Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Top 5 Sword and Sorcery films

I've always been a fan of fantasy films, that is the sort where the heroes use swords and magic you understand, not what you're thinking of.

I can trace this back to being twelve when our evangelical Headmaster banned our Dungeons and Dragons society for being satanic, which caused my anti-authority instincts to kick in.

The trouble is this was the 1980s and there really wasn't many good films of that genre about. I never cared for Conan the Barbarian, or Willow or endless repeats of Hawk the Slayer.

Bizarrely it seems that until special effects allowed the film makers to do things properly you were better supplied with Sword and Sorcery stories on the small screen. Few real films could compare with Robin of Sherwood, or Merlin of the Crystal Cave or Mists of Avalon, not to mention the incomparable Monkey.

In fact lets not mention Monkey, as I can't have been the only one to have been thoroughly confused by fancying Tripitaka, supposedly a boy but played by a very attractive Japanese lady. As I said, that's the wrong sort of fantasy!

Number 5: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

When I was a lad the only Sword and Sorcery films you ever got on TV watching were the old Ray Harryhausen ones, so one has to kick off this list.

Jason and the Argonauts, the three Sinbad films, Clash of the Titans - I could make a Ray Harryhausen top 5. However instead I'll go for Argonauts as representative of the bunch.

There's actually not a lot to say about the film itself, so lets get straight to the monsters. We have skeletons, a Hydra, Harpies, Poseidon and best of all Talos, who is really a character in his own right.

These days I guess you really can see the join, but when I was young these special effects really were the bees knees. They're still good, and the skeleton battle in particular stands out. Seeing as how you care so little for the human characters it's a shame that all these fantastic creatures have to bite the dust.

Number 4: Time Bandits(1981)

Does Time Bandits count?

Well, there has to be a Terry Gilliam film here somewhere and Jabberwocky isn't good enough, although it does contain a great scene of an anonymous character being picked off by the unseen monster, and Holy Grail properly belongs in the comedy list.

A more serious question is whether it works as a movie. It is certainly episodic and the cameos are far more memorable than the main characters; Ian Holm as Napoleon, Michael Palin as a man who needs fruit, Sean Connery as Agamemnon (and a fireman) and best of all John Cleese as a posh Robin Hood and Sir Ralph Richardson as a very dapper Supreme Being. Sir Ralph had already played The Devil in an Amicus horror movie so this was the completion of a unique double.

Ultimately it's a tremendous amount of fun and the design is fantastic and special effects perfect, which is not something you can say about a lot of fantasy films of the decade.

Number 3: Excalibur (1981)

Making 1981 a significant year for fantasy films, John Boorman's Excalibur was something rather more serious.  

Apparently Boorman really wanted to do Lord of the Rings but instead had to opt for La Morte D'Arthur: The Movie. People at the time laughed at the sight of knights leaping about the place and even siring children whilst dressed from head to foot in full plate armour.

There was nothing impossible about this - they had little chain main flaps to allow access for the child siring bit - but more to the point it was how Malory imagined the stories.

If Nigel Terry's Arthur is a little bland, Nicol Williamson's Merlin more than makes up for it, stainless steel skullcap and all.

Boorman also splices in a bit of paganism in the story of the Fisher King and if the film is crying out for some CGI in places, the Irish scenery, and Wagner and Karl Orff's music, more than compensate.

I remember watching this film at the 1991 Glastonbury festival, my first visit to the part of England most closely associated with the legends, and being struck by the mythic nature of the film. In the last battle Arthur's knights ride out from the fog to fight Mordred, and it is from those Avalonian mists that the film appears to have sprung.

Number 2: The Princess Bride (1987)

Ah, The Princess Bride, a film that is so charming it just grows and grows on you.

I first watched it for a laugh as a stoned student, then watched it again 'for the children' and I'd watch it again tomorrow for myself if it were on.

Considering cheesiness is what defines most eighties fantasy films, it is an achievement that a film about a Princess marrying her one-true-love is remembered for its jokes.

It doesn't just have a few laughs, cinema's best sword fight, numerous quotable lines, an impressive trio of cameos by Billy Crystal, Mel Smith and Peter Cook, cinemas most charming giant (Andre), the wonderful Haddon Hall standing in for Florin and career-best by all the leading players, it also has a heart of pure gold.

Number 1: The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

First lets get things straight - this is one film not three.

Also, Peter Jackson didn't bastardise, ruin or otherwise corrupt Tolkien's story, he trimmed it down to a manageable size and improved it.

Now Tolkien did a number of great things when he wrote Lord of the Rings, he modernised the world's greatest myth cycle, successfully blended a Catholic and pagan world-view and created a timeless realm that appeals equally to hippies, Little Englanders and teenage boys, but he did not write a good book.

Tolkien's writing style could be described as somewhere between soporific and pants. A great storyteller he was not.

Fortunately though he had a great story, and in these films it is improved by Jackson's editing and the performances of a talented ensemble. Special effects now allow the story to be told in all its it majesty, but its not just clever computer work. The design is fabulous too and comes from a team that were genuinely inspired by the story and also by Tolkien, who gave so much depth to his world that they had plenty to go on.

The story is multi layered and you really do need to sit through the extended edition to experience it. The growing bond between Aragorn and Boromir, where the latter pours out his fears and the former slowly comes to accept his destiny, was largely left on the cutting room floor, but is one of the highlights of the first instalment.

Add in a great score and you have the perfect, epic cinema experience; plot, acting, design, effects, direction and music all pitch perfect. Tolkien's book may lack the literary merits to have really earned its numerous awards, but Jackson's film deserved every Oscar it won.

It's been accused of having too many endings, but after twelve hours of viewing you feel you deserve them.

Personally though, I'd have just given the ring to Galadriel.


byron smith said...

Forget Galadriel. How LOTR should have ended.

I concur with your comments about Jackson and Tolkien.

Martin Porter said...

I also didn't get what was wrong wiht just chucking it into the sea.

byron smith said...

I think the idea is that (like with Sméagol and Déagol from the river), it would find its way out.

Martin Porter said...

But not for a while you hope, thus giving time to deal with Sauron.

I guess the answer really was that Sauron was too strong to be dealt with and the only strategy available was for a Hero to either use the Ring, or pretend to use the Ring whilst it was taken to be destroyed.

I think the importance of the bluff is often underestimated. I think Tolkien meant it to be understood that if Aragorn or Gandalf took the Ring they'd wipe the floor with old Sauron and his Orcs.

byron smith said...

Yes, and then become just like him.