A lusty epic of revenge and magic, dungeons and dragons, wizards and witches, damsels and desire, and a warrior caught between.
It appears that the early 1980s were a kind of watershed for the sword and sorcery fantasy genre. This may have been partly an attempt by the studios to cash in on the growing popularity of TSR's Dungeons and Dragons. Whatever the reason, the early '80s created some of the most enduring classics of the genre. Conan the Barbarian remains the gold standard, but several other movies followed in its path. The Beastmaster, Excalibur, Highlander, Dragonslayer, Legend, Willow, Krull, and countless others tried to fill the growing demand for fantasy, with varying levels of success and catering to a wide variety of audiences.
There were a number of low-budget attempts to cash in on the fantasy boom as well. Most of these movies followed a fairly simple formula: take a weak script, some unknown actors, and throw in shocking (for the time) amounts of blood and gore and a few topless women so that no one notices how cheap the whole thing is. In this B-fantasy subgenre there are a few notable entries, including The Warrior and the Sorceress, a Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars ripoff starring David Carradine, which sadly has not made it to DVD yet. The Sword and the Sorcerer is a prime example of B-grade early '80s fantasy. It is probably one of the best of the lot, although that's not saying much. It now appears on DVD courtesy of those fine folks at Anchor Bay, AKA "The Poor Man's Criterion Collection."
Facts of the Case
In an opening narration and several scenes full of clunky expository dialogue, we learn that the evil Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch) is battling with the good King Richard (Christopher Cary) for control of "the entire civilized world." Cromwell, desperate to win, gets a witch to use black magic to raise the ancient sorcerer Xusia (Richard Moll—"Night Court") from the dead. Cromwell uses Xusia's powers, defeats the king, and then dispatches Xusia so that he can't make any trouble.
One of the King's sons is Talon. Talon has been entrusted with his father's sacred gimmick…er, sword, a mysterious three-bladed weapon that can launch the two extraneous blades at the touch of a button. Talon disappears, seemingly never to be seen again. (In case you were wondering, with the introduction of Xusia and Talon's wacky weapon, we now have the requisite elements for the title of the movie.)
Cut to several years in the future. A growing underground movement to depose Cromwell centers around Prince Mikah (Simon MacCorkindale) and his sister, Princess Alana (Kathleen Beller). Among their secret network of supporters is Count Machelli, Cromwell's War Chancellor. However, the evil Xusia is apparently not dead after all. He's back and he's carrying a grudge, and wants to use the underground movement to his own evil ends. Just when it seems that all hope of defeating Cromwell is lost, a strange warrior (Lee Horsley) with a three-bladed sword shows up in town with his band of assorted ruffians. The hapless Mikah has gotten himself captured by this time, and Alana makes a deal with the stranger—if he will free her brother, she will repay him in any way he wants. With this incentive, but mostly just for the fun of it, Talon (you were expecting someone else?) and his men agree to a daring raid on Cromwell's castle. Much fun and mayhem ensues, including some truly Erroll Flynn-style action and of course the requisite harem scene with lots of topless women to distract us from the holes in the plot.
For starters, let's give credit where it is due. The script for The Sword and the Sorcerer is pretty ambitious. Most movies of this type wouldn't even attempt to create a complex story like this, with schemes and counter-schemes, suspicion and intrigue. Granted, the execution of these ideas is pretty clumsy, and thus requires the narration and expository dialogue I mentioned earlier, but the writers do get some points in my book for at least trying to tell a story, rather than just stringing together a loose collection of action setpieces. There are also some attempts to create interesting characters. Talon in particular is supposed to be a charming, irreverent rogue with a ready sense of humor.
The acting is not great, but again it is better than one might expect from this kind of movie. Lee Horsley does a passable job as Talon, and gives the character just the right humorous touch. Simon MacCorkindale gives probably the best performance of the movie as Prince Mikah, the anguished, sincere, would-be heir to the throne. Richard Lynch gives a one-dimensional performance as Cromwell that just screams villain, but given the material he fits right in. Even Kathleen Beller brings a bit of spark to Princess Alana, making the character seem stronger than the movie's events reveal her to be.
On top of all this, the movie also shows signs of some fairly competent direction. Fight scenes are full of sword-swinging action and are at times almost believable. The editing shows a bit of life as well. The sets, props and so on are of course quite cheap, but adequate for the task at hand. The special effects are mostly pretty bad, but again there needs to be some credit given for a respectable effort.
Picture quality on this disc is better than I had expected but not outstanding. The Sword and the Sorcerer comes to us from Anchor Bay in a 1.85:1 Anamorphic transfer. There are unusually few film nicks, scratches and blemishes for a movie of this age and oeuvre. There is some pixelation in the skies in outdoor scenes, which is a pretty common problem for lower-budget DVD releases. Fine textures look pretty good. Colors are faithfully rendered but a bit muted; this appears to be intentional. I detected some slight softness in the image a good portion of the time, but nothing horrendous. There are a lot of firelit/torchlit scenes that look surprisingly good, although they are a bit grainy at times. Shadow detail is not great but is occasionally good. All in all, this is a solid transfer with a few relatively minor flaws.
The audio is available in two choices, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround. Like the transfer quality, the audio mix is better than expected. It is well balanced between dialogue, music, and sound effects. The rear channels are put to good use for the musical score, but not a lot else. My main complaint with the audio mix is a constant low sound from the rear surrounds in a number of scenes. It is a rushing sort of sound, almost like ocean waves, but constant. I can't tell if this is part of the original audio, if it is just really bad soundtrack hiss, or if it is a lame attempt to create an enveloping surround sound atmosphere.
The only extra content on the DVD consists of two theatrical trailers and a TV spot. The trailers are about three minutes long each and are basically identical. They go on for far too long and give away the best (or worst) gimmick in the movie, the three-bladed rocket launcher sword. Surprisingly, the first trailer has nudity in it; a clip of the harem scene is included. The only difference in the second trailer is that the nudity is tastefully covered with skimpy clothing. I suspect that two versions of this scene may have been shot, perhaps for use in an eventual television release. The trailers are presented in their original aspect ratio and are in much better condition than I expected. The TV spot is much shorter, but uses a portion of the same footage as the trailers. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these advertisements is that they manage to work the words "dungeons" and "dragons" together in the same sentence; some pretty transparent marketing here, I think. I got a chuckle out of it, even more so when I realized that there are no actual dragons in the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know I have made this movie sound a lot better than it actually is. Make no mistake, it is flawed in almost every way. Yes, the plot is ambitious; it is also unwieldy and in places just plain dumb. The protagonists spend more time getting rescued repeatedly from Cromwell's dungeon than doing anything noticeably heroic. It has been proven over and over again: to be memorable, a movie needs a memorable villain. A good hero is a plus, but a good villain is a must. Unfortunately, The Sword and the Sorcerer has neither. Instead we have two bland villains and a hero who is too busy being a smart-aleck and getting captured to be much of a hero.
There are some scenes that are just dumb enough to be offensive. One involves Robert Tessier (Starcrash), who plays one of Cromwell's dungeon guards. He is seen sharpening a weapon on an old-fashioned grindstone. We see his foot pumping, keeping the stone turning. One of Talon's men grabs him from behind and forces his face into the stone, eventually killing him in a spray of blood. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this? If someone is pushing my face into a grindstone, I think I would at least quit making the stone go. Another scene that is potentially offensive is a scene early in the movie where some of Cromwell's enforcers are attempting to, ahem, "have their way" with Princess Alana. Maybe I'm turning into some sort of bleeding-heart in my old age, but I find attempted rape played for laughs to be just slightly disturbing. Of course, as in most movies of this kind Alana gets the short end of the stick; she could have been a cool, strong female character but winds up being the usual helpless pawn to be continually rescued from danger. Then there is the matter of the reward that she promises Talon for freeing her brother, but I'll leave you to discover that bit of misogyny on your own.
Anchor Bay = No Subtitles. Enough said. Really, I get tired of beating them up over this, but they need to learn their lesson and start putting English subtitles on their discs at the very least.
As frequent readers of the Verdict know, I am a fan of this genre. The Sword and the Sorcerer is no great movie; it plays more like an extended, R-rated episode of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." Still, to a sword-and-sorcery fan like me, it's marginally acceptable albeit thoroughly forgettable entertainment. I'd recommend this for die-hard fans of the genre, and devoted cheese enthusiasts, but few others are going to enjoy it. Of course, since I fall squarely into both categories, I'm glad to have a copy. Now, if someone would just release The Warrior and the Sorceress on DVD, I would be a happy man.
The Sword and the Sorcerer is a very, very guilty pleasure for this judge. Anchor Bay is acquitted, of course, although the lack of English subtitles is really, really getting on our nerves here at the Verdict.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailers
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