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.