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.