Because I knew you all were wondering but were too afraid to ask, I decided to put together my top five favorite sword and sorcery movies and talk a little bit about what makes each one special. These aren’t necessarily my favorite fantasy movies in general. Instead, I chose from that sub-genre of fantasy that features (you guessed it) swords and sorceries and focuses more on action and adventure than on drama or comedy or romance. The broader fantasy genre could conceivably include everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Groundhog Day, so we’ll just stick to sorting through the “what-everyone-thinks-of-when-they-think-of-fantasy” titles.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s jump right in. The list is arranged from fifth favorite to first:
Arthurian legends are rich with the material that makes for great fantasy movies. There are knights, castles, mythological beasts and heroic quests. That’s pretty much all you need, right? Yes and no. You can stick to the basics and make a decent sword and sorcery flick, but if you go the extra mile you can make a movie that transcends its genre. That’s pretty much what John Boorman did with Excalibur. This movie doesn’t just cover the rise and fall of Camelot, it does it with so much style it makes your head spin. The costumes and sets are gorgeous, the acting is superlative, the writing is clever and the musical score is unforgettable. Boorman didn’t just make a King Arthur movie, he made THE King Arthur movie.
Four: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I’m cheating a bit with this one and including both parts one and two and treating it as one movie. While I enjoyed all of the Harry Potter movies, these last two struck me as head and shoulders better than the rest. It’s not just that we get to see the culmination of Voldemort’s plan and finally unwrap all the mysteries surrounding Harry Potter’s peculiar place in the world. Those things are compelling enough, but what surprised me about these two movies was the depiction of hopelessness and depression the heroes face when it appears all has been lost. In every other fantasy movie I’ve ever seen, when we near the end and the stakes are high, I’m used to seeing the main characters gear-up/hatch a crazy plan/start busting heads. But in Deathly Hallows, we see something quite different.
Voldemort wins. Everything has gone his way. Sure, he doesn’t have Harry and his friends, but he doesn’t need them. Meanwhile, our heroes have nothing going for them and only a vague idea of how to start (to START!) trying to find a way to defeat Voldemort. But they get frustrated at every turn and can do little but continually run and hide while the entire world descends into darkness around them. Everything from the broken radio broadcasts, the tense dialog, the director’s choice of settings and lighting and the actors’ portrayals of frightened kids on the edge of adulthood in a world where all the adults have gone mad…
Just perfect. Never seen anything quite like it before. Best scene in both movies comes in the first part, in my opinion. It’s when Harry and Hermione dance to Nick Cave’s “O children.” They’re trying desperately to keep their spirits up any way they know how, but their gaiety is fragile and faltering and the gloom closes in once again and all too soon. That scene gets me every time. It is very definitely always darkest before the dawn in this film.
Three: Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings
I won’t cheat with this one, since all three parts of LotR worked very well as stand alone movies and claiming all twelve hours (if you’re watching the unabridged DVDs, which you should) of Peter Jackson’s opus for one top-five spot would be just too unfair. While all three movies were great, I felt Fellowship captured some key elements of sword and sorcery that many films do not. Not coincidentally, these are the same kinds of things that make fantasy role-playing games one of my favorite hobbies.
First, there is the formation of the group of adventurers. Each one has distinct strengths and weaknesses (well, alright, maybe Legolas has no weaknesses) and differing and sometimes combative personalities. But they all come together to form a great team that is ready to trek the wilderness and spelunk some caves. Exciting!
Second, there are riddles and traps as well as menacing monsters. There is not just one enemy and his lair and his minions to deal with in this movie. Instead, there are a plethora of dangers in this fantasy world! Many of them have nothing to do with each other, but they must be overcome, nonetheless.
Third, each hero’s actions have consequences, not just for the world the movie is set in, but for each other. The One Ring is a great foil for this particular element. It perfectly symbolizes the fear, distrust and envy all player-characters feel about each other at some level. Every good session of Dungeons and Dragons I’ve ever played had me curious and cautious about not just the Dungeon Master’s world, but my fellow adventurers as well!
Speaking of Dungeons and Dragons, this movie is perhaps the best at portraying that game on screen. We won’t speak of the movies based on the actual D&D franchise – they are all of them lamentable wastes of time. No, while Fellowship captured the necessary foundation elements of good fantasy gaming, Dragonslayer got the feeling right. It’s hard to say exactly how the creators did it. A good friend of mine wrote a great piece about that very subject, so if you’re curious, you should check it out over at the Tao of Zordon.
For myself, I can only add a couple of nuggets from this movie that always made me smile. One was the magical amulet the hero carries around. It looks like an 8-sided die, one of the strange “Dragon Dice” needed to play D&D. It might have been unintentional, but I thought it was a great coincidence. The other thing that usually brings me back to this film is the use of sound. Dave talks about it in his piece and I heartily concur. The menacing creak of the leather-clad villain, the quiet sounds of daily life in the village living under a curse and, of course, every single awe-inspiring noise from the dragon all serve to provide the viewer with the magical feeling of fantasy adventure.
One: Conan the Barbarian
Arnold Schwarzenegger hungrily approaching his prime. James Earl Jones effortlessly delivering a mesmerizing performance. Max von Sydow making a bit part as a troubled king every bit as memorable as any role I’ve ever seen. Mako’s voice, rumbling and charged with portent, setting the table for the viewer with this pitch-perfect intro: “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!”
Then those drums come in. Oh man, those drums. That soundtrack by Basil Poledouris still gets my blood pumping.
This movie had exactly the right cast, writers and directors – not to mention perhaps the best score of any movie anywhere – to bring Robert Howard’s pulp fantasy vision to the big screen. While every other movie on this list is undeniably a sword and sorcery movie, this film IS sword and sorcery. Not only that, but it brings out all the elements of fine fantasy role-playing I described above. But our heroes don’t quest for high ideals, they quest for profit!
They invade villainous layers! They slay terrible monsters! They collect valuable loot! Then they go back to town and piss it all away! Why? Because they’re adventurers! That’s what adventurers do! They only get roped into trying to complete an impossible rescue-the-princess quest because the king makes them an offer they can’t refuse.
But, honestly, I think it’s the writing that makes this movie stick with me. James Earl Jones powerfully delivering “That is strength, boy. That is power. What is the sword compared to the hand that wields it?” Max von Sydow morosely admitting “There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” Schwarzenegger spitting his character’s wrath against fate and fortune: “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!”
And, of course, the famous “Crush your enemies” line. You know the one. Interesting tidbit about that scene, though. The character who is speaking just as the scene opens is muttering “My fear is that my sons will never understand me…” You may recognize that line. It’s the same one Marlon Brando spoke in Apocalypse Now. Oliver Stone was the writer on both movies and I’ve often wondered why he put it in this film. Was he saying the barbaric warrior tribe that raised Conan and taught him to fight were somehow like Colonel Kurtz? Was he making a political statement about the inhumanity of warfare, even as it is glorified in a sword and sorcery picture? Was it just a playful Easter egg? Who knows?
Well, there’s my list. I’m glad you stuck around and let me satisfy your curiosity about something you never knew you wanted to know. Have an opinion? Feel free to comment below!
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