strikes Back standard, the mysterious, cowled sorcerer (Peter Benson, from Cry of the Banshee and The Shout) with whom Voltan consults while having his face operated on, who seems to be pulling the warlord’s strings in some vague way, to some even vaguer purpose. I’d have to call attention to how the Hawk-Voltan relationship seems to split the difference between both versions of the Luke-Vader one: Voltan is a brother old enough to be a father, and he really did kill Hawk’s dad. Even Sister Monica’s betrayal starts to look a lot like Lando Calrisian’s when you consider all the other ways Hawk the Slayer references Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
The spaghetti Western references are even more blatant, however, and in some ways more interesting in the context of a sword-and-sorcery film. Start with Voltan’s master plan to extort a markedly small fortune from a bunch of nuns. Doesn’t that sound more Sergio Leone than Robert E. Howard? Then there’s the remarkable moral flexibility of the heroes. Not only do Hawk and his buddies steal the ransom money for the abbess (albeit from criminals only slightly less foul than Voltan himself), but his plan for dealing with his brother basically boils down to “We all know Voltan’s just going to double-cross us, so we’re going to double-cross him first.” There are non-diegetic spaghetti Western riffs, too, like a score that shamelessly rips off the most famous cues from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and writer/director Terry Marcel’s tendency to stage every one of Hawk’s numerous solo battles like a Clint Eastwood gunfight, with lots of staring down and standing around leading up to a sudden eruption of violence too fast for the camera to follow. Even the casting of Jack Palance as Voltan has a distinct aroma of Sergio Corbucci, who directed Palance in Compañeros and The Mercenary. For that matter, although this is a reference to an American Western instead of an Italian one, Hawk the Slayer very thoroughly reconstructs the famous scene from Shane in which Palance’s character forces a prospective victim to pick up a gun, so that he won’t be seen murdering an unarmed man. What intrigues me about all this not even thinly disguised borrowing from Westerns is that it plays up how early Hawk the Slayer was made. Two years later, a bottom-feeding sword-and-sorcery flick like this one would be ripping off Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, or maybe Dragonslayer, but Terry Marcel didn’t have that option. He had to content himself with ripping off the previous craze for movies about wandering loner heroes doling out righteous violence in a lawless land.
The other point raised by Hawk the Slayer’s resemblance to spaghetti Westerns is its equal resemblance to Italian exploitation movies more generally. Indeed, I was astonished to discover no behind-the-scenes Italian involvement in this movie’s creation— no investment from Ovidio Assonitis, no co-producer credit for Fabrizio De Angelis, no cinematography by Sergio Salvatti or Gianfranco Maioletti. The clunky sets, the wacky production design, the gonzo-disco main title theme, the “English as a second language” line readings— hell, even the casting of Catriona MacColl— all of it practically screams “Anglo-Italian co-production.” I mean, take one look at the Mindsword, with its fist-shaped pommel gripping a glowing rock, and then tell me it doesn’t immediately make you think of The Barbarians or Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules. Listen to Palance bellowing out to his sorcerer pal, “WIZAAAAAAAARRRRD!!!! Help me! You promised me AAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLL… in return for MYYYYYYYYYYYY… SWOOOORRRRD AAAAARRRRRM!” as if delivering the line according to instructions from someone who has no idea how those words would naturally be spoken, and then tell me it doesn’t remind you of the poor saps in Troll 2 trying to give Claudio Fragasso what he demanded from their dialogue. Behold the naïve special effects meant to portray the superhuman speed with which Crow can fire off his arrows, and try not to think of the comparably crude tricks used to depict superpowers in The Pumaman. And yet there’s not an -ello, an -ini, or an -etti to be found anywhere among the names of the major crewmembers. The Brits have nobody to blame for Hawk the Slayer but themselves.