THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER: No Pyun Intended

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As much as I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy I have to say it pretty much ruined fantasy filmmaking for the next decade or two. Because much like the Star Wars trilogy before it, the LOTR saga raised the bar for the genre so high that every sword-swinging epic that came after felt they had to achieve the same level of grandeur or perish from its own mediocrity.

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But back in the early 1980’s there was some form of medieval action fantasy being released every other month, usually financed by some penny-pinching indie carpetbagger like Roger Corman. They were mostly crap, cheaply-produced and designed to entertain (or their idea of entertainment) by ticking off a checklist of elements for a fantasy flick that had been virtually set in stone by classics like John Boorman’s Arthurian masterpiece Excalibur and the original Conan the Barbarian. Boiled down to their essentials they were almost always about a steroidal meathead carrying a sword bigger than a Yugo on a quest to save a luscious, bare-breasted damsel from the hands of an evil king/queen/demon/wizard (take your pick) while encountering lots of disposable adversaries and spilling lots of blood and severed limbs as a result. But most of these films, much like the Rings wannabes of today, were so slavishly devoted to honoring a well-worn formula that they forgot to just have fun and tell an involving story.

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The Sword and the Sorcerer never falls into that trap. It’s a fun and efficient B-movie adventure that puts every dollar on the screen and reminds me of an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler from Warner Bros.’ golden age. Think of it as a medieval Captain Blood….only with much more blood. And gratuitous nudity. And lots of cool little effects accomplished on the cheap that millions of dollars in overpriced CGI couldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

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The story follows a adventurous mercenary general named Talon (Lee Horsley) who has returned to the kingdom his father once ruled until an evil dictator named Cromwell (the late, great Richard Lynch) came in and unleashed Hell on the peaceful people in the form of a demonic sorcerer named Xusia (Richard Moll – no, really) who can rip someone’s heart out by pointing his glowing-fingered hands at them. After 11 years of living under Cromwell’s tyrannical rule the people are fed up and in the embryo stages of open rebellion. So their dethroned princess (Kathleen Beller) strikes a bargain with Talon to help them overthrow Cromwell and his army. What does our hero get in exchange? A night of hot lovin’ with the princess herself. That’s enough for Talon to thrown himself into the thick of battle fighting the mad king’s hordes of expendable henchmen with a really cool triple-bladed sword that can shoot two of the blades at opponents.

Schlock filmmaker extraordinaire Albert Pyun directs with energy, style, and sneaky wit. Horsley makes a suitably dashing hero while the two Richards, Lynch and Moll, ham it up on the villain side royally and with tongue-in-cheek grandeur. The cast also includes winning supporting turns from Simon MacCorkindale (I, Claudius, Manimal), George Maharis (The Satan Bug), Nina van Pallandt (The Long Goodbye), Joe Regalbuto (Street Hawk), Joseph Ruskin (Prizzi’s Honor), Peter Breck (Shock Corridor), bad movie icon Reb “Thick McRunFast” Brown (Space Mutiny), and legendary acting teacher Jeff Corey (True Grit).

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Pyun made his directing debut on Sword after apprenticing with none other than world cinema god Akira Kurosawa. Since 1982 he’s made nearly fifty films, most of them going directly to video without a second’s thought (including his 1990 Captain America adaptation for Menahem Golan). Few of the titles in his filmography can come close to approaching the powerhouse drive-in greatness of his first feature, but his futuristic Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner Cyborg (released in 1989 and filmed on sets initially constructed for Cannon Films’ unmade Spider-Man movie and Masters of the Universe sequel), Dollman (1991), and the awesomely violent HBO premiere Mean Guns (1998) count among those that did. The end credits of Sword promised a sequel to be titled Tales of an Ancient Empire, but Pyun didn’t get around to making it until nearly three decades later. When he finally did many fans of Sword (myself included) wished he had not made it at all.

Sword was reportedly the highest-grossing independent film released in 1982 – an epic year for genre filmmaking if you ask anyone – with a hearty box office tally of $39.1 million banked off of a meager $4 million budget. Pyun co-wrote the script with Tom Karnowski and John V. Stuckmeyer, neither of whom would ever again have a screenwriting credit. Karnowski went on to serve as a producer on many of Pyun’s follow-up projects as well as films like The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, and the RZA’s directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists. Stuckmeyer worked mostly in television as a production executive for Disney and HBO and was the vice-president of production for Warner Bros.’ television arm. Editor Marshall Harvey later worked on several Joe Dante films, while director of photography Joseph Mangine (a veteran of exploitation gems like Squirm and Mother’s Day) shot Jack Sholder’s maniacs-on-the-loose horror Alone in the Dark in the early days of New Line Cinema as well as Exterminator 2 for Cannon and 1986’s weirdly awful Neon Maniacs. Composer David Whittaker, who contributed a grandiose heroic music score, got his start working on late-period Hammer horror titles like Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Vampire Circus and would later also find himself an employee of Cannon Films on Death Wish II.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is a lot of fun, unpretentious and genuinely thrilling most of the time. Check it out and become nostalgic for a time when the expectations for movies like this weren’t at a level where they all had to be grand Oscar-winning epics. Fuck that. Give me fast, cheap, and in control any day.

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