The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) ***
Albert Pyun is another one of my great cinematic nemeses; if you watch anywhere near as many low-budget movies as I do, he’s probably one of yours, too. Pyun’s big claim to fame is his nearly sure-fire touch with what ought to be a categorically impossible subgenre, the action-less action movie. No filmmaker I know of, living or dead, can match Pyun’s ability to drag out a fight scene until the audience loses all interest, or to craft a maddeningly convoluted story that never develops even the faintest hint of forward momentum. Andy Sidaris comes close, on occasion, but even his worst movies offer the minimally redeeming feature of Julie Strain’s tits in the starring roles. Pyun’s resume, on the other hand, reads like a veritable rogue’s gallery of the annoying and soporific: Cyborg, the Nemesis series, the agonizingly bad 1991 Captain America movie... So here’s one to ponder— how is it possible that The Sword and the Sorcerer, Pyun’s very first movie, was not only the best thing he ever made (which, after all, isn’t saying much), but is also in the top rank of early-80’s Conan rip-offs?
Not that we’re talking about high art or anything, but in stark contrast to everything else Pyun’s done, The Sword and the Sorcerer moves— and moves fast— the whole way through. In the early hours of a morning “when the world was young” (to quote the voiceover narrator), would-be world-conqueror Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch, of God Told Me To and Deathsport) arrives by boat with a witch and several soldiers on a small island far from his own kingdom. Deep in a cave in one of the sea cliffs overlooking the beach lies the tomb of the demon-sorcerer Xusia (Richard Moll, from House and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn), whom Cromwell wants the witch to resurrect for him. The next territory on Cromwell’s itinerary of conquest is the kingdom of Ehdan, which happens to be one of those paradoxical lands full of peace-loving shit-kickers against which every fantasy movie bad guy simply must array his forces at least once during his career. The people of Ehdan, led by the wise and good King Richard, have thus far beaten off every offensive from Cromwell’s armies, and it is for that reason that the king wants Xusia brought back to life. The call for Satanic backup has its intended effect, and within weeks, Ehdan lies prostrate at Cromwell’s feet. As Richard prepares to ride out with the last of his men at arms, leaving his younger son, Talon, with an extremely unwieldy-looking magic sword and instructions to avenge him should he fall, the victorious Cromwell arranges two acts of moustache-twirling treachery. First, he sends a detachment of men to intercept the queen of Ehdan on her escape route with the two heirs to the throne. Then he stabs Xusia and tosses him off a convenient cliff while the sorcerer is exhausted from a hard day of conjuring the forces of darkness. King Richard’s last-ditch effort to save his crown fails miserably, and Cromwell takes the entire royal family captive— all, that is, except Talon, who escapes due to the ass-kicking efficacy of his father’s magic sword after watching his parents die and his sister, Elizabeth, being hauled off to a life of slavery.
Now about that magic sword... This is quite an amazing piece of cutlery we’ve got here, and chances are that if you remember anything at all about this movie, the sword will be it. For one thing, it’s got three blades. And I’m not talking about something like Darth Maul’s dual lightsaber outfitted with a cutting edge on the finger guard, either— this thing has three parallel blades of more or less equal length projecting from a ridiculously complicated hilt in normal broadsword fashion. You might ask just what in the hell one is supposed to do with a three-bladed sword, but it all becomes clear when Talon, while escaping from Cromwell’s soldiers, points his whack-ass weapon at one of them and launches one of the secondary blades at him!!!! He then does the same to the second of his pursuers with the other spare blade. And as we shall see later, the main blade has yet another, dagger-sized blade sheathed inside it. Evidently King Richard gets his magic swords from the Swiss army.
Anyway, as the years pass after his escape from King Cromwell, Talon grows up to be Lee Horsley, winning for himself a reputation as a man who is not to be fucked with. When we see him next, he is the leader of a band of mercenaries who are on the way to bail out a certain King Lambosia, whose rule is threatened by some unspecified peril. But it just so happens that the road to Lambosia’s kingdom leads through Ehdan, and Talon announces to his men that they will be making a detour in order that he might repay an old debt. To judge from the changes the kingdom has undergone, the difference between Cromwell’s reign and Richard’s must be dramatic indeed. In the preceding scene, Ehdan had a distinctly Califomian look to it— now it's being stood in for by Istanbul! Talon’s knack for being in the right place at the right time serves him well upon his arrival, for he soon finds himself in a position to intervene when the leaders of the local revolutionary movement are betrayed by Count Machelli (The Satan Bug's George Maharis), Cromwell’s war chancellor and the rebels’ supposed ally within the royal court. The wandering adventurer is too late to prevent the capture of Prince Mikah (Simon MacCorkindale, from Jaws 3-D and The Quatermass Conclusion)— who, as a cousin of King Richard, is widely regarded as the rightful heir to the throne— but he does manage to save Mikah’s sister, Alana (Kathleen Beller, of Rapacini’s Daughter and Are You in the House Alone?). Then, after making a deal according to which he gets to bed Alana in exchange for his services, Talon sneaks off to rescue another bunch of revolutionaries from Cromwell’s elite Red Dragon archers. The archers get their name from the blowtorch-like pilot lights on their longbows, which ignite their pitch-smeared arrows upon launching; unfortunately for them, those torches also serve to ignite the archers when Talon douses the lot of them with oil from a rocky prominence above them.
The leader of the rebels rescued thereby is named Rodrigo (Anthony De Longis, from The Warrior and the Sorceress and Cybertracker 2), and the next morning, he and several of his fellows show Talon to a drainage pipe that leads from the seashore into the cellar of Cromwell’s castle. Talon thinks he’s going to infiltrate the castle and spring Prince Mikah from the king’s dungeon, but in actual fact, he and his newfound comrades are all going to wind up in it themselves. Meanwhile, Cromwell and his head torturer, Verdugo (Robert Tessier, of Starcrash and The Lost Empire), will go right on questioning the prince; Cromwell is convinced that the real leader of the rebellion is a resurrected Xusia, and if that’s so, then Cromwell means to kill him again and do it right this time. Mikah and the other rebels are eventually freed, but the thanks is due as much to Cromwell’s concubine, Elizabeth (Anna Bjorn)— who nobody seems to realize is King Richard’s daughter and thus Talon’s long-lost sister— as it is to the man who officially undertook to effect the rescue. While the lot of them make their way back through the tunnel to safety, Cromwell focuses the efforts of his guards on Talon, believing him to be Xusia in disguise. Meanwhile, another bunch of the king’s troops round up Alana and bring her back to the castle.
It is from Elizabeth that Talon’s men learn of their leader’s capture and impending crucifixion, the latter scheduled to coincide with a banquet Cromwell is throwing in honor of his marriage to Alana, which he hopes will silence the rebellion by conferring dynastic legitimacy upon his claim to Ehdan’s throne. (Why he didn’t just marry Elizabeth— the rightful king’s daughter for fuck’s sake— is entirely beyond me.) It’s a good thing for Talon that Elizabeth finds his colleagues while they’re busy availing themselves of the most popular whorehouse in the shipping district, because word of Talon’s plight spreads rapidly throughout the brothel’s clientele of pirates. In the words of one Captain Morgan (Earl Maynard, from Black Belt Jones and Truck Turner), “half the sea-dogs in this port owe their life to him,” and the captive hero soon has quite a little army rushing to his rescue. Then again, maybe just a little bit less rushing was in order— both the pirates and Talon’s company of mercenaries wind up in the dungeon almost instantly.
Marrying Alana and crucifying Talon aren’t the only things Cromwell has planned for that banquet, either. The guest list includes the rulers of the last four independent kingdoms in his corner of the world: King Leonidas of Minoa (Peter Breck, of Shock Corridor and The Crawling Hand), King Sancho of Valencia (Alan Callou, from The Questor Tapes and The Ice Pirates, King Ludwig of someplace I didn’t catch the name of (Michael Evans), and King Charles of the Franks (Jay Robinson, from Skeeter and Nightmare Honeymoon). Unbeknownst to them, Cromwell has ordered the dining hall doors locked from the outside, and its balconies manned by his archers. As soon as the marriage ceremony is completed, the soldiers will begin raining arrows down on the guests, consolidating at last King Cromwell’s hold on the known world. But the visiting monarchs aren’t the only ones who don’t realize something about the situation in the banquet hall. Talon has served as a mercenary commander in the armies of Leonidas, Sancho, Ludwig, and Charles at one time or another, and all four owe him some mighty big favors— big enough, for instance, to help get him down from that cross at the far end of the room and take his side in the ensuing struggle against Cromwell and his men. Meanwhile, the rest of Cromwell’s concubines sneak down to the dungeon and turn the imprisoned pirates and mercenaries loose; one assumes that the brief look the girls got at Talon the night before when his route through the castle took him into the harem was more than enough to endear him to them. Alana breaks away from Cromwell in all the confusion, and links up with Machelli— whose earlier betrayal of her and her brother is still unknown to her— and flees to the castle cellar. Once there, Alana discovers that Cromwell was right after all. Xusia did have a hand in the rebellion, but it wasn’t quite the one His Majesty imagined. In the guise of Machelli, the wily old sorcerer has been playing both factions against each other for his own ends. But before Xusia has had a chance to eliminate Alana, Cromwell catches up to the two of them, and then Talon catches up with Cromwell. So is there even one room in the castle that doesn’t have some kind of lethal free-for-all going on inside it at this point?
You might expect the first of the fantasy movies made in the wake of Conan the Barbarian to be an especially shameless— and especially wretched— copy, but that’s not quite the case with The Sword and the Sorcerer. There is much about the film that’s silly and illogical, but if nothing else, it accomplishes the most important mission of the action/ adventure movie: it’s consistently exciting and entertaining. There are also a couple of intriguing ideas to be found in the story, if you’re willing to look for them. Particularly interesting to me is the way Talon relates to the goings on in his former home. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Talon, and not Prince Mikah, is the real heir to the throne of Ehdan. After defeating Cromwell, you might think he would proclaim his descent from King Richard and take his rightful place, but he does nothing of the sort. Instead, he simply takes his cousin to bed as per their agreement, and then rides off with his men to fulfill their prior commitment to the mysterious King Lambosia. (This, presumably, would have been the basis for The Tale of the Ancient Empire, the sequel promised by the closing credits, had it ever actually been made.) This is a striking divergence from the form, and puts Talon more in company with the drifter heroes of the Spaghetti Westerns than with earlier fairy-tale swordsmen.
The Sword and the Sorcerer also distinguishes itself by not slavishly copying Conan the Barbarian, particularly where tone is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, now— there is an awful lot of Conan in this movie. The narrator’s summation of Talon’s early career as “a slave, a rogue, a general” could just as easily describe the beginning of Conan’s adventuring days. Both heroes are set upon their paths by the murder of their families at the hands of a rapacious conqueror, revenge against whom becomes a major motivating factor in their lives. Both movies involve an evil, shape-changing wizard. Hell, both heroes end up getting crucified as a result of their first sallies against the main villain! But The Sword and the Sorcerer owes as much to the swashbuckling adventure movies of the 30’s and 40’s as it does to Conan the Barbarian. Talon is as quick with a telling verbal barb as he is with his preposterous triple-bladed sword, and it seems to me that Douglas Fairbanks would have been perfectly at ease with him— a hero who consorts equally with pirates, mercenaries, rebels, and kings, and who makes his grand exit from the scene of his greatest triumph by swinging across the room on a hanging tapestry with a beautiful and willing woman in his arms. What’s more, The Sword and the Sorcerer has an easy wit to it that its most obvious model lacks completely. John Milius never would have followed the raising of the brothel army with a jump cut to the same men bickering sullenly in Cromwell’s dungeon. Indeed, in this respect, The Sword and the Sorcerer would be far more influential than its better known predecessor, as one maker of barbarian movies after another found himself unable to take the material entirely seriously.
The other way in which The Sword and the Sorcerer left a deeper mark on its genre than Conan the Barbarian has to do with its treatment of magic. It was with this movie that the sorcery element of 1980’s sword and sorcery fantasy really came into its own. Magic in Conan the Barbarian was mostly stage dressing. There were a pair of wizards, a demon witch, a few evil spirits, and a giant snake, but none of those things really had much impact on the story; even Thulsa Doom was not as important for being a sorcerer as he was for being a leader of men. But here it is expressly Xusia’s magic that enables Cromwell to conquer Ehdan, that allows the evil wizard to manipulate the struggle between the king and Prince Mikah’s rebels. There is also the matter of Talon’s enchanted sword, which is the only weapon capable of killing Xusia permanently, and which greatly increases Talon’s fighting power against normal foes— note that the one time we see Talon lose, he is fighting with a scimitar stolen from one of Cromwell’s guards. Compare this to the first Conan film, in which Valeria takes on a pack of ghosts with nothing but a puny little dagger and a tremendous reserve of sheer animal ferocity, yet succeeds in holding them at bay. There, magic was no match for muscle; here, it’s wizardry that has the upper hand, and most subsequent fantasy films would follow suit. It’s just too bad that most of those later movies weren’t as good as this.