My Top Five Favorite Sword and Sorcery Films

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:

 

 

Five: Excalibur

 

Excalibur_movie_poster

 

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

 

deathly_hollows

 

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

 

fellowship

 

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!

 

 

Two: Dragonslayer

 

dragonslayer

 

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

 

conan_movie_poster

 

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?

 

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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!

This week’s T-Shirt winner is Tracy Pendleton! Congrats, Tracy! Look for the newsletter soon and please respond with size and mailing address!

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Until next time, please to be remembering the reviewing and the tipping.

 

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Reviews are everything, reviews are nothing

Amazon book reviews (and to a lesser extent Goodreads reviews and to an even lesser extent – is that possible? How many extents are there? How far does an extent go? Can an extent get an extension? More importantly, will I ever find my way out of this parenthetical? – wait… where was I? Oh yes… and to an even lesserer extenterer all other sites that allow reviews) are critical to an author’s success. They help or sometimes dictate if a 3rd party website will promote a book. They influence how seriously Amazon regards your book and if they will recommend it to their customers using an algorithm that is as full of mystery and magic as an average day at Hogwarts.

 

Pictured: Jeff Bezos, shortly after entering his mysterious school for gifted youngsters.

Pictured: Jeff Bezos, shortly after entering his mysterious school for gifted youngsters.

 

But do reviews actually mean anything? Bear with me for a sec here. If you’re an Amazon customer, do you write reviews for everything you buy? Of course not. I mean, obviously you wrote a scathing critique of that combination toaster/blender you bought, warning all the other unwary customers away from the product’s false claims of serving up a complete breakfast in minutes. Failed to mention how everything somehow tastes like a toast slurry, didn’t they?

But what about all the products you liked? Well, maybe you wrote one glowing review of that complete DVD box set of The Waltons you bought for yourself a while back. Sure, you wrote it after binge-watching all nine seasons, eyes bleary from three bottles of red wine and tear-filled from the regret evoked by painful reminders of the sunshine of youth now eclipsed and the glory of bygone days, but you meant every word! And you wouldn’t take back one single syllable. Well, except that mention of your first girlfriend and how you hoped she was happy and living the life you always knew she deserved. You went back and edited that out anyway. Don’t worry, I’m sure no one saw. Well, no one who cared anyway.

 

Don't you judge me, internet. Don't you dare judge me.

Don’t you judge me, internet. Don’t you dare judge me.

 

But besides that one special product near and dear to your heart, do you write reviews for anything else? I’m betting not. That latest pack of underwear sure was delivered on time and hugs your butt cheeks exactly as described, but you just can’t be motivated to take the time to pen a nice note stating that with your name attached and everything. No, for most products we buy on Amazon we blissfully neglect leaving reviews. Why? Because we have lives full of about a thousand things that demand our attention. How could writing a review no one will probably ever read even attempt to make it into the top 10 on your to-do list? I mean, I deliberately shifted gears on my life a couple of years ago to limit the amount of things going on in it so I could concentrate on writing and even I can’t be bothered to review my latest purchase of athletic socks and spanx!

I made up one of those purchases. I’m not telling you which one.

So, if we know this about ourselves, why then do we trust reviews so much? Why do we bother looking at them at all when we know all the 5-star reviews are absurdly slanted (if not outright bought) and all the 1-star reviews are from customers who either should never have bought the thing in the first place or are just angry that it isn’t everything they ever wanted? Why do we place such a great emphasis on weighing this critical feedback, which often is neither critical nor feedback?

The answer, of course, is that it’s all we have. Amazon and all the other e-tailers have no independent reviewers. There is only the feedback left from the seething mass of humanity. In a way this is good, but in another it’s bad. It’s good, because no one entity can be bribed or otherwise influenced to leave good or bad reviews. It’s bad because most people either don’t leave reviews or leave sloppy and clearly biased ones. With a situation like this it’s tempting to just ignore reviews altogether, but even though you are loathe to leave them yourself, you know you need them.

 

WAT DO?

WAT DO?

 

Well, I know it’s going to sound like I’m telling you that one plus one equals a George Foreman Grill, but you need to write more reviews. Yes. You do. And me, too. (Well, I can’t really do it for books for reasons that should be obvious, but I can do it for other stuff.) I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. We have too many meaningless reviews so we need more? Yes. But what we need are meaningful reviews.

No! No, don’t run away! Wait! Let me explain!

I’m not talking about full page critical analysis stuff. No one reads that bullshit anyway. No! I’m talking about 2, 3 and 4 star reviews where you leave twitter-sized feedback. One thing you liked, one thing you didn’t and would you purchase more. That’s it! From one sentence to a maximum of three! That’s all! Easy-peezy.

But will it work, you ask? Well, you tell me. When you look at reviews do you read the essay-length ones? Do you read the 5-stars? The 1-stars? I strongly doubt you read the long reviews. You might read bite-sized 5 and 1 stars, but if you decide to purchase the item,  do you realistically think your review of it will line up with either spectrum? Of course not.

Listen, here’s what I do. I read the 1-stars to see if they’re for real. If they sound legit, I’ll move on, regardless of how many 5-stars there are. Most 5-stars are bought. Everyone knows that. BUT – if the 1-star reviews sound fishy or complain about crap I don’t care about? I cut to the “most helpful” review and read a few other 3 stars. “Most helpful” reviews are usually 3-stars. Know why? Because most things are good and bad. But they might be good with things you care about and bad concerning things of which you couldn’t give one soft stool.

It’s a shock, I know. I’ll give you a moment with it.

Actually, we’re about out of time, so go ahead and hit the showers. I might revisit this topic later, but for now just try to make a little extra time in your schedule to do some on-line reviews. It’s democracy in action, after all. Did I mention that? No? Well, I’m mentioning it.

Until next time, everyone! Don’t forget to tip your driver and don’t forget to review your purchase!