Monday, August 29, 2011

Conan The Barbarian (2011)


So what does the new Conan film mean for the archetypes of Sword & Sorcery genre?

After watching the film for the first time last Tuesday in a crowded theater with a good friend and colleague of mine, I have given much thought to the subtext of a film (and story) that many have both recently and historically dismissed as trivial.

Although each of the major themes in Sword & Sorcery are played out in the film, gender relations seem to be foregrounded throughout.  Corin is a Cimmerian warrior whose son, Conan, is eager to prove his courage to his father on the battlefield.  Their sacred object is the sword and its forging is a rite of passage to manhood shared between father and son.  At one point, Corin even tells his son that he's not yet worthy of the sword and, like Milius' 1982 film, Conan gains posession of the sword by the end of the film, avenging his father and proving himself along the way.


Opposite this masculine/sword dynamic is the feminine/sorcery dynamic played out through the sorcerer Khalar Zym, whose wife bears him a daughter.  Unlike Corin, Zym derives his power from the sorcery of his wife and daughter.  Their tools are more mysterious than steel, and symbolically represent the female sex organ just as obviously as the sword represents the phallus.  Marique, for example, wears steel razors on her fingers, which she uses to prick her victims and taste their blood for purity.  The hand these nails are attached to is always convulsing, drawing the needles together into the enclosure of her hand. She holds as she cuts.  The other magic object, which her father has reassembled in his quest to bring back his dead wife is the Mask of Acheron, which is serpentine in it's grip of his face.  It too grasps and encloses, imprisoning it's wearer in a womb-like embrace.


The film itself is foremost a pretense for this symbolic drama of gender and symbolic objects.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Highlander 2 "Renegade Version"


The follow-up to Russell Mulcahy's Highlander explores the origin of immortals as an ancient yet advanced alien civilization capable of travelling through time.  At the start of the film, Connor MacLeod is an old man, having won his mortality by defeating Kurgan in the previous film.  He becomes young and immortal again, however, when General Katana (a dangerous tyrant from his own realm) seeks him out to destroy the hope for resistance that MacLeod represents.

This film was aesthetically worthless, but it did elaborate upon the conflicted relationship between technology and sorcery in Sword & Sorcery cinema.  In the future world that the film depicts, the ozone layer has been depleted and (inexplicably) it is MacLeod (along with scientist Allan Neyman) who has been instrumental in building an enormous shield to block out the sun and protect the earth from harmful radiation.  Since the construction of the shield, though, a secretive corporation has taken control and is using it to exploit humanity in an economy in which sunlight is inaccessible.  MacLeod must take on both General Katana and the corporation if there is to be any hope or the future.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is its negative portrayal of corporate power and the extremely close relationship it bears to the use of advanced technology for human oppression.  This is dramatized primarily by the antagonism between MacLeod (a lone swordsman) versus an abstruse corporate organization hiding behind layers of complex technology.  At least for this Sword & Sorcery film, it might be said that corporate power, technology, and sorcery all fall on the same (dark) side of the equation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Highlander & Ghost Warrior



Over the weekend I revisited two Sword & Sorcery films from 1986 that have a twist to them which is common within the genre at large: the intersection between ancient warriors and the modern world.  The two films were Highlander (1986), directed by Russell Mulcahy, and Ghost Warrior (1986), directed by J. Larry Carroll.

Most fans of the Sword & Sorcery genre are familiar with Highlander: Connor MacLeod, an ancient warrior from the highlands of Scottland, belongs to an elite group of immortal warriors from across history who are drawn together at the time of "the gathering" when they must battle one another to release the power of the "the quickening." In the end, there can be only one remaining who has all the power of the others.

The relationship between the symbolic forces of "sword" and "sorcery" in Highlander is challenging because they are complementary.  When one immortal defeats another, the magical power of the quickening is unleashed, bestowing upon the victorious the former powers of the vanquished.  This is different from most sword and sorcery in the respect that it is not a direct confrontation between the "stalwart warrior" and the "supernatural forces of evil" (1).  Rather, to the extent that sorcery is a basic condition to the life of every immortal, it cannot be neatly seperated and confronted in battle.  This fact notwithstanding, MacLeod, our protagonist, must ultimately face the evil Kurgan, a Russian warrior who is the most powerful of the immortals.  When he asks,  "how do you fight such a savage?" he is is told by Ramirez (his mentor) "with heart, faith and steel. In the end there can be only one."  In this statement and in the culmination of the film, the values of the Sword & Sorcery film are reaffirmed.  Though Kurgan has been made very powerful through the quickening, he can still be defeated by the courage of a lone warrior.

Another standard theme of Sword & Sorcery that's explored in Highlander is that of initiation.  Ramirez (played by Sean Connery) guides the young Conner MacLeod in the life of an immortal after he is explelled from his village for suspicion of being "in league with the devil" (after he comes back to life from a mortal wound in battle).  In classic fashion, the mentor is killed and MacLeod must go on to surpass his teacher by defeating Kurgan.

Perhaps most of all, though, Highlander is a film that centers around the Sword & Sorcery theme of "reincorporation" which is defined by the warrior succeeding in his quest and rejoining society through marriage and parenthood.  At the conclusion of the film, MacLeod discovers that the "prize" the immortals have been battling for is nothing other than... mortality.  As an immortal he was doomed to outlive every woman he was close to and to never have offspring, but as a mortal man he could settle down, grow old and pass on his legacy to his children.  According to the moral logic of the film, immortality is a curse and the prize is mortality.  In this sense, I suppose, the immortal warriors were doing battle against sorcery because they were seeking escape from it.

Ghost Warrior is less noteworthy as a film, but plays on the same basic concept of an ancient warrior alive in modern society.  In this film, a samurai (Yoshi) is discocovered frozen in a block of ice and brought back to life through chryogenics as part of modern biomedical research.  Unlike Highlander's MacLeod, however, Yoshi has been dead for the past five centuries and is unable to understand or adapt to the modern world where he now finds himself.  He ultimately plays out a destiny in his new life that is identical to the one from his past: sacrificing himself for a woman he loves.

Similar to many other Sword & Sorcery films, Ghost Warrior substitutes modern science for sorcery.  But in this case, the warrior's ultimate destiny is death because he is alienated from his surroundings and cannot adapt to the complexities of modern life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

THOR: Mythology and Comics meet Sword & Sorcery


Yesterday I went to see Thor at the invitation of two good friends of mine.  Upon conclusion of the film, they called to my attention the fact that director Kenneth Branagh is very well regarded for his work in adapting Shakespeare to the screen, most notably Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996).  In light of this, I'd be surprised if a well-versed student of Shakespeare were not able to detect a reference or two to the old bard in this film.  If this is true, the film has at least three direct influences weighing upon it and vying for consideration in any interpretation.  Quite obviously, the other two include the original norse mythology and the corporate middle-man of Marvel Comics.

Without calling into question the validity of looking at Thor through any of these lenses, I'd like to suggest, in addition, the very trope that is the subject of this blog: Sword and Sorcery.  Though I realize Thor wields the hammer Mjǫlnir, and not a sword, the themes of the film are extremely consistent with those of classic Sword & Sorcery cinema, including many of the films included on the "List of All Sword & Sorcery Films" (located in the menu to the right).

Most prominent among these is the theme of Initiation: the journey from "hero" to "warrior" or "boy" to "man."  Early on in the film, the conflict is established when Thor invades Jotenheim against the orders of Odin (his father) to take revenge against the frost giants for invading Asgard.  His childish bravado brings war to the realms.  As punishment, Odin calls him unworthy of his heritage and banishes him from Asgard to land on Earth among mortals where he comes in contact with a beautiful scientist and her team.  Intially, Thor has learned nothing.  He only seeks his mighty hammer, which has also fallen to the mortal realm and become lodged in the earth where it is being studied by the US government.  Thor plunges headlong into the frey after his hammer, defeating a whole squad of armed agents even without his divine powers.  But, as with the would-be kings of Arthurian legend, when he goes to pull the hammer from the stone, it will not yield.  Thor hangs his head and we see him defeated by the task.  This is an important step in his journey to manhood which is only completed when, unarmed and without his powers, he faces the wrath of his sinister brother, Loki, seeking only to protect the lives of the innocent.  When he is struck down by Loki's enormous mechanical avatar, Mjǫlnir returns to him in what is the most powerful scene of the film: the moment where he has redeemed himself and reclaimed his power as a God through the metaphorical initiation from "boy" to "man."

I can write with certainty that there are other themes in the film that are consistent with those of the Sword & Sorcery genre, but this is the most priminent among them and it teaches an important moral lesson about humility and the responsibilities of power.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Future!

It's time to set a more specific course for the Sword Cinema blog!

Although no comprehensive list of genre films can ever truly be finished, there is a point where the emphasis shifts from growing the list to trimming it, and I believe that we have reached that point.  I will, therefore, continue to apply my efforts toward the analysis of the list with the goal of obtaining an improved understanding of the categories, characters, narratives, themes, and moral lessons of each particular genre of sword cinema.

Ultimately, Sword Cinema is about using movies to explore ancient stories and making them more accessible for understanding our own lives.

-Matthew T. Jones

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Your Highness


If you ever truly wanted to know the most common themes of a particular genre of movies, the best strategy is to watch a parody film.  For example, Keenan Ivory Wayans' Scary Movie (2000) tapped into the convensions and themes of the horror genre to provide a source of humor.  So, in the classic tradition of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Terry Jones' Eric the Viking (1989), the new film, Your Highness does the same theing for the Sword & Sorcery genre.

Your Highness tells the comedic story of Fabious' and Thadeous' quest to save Fabious' betrothed, Princess Belladonna from the evil Warlock Leezar and the prophecy of the "fuckening" - when Leezar takes a virgin at the centennial union of the two-moons.  In the course of this journey, Thadeous grows from a slacking layabout to a noble prince like his brother.

So what are the themes parodied in the film?  Well, for one thing, the tale is one concerning destiny and prophecy.  The film starts with the opening of a book and the voice of an omniscient narrator telling of a brave knight, evil warlock, beautiful maiden and "other really serious shit."  This alone calls attention to the prominence of "destiny" as a theme is Sword & Sorcery.  Beyond this, though, the story tells specifically of a prophecy (the "fuckening") when Leezar takes the virginity of a maiden (Belladonna) at the "union of the two moons."

The theme of initiation also figures prominently into the story, as the plot is put in motion by the King's demand that Thadeous, ne'er-do-well younger brother of Fabious, accompany his brother on the quest to save Belladonna from Leezar and the prophecy.  In the course of this quest, Thadeous fidns the "Unicorn Sword", which is the only weapon that can defeat Leezar.  When they return home to the king, Thadeous is honored as a hero along with his brother.

Naturally, no Sword & Sorcery film would be complete without the symbolic conflict between swords and sorcery.  At the most basic level, Fabious and Thadeous are warriors in convlict with teh magic of the warlock Leezar.  This simple opposition becomes more complicated, however, because Fabious and Thadeous visit the "Wise Wizard" where they are given a magical compass and told to seek out the magical Unicorn Sword.  As it turns out, though, the Wise Wizard is portrayed as a drug-addicted, child-molesting version of Yoda, so there really is no representation of sorcery as being good in the film except, perhaps, in the form of the Unicorn Sword which slays Leezar.

A last obvious theme of the film is reincorporation and it refers to the fact that so many Sword & Sorcery films conclude with the hero's marriage and acceptance into the community.  This happens for both Fabious, who marries Belladonna, and even Thadeous who has found the warrior-woman, Isabel, along the way.

There are many other sub-themes and details left to be discussed when the Blue-Ray becomes available.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)


This addition to the Sinbad films is my personal favorite and is notable for a deeper exploration of two pervasive themes in the Sword & Sorcery genre: Initiation and Conflict.

The story begins in Charak where Sinbad seeks his friend Kassim and his sister, Farrah, whom he intends to marry.  When they find the city empty, Sinbad and his crew are lured into a trap.  Upon escape, Sinbad encounters Farrah who tells him that her evil stepmother (the witch, Zenobia) has transformed her brother (Kassim) into a baboon just before his corronation as Caliph of Charak.  The following day they are off to Casgar to find the greek wizard Melanthius who is the only able to help Kassim, but they must hurry because if he's not crowned before the seventh moon he loses his claim to the throne and it will be taken by Zenobia's son, Rafi.  Knowing this, Zenobia and Rafi follow close behind seeking to prevent them from saving Kassim.  Arriving in Casgar, they encounter Melanthius and his beautiful daughter Dione.  Once Melanthius is convinced, they travel with Sinbad to Hyperborea, the land of the Aramaspi where they will find the Shrine of the Four Elements, which is capable of transforming Kassim back into a man.  In close pursuit, however, Zenobia transforms herself into a bird and spies on Melanthius.  She is caught, but escapes.  In transforming herself back, though, she is left with a webbed foot because her potion has run out. Once in Hyperborea, they encounter strange prehistoric creatures, including a Troglodyte who helps them on their mission.  At the shrine, Zenobia makes a last attempt to stop them, but her son Rafi is killed.  Once Kassim is transformed back into a man, Zenobia tries to take her revenge by transforming herself into a saber-tooth tiger.  She kills the Troglodyte and one of Sinbad's men before Sinbad finally defeats her.  Back in Charak, Kassim takes his rightful place on the throne and Sinbad will marry Farrah.

All of the elements essential to the genre are present in this film: Sinbad - the fearless warrior, Zenobia - the evil witch, and the destiny of a kingdom hanging in the balance.  However, one aspect which moves beyond the basics of the genre is the relationship between the witch, Zenobia, and her son, Rafi, who seeks the crown of Charak.  In taking a close look at the character of Rafi, we gain insight into the birth of a tyrant.  Many Sword & Sorcery films tell the story of a young hero being initiated into manhood and this almost always involves an initial seperation from either his actual mother, or a symbolic mother.  With Rafi, we see the opposite: an unnaturally close relationship with his mother, Zenobia.  This occurs particularly when Zenobia performs her transformation into a bird and back into a human.  Rafi walks in during her initial transformation and initially backs away as if he's witnessing an intimate act, but then he continues to look on as a voyeur to his mother's sorcery.  When she returns, Rafi strokes and caresses the bird's coat of feathers and holds his mother closely as they realize her transformation to human form is incomplete.

It is not, in and of itself, the closeness of this mother/son relationship that is bad.  It is Rafi's reliance upon his mother's sorcery to attempt to seize the throne which is the true source of evil.  Because of this, Rafi has an inaccurate sense of himself which is bolstered by his mother's ambitions for power.  For example, just after Sinbad and company have set off to find Melanthius, Zenobia tells Rafi that Melanthius is the one man who may be able to help Kassim return to human form and take the crown.  Rafi objects to this angrily saying, "You promised me that I shall be Caliph of Charak!" Such a statement reduces the crown to something like a child's birthday present.  Other signs of Rafi's dependence upon his mother's power occur throughout, such as when she saves him from a swordfight with Sinbad at the beginning of the film by conjuring wraiths from a fire.  Overall, it is impossible to miss this point, since Zenobia makes all of the decisions an Rafi performs consistently as a dutiful and obedient son.  This is not the behavior of a leader and a city ruled by Rafi would be victim to the tyranny born out of his futile psychological struggle to overcome his mother's voice and find his own will.

The other prominent theme explored in Eye of the Tiger is the omnipresent struggle against sorcery.  Consistent with what was just described, Zenobia and Rafi are identified as "evil" simply because they will use sorcery to seize control of Charak.  Beyond this, the deviousness and deception of sorcery is highlighted early in the film when it is uncovered that Zenobia, using her witchcraft, transformed Prince Kassim into a baboon.  Further, the symbolic darkness of sorcery is made literal when Balsora (interim leader of Charak) explains to Sinbad that he rules during the day, but at night fear of Zenobia and her sorcery take hold of the city.

Interestingly, though, not all sorcery is evil, or, perhaps I should say that not all "magic" is sorcery.  Melanthius, after all, has some command of magical powers and gives every outward appearance of being a wizardly old man.  The difference seems to be that his powers are based on a symbolic association with science.  For example, when Sinbad and company initially arrive, Melantheus suggests they go to his laboratory to get in out of the sun.  Once in his laboratory, Melanthius examines Kassim on a table and performs experiments on him.  He even comes out and says directly "As a scientist and alchemist, I know that metals can be trasformed, but as a philosopher, I also believe in metaphysical change."  So the critical difference between Melanthius' powers and those of Zenobia are that his come from science (which manipulates a world which is ultimately knowable) whereas hers come from sorcery (which calls upon powers that are not fully understood).  A struggle between these forces is actually alluded to when Melanthius descrbes his Aramaspi Scrolls which will guide them to Hyperborea as "the science of the ancients used to combat witchcraft."

So, ultimately, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger suggests that sons whom have not overcome the control of their mothers are unfit rulers and that there is a difference between "sorcery-magic" which is evil because it draws its power from the unknown and "science-magic" which is good because it draws its power from understanding.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad


Directed by Gordon Hessler and starring John Phillip Law, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) is an excellent example of the strain of Sword & Sorcery film derived from the tradition of The Arabian Nights.  Each of the three major themes of the genre (Destiny, Initiation, and Conflict) weave their way through the entirety of the film.

Golden Voyage begins with Sinbad and his crew on the high seas where he comes to posess a strange amulet that ultimately leads him into a race against the evil sorcerer Koura for the Fountain of Destiny that will grant youth, the "shield of darkness," and riches.  Along the way he befriends a slave girl and the son of a wealthy merchant.

The role destiny plays in this film is as something that guides events, but does not determine them.  Sinbad's favorite slogan, "Trust in Allah, but tie up your horse" is indicative of such a perspective and referenced several times throughout the film.  Destiny's role is made clearer still in Lemuria when the Oracle tells Sinbad:

Destiny, Destiny.
Destiny is invisible yet visible.
And men may try to hide.
Yet its waters mark you clearly...
like a rainbow in the sky.
Destiny is a place where both good and evil wait...
and yet their very equality negates their power.
For it is the very deeds of weak and mortal men...
that may tip the scales one way or the other.
And the world shall know, and you shall know...
which way the fates have chosen, you shall go.

This places enormous agency in the hands of individual and priviledges a view of self-determination above pre-determination.  When they are trapped in the Temple of the Oracle, Sinbad makes this philosophy of personal responsibility especially clear when he says to the Vizier "A man's destiny lies in his own hands! A live dog is better than a dead lion!"

The film covers initiation, the second major theme of the Sword & Sorcery genre, from the perspective of Haroun, whom should be considered the secondary protagonist of the film.  Haroun starts out as the lazy, hashish-smoking son of the wealthy merchant Hakim who convinces Sinbad to take Haroun on his journey to make him into a man.  By the end of the film, he is brave enough to help Sinbad by pushing the Goddess Kali off of a cliff.  In the final scene, he even asks Sinbad if you can join him as a member of his crew.

Finally, the theme of conflict between sorcery and physical courage manifests itself throughout the film.  Sinbad and his crew must prevent the evil sorcerer, Koura, from reaching the Fountain of Destiny first so that he doesn't have the power to take over the world, elimonating freedom and happiness.  Koura's use of magic throughout the film is portrayed as an act of cowardice and cheating.  There are two particular scenes that stand out as examples.  First, when Koura faces Sinbad among the worshipers of Kali, Sinbad draws his sword, but Koura tosses his to Kali who draws out five other swords (one in each of her hands).  Thus, Koura evades Sinbad and lets his magic fight for him.  The second example, presents the almost cliche magic trick of invisibility.  In front of the Fountain of Destiny, Sinbad faces off against Koura, who uses the "shield of darkness" to obtain an unfair advantage over Sinbad.  Of course, this does not avail him.

A final point about the film that is worthy of mention is the theme of freedom which may actually exist as a theme throughout all sword and sorcery.  Koura seeks to enslave the Vizier's kingdom along with the whole world and Sinbad seeks nothing but freedom.  In fact, Sinbad turns down the crown, and explains to his live Margiana "I value freedom and a king is never truly free."

Thus far, my view is that the Sinbad films fully gain their footing in the Sword & Sorcery genre with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)


The stories of Sinbad are indispencible to the genre of Sword & Sorcery cinema.  I will begin my analysis of them with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a film from 1958 directed by Nathan Juran and starring Kerwin Mathews as the intrepid Sinbad, Kathryn Grant as the lovely Princess Parisa, and Torin Thatcher as the diabolical Sokurah the Magician.

The tale begins with Sinbad on the high seas with his crew and accompanied by his fiance Parisa, the Princess of Chandra.  They land on the island of Colossa to gather food where they encounter the magician Sokurah who is running from a giant cyclops.  Sokurah uses the Genie of his lamp for protection as they all escape back to the ship, but the lamp is lost.  Sokurah wants to return for it, but Sinbad has more pressing matters to attend to.  When they arrive in Bagdad, Sinbad allays the threat of war between the cities of Chandra and Bagdad with his impending wedding to Princess Parisa.  Soon, however, the devious Sokurah weaves a plot to gain a ship and return to Colossa for his lamp.  He secretly shrinks the Princess and tells Sinbad that the only way to restore her is to travel back to Colossa so that he may mix the proper potion.  Fending off mutiny, cyclops, giant birds, a wraith, a dragon, and, of course, the evil sorcerer himself, Sinbad manages to have the princess restored and gain the young Genie as a cabin boy in the process.  In the end, they sail for Bagdad to be married.

It requires no stretch to see this film as an influence on modern Sword & Sorcery cinema.  Like early depictions of Die Nibelungen, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Knights of the Round Table - Sinbad is a foundation of the genre.  This is made especially evident by the persistent clash between Sokurah's magic and Sinbad's bravery that dominates the film.

Early on, Sokurah is identified as suspicious because of his magic spells and performance for the Caliph.  When asked to predict the future, he tells of the failure of Sinbad's marriage and war between the cities, but it's clear he lies with the intention of scaring the leaders into providing him with a ship back to Colossus to obtain his precious lamp.  Even more foul, when he's told to leave the city, Sokurah sneaks into Princess Parisa's chambers and shrinks her down to fit in the palm of a hand.  And his treachery continues throughout he journey's with Sinbad back to Colossus on the promise of restoring the princess to normal size. 

But Sinbad is Sokurah's foil, every bit as brave and forthright as the other is devious and cunning.  He fights off man and beast with using fist and swrod in his mission to restore his bride and bring peace to his people.  There is one crucial exception to this when he and the princess use the Genie from the lamp to aid in their escape.  However, the way it is used differs starkly from Sokurah...  Sokurah uses the boy-Genie as a slave, while Sinbad and Parisa help him to gain his freedom and become a "real" boy named Barani who wishes to grow up to be just like Sinbad.  This suggests, yet another important theme in the Sword & Sorcery film: initiation and apprenticeship.  Barani becomes Sinbad's cabin-boy, suggesting the start of that relationship.

As noted, Sinbad and Parisa head off to be married in Bagdad, providing a classic Sword & Sorcery ending where the adventurer has won the day and is reincorporated with his society through marriage.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)


There is, of course, another classic retelling of the story, bearing the same name and starring John Justin as Ahmad, Sabu as, uhh... Abu, Conrad Veidt as Jaffar, and the beautiful June Duprez as the Princess of Basra.

Although the overarching narrative of Ahmad's quest to be with the princess remains the same, there are many differences, which make the tale even more recognizable as a classic Sword & Sorcery.  For one thing, the entire film is positioned within the context of a destiny which is fulfilled by the end of the film: "But a wise man among the sages of Bagdad comforted them with a prophecy, saying 'in the fullness of years, a liberator shall come upon you, and this shall be the sign of him: He shall be the lowest of the low and you shall look for him in the clouds.  For there, one day, in the blue you shall see a boy.  The lowest of the low mounted upon a cloud, but the cloud shall be as strong as the hills beneath the snow.  And from the ranges of the sky he shall destroy this tyrant with the arrow of justice."

Further, there is an evil sorcerer, a "Grand Vizier" by the name of Jaffar who has plotted to usurp Ahmad's throne and steal the princess for himself through the trickery and deceit of his dark craft.  This is played out through several scenes, but none quite so powerful as the moment when Ahmad faces Jaffar just as he attempts to take the Princess from her home in Basra.  Having been chased out of his own city, Ahmad faces Jaffar and says "At last, face-to-face, man-to-man, sword-to-sword.  Give me a sword... Allah will judge."  Right in the face of that moment of heroic courage, Jaffar conjures the treachery of his magic by stealing Ahmad's sight and transforming Abu into a dog.  Incidentally, the decision to curse Ahmad with blindness seems very close to the well-worn associaion between sorcery and invisibility in Sword & Sorcery cinema.

Sorcery is manifest in many ways within the film.  Perhaps Abu's towering Genie is the most famous, but magic objects such as the "All-Seeing Eye" and the "Blue Rose of Forgetfullness" play a critical role as well.  Ultimately, though, these toys of sorcery are overcome by physical the physical acts of Abu's heroism and Ahmad's love.  For example, to obtain the All-Seeing Eye so that he can find Ahmad, Abu must enter the Temple of the Goddess and steal it.  In the process, he finds a sword and must avoid an octopus and slay a spider.  Soon after, Jaffar uses the Blue Rose of Forgetfullness to erase the Princess' memory and take her for his own.  However, her memory returns in the embrace of Ahmad as he bravely fights Jaffar's minions.

Ultimately, the prophecy is fulfilled as Abu takes a magic carpet from the Land of Legend and kills Jaffar with his arrow of justice.  Ahmad and the Princess are saved, Jaffar is killed, Bagdad is liberated, and wedding between Ahmad and the Princess of Basra is celebrated.  A classic style of ending for a Sword & Sorcery film: A tyrant is overthrown and a wedding is celebrated.  In this way, the film holds to the same basic moral lesson as its silent predecessor from 1924: Happiness must be earned.  Ahmad has come out of his ivory tower to suffer, and now enjoys his reward.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad


Last night I re-visited a movie that I haven't seen since I was in college: Raoul Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad from 1924.  I was initially skeptical about including this film on the sword and sorcery list, but the main ingredients are accounted for and I stand by the decision.

The story tells of an athletic young thief named Ahmed who falls in love with a beautiful princess and ultimately wins her through his cunning and courage.

The moral of the story is told in the stars with the first shot of the film.  Literally, the words "Happiness Must Be Earned" come together from celestial points of light in the deep blue night sky as the wise Imam speaks to the child before him.  The film also closes on this same scene, as if the whole film were the unfolding of the Imam's story to the boy.  It's also mentioned during the tale when the Imam tells Ahmed that "Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it."  This is an ironic task for the thief who proclaims early in the film "What I want - I take. My reward is here. Paradise is a fool's dream and Allah is a myth!"  The Imam goes on to tell him of a magic chest that he must obtain if he's to have the princess.  With that he says "Go now. Control thy destiny!"

To obtain the chest and rescue the princess from betrothal to one of three other suitors, Ahmed must face a series of trials including the valley of fire, dragons, the ocean, and sea monsters.  But in the end he prevails and uses the magic he has earned to save the princess from the evil Mongol prince who has seized control of Bagdad and taken the princess against her will.

Ultimately, this is a story about the conversion of Ahmed from a streetwise rogue to a man of faith through his love for the princess.  His "what I want - I take" philosophy works in a world that's empty of the divine.  But when he sees the princess, it's not enough.  He becomes aware of something greater that must be earned.  His earlier statement that "Paradise is a fools dream and Allah is a myth" seems to be reversed by the princess who is, herself, paradise and the work of Allah.  And for perhaps the first time, Ahmed feels he has a destiny beyond stealing and avoiding punishment.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Outlander


The 2008 film, Outlander, directed by Howard McCain and starring James Caviezel is yet another retelling of the story of Beowulf, in the tradition of The 13th Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999), Beowulf & Grendel (Sturla Gunnarsson, 2005) and Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007).  This film, however, moves further beyond the traditional elements of the story by having the hero (named Kainan, not Beowulf) crash land in ancient Norway from a technologically advanced world in outer space.  He is accompanied by a dragon-like beast called a Moorwen, which visits death upon the Vikings just as it did upon Kainan's own people.

This isn't the first time the tale of Beowulf has intersected with futuristic worlds (e.g. Beowulf directed by, Graham Baker, 1999), but this re-telling is the most valuable to date in terms of some of the most important themes of the classic Sword and Sorcery tale.

Perhaps most prominant in the film is the theme of technology as sorcery.  Kainan crashes to earth with the trappings of the advanced civilization from which he comes.  He also brings with him the Moorwen which appears and is referred to as a dragon in the film.  However, he must prove himself to the Vikings without the help of technology when his laser gun is knocked out of his hand and washed away and he is dragged back to Rothgar's village.  Emphasizing this point further, Freya (his queen by the end of the film) narrates "The Gods had sent us Kainan, and when it came time to return to them, he chose us instead."

As the quotation indicates, though, Kainan ultimately rejects technology and his own people in favor of the Viking culture he has discovered.  This is perhaps most clear at the moment he uses his sword to smash the electronic homing device that he activated at the beginning of the film.  He is seeking a fresh start in a primitive culture that hasn't evolved far enough to be burdened by the guilt that accompanies the quest for world domination.

This is where the film intersects with the theme of destiny.  After saves Freya's father from a bear and is welcomed as a fellow Viking, Kainan confesses to Freya that "my people are a lot like yours" and goes on to explain that the Moorwen is with them because his people invaded their home and killed almost all of them.  He also explains to her that his family was killed by this Moorwen.  When Freya tries to comfort his guilt, saying it was "his destiny" and  the "will of the Gods," Kainan retorts, "There is no destiny! There is [sic] no Gods!  It was just me.  And I failed them!"  All of this is said before Freya gives Kainan the ceremonial "King's Sword" and tells him "If you truly believe that you write teh tail of your own life, than the end is up to you..."

So, ultimately, as in the classicly told tale of Beowulf, Kainin is a flawed figure who is burdened by his past deeds.  But in this retelling, there is hope for redemption in Freya's words and in the opportunity to be King of her tribe.

I must conclude that the film is a collective wish-fulfillment.  A wish to go back and start again, putting away ambitions for world domination.  It is also a specifically masculine wish in the sense that Kainan is literally like a "God" to Freya because he has come from another world that she does not understand...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Swords & Civil Liberties: Final Outcome

I have been told that it is illegal to practice alone with a wooden sword at the park in my town. I have gone through the official channels and this is the final verdict.

It's time to get back to the business of Sword Cinema...

Here are some common moral themes of Sword & Sorcery we've identified on the Conan forum:

1. Never trust a wizard.
2. Cold steel solves everything.
3. Be self-sufficient.
4. Be courageous.
5. Be wary of powerful women.
6. Have your own moral code.
7. Act in your own self-interest first.
8. Power has a corrupting influence.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Swords & Civil Liberties Update

I received a list of ordinances from the town "clerk."

She points out section 34, number 4, which states the following under "Acts Prohibited Generally:"

"Carry a firearm or explosives, air rifles, bows and arrows, slingshots, or any weapons except as provided below in subsection 34-34(b)."

The subsection goes on to specify that there is an exception for "bows and arrows" during hunting season...

So!  It would seems as though as long as my intention is to kill something, weapons are permissible, but the practice of an ancient martial artform is unacceptable.  This is what I meant in my original post about the "symbolic value" of swords.  When making decisions, facts and consequences are almost always less important than cultural predjudices.

God forbid someone should be deprived of their right to hunt deer, but those who practice a sport other than baseball or golf should clearly be stopped.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Update on Swords & Civil Liberties

This is a follow up post to my "Swords & Civil Liberties" post where I explained that I was told by the police that I was not permitted to practice with my sword in the park because it represented a potential threat.

I sent the following email to my town:

"On the afternoon of March 7, 2011, I was practicing maneuvers with a replica-quality medieval broadsword when I was approached by a Randolph police officer and told that I must put the sword away because it represented a potential threat.  Before I pursue this issue further, I would like to know if there are any current park ordinances which prohibit the use of martial arts accessories at Hedden Park."
I promptly received this courteous response:

"I am forwarding this to xxxxx xxxxx in our Clerk's Office."

I have already consulted with a lawyer who is a friend of mine.  She believes the case is doome to fail and not worth fighting, but I disagree on principle.

I am currently awaiting further developments.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Swords and Civil Liberties


This afternoon at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon, I was up at my local park practicing the use of my replica-quality medieval broadsword when I was stopped by a local police officer and told that I must put the sword away because it represents a potential threat. The officer was reasonably polite in making his request, but when questioned about the legality of using the sword in the park, he responded that it was a legal “grey area” and that if someone should “feel threatened” by what I was doing that it would create a “shit storm” for me. He even seemed to allude to issues related to national security when he noted that people these days are “jittery” about things like this.

While I appreciate his concern, it seems to me that the objection was premised completely upon the symbolic value of swords. The blade is blunted and is capable of inflicting no more harm than a golf club or baseball bat (both of which I have seen at the park). However, because the sword is an object that represents violence symbolically, it is not allowed. Another thing that bothers me about this situation is the idea that it is sufficient for something to seem “threatening” to some single individual for it to be banned. Last year at this same park, I witnessed two individuals who appeared to be affiliated with a hate group (complete with the image of a burning cross on the side of their truck) angrily discussing politics. Could it not be said that they represent a threat? Yet no one would dare challenge the right of someone to have a swastika tattoo or to paint an image on their truck.

What is your explanation for what happened and how do you think I should respond?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Die Nibelungen Part 1 and 2... with Commentary!

Part 2

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Part 1
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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sword & Sorcery List Updated to 126 films.

Visit the LIST OF ALL SWORD AND SORCERY FILMS (to the right) to view all 126 films and see if there's anything you'd recommend.

The following films were added to the list:

Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978)
Return of the King (Bass & Rankin, 1980)
Wolfhound (Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov) (Nikolay Lebedev, 2007)
Hercules (Luigi Cozzi, 1983)
Aladdin (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1992)
Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Question of the Day: What are the moral lessons of Sword & Sorcery?

Highlander: The Television Series.

I've been revisiting the Highlander television series that I remember fondly from my childhood.  Episode 3 of Season 1: "Road Not Taken," highlights a supremely important theme in the genre of Sword & Sorcery and "Sword Cinema" more generally, Science as Modern Sorcery.  TV.com offers the following synopsis of the episode:
  • Richie's friend dies of an overdose of a herbal drug and MacLeod suspects the source of the drug is another Immortal, Kiem Sun. Sun has has long sought to perfect such a drug and remove its lethal side effects for the betterment of mankind. But a disciple of Kiem Sun's is using the drug for his own gain, and MacLeod and Sun must track him down. When it becomes clear that Kiem Sun plans to continue his experiments despite the dangers, MacLeod destroys the remaining sample of the drug.
The full episode is available at Here:


Although Kiem Sun starts out developing the drug to help mankind, he ultimately wishes to use it for his own gain by using mortals to help him triumph in the Gathering.

This highlights two important points:

(1) The classic Sword & Sorcery conflict where the sword represents what is noble and righteous and sorcery represents what is evil and trecherous.

(2) Technology as "masculine" sorcery.  Though sorcery is traditionally associated with feminine qualities, technology is often depicted as a masculine form of sorcery.

I take away from this that one of the key values of Sword & Sorcery is honesty.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Updated List of Sword & Sorcery Films...

The list of all Sword & Sorcery films has been updated again to include 120 movies in all.  Most recent additions include:

Thief of Baghdad (1924)
Thief of Baghdad (1940)
Prince of Persia (2010)
Eragon (2006)
The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2010)

Go to the "List of All Sword & Sorcery Films" on the right for the complete list.

German Sword & Sorcery Poem

This poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe titled Welcome and Farewell has a strong Sword and Sorcery feel to it...

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Translation:

My heart beats, at once to horse...
It was done as quickly as it was thought...
The evening already cradles the earth....
And on the mountains hangs the night...
The Oaktree stands already in its clothing of mist...
A towering giant there...
Where darkeness out of the bushes...
Looks on with one-hundred  black eyes.

Weekly Summary

This week I watched four S&S films and two S&S television programs.
Films included:

Dragonlance (Will Meugniot, 2007)
Wizards (Ralph Bakshi, 1977)
The 13th Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mike Newell, 2010)

Television included:

Conan the Adventurer (Episode 1, 1997)
Highlander (Episode 1, 1992)

Wizards tells the story of a post-apocalyptic struggle between two brothers (a recurring them in S&S), Avatar (a good wizard) and Blackwolf (an evil wizard).  It is particularly notable for bringing to the forefront a common undercurrent of S&S film: the conflict between sorcery and technology. Avatar is a surly old hippie, drawn and voiced in the style of Robert Crumb's famous "Mr. Natural" character and Blackwolf looks like an earlier incarnation of "Skeletor" from the 1980's He-Man cartoon.  With the discovery of Nazi propaganda and technology, Blackwolf attempts to take over the world, but is ultimately thwarted by Avatar.

The 13th Warrior is also particularly noteworthy for its reinterpretation of the classic tale of Beowulf from the perspective of an Arabian poet-cum-warrior who is swept up in the journey to the help the Danes.  The exceptional thing about this film is the way that it positions the relationship between civilization and barbarism.  The viewer is focalized through the character of Ahmad ibn Fadlan who, hailing from Baghdad, is the most sophisticated character in the film.  He fights with the Northmen (Geats and Danes) against the Wendyl a pre-historic tribe of cannibals who have been ravaging the Danes.  In the film, there are three levels of human civilization represented: Arabic, Viking, and "Wendyl."  The film priviledges the southern Arabic culture, depticted early in the film and continued throughout by the character of Ahmed, as the most civilized.  The northern Viking tribes are depicted as bordering on civilization, and the Wendyl who are depicted as barely human.  It's especially interesting to consider the fact that the head of the Wendyl's tribe is a snake-draped mother figure who's symbol is the Venus of Willendorf, while the Arabic (represented by Ahmed) is patriarchal and monotheistic.  The Vikings seem somewhere in between with a polytheism that places Odin in a priviledged position reigning over Valhalla.  However, the most interesting thing about these representations comes when we see that Ahmed, although he derives from a more sophisticated culture discovers that his time with the less civilized Vikings has made a "man" of him.

Just a few words about Highlander the TV knock-off:  Loved it then, love it now!  I used to watch it with my father and brother and certainly imagined myself immortal when I would go to karate or fencing practice!!!

Haven't thought of anything to say about Prince of Persia, Dragonlance, or Conan yet.  In case you haven't guessed, I'm not one to dismiss something because of cliche writing or poor production values.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Die Nibelungen: Part 1

Click on the following link to view the Part 1 of Die Nibelungen with commentary: Die Nibelungen: Part 1  Note that this includes the entire first Canto, unlike my post below...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sword & Sorcery List Update

Thanks to Bruce Durham for the following suggestions: The Black Cauldron, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, and Amazons.

1.                  Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
2.                  Sinbad the Sailor (Richard Wallace, 1947)
3.                  The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (aka Sadko) (Aleksandr Ptushko, 1953)
4.                  Knights of the Round Table (Richard Thorpe, 1953)
5.                  The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958)
6.                  Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959)
7.                  Jack the Giant Killer (aka Sinbad devlere karsi) (Nathan Juran, 1962)
8.                  The Magic Sword (Bert Gordon, 1962)
9.                  Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963)
10.              Captain Sinbad (Byron Haskin, 1963)
11.              The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1963)
12.              Sword of Lancelot (Cornel Wilde, 1963)
13.              The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Gordon Hessler, 1974)
14.              Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977)
15.              Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (Sam Wanamaker, 1977)
16.              Wizards (Ralph Bakshi, 1977)
17.              The Hobbit (Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., 1977)
18.              Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
19.              Hawk the Slayer (Terry Marcel, 1980)
20.              Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)
21.              Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis, 1981)
22.              Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, 1981)
23.              Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981)
24.              Conan The Barbarian (John Milius, 1982)
25.              The Beastmaster (Don Coscarelli, 1982)
26.              The Sword and the Sorcerer (Albert Pyun, 1982)
27.              The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson, Frank Oz, 1982)
28.              The Flight of Dragons (Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., 1982)
29.              The Last Unicorn (Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., 1982)
30.              The Sorceress (Jack Hill, 1982)
31.              Hundra (Matt Cimber, 1982)
32.              Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983)
33.              Fire and Ice (Ralph Bakshi, 1983)
34.              Krull (Peter Yates, 1983)
35.              Ator: The Fighting Eagle (Joe D’Amato, 1983)
36.              Yor: The Hunter From the Future (Antonio Margheriti,1983)
37.              Deathstalker (James Sbardellati, 1983)
38.              Sword of the Valiant (Stephen Weeks, 1984)
39.              Conan The Destroyer (Richard Fleischer, 1984)
40.              The Warrior and the Sorceress (John Broderick, 1984)
41.              The Blade Master (Joe D’Amato, 1984)
42.              The Devil’s Sword (Ratner Timoer, 1984)
43.              The Dungeonmaster (Rosemarie Turko, John Buechler, David Allen, Stephen Ford, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou, Charles Band, 1985)
44.              Ladyhawke (Richard Donner, 1985)
45.              Red Sonja (Richard Fleischer, 1985)
46.              She (Avi Nesher, 1985)
47.              Conquest (Lucio Fulci, 1985)
48.              Barbarian Queen (Hector Olivera, 1985)
49.              The Black Cauldron (Ted Berman, Richard Rich, 1985)
50.              Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (Hector Olivera, 1985)
51.              Legend (Ridley Scott, 1986)
52.              Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986)
53.              Amazons (Alejandro Sessa, 1986)
54.              Masters of the Universe (Gary Goddard, 1987)
55.              Iron Warrior (Alfonso Brescia, 1987)
56.              Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans (Jim Wynorski, 1987)
57.              Gor (Fritz, Kiersch, 1988)
58.              Willow (Ron Howard, 1988)
59.              Deathstalker III: The Warriors from Hell (Alfonso Corona, 1988)
60.              Sinbad of the Seven Seas (Enzo Castellari, 1989)
61.              Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back (Joe Finley, 1989)
62.              Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (Charles Griffith, 1989)
63.              Quest for the Mighty Sword (Joe D’Amato, 1990)
64.              Highlander 2 (Russell Mulcahy, 1990)
65.              Deathstalker IV: Match of Titans (Howard Cohen, 1990)
66.              Wizards of the Demon Sword (Fred Olen Ray, 1991)
67.              Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991)
68.              Eyes of the Serpent (Ricardo Jaques Gale, 1994)
69.              Highlander: The Final Dimension (Andrew Morahan, 1994)
70.              Dragonheart (Rob Cohen, 1996)
71.              The Lord Protector (Ryan Carroll, 1996)
72.              Kull The Conqueror (John Nicolella, 1997)
73.              Merlin (Steve Barron, 1998)
74.              Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)
75.              Arthur’s Quest (Neil Mandt, 1999)
76.              The 13th Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999)
77.              Beowulf (Graham Baker, 1999)
78.              Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists (Evan Ricks, 2000)
79.              Dungeons & Dragons (Courtney Solomon, 2000)
80.              Dragonheart: A New Beginning (Doug Lefler, 2000)
81.              Highlander 4: Endgame (Douglas Aarniokoski, 2000)
82.              Jason and the Argonauts (Nick Willing, 2000)
83.              The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
84.              Voyage of the Unicorn (Philip Spink, 2001)
85.              Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002)
86.              The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)
87.              The Scorpion King (Chuck Russell, 2002)
88.              Crusade of Vengeance (Byron Thompson, 2002)
89.              The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)
90.              Blood of Beasts (David Lister, 2003)
91.              Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Patrick Gilmore, Tim Johnson, 2003)
92.              Barbarian (John O’Halloran, 2003)
93.              Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (Uli Edel, 2004)
94.              Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005)
95.              The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005)
96.              Beowulf & Grendel (Sturla Gunnarsson, 2005)
97.              Wrath of the Dragon God (Gerry Lively, 2005)
98.              Highlander: The Source (Brett Leonard, 2006)
99.              Dragon (Leigh Scott, 2006)
100.          Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007)
101.          Dragonlance (Will Meugniot, 2007)
102.          In the Name of the King (Uwe Boll, 2007)
103.          Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (Russell Mulcahy, 2008)
104.          Dragon Hunter (Steve Shimek, 2008)
105.          Djinn: An Ancient Fairy Tale (Sean Solimon, 2008)
106.          Outlander (Howard McCain, 2008)
107.          The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Andrew Adamson, 2008)
108.          Knights of Bloodsteel (Philip Spink, 2009)
109.          Solomon Kane (Michael Basset, 2009)
110.          Sinbad and the Minotaur (Karl Zwicky, 2010)
111.          Journey to Promethea (Dan Garcia, 2010)
112.          The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Andrew Adamson, 2010)
113.          Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier, 2010)
114.          Season of the Witch (Dominic Sena, 2011)
115.          Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage (Shahin Sean Solimon, 2011)

Probation:

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven and Hell (Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)
Pirates of the Caribbean (Gore Verbinski, 2003)
Vampire Hunter D. (Toyoo Ashida, Carl Macek, 1985)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975)
The Thief of Baghdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924)
300 (Zack Snyder, 2006)
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)
Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004)

Additions: