Film goes through phases. Sometime, digital animation rules. Then we get a heaping helping of gross out comedies. A gimmick like 3D can come along and set the standard for a while only to make way for something even more stunt-like. The cyclical nature of cinema can be sparked by the times (the post-modern movement of the ’70s) or the arrival of a game changing concept (the sci-fi blockbuster bonanza post-Star Wars). In Italy, at the end of the ’50s, filmmakers were looking for a way out of the gloomy authenticity of neo-realism. They wanted more entertainment value and less social commentary. Enter the peplum, the sword and sandal epics that saw stars like Steve Reeves reinvent their image as mighty gladiatorial warriors.
With the success of the genre came an entire new realm of action and adventure. Filmmakers around the world embraced the concept and then decided to expand its elements. They found new and often exciting ways to reinvent it for their own needs, looking to both the distant past and the far off future. Thus, we had variations such as the historical period piece, the barely costumed cautionary tale, and of course, the sci-fi influenced sword and sorcery take. Over the last four decades there have been dozens of attempts to take the material out of its comic book/pulp fiction orientation and turn it into something magical. For the most part, they are often considered nothing more than bumbling b-movies.
The most recent example (a remake of the noted Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan vehicle from the ’80s, now out on DVD and Blu-ray) argues for both the good and the bad within the archetypes. For the most part, many of these movies fail upward. Still, there are several examples of their overall artistic bent. Thus we have a considered list of the 10 Best Sword and Sorcery Films of All Time. While few are masterworks, most make the investment well worth the traveling back in time, including a pen and ink product aided by an illustrator who almost singlehandedly redefined the concept:
While it is less of a classic and more of a oddity, this Ralph Bakshi/Frank Frazetta collaboration definitely delivers what it promises. It’s a bloody, bodice ripping revision of the entire fantasy ideal. With its basic story and arch approach (it was created using the live action to animation technique known as rotoscoping), it plays more like a misfire and less like a brawn and broadsword achievement. Yet the stuck in the ’70s, FM radio appeal of the project cannot be denied. Frazetta finery may have adorned the sides of a sizable number of Me Decade vans, but he had a pure eye for such material. Bakshi then did his best to make it come to life.
Lucio Fulci’s jump into the post-peplum furor remains a splendidly disjointed mess, an unstuck in time reinvention of the sword and sorcery saga crafted into a montage of mostly meaningless images that still somehow add up to pure cinematic cheese. Mixing animal-skinned heroes with anthropomorphic archery skills into a strange simmering swamp of zombies, Chewbacca like dogmen, pasty-faced cave dwellers, topless temple tantalizing, as well as far too many sequences of senseless landscapes, Fulci creates his own private universe. He then garnishes the whole thing with a great deal of foggy camera work to turn the ephemeral into the borderline unwatchable. Oddly, it all works.
By the beginning of the ’80s, Disney’s live action fare was floundering. Known more for disasters like Super Dad and Gus, the studio wanted to navigate more mature cinematic waters. Working with Paramount (which distributed the film in the US), the House of Mouse gave actor turned writer/director Matthew Robbins the greenlight to make his brick and mortar version of the Middle Ages. Utilizing cutting edge technology (the dragon sequences were realized through a combination of physical F/X and detailed camera trickery) and staying true to his antithetical approach, the results reinvigorated the studio, paving the way for the introduction of Touchstone’s more mature output.
Whenever fans wonder why Ralph Bakshi dropped his urban hipster heroism (in films like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic) to speculate of certain far out fictional visions, Wizards is the answer. Long a passion for the controversial animator, it was his chance to rebound after the disastrous miscalculation of Coonskin. Considered racist and culturally insensitive by many outside the medium, Bakshi relied on this allegorical tale of technology vs. nature to reestablish his cartooning credentials. It worked, pushing him in the direction of the most famous fantasy series of all – The Lord of the Rings. There, he would pave the way for a certain live action take on the material.
If all you are looking for is a solid action, Marcus Nispel’s reimagining of the pulp character will serve your needs nicely. Insanely, but nicely. Working from a committee script long in development, takes a simple story and then goes from gory gonzo set-piece to gory gonzo set-piece piling on the violence. There are sword battles and fist fights, sand zombies and predatory pirates. From sinister sea monsters to a sharp toothed humanoid lizard man army, this is speculative fiction by way of perverse peplum. As veins are drained and heads role, we become transfixed by what Nispel is doing, and how he has chosen to magnify the mayhem.
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Perhaps the original sword and sorcery tale, the legend of King Arthur has everything the genre mandates – magicians, royal discord, battles, enchanted birthrights, and that classic collection of round table knights. Still, it took Englishman John Boorman to dig beneath the pomp and circumstance to find the grime and lust in this tale of Britain’s beginnings. Visually sumptuous – perhaps too much so – the filmmaker attempted to merge history with the histrionics of the storied myth. The results remain as authentic as a film like this can manage, a stirring and often stunning visualization of one nation’s unknown heritage.
For Rob Bottin’s fantastic fantasy make-up alone, this movie deserves its spot in the countdown. Tim Curry, the sweet transvestite refugee from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is buried in a devil get-up so sophisticated and realistic that, even today, fans are still mystified as to how said look was actually accomplished. The F/X literally defy easy identification. As for the rest of the film, it’s the same basic balance between good and evil, with Tom Cruise helping Mia Sara save the unicorns from the foul forces of the underworld. It’s much darker and more deliberate than it sounds, thanks in part to Ridley Scott’s lush and eerie visuals.
It remains a stunning achievement for any filmmaker, a finishing move that any cinematic combatant would be proud of. That Peter Jackson is treking through Tolkien land yet again for another two films in the overall Hobbit mythos means audiences and admirers have even more to chew on and champion. There is no denying the scope and epic nature of what the New Zealand artist accomplished here. Lovers of the books long believed that no one could do them justice, not visually or narratively. By combining his strengths with long stretches outside his comfort zone, Jackson justified New World’s decision to gamble. Dozens of Oscars and billions of dollars later, the payoff resulted in three motion picture masterpieces…with more to come, hopefully.