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.