Julien Neaves, Editor
Flashback forty years to 1982 and we had quite the year for sword and sorcery films. In April there was the cult classic (and mostly forgotten) The Sword and the Sorcerer, the following month the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Conan the Barbarian was released, and then in August there was the cult classic (and a personal favourite) The Beastmaster. With all three films celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year I thought simple retro reviews would not suffice. No, in the spirit of steel against steel and steel against flesh, we will be orchestrating a showdown amongst the three films.
So here are the rules—each film will be judged in six categories and awarded points out of five. Whichever film gets the most total points is declared champion. With a blood-stained SPOILER ALERT let the (completely subjective) contest begin!
Category #1 Heroes
The strength of a sword and sorcery film is in its hero, and it could mean the difference between being a beloved classic or relegated to the dusty archives of movie history. First up we have Conan from Conan the Barbarian, played by the man himself Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a young boy his Cimmerian village is slaughtered by raiders led by Thulsa Doom, who decapitates his mother right in front of him. Dang! Sold into slavery he grows into a mighty, loin cloth-wearing, muscle-bound warrior, and pound for pound the largest of the three heroes on this list. Schwarzenegger’s Conan is your archetypal warrior and what I assume most people conjure up when they think of a sword and sorcery hero. He is a man of actions over words and quests hard, fights hard, and loves hard. What is best in list? Conan!
Next up we have Beastmaster and Dar (Marc Singer), a prince of the Kingdom of Arux who was stolen from his mother’s womb by a witch under orders of evil high priest Maax and placed in a cow (yeah, it’s a lot). But he is rescued by a villager before he can be killed. He is then raised in the village of Emur and develops the ability to communicate with animals (likely from his surrogate cow mama) and later grown Dar will see his village slaughtered by the Juns, a horde of fanatical barbarians and allies to Maax. Singer’s Dar looks like your usual bare chested, loin cloth-wearing hero of these types of films, but he stands out by the very cool ability to telepathically communicate with animals (which blew my mind as an animal-loving child). Add to that Singer’s kind and charming performance and you have the quite the likeable and interesting protagonist.
And finally, we have Talon from The Sword and the Sorcerer, played by Lee Horsley. He was a young prince (like Dar) of the land of Ehdan which is attacked by King Titus Cromwell with the aid of the long-dead sorcerer Xusia of Delos. Ehdan is defeated, Talon is entrusted with his father King Richard’s triple-bladed projectile sword and instructed to avenge him if he is killed. And that was some good foresight, because soon after Talon sees his father executed. Though Talon has a similar origin to Dar and Conan he is a very different kind of beast. Instead of a noble warrior he is more of a cheeky pirate and a rogue. Heck, he only agrees to rescue Prince Mikah, who is leading a rebellion against Cromwell, when his sister Alana agrees to sleep with him. Not cool dude, not cool. In terms of costume, he wears a ridiculously gaudy fur coat most of the time before later switching to the usual bare-chested look. I didn’t find Talon all that likeable and kind of forgettable.
The Beastmaster: 4 out of 5
Conan the Barbarian: 5 out 5
Sword and Sorcery: 3 out of 5
Category #2 Companions and Lovers
What good is a hero without companions at his side and a woman in his bed? And what is sweeter than having feisty thieving ferrets, a massive black tiger and a gorgeous golden eagle as your companions? Nothing. The answer is nothing. Yeah, Dar is easily the frontrunner. And he also has the human allies of fierce and wise warrior Seth (John Amos) and useful younger brother Tal. In terms of his lover, Singer has a sweet chemistry with resilient slave girl Kiri (played by a luminous Tanya Roberts).
That’s not to say Conan the Barbarian does not give some strong competition in this category. Hyrkanian thief and archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez) is okay, but Mako’s eccentric wizard Akiro is iconic, and Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria is as glorious a warrior as she is a lover. Her relationship with Conan is electric and both her death and spirit return were unexpectedly touching moments in a film of blood and steel.
The less said about The Sword and the Sorcerer in this category the better. Murphy Brown’s Joe Regalbuto is meh as Darius, and Morgan (Barbados-born Earl Maynard) see his over-the-top antics only matched by his awful wig. And there is zero chemistry between Talon and Kathleen Beller’s Princess Alana in a relationship that begins on shaky ground and never gets any better. Moving right along.
TB: 5 out of 5 (Total so far 9)
CTB: 4 out of 5 (Total so far 9)
TS&TS: 1 out of 5 (Total so far 4)
Category #3 Main Villains
Two words: Thulsa Freakin’ Doom! Okay that’s three words. But seriously, there is no villain in these films that casts a longer shadow than James Earl Jones’ tyrannical snake cult leader. By just standing and not even speaking a word he exudes so much power and menace and evil presence. And when he does speak (in Earl’s rich baritone no less) it is with an intelligence and almost poetic flair. Which makes it even creepier than if he was some shouting, over-the-top bad guy. Oh, and he turns into a large snake as well. Taking the whole serpent thing a little far there, eh pal? And when he is not decapitating defenseless women, he is ordering one of his brainwashed zealots to commit suicide. Truly a love-to-hate villain that we enjoy seeing get his comeuppance as much as Conan himself.
The big bads in the other two films are kind of generic. In Beastmaster, veteran actor Rip Torn has the creepy look as high priest Maax and the Jun leader is an imposing physical figure but nothing else. In The Sword and the Sorcerer, we have Richard Lynch as power hungry Titus Cromwell. Lynch has made a career of playing villains on both the large and small screen, and he is solid here as well. Night Court’s Richard Moll plays demon sorcerer Xusia with some half decent makeup effects. But he does very little as the character spends most of the film hidden as Cromwell’s War Chancellor Machelli and is only revealed at the end for a brief showdown with Talon. You could have left Xusia out of the film and it would have affected the plot very little. So, in a contest of The Beastmaster and The Sword and the Sorcerer‘s main villains I would give the former a slight edge.
TB: 3 out of 5 (Total so far 12)
CTB: 5 out of 5 (Total so far 14)
TS&TS: 2 out of 5 (Total so far 6)
Category #4 Action
It’s a sword and sorcery film, so you gotta have action. And Conan the Barbarian takes this category too. While there are not many action scenes the film makes up by quality over quantity. The battles Conan and his allies face are visceral, bloody and enthralling. The raid on the Tower of the Serpent, the infiltration of the Temple of Set and the climactic conflict at the Mounds are all set pieces of blood-filled beauty. Conan swings his mighty ancient Atlantean sword with a lethal flourish that has inspired many young and old to shadow swordfight with a stick, a broom or toy blade. Whatever is handy.
The Sword and the Sorcerer actually delivers in the action department, with some delightfully over the top gore. Yeah, the projectile-firing three bladed sword is kind of silly but in a fun way. The action in The Beastmaster is a bit PG-13 and watered down. The most memorable scenes are those involving Dar’s animals or with the awesome, people-devouring bird-men. Other than that, kinda meh.
TB: 3 out of 5 (Total so far 15)
CTB: 5 out of 5 (Total so far 19)
TS&TS: 4 out of 5 (Total so far 10)
Category #5 Story
All three films have relatively similar beginnings — young hero sees parental figure murdered before them and grows up to seek revenge. Conan has the most mature story, with sex scenes between the hero and a witch and then with Valeria, the aforementioned suicide and gory battles. And there is a definite progression here, with the hero going from slave to gladiator to brigand and finally to saviour. There is love and loss and giant snakes and spirits (with very dated 80s-era visual effects). We have some humour, with the memorable scene of the Cimmerian punching a camel that spat on him. Quite the adventure. And the scene of Conan chopping off Thulsa Doom’s head is simply iconic.
The story in The Beastmaster is somewhat lighter, fantasy fare. We have the “playful” scene of Dar spying on Kira and her friend while bathing, which is very 80s but would not play well now. There are the fantasy elements of the bird-men, the ugly witches with their spy eye, and the growling berzerkers. Kodo’s sacrificial death at the end still tugs on the heartstrings. An entertaining tale that holds up relatively well, though Conan’s story holds up slightly better.
And The Sword and the Sorcerer? Well, that story is all over the place with way too many moving pieces and characters (the above-mentioned unnecessary sorcerer included) for what is essentially a very simple tale. It does not work and instead distracts from the guilty pleasure fun. And the film is kind of misogynistic (even more so than the other two films) with the objectification of Alana and the cruel torture and killing of rebel Malia being difficult to watch. Again, these distract from what should have been a switch-off-your-brain good time.
TB: 4 out of 5 (Total so far 19)
CTB: 4.5 out of 5 (Total so far 23.5)
TS&TS: 2 out of 5 (Total so far 12)
Category #6 Legacy
Of all the categories, legacy is the easiest one. The Sword and the Sorcerer was a box office success (colour me surprised) and the most profitable independent film of 1982. But it only spawned one straight-to-DVD belated sequel, 2008’s Tales of an Ancient Empire where Talon isn’t even the main character. Yeah, the film and the franchise are mostly forgotten.
The Beastmaster (which was very loosely based on the 1959 novel The Beast Master by Andre Norton) did much better, spawning two sequels of diminishing returns (1991’s Beastmaster: Through the Portal of Time and 1996’s made-for-television Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus) and an okay three-season tv series which was not connected to the films (the role of Dar was taken over by Daniel Goddard and Marc Singer returned as a separate character). And the film is still fondly remembered and beloved by many fans.
For Conan the Barbarian, you have to separate the legacy of the character from the film. The comic book character by Robert E. Howard originated in October 1970 and outside of comics and movies (we’ll get to that soon) has slashed his way into everything from books to board games to collectible card games to role playing games to video games to animated series to a (very cheesy) live action series. The 1982 film only spawned one sequel, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, which was much less mature, more fantasy heavy and nowhere as good. Plans for a third film were shelved and the barbarian’s movie adventures were rebooted with the lacklustre and completely forgettable Jason Momoa-starring Conan the Barbarian (2011). But the end of Conan the Barbarian teased a King Conan film (a period we see in the comics) and four decades later fans are still calling out for it. Add that to the very high regard in which the original film continues to be held and that is one powerful legacy.
TB: 4 out of 5 (End Total 23/30)
CTB: 5 out of 5 (End Total 28.5/30)
TS&TS: 1 out 5 (End Total 13/30)
By Crom, with 28.5 points Conan wins this contest, The Beastmaster puts up a good fight with 23 points and The Sword and the Sorcerer gets dominated by both with a paltry 13 points.
So, do you agree with my ranking? Disagree? Which of these films is your personal favourite? And you can check out more fantasy content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating tabletop games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.
Just saw The Sword and the Sorcerer for the first time in decades. Compared to the Beastmaster and Conan the Barbarian (both of which I’ve owned on both VHS and DVD), it is rather lacking. A couple of things I noticed though: the countries are based off real countries, with the exception of Ehdan. Talon was based more off Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood than Conan (but the fact that they both had crucifixion scenes was weird). And yeah, there was the “reward” he got from Alana, that was as cringy as the Kingmen’s Eggsy getting anal from the Swedish princess. At least S&S didn’t show anything. The most unbelievable part of the plot was how Prince Talon kept his name and no one from his past life recognized him or it. No alias and he got a super badass reputation among all the other countries as a mercenary leader with a metal hand and a three bladed sword. He wasn’t hiding very well. Then there was Alana. The Queen was entrusted to bring the King’s family to the river to escape. Alana was there. So it was very confusing to me whether she was Mikah’s sister or Talon’s. She was raised as Mikah’s sister, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t originally the old king’s daughter. (except it makes it super gross if she is- worse than Luke and Leia) I don’t think they expected the audience to remember all the pieces of the fall of Ehdan. If you don’t catch that, the rest of the picture is fine. It’s not as much fun or exciting as Beastmaster or Conan, but it was fine for the era.
Good breakdown. And yeah, I don’t think a lot of thought went into the plot of The Sword and the Sorcerer.