“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”
So begins John Milius’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN. The 1982 epic based on several Robert E. Howard stories was one of many highly regarded fantasy films of the 1980’s. Particularly early in the decade, movies featuring swords and sorcery seemed to roll out of Hollywood on a monthly basis. Not all of them got (much less deserved) critical love, but a great many of them became cult classics.
To a young teenager, who had developed an interest in fantasy literature as a boy and started playing D&D at 14, they were absolutely entrancing. They offered something that reading a novel or playing a role-playing game didn’t: sensual stimulation.
Seeing is Believing
Many of the fantasy films of the 1980’s were visual feasts. These days, that seems silly to say. The special effects in a Harry Potter film far surpass anything available to the producers and directors of the great fantasy flicks of the 80’s. For movies that featured a lot of magic, it was amazing how little of it you actually saw.
That didn’t keep those films from being any more visually stunning. They were shot on location with elaborate sets. They were costumed exotically. For the first time, I didn’t have to imagine what things really looked like. I could see them.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN and Don Coscarelli’s THE BEASTMASTER (1982) were shot in largely desolate expanses. The earth looked forbidding and inhospitable. The few outposts of civilization seemed to be trying to fight off the creep of the wild.
Meanwhile, John Boorman’s epic adaptation of Arthurian mythology, EXCALIBUR (1981), was rich and lush. There was greenery everywhere. It was gorgeous to look at.
Likewise, the costuming was grand. As ridiculous as it was, Boorman had his Knights of the Round Table walking around in shining, silver armor full-time. It may not have been practical or even historically accurate, but it looked incredible.
Coscarelli and Milius had their characters in supple leather or exotically cut cloth. This was a fantasy film, so the characters were made to look . . . fantastic.
Music to my Ears
The visual component wasn’t the only new experience for my young mind. In the same way John Williams made STAR WARS more exciting with his Modern score, Basil Polidorus, Alex North, and Trevor Jones helped shape the styles of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DRAGONSLAYER (1981), and EXCALIBUR. What I heard from the musical scores impacted how I saw the movies.
It is nearly impossible to describe. I was five years from becoming a music major in college. I barely understood the basics of musical composition. But those scores lifted me out of my seat in the theater. They brought me closer to these fantastical worlds.
Music wasn’t the only auditory enhancement to the fantasy experience. Many of the earliest fantasy films featured great actors, whose deliverance of lines made them soar. The opening to “Conan” quoted above is spoken by Mako. He made it seem wizened and epic just by his delivery.
Likewise, the great James Earl Jones — the Voice of Darth Vader! — played Thulsa Doom, the Charles Mansonesque sorcerer Conan must oppose.
“Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe,” he says before ordering Conan to be crucified. Not only is the line itself awesome, its delivery by one of the truly great actors and voices in all of cinema makes it resound with evil and horror.
“When a dragon gets this old, it knows only pain,” says the great Ralph Richardson as the venerable wizard Ulrich in DRAGONSLAYER. He infuses the line with pity and wisdom, so that we feel we know all we need to about Vermithrax, the monstrous beast that haunts Valerian’s kingdom.
Great actors elevated even questionable dialogue to the realm of the sublime.
The Revolution Isn’t Over
All of the films I’m discussing were made before 1984, when AIDS and “safe sex” became household words. They may have come at the very tail end of it, but they were all made during the Sexual Revolution. Hence, there was a strong element of sex in all of them.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN features naked women being sacrificed to giant snakes and Valeria taking Conan as a lover.
THE BEASTMASTER has grautitous nudity wherein Dar spies on Kiri bathing naked in a waterfall with another slave girl.
EXCALIBUR is drenched in sex. Uther Pendragon has Merlin disguise him as the Duke of Cornwall, so he can have sex with the duke’s wife. Lancelot and Guinevere have sex in the forest and are caught by Arthur, thereby bringing the kingdom to ruin. Morgana disguises herself as Guinevere, so she can have sex with Arthur to conceive an heir to his throne.
Even DRAGONSLAYER plays with sexual themes. Valerian disguises herself as a boy, because the king has made a pact to sacrifice female virgins to Vermithrax. But she is found out when Galen catches her swimming naked.
And while there is a certain amount of male, sexual fantasy in the costuming and who has to appear nude on camera, the truth is that the men don’t wear that many clothes either. Marc Singer as Dar spends most of THE BEASTMASTER wearing nothing but boots and a leather loincloth. It makes a certain amount of sense given that the film was made largely in Southern California, where it’s warm. But Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t wear a whole lot of clothing either as Conan, and it’s a lot colder.
The prevailing image through a lot of early-80’s fantasy films seems to be these people fight with swords and magic while going around half-naked. As you might imagine, my 14-year-old mind thought that was awesome.
The funny thing is, despite many of these films being male empowerment fantasies, the women were, by and large, not helpless. To be sure, there are some outmoded ideas of the role of women permeating them, but, often, the women had a strong role to play.
Tanya Roberts may have been cast in THE BEASTMASTER largely for her willingness to appear naked on camera (she did a full spread with PLAYBOY to help sell the film), but her character, Kiri, is more than just eye-candy. We are originally led to believe she is a slave girl, but she is actually part of a secret sect of female warriors every bit as deadly as Dar or the Jun warriors he fights.
Valerian disguises herself as a boy, so she will not be subject to the lottery that could get her sacrificed to Vermithrax in DRAGONSLAYER. But it is she who leads a small band of people to beg Ulrich to kill the dragon. She thinks to make a shield of dragon scales to protect Galen from Vermithrax’s fiery breath. She figures out how to kill the dragon, and has to convince Galen to do it.
But perhaps strongest of all is Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria in CONAN THE BARBARIAN. She is every bit as capable as Conan. Clever, resourceful, tough, and dangerous, she is the perfect complement to him. She is already a successful thief when she meets Conan. Together, they are even better. She is even strong enough to come back from the dead long enough to protect him in the final battle.
Watching the fantasy films of my youth, I saw women as clever, capable, strong, exotic, and every bit the equal of men.
The early-80’s swords-and-sorcery flicks ignited my mind towards fantasy literature in the same way the gentler novels of Tolkien, Alexander, and Lewis did. They fired my imagination in the same way Dungeons & Dragons was just beginning to. Those three major influences are the principle reason I would one day become a fantasy author myself. At the most formative years of my life, fantasy found me and taught me to believe in worlds where average people could become extraordinary and change the face of the world.
But there are other reasons I chose fantasy as my preferred genre. A very important one is the power of metaphor. I’ll discuss that next week.