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.