Remember films like Conan the Barbarian, Labyrinth, and The Sword and the Sorcerer? Fantasy movies of the late 1970s and early 80s with lots of swords and sorcery, where the good guys always won? Remember how most of these movies were actually pretty bad, if you were honest about it, but you dearly loved them anyway—and probably still do?
For many of us of certain age, and the young hipsters enjoying them for a pure whiff of nostalgia, these sword-and-sorcery films hold a special, permanent place in the heart. Why do we still love them if they were so bad? Because at the time they were all we had. We were just happy to have any fantasy available in those days, before fantasy had become so widely popular. Consider the novels written by Terry Brooks. The Sword of Shannara (among others) benefited mightily from the time’s scarcity of fantasy literature; you’d read the Lord of the Rings books, then the scant additional titles on the library or bookstore shelf, and that was all there was. You were done! But then, suddenly, there was more, and it was familiar too! The Sword of Shannara and its immediate sequels would not win nearly as many readers, or as much enthusiasm, if they were written today. Similarly, the sword-and-sorcery movies were gems simply by virtue of existing. “Hey, here’s some of that fantasy stuff! It’s just like D&D, but on the screen! Awesome!” It was new, and fresh, and it was fantasy!
That’s why they don’t make sword-and-sorcery films like they used to: because they can’t. They can’t because times change, and have changed. That innocent, brand-new environment for fantasy can never quite be recaptured. We can, though, binge-watch our old favorites any time we like.
A definition would be useful here, because the presence of swords/sorcery does not in itself make a movie properly a sword-and-sorcery movie. That is a specific thing with particular characteristics and particular aesthetics.
The best and most characteristic sword-and-sorcery films were made during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They constitute the film genre’s response to, and version of, the sudden huge growth in fantasy literature and gaming. Put more cynically: SAS movies were filmmakers’ attempts to cash in on the lucrative new fantasy market. Like most fantasy novels of the time, SAS movies generally employ blunt, one-dimensional archetypes and stereotypes: the Bad-Ass Sword-Wielding Warrior, the Chosen One who must learn and live up to his true birthright, the Beautiful Damsel in Despair, the Wise Old Wizard, the Evil Tyrannical Ruler, the Power-Hungry Cultic Priest, the Comic Relief Guy (often the thief and/or sidekick), and so forth. Good and evil are easy to discern, and always in open conflict. Evil generally begins with the upper hand, only to lose in the end to deserving, initially underestimated Good. (In this, the SAS movie structurally resembles melodrama, such as that seen in Charles Dickens’s novels.) As in most fantasy, the world is medieval-ish, lacking more advanced technology such as guns. Swords and sorcery are prominently and repeatedly deployed. Shapely breasts are probably bared, depending on the film’s rating. A rough analogy might be: Frank Frazetta’s aesthetic translated into moving pictures. Storylines, like the characters, tend toward simple, bold strokes. Happy endings are the norm.
Importantly, proper SAS films are not intentionally campy or self-parodying. Many of them are badly made, no question; more on that shortly. But their weaknesses feel accidental, not purposely built-in. So, for example, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is not actually a sword-and-sorcery film despite featuring lots of both swords and sorcery. It’s a humorous work of parody and satire, its targets ranging widely from political oppression to the Arthurian sagas, not at all a film in dead earnest. The Princess Bride is a widely-loved, wonderful film, but it’s not quite sword-and sorcery; more than anything, it’s a clever, layered, postmodern take on fantasy storytelling itself. Although its main story of Westley and Buttercup is sword-and-sorcery-ish, its frame (Peter Falk’s character reading the book to his sick, reluctant grandson) significantly alters the way we receive every part of it. We don’t hear/view it “straight,” in earnest, which is how sword-and-sorcery movies are built to be viewed.
These are some key dates in fantasy’s transition from books to celluloid:
1974: Dungeons and Dragons rulebook is first published. D&D and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are the unofficial, unacknowledged primary sources of most modern fantasy.
1977: Dungeons and Dragons is supplemented and revised, then published as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D lays out much more elaborate rules than the original D&D. D&D’s Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook were also published in this year.
The first book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s popular fantasy series Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Lord Foul’s Bane, is published.
The first book of Terry Brooks’s insanely popular, Tolkien-esque fantasy series, The Sword of Shannara, is published. Ballantine Books created a whole new division, Del Rey Books, with SOS as its inaugural volume. SOS and Del Rey together did much to boost overall publication and sales of fantasy novels. Brooks is still writing books in this series, which now has 28 volumes!
After this, the deluge commenced. Fantasy novels and games proliferated quickly, and sword-and-sorcery movies did so right along with them. Here are some of the best-known, most popular sword-and-sorcery films of this era—the Golden Age of Sword-and-Sorcery, if you will. Most of them are readily available for streaming view through Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, or other online venues.
Wizards (1977). Animated film by Ralph Bakshi. The world here does include some modern technology, because it is set post-apocalypse on Earth, but overall the film meets all the other defining criteria and “feels” SAS.
The Saturday morning cartoon show The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (not a movie, but such a fascinating tidbit that I had to include it here) ran for 24 episodes beginning in the fall of 1980. On October 24, 1981, this show ran a sword-and-sorcery episode, “Fjords and Sorcery.” You can watch the full episode here.)
Clash of the Titans (1981). Stars Sir Lawrence Olivier as Zeus, king of the gods, and a young Harry Hamlin as Perseus.
Excalibur (1981). Probably the highest-quality SAS film of them all, but then it had all the King Arthur lore as source material.
Dragonslayer (1981). Disney film. When Disney jumps onto a trend, you can tell it’s an important one.
Heavy Metal (1981). The movie poster part of the movie, anyway, is very SAS.
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982). Puts the keywords right there in the title; features a three-bladed sword (!) that can shoot two of the blades out in an emergency.
Conan the Barbarian (1982). My own favorite and most characteristic sword-and-sorcery movie.
The Beastmaster (1982). The hero here receives the aid of animals in his quest, and keeps a pair of ferrets in his pants. No, that’s not a euphemism or metaphor.
Krull (1983). Some science fiction elements (the evil enemy comes out of a Black Fortress, which flew here from another planet), but still quite SAS.
Deathstalker (1983). More than any other SAS movie: so bad it’s good.
Legend (1985). Stars a young Tom Cruise as the hero, and Tim Curry as Darkness.
Ladyhawke (1985). Unusually high-quality, characteristic SAS.
It was right about here, 1985, that the Golden Age of Sword-and-Sorcery faded. Two important changes began to happen with SAS movies.
First, they got better. Many of the Golden-Age movies are worthy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment; maybe most of them are. The characters, storylines, and special effects are so crudely rendered and simplistic that a certain laughability is almost guaranteed. Amateurishness was virtually required. But Ladyhawke (like Excalibur before it) is actually a pretty well-made movie by any standard, and it signaled the overall rise in quality to come. SAS movies steadily improved to the quality of the early 2000s Lord of the Rings movies. The third of those, The Return of the King (2003), won the Oscar for Best Picture (plus ten other Oscars, every award for which it was nominated) and was a titanic critical and box-office success.
Second, computer rendered visual effects improved. SAS movies of the Golden Age, had to depict almost everything in live action and hand-applied makeup. Later movies, such as the first two installments of The Hobbit (2012, 2013), employ far more CGI than live action. The dragon Smaug is 100% beautiful, detailed, persuasive CGI.
In short, sword-and-sorcery films became… just films. They were no longer something new, and odd, and a little funny. They just don’t make them like that any more!
I invite you to add your own favorite sword-and-sorcery titles in the comments section below.