When did it all start? This love of fantasy. Hmm. It was 1977, I was four years old and it was the Summer of Magic or Sci-Fi if you prefer. Star Wars came out. And forever it has shaped my destiny. I saw it seven times. I even lied to my mother to get her to take me one more time after that. I fell in love with the beautiful princess and discovered there was a power in the universe even greater than the ability to destroy a planet. And I also learned that lightsabers are. The. Coolest. Things. Ever.
I proffer this for debate. Is Star Wars the greatest fantasy movie of all time? Is it the perfect one? Is there such a thing? I guess it depends on what you classify as fantasy. For many years I held the position that Star Wars was a Sci-Fi film. It had spaceships, aliens, technology etc., however I turned that view around when I learned about the tropes within fantasy. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.
After Star Wars I got into Fantasy reading. It was my favourite Genre – I immersed myself in it loved it. Then I got into D&D and FF and it all got a bit mad. I could play fantasy, I could read it, move it about a table. But I couldn’t watch it (except in the colourful world of my imagination).
One thing that I was constantly frustrated with was the lack of good fantasy films (we’ll talk about TV next time). Where were they? I mean, I know it was the late 70s/early 80s but come on – what with all those historical epics starring Charlton Heston knocking about the place, why not throw in some red hot orc vs dwarf with fireball spell action? I’ll stop for a moment and lay out the ground rules of what I’m actually talking about now. I know fantasy is a broad church and defining what I mean by the perfect fantasy movie is going to stir things up a bit. I wanted to see elves, dwarves, wizards, fighting evil things, big battles, great characters, good dialogue, a rich and a magical world that was still believable and populated by real folk who swore and got drunk etc.
You might be starting to pick up on my bag – the works of Glen Cook and Steven Erikson would give you a steer! So that’s what I wanted. But could I find it? It wasn’t easy. Whilst Sci-Fi was running rampant with some classic movies, it seemed that Fantasy could only manage cheese. It inhabited the realm of the B movie – cheap sets, wooden actors, bad action. And lots of them were Italian. Honestly – how could they get it so wrong? Easy. There seemed to be no-one out there who fully understood how to handle fantasy material and how to create a compelling drama within the rules of a fantasy universe. You know, subtle things like internal logic, characters that you care about, good dialogue, gravitas, that sort of thing.
There was a film. It was called Hawk the Slayer. Perhaps you have heard if it? A modest, British production that tried to box above its weight whilst being hamstrung by a limited budget and effects. But you know what? It was the first time someone had actually tried to make a real, proper, fantasy movie (did I hears someone scream Harryhausen?). It had everything in it, a real sense of an alternative medieval history. There were elves, dwarves, wizards, bad men in helmets, lots of fighting and spells. There was an awesome repeating crossbow. And there was a mad hippy synth groove soundtrack. I loved this film. Yet there had to be more.
Then my big brother got a VHS rental of Conan The Barbarian. Now this was more like it. Raw, gritty, bloody with added Arnold. It felt I was watching a fully realised universe, an epic. Now I know the Howard fans may disagree with the interpretation, but the world that was created in this movie felt complete, whole. I found no faults in its logic and was not upset with what I was shown as the story unfolded (let’s not talk about Conan the Destroyer….oh dear).
The 80’s did pump out a number of films. The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Beastmaster were ok but sort of felt like American movies trying to look like an Italian ones. I do have a soft spot for Krull, though. Funnily enough, another British creation which also suffered from having a dreadful American actor in the lead role. The plot was a standard hidden fortress rehash, it had tons of British thesps (including Bresslaw who played Giant in Hawk The Slayer) and had a lot going for it in creating an interesting, visually pleasing fantasy world. The Slayers where also pretty cool, yet it wasn’t a smash. Probably because it had the faint whiff of cheese and the public just weren’t up for it. Ah – my wife has just berated me. “What about Ladyhawke?” she has just cried in outrage. Alright, she has a point. It was a lovely, gentle movie (except
for the fighty bits) with a great left-field cast. The trouble was, it’s an 80’s movie and has got the worst music in a battle sequence ever to assault my earlobes. It utterly robs it of any dramatic intensity.
Lucas gave us Willow. I am strangely ambivalent about it. An interesting cast, the film looked good and there was a world there to explore, but it just…didn’t hang together. You know what, it reminds me of Snow White and the Huntsman – another quite entertaining movie. I think that it’s because there are occasional leaps in narrative that says “Oh that happens and then that happens but don’t worry about it because it isn’t important”. Argh. It matters to me. You can’t just give me a fait accompli and just expect me to accept it. I can’t, I won’t. I’ll take the betrayal to my grave.
The 90s were a pretty barren decade. Was there anything? My mind is a blank
Then the year 2000AD arrived (and I panicked about what my favourite comic was going to call itself). There was the Dungeons and Dragons movie. Geesh, the cartoon series was better than this and that had a baby unicorn! Things were looking grim. Enter a certain Kiwi director whose work I had followed with great interest since I’d gotten hold of a pirate copy of a movie called Bad Taste. A work of genius. Fun, crazy, gory and starring the boys from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service. Step forward Mr Jackson. Now I’m not going to say much about this other than, like Milius and Conan, with LOTR we got a fully realised depiction of a fantasy world – with everything in it. This film changed the landscape. Suddenly Fantasy as a movie genre was cool(ish) but it was accepted in a way it never had been before. A global audience embraced it and was amazed by it. Yes! A genuine swords and sorcery epic! An actual bone fide good movie. I wept for joy. I do every time I watch these beautiful creations. I don’t care.
One last thing before I start my conclusion and please, bear with me. Uwe Bolle. Yes, him. He made In The Name of the King. It was his attempt at duplicating Jackson. We could spend a long time discussing why this film was terminally bad. But you know what, I actually almost enjoyed it. The casting was drastically off (except for Statham and Rhys-Davies and having Perlman always gets you an extra half-star) the editing was often atrocious and I could go on. There were some huge battles with some extra martial art madness thrown in and it also had what, for my money, is still the best wizard duel I’ve even scene committed to celluloid. I kid you not. The spinning sword standoff is a really good piece of work. Right. I’ll stop talking about it now because someone wants to fight me in the boxing ring…
Thus, for most of my 39 years on this earth, my quest to find the Perfect Fantasy Movie has been long, hard, frustrating and of course, entirely subjective. Have I found it? Perhaps. The LOTR trilogy is the most complete fantasy movie sequence that has ever been created. I adore it. I couldn’t believe it was possible to see an army of elves fighting an army of orcs. But it was and it looked amazing. And we’ll get to see dwarves fighting goblins soon. Heaven!
So there we have it. Though I do wonder what would happen if the Warhammer franchise could be made to work on the big screen….Oh and what about Star Wars? Dammit. Maybe that’s the best fantasy movie that’s ever been made. Argh. Can’t decide brain aneurism.