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Wooden Swords and Cut-Price Sorcery

The release of Conan The Barbarian in 1982 had a number of significant consequences. First, it started the meteoric rise to stardom of Austrian bodybuilding champion Arnold Schwarzenegger, something that would shape the cinematic, and arguably political, landscape of the 1980s. It lit the fuse for an explosion of cheaply-made, scummy knock-offs that found their way into fleapits and (mostly) video rental stores for the next half-decade. Most importantly, it short-circuited something in the brain of this writer that led to spending the subsequent 35 years swimming through the seedy effluent of trash cinema.

Deathstalker (1983) wasn’t the first of these blatant cash-ins, but it’s the one which really started dominoes falling in my brain like polystyrene rocks knocked down by a sweaty meathead with a wooden sword. I encountered this movie like so many of its ilk, one Saturday night on rental VHS from the rack at either the local garage or the off license around the corner.

I was a relatively responsible kid, not prone to wild parties or episodes of pyromania, so if the folks were going out for dinner they would rent me a trashy-looking flick to ‘keep me quiet.’ This had already borne fruit with sci-fi titles like Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn (1983), Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) and Starcrash (1978). But after I saw Conan at a much too impressionable age—ironically while under the rare supervision of a well-meaning but inattentive babysitter—my demands shifted. Now I wanted anything with a Boris Vallejo painting of a sword-wielding beefslab and a naked girl on the cover.

Deathstalker was typical of so many of these, but amped up to a wild degree. I watched it as usual, my mind filling with the gratuitous nudity, bad acting and splatter-movie gore. Then I took myself off to bed, and the next day went about my regular Saturday morning business. After a while I wandered into the living room and discovered my Dad viewing the film, me arriving to find Playboy’s Barbi Benton chained to a rock, having her clothes torn off by a weird monster with a boar’s head. “This,” Dad proclaimed sternly, “is disgusting!” Oddly enough, he didn’t turn it off. Probably wanted to confirm just how disgusting it was before composing a sternly-worded letter to the newspapers.

Deathstalker was only one of the movies borne out of legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman’s annoyance that he hadn’t made Conan in the first place. Corman had been shocked when, in the mid-70s, major studios turned the kind of B-movie junk he’d pioneered—monster movies, space opera—into giant blockbusters. Conan fell into the same group; director John Milius later quoted a line from his favourite review; “Star Wars directed by a psycho.”

Conan definitely had some Corman hallmarks. Shot mostly outdoors in cheap overseas locations with a cast composed of bodybuilders, a surfer and a dancer with a few minor credits, these were elements Corman could copy. If Conan also had spectacular production design by Ron Cobb, and a towering, iconic Basil Poledouris score, well, those were corners that could definitely be cut. A cash-in boom was already in full swing before Conan even made its North American release date.

Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer appeared a month or so earlier and did pretty well. It has the dubious honour of being probably the best film in Pyun’s filmography of fail. The title says it all, summing up two elements critical to the genre (the musclebound hero and loincloth girls were a given). The sword should also be magic, for preference, or at least have some sort of built-in gadget. The sword in Sword was a three-bladed affair that could shoot the extra blades like crossbow bolts. It was ridiculously impractical and hella cool.

The Sword and the Sorcerer went in a slightly more high-fantasy direction than Conan, with armoured knights and lavish (for the budget) costumes replacing furs and posing pouches. It did, however, cement an important element from Conan. The hero should be the survivor of an attack on his village (or in the case of Sword, a castle) by the main bad guy, thus adding an exciting frisson of revenge to the action. If the hero turns out to be the long-lost king of wherever, so much the better—he won’t want the throne anyway, preferring to go off on his own wild adventures. In any event, the hero (TV’s Lee Horsley in this case) might spend much of the movie covered with a heavy cloak, but by the end he’ll be rocking a loincloth and baby oil.

Pyun, with some hubris, name-checked a sequel in the closing credits of The Sword and the Sorcerer. It came along in much-belated form in 2010, consisting mostly of Kevin Sorbo monologuing in front of a digital backdrop worthy of a 2020 zoom call. The sequel, Tales of an Ancient Empire, is much more indicative of Pyun’s level of filmmaking than the entertaining original (most of the knock-offs were pacier than the ponderous, philosophical Conan).

If you want another damning indictment of 1980s parenting, The Sword and the Sorcerer was shown at my school as our Christmas end of term movie. Our head of year cheered along with us kids every time Lee Horsley stabbed someone, or a naked harem girl appeared. I was eleven.

Not to be outdone, Corman’s also had a cheap knock-off that beat Conan to American cinemas; Sorceress (1982). While the more expensive film was still in production, Corman turned to Jim Wynorski, who would become a regular collaborator, to write a script called The Barbarian. To direct, Corman roped in Jack Hill, who had made iconic women-in-prison films The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972) for the producer. But Hill’s star, such as it was, had faded, so he saw the opportunity for a lavish fantasy epic as a way to revive his career.

Hill reworked the script to accommodate Corman’s newest hires, twin Playboy playmates Leigh and Lynette Harris, suggesting he got the idea of their characters’ psychic link from Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers. Perhaps the experience of working with Corman should have come as forewarning, but every expense was spared in the final film. Sorceress was shot in Mexico for very little money, with local actors playing bad guys and the twin heroines’ Viking sidekick. Ironically the most successful of the film’s actors in subsequent life would turn out to be David Milbern. Milbern played horny comic relief satyr Pando, the most disturbing addition to Hill and Corman’s “Fellowship of the Wrong.” The role was apparently written for Sid Haig, who wisely passed.

Sorceress sees an evil high priest attempt to sacrifice his firstborn to an evil god. When the kid turns out to be twins, they are smuggled away by a friendly Gandalf-type. They are raised as boys to protect their identities (and if you think that’s going to be milked for comedy and bare breasts for eighty minutes, you are correct). Inevitable village-burning, revenge-questing and shirt removal follows. The lack of budget is pretty obvious and the shoot was beset with problems. Hill later complained that the whole thing was redubbed by “secretaries from the office and students,” though I swear the movie’s closest thing to a barbarian hero, Erlick, sounds like Richard Hatch. The requisite sweeping epic score wasn’t a problem, because Corman had already paid for one of those. It was by James Horner and was originally used on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).

Even by Sword and Sorcery standards, Sorceress is barmy. No other film in the genre features the heroes being attacked by sentient gorillas throwing coconuts full of laughing gas, or ends with a laser battle between dollar-store Aslan and a giant green face. What it is though, much more than Conan the Barbarian, is sleazy. It’s a prime example of the contradiction in Corman’s work, and the start of a trend that would grow throughout his fantasy productions. Corman saw himself as progressive, hiring women in production roles when the majors wouldn’t, and having loose rules that his female heroes should solve their problems without the intervention of men. The flipside, of course, was that they had to get naked for the camera first. By the time of Corman’s women in prison films, the nudity was often as the result of rape or sexual assault. But “eh, whatever, the bad guys would probably get shot anyway,” seemed to be the general attitude. Breasts were breasts, irrespective of how they got on screen.

The trend is definitely prevalent in Corman’s most direct predecessor to Sorceress, 1974’s The Arena. In this twist on the WIP formula, gladiator slaves Pam Grier and Margaret Markov stab and screw their way through a gender-reversed ancient Roman spin on The Defiant Ones (1958). Sorceress falls firmly into this, um, arena, none more so than when the evil wizard’s army of zombies (just go with it) make off with a bunch of vestal virgins and the punchline is about how they haven’t got any for a few hundred years. As a viewer you just have to go with it.

Mind you, when I was twelve I thought it was awesome.

Sorceress was such a bad experience that Jack Hill had his name taken off the finished product and never directed again. But the film made money, and even scored a good review from the Chicago Daily Herald (“the best film New World Pictures has produced in years”). Corman moved quickly to cash in.

In the interim came The Beastmaster (1982). The brainchild of director Don Coscarelli and his producer/co-writer Paul Pepperman, The Beastmaster changed almost everything from Andre Norton’s source novel save the hero having a psychic link to several animals. Marc Singer starred as the hero, Dar, who in a clever bit of story magic is both heir to an ancient throne AND grows up in a bucolic village destroyed by the bad guy (the high priest Maax, played with relish by Rip Torn).

The Beastmaster had a very distinct effect on me. Well, mostly Tanya Roberts did as Dar’s love interest and ass-kicking slavegirl, Kiri. Despite getting a PG rating, Roberts abandoned her slavegirl smock for a naked swim which I’ve never fully recovered from. The Beastmaster had some other interesting elements that befit a film from the director of Phantasm (1979). Strange lizard-bat men who dissolve their enemies with green goop, and sexy dancer witches with distorted, ancient faces are not easily forgotten when you’re that age. The Beastmaster also had a terrific score by Lee Holdridge, who worked with the same orchestra that had recorded Conan for a suitably mythic, iron age feel.

The Beastmaster did well enough, but having cost significantly more than Sorceress it was considered a disappointment. It became a staple of late night cable TV, giving rise to the oft-repeated joke that HBO stood for “hey, Beastmaster’s on.” It begat a couple of made-for-TV sequels and a short-lived series much later, and remains one of my favourite films. The poor performance of Beastmaster only a few months after Conan’s release was a sign that perhaps the genre didn’t have much life left in it. But that didn’t stop producers from persevering. Roger Corman struck up a production deal with an Argentinian company to make movies in that country.

Deathstalker was the first to come from this arrangement. Richard Hill starred as the titular character, who for once isn’t avenging his village or usurped throne. He’s a mercenary, and kind of a jerk too. Stalker, as his friends call him, agrees to rescue the daughter of an embattled king from an evil sorcerer. The daughter, portrayed by Playboy model and Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend Barbi Benton, was who had so disgusted my Dad.

Deathstalker is, for my money, the best of Corman’s fantasy productions, or at least the most typical. There’s a reasonable level of production value, including prosthetics by John Carl Buechler, some amusingly camp performances and the action scenes are passable. It’s also seedy as Hell. Deathstalker (film and character) doubles down on the problematic parts of Sorceress and then some. The hero is even introduced killing a bunch of heavies so he can have sex with their captive. The scene I walked in on my Dad objecting to features the evil wizard Munkar (Bernard Erhard) inviting a group of warriors to compete for the honour of raping the captive princess. Director James Sbardellati (working under a pseudonym, and who had actually been an assistant director on The Beastmaster), had previously shot the controversial ‘monster rape’ inserts for Corman’s production Humanoids From the Deep (1980), so I guess he felt at home with the material.

He also apparently wanted to confuse impressionable adolescents like me who were just starting the precarious climb into our sexuality. In the film’s oddest sequence, Munkar casts a spell on his head henchman (Marcos Woinsky, a regular in the Corman sorcery movies), transforming him into a duplicate of the princess. This is accomplished purely by editing, using a series of quick cuts from the hench grabbing his crotch and yelling “It’s gone!” to Barbi Benton rubbing herself orgasmically. Princess Hench is dispatched to seduce Deathstalker in a bizarre gay-panic-played-for-laughs scene that undercuts the appeal of the naked flesh it’s presumably intended to showcase. I have no idea if this was a deliberate attempt to redress the balance of gendered sexual violence by sort of making the victim a man, while still showing the tits Corman expected.

The breakout star of Deathstalker, if such a thing is possible, was Lana Clarkson in the Sandahl Bergman part of Deathstalker’s love interest/female warrior Kaira. Clarkson’s character even dies partway through, just as Bergman’s did in Conan, though Bergman escaped having to remove her leather fighting bikini quite as often as Clarkson.

Deathstalker is entertaining if you’re in the right frame of mind and willing to forgive its avalanche of problematic moments. It does run out of steam towards the end, as if writer Howard R. Cohen simply couldn’t decide what to do after killing off Clarkson’s character, leaving the hero (literally) wandering around aimlessly looking for the plot. Deathstalker made more money than Sorceress, despite reviews decrying its soft-porn leanings, so Corman plowed on. Having co-opted The Seven Samurai (1954) via The Magnificent Seven (1960) for Battle Beyond the Stars, Corman took a similar approach and lifted the plot of Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) for the film that ultimately became known as The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984).

There’s a vague attempt to suggest the setting is not the usual iron age wasteland, but rather another planet with twin suns, making the environment arid and in need of water. Regular Corman star David Carradine is the hero ‘the dark one’ who wanders into a small-town war over control of the local well. By this point in the cycle it’s apparent nobody gave a crap about anything except getting the maximum number of boobs and sword fights on screen in that order: female lead María Socas’s costume is literally a thong. For the entire movie.

The Warrior and the Sorceress did significantly worse than Deathstalker, and subsequent Corman productions became increasingly half-assed. Lana Clarkson got her own star vehicle, Barbarian Queen, in 1985. Shot as part of the same deal (and probably on the same sets) as Deathstalker and Warrior…, Barbarian Queen is the ne plus ultra of barbarian movie rape scenes. I’m pretty sure every actress in the cast has her leather jerkin ripped off by bandits or henchmen at some point. Clarkson’s character is the last survivor of an idyllic village destroyed (there it is again) by an evil warlord. There’s not a huge amount to recommend it beyond the obvious bare flesh, though it does have future director Katt Shea in a supporting role.

It also contains one of my favourite examples of the MPAA demanding cuts to a film to get an R rating, and making the result far more salacious than they intended. There is an extended torture scene where Clarkson is tied to a rack and menaced with an apparently terrifying spiky glove on a rope. At one point the chief torturer decides that nobody’s raped the main character for a while and wades in. Seeing her chance to escape, the Barbarian Queen wraps her legs around him in a wrestling hold until he agrees to release her. The MPAA objected to shots of the naked Clarkson wrapping her legs around the actor playing her assailant, so these were cut. The scene as it appears in the R-rated version shows them in close-up only, with no hint of what’s happening further down. Which puts a very different emphasis on the torturer’s cries of “no! Stop! You’re squeezing too hard!”

Years afterwards, Corman insisted that Barbarian Queen was the inspiration for TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess, a rather dubious claim. Xena’s origin as a reformed warlord in an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is a pretty straight lift from a sequence in Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair (1993). In any case, Corman wasn’t the first to put a female barbarian hero front and centre. Hundra (1983) was an offbeat entry into the genre from director Matt Cimber (The Witch Who Came From the Sea, 1976), about an amazon warrior (Maniac Cop’s Laurene Landon), last survivor of her village (of course), who’s trying to find a decent guy to father a child with. The interesting thing about Hundra is there isn’t really anything else like it in the genre. Yes, it has the inevitable rapey henchmen, but Landon as Hundra is not taking any of their shit. In fact at one point she gets deliberately captured and thrown into the bad guy’s harem so that she can learn about sex.

Cimber may have carried the idea of a badass heroine into his later business venture, the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, recently immortalised by Netflix in GLOW: Marc Maron’s character of schlock movie director Sam Sylvia is a thinly-veiled cypher for Cimber.

The quality productions of the sword and sorcery genre, of which there were few anyway, were far behind by this point. Dino De Laurentiis, who had bankrolled the original Conan, exercised Schwarzenegger’s multi-picture deal for a sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984). Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, who wrote the popular Conan Marvel comic, contributed to the script, and veteran director Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, The Vikings) replaced Milius. The result was an ungainly mess where every actor, including Schwarzenegger himself, seemed to be competing to be the odious comic relief. Basil Poledouris opted for a lighter, more swashbuckling score, and apart from the cinematography by Jack Cardiff (yes, that one), it’s not nearly as enjoyable as the original.

Fleischer and Schwarzenegger were back in the following year’s Red Sonja. The title character was an invention of Marvel comics writers Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith, who co-opted a name from an unrelated creation of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s. Sonja and Conan crossed paths in the comics, but in the film Schwarzenegger played a different (though extremely Conan-esque) hero. Laurene Landon auditioned for the lead role of Red Sonja but was turned down because she’d been in the similar Hundra. The same rule apparently didn’t apply to Ennio Morricone, who practically reused the same score for both films. The lead role went to Danish model Brigitte Nielsen after Conan’s Sandahl Bergman turned it down in favour of the film’s villain, Queen Gedren. Gedren falls into the damaging stereotype of predatory lesbian who kills Sonja’s family after the hero rejects her advances, but is only one of the film’s many problems. Schwarzenegger later said he considered it to be the worst thing he’d done, and he was in Hercules In New York (1969).

Roger Corman did his best to wring the last few drops of blood from the genre. Amazons (1986), another Argentina-shot cheapie, was a knock-off of Barbarian Queen with a less memorable cast and worse special effects. It features what may be the saddest animal-to-human transformation in all of cinema, when a lioness is turned into a (naked, naturally) woman using lap dissolves and a series of papier-mâché masks. Deathstalker II (1987) saw Jim Wynorski assume the role of director for what was essentially an unrelated comedy send-up of the genre, though one utterly bereft of laughs. OK, maybe one; I admit “is Deathstalker your first or last name?” is a decent line. Director Ron Howard once said that when he directed his first film, Grand Theft Auto (1977) for Corman, the director told him “do a good job and you’ll never work for me again.” Wynorski has collaborated with Corman well into the double digits.

By the time of the next unrelated sequel, Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (1988), production had shifted back to Mexico. The Corman productions got more threadbare with each release, relying on footage from the first Deathstalker and giving the extras (and occasionally even the heroes) cheap wooden swords. Deathstalker IV: Match of Titans (1991) brought back the first movie’s Rick Hill, paired with Corman regular Maria Ford, but the results were now deservedly confined to the dregs of VHS. Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back (1990) was similarly risible, existing so that Lana Clarkson could get stripped and tortured again.

I watched them all.

Italian producers, never slow to cash in on a cheap trend, did their best (or usually worst) to keep up. Lou Ferrigno, TV’s The Incredible Hulk and former bodybuilding rival of Schwarzenneger, donned a beard and toga for a series of bonkers kid-oriented fantasy films with a peplum edge; two Hercules films (1983 and 1985) from schlockmeister Luigi Cozzi; The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1984) with Sybil Danning, directed by Italian trash cinema’s most inept duo Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso; and Enzo G. Castellari’s Sinbad of the Seven Seas (1989). If you want to see a bear thrown into space or Hercules fight a giant robot centaur, Ferrigno has you covered.

Another director at the lower end of the quality spectrum, Joe D’amato (Emanuele and the Last Cannibals, Porno Holocaust) contributed Ator, The Fighting Eagle (1982) starring Miles O’Keeffe, briefly hot having starred in the notorious flop Tarzan The Ape Man (1981). The first Ator hews closest to its inspiration, with an ancient birthmark, destroyed village, and evil sorcery cult featuring a giant spider. Subsequent Ator films The Blade Master a.k.a. Cave Dwellers (1984), Iron Warrior (1986) and Quest for the Mighty Sword (1990) became increasingly bizarre. The final film was released in Germany as Troll III, since it recycled a monster suit from Claudio Fragasso’s Troll II (1990) and unrelated sequel to Troll (1986). The first two Ator movies had the dubious honour of being riffed to death on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, as did Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell.

Also in Italy, master of splatter Lucio Fulci contributed Conquest (1983), the first film to be shot entirely obscured by artificial fog. If you peer hard at the image long enough, you may make out spanish actor Jorge Rivero as beefy caveman hero Mace, who forgoes a sword for stone nunchucks and, later, a magic bow that shoots solar-powered lasers. It sounds more fun than it is, even with Fulci’s trademark gore and the evil goddess (Sabrina Siani) whose costume consists entirely of a studded leather thong and a mask like Destro’s from G.I. Joe.

Siani was something of a stalwart in the Italian sword & sorcery genre. She’d already appeared in the first Ator by the time of Conquest, as well as Gunan, King of the Barbarians and The Sword of the Barbarians (both 1982), co-starring Peter McCoy (Pietro Torrisi to his mother). Gungan is so obscure even I haven’t seen it. The Sword of the Barbarians, like Conquest, revolves around a magic bow needed to defeat an evil goddess who doesn’t wear a shirt. It also has a surprising amount of glitter for a sword and sorcery film. It was directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini, whose prior career was mostly Italian sex comedies starring Edwige Fenech.

McCoy and Siani had a final go-around in The Throne of Fire (1983), which also shared its director, Franco Prosperi, with Gunan. It’s a much more PG-friendly affair than many of the other movies discussed here and thus, less interesting. It does however feature McCoy’s hero hero strapped to a bondage cross and threatened with a giant siege crossbow by the leather-clad villain, so subtext, intentional or not, is still very much in evidence.

The Ferrigno movies, The Throne of Fire and The Sword of the Barbarians found US distribution via the mecca of crap cinema, Cannon Films. Cannon also produced the curio that is Ruggerio Deodato’s The Barbarians (1987), a movie which continues the twin heroes theme laid out by Sorceress. Peter and David Paul, sibling bodybuilders who were nicknamed ‘the Barbarian brothers,’ are the main gimmick in an otherwise routine adventure. It fails to match the bizarre excesses of Sorceress, though you do get to see horror regular Michael Berryman with a spike on his head.

Fittingly, Cannon were also responsible for the last big-budget gasp of eighties sword and sorcery. “The Masters of the Universe” toy line and animated show had been hugely successful in the early 1980s, and had drawn inspiration in part from the success of Conan. By the time Cannon bosses Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan came to the property, the toys were waning in popularity. Dolph Lundgren made an imposing He-Man, but the Go-Go boys’ penny pinching approach meant that he spent most of the film running around cheap southern California locations with Friends’ Courtney Cox and Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Duncan McNeill. Sword and sorcery films can handle many things, but they should never have to contend with teenagers called Kevin.

Unintentional subtext was never far from the genre (it was mostly be-muscled men in leather waving big swords at each other, after all). My favourite example in Masters is when He-Man has been captured and is being whipped by a shaven-headed henchman in chains and black leather. Meanwhile aristocratic old arch-villain Skeletor watches with obvious, almost orgasmic delight.

Masters of the Universe is a trainwreck, but at least it’s an entertaining one. Frank Langella is having the time of his life playing Skeletor, a role he discusses with fondness to this day. The bald hench was played by stuntman and real life sword expert Anthony DeLongis, who’d previously cropped up in The Warrior and the Sorceress and The Sword and the Sorcerer (henching on both occasions. He gave good hench). Masters was even co-produced by Ed Pressman, the man who produced Conan way back in ‘82. The circle had been completed. And then flattened by the colossal box office bomb that was Masters.

I saw it at the cinema. Twice.

It may seem ridiculous, but these terrible films had a profound effect on me—apart from the obvious one, what with me hitting puberty at around the time Barbi was chained to that rock. These were the first really, really bad films I ever saw (say what you want about Starcrash, it’s considerably more competent than Sorceress), and I realised that total crap had value as entertainment. Additionally, being exposed to movies with the nuanced sexual politics of a dumpster fire at such a tender age did not, as moral guardians might have feared, turn me into a dangerous deviant. Rather, it aided in the formation of the sort of mental callouses you need to appreciate the seamier side of cinema without dismissing it as unwatchably problematic. Like my Dad said, it’s disgusting. But sometimes disgusting is fun.

Occasional attempts to revive the sword and sorcery movie popped up in subsequent years. Kull The Conqueror (1997) repurposed the script for a third Conan movie into a vehicle for Kevin Sorbo, then popular from TV’s Hercules. Despite featuring a different Robert E. Howard character, the Conan DNA is very much evident. Sadly though it’s channeling Destroyer rather than Barbarian, even down to an evil sorceress queen (Tia Carerre) as the villain. The Scorpion King, a prequel to Universal’s GGI-laden Mummy series, was released in 2002 as a vehicle for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.’ It’s not very good, but in fine Roger Corman tradition has spawned a series of direct-to-video sequels, four at last count. One of them even stars Lou Ferrigno.

Conan was rebooted in 2011 with future Aquaman Jason Momoa in the lead, and I think it’s fair to say everyone wishes it hadn’t been. The failure of this version at the box office seems to have also put paid to a long-gestating Red Sonja reboot. Since then, and following the success of the Lord of the Rings series (beginning 2001), Game of Thrones (beginning 2011) and The Witcher (2019), sword and sorcery has moved in a more high fantasy, armoured knights direction. The poor barbarians have been left out in the cold, with only their loincloths to keep them warm.

But maybe it’s for the best. In 1997 a TV production company, cashing in on the success of Xena and Hercules, repurposed Conan as a weekly action show. The result, Conan the Adventurer, was catastrophically bad. Ralf Möller, himself a former Mister Universe like Schwarzenegger, took the title role. Möller, in fairness, is OK, but the terrible scripts and abysmal production value meant the show didn’t make it beyond a season. Yes, the wooden swords were back. A variety of recognisable faces wander through the low-rent nonsense, from seasoned veterans like Anthony De Longis and Lou Ferrigno to actual famous people like Anne Francis and Mickey Rooney. Model Angelica Bridges guested in an episode as Red Sonja and proved you really could do worse than Brigitte Neilsen.

Most bizarrely, Conan’s god Crom, characterized as disinterested and aloof in the Schwarzenegger film, occasionally appeared to give Conan pep talks through his sword. Crom, realised using terrible CGI, is supposed to look and sound like Richard Burton. Seriously, the Burton estate gets thanked in the credits. Conan, the originator of the genre, had become the knock-off: kid-friendly, bloodless and embarrassing. And like so many of the Roger Corman productions that preceded it, the series was shot in Mexico. This is hard to miss; there’s an ad for the cast and crew’s hotel in the closing credits. This seemed to be a sign. When the mightiest barbarian of them all is forced to shill for a Marriott beach resort, it’s time to hang up the sword.

I much prefer to remember Conan as he was in the days of high adventure, when he and his imitators were corrupting the world’s children with their glorious, indefensible, cut-price adventures. Even now, hidden somewhere behind the tracking lines of a chewed-up old VHS tape, I like to imagine Conan in a tavern where Deathstalker, the Sorceress twins and the Barbarian Queen are waiting to greet him.

And he pretends he didn’t see them, and goes to a nicer tavern.

Additional Reading

  • Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, an Unauthorised Life by Beverly Gray, 2004
  • Mind Warp!-The Story of New World Pictures, Christopher T Koetting, 2009

Photo Credits

  1. Deathstalker
  2. The Sword and the Sorcerer
  3. Sorceress
  4. Beast Master
  5. The Warrior and the Sorceress
  6. Barbarian Queen
  7. Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonja
  8. Deathstalker 2, 3, and 4
  9. Conquest, Throne of Fire, Ator
  10. Barbarians, Adventures of Hercules, Masters of the Universe
Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas's path was laid out when his grandparents allowed him to stay up late watching Hammer horror films on TV. Already a Star Wars nut, he hit puberty at the exact moment pre-cert home video arrived in the UK. It was all downhill from the day an uncomprehending babysitter left him alone with a copy of Deathstalker; he's still rendered helpless at the thought of Lana Clarkson waving a wooden broadsword. Dave's love of weird films eventually led him to the BFI, where he's a Patron and regular supporter; find him in the bar after screenings loudly decrying the lack of a Bruno Mattei season. An occasional film reviewer and podcaster, he's guested on The Fiasco Brothers Watch a Movie, BERGCAST (the all-Quatermass podcast) and the BMovieCast, and contributed reviews to Teleport-City.com. Dave's wrote 'Hammer Films: Back From the Dead' for the MovieWiz Academy, part of a series of "where to start with…" ebooks available for Kindle. Dave dreams of giving up work to follow his true passion; dividing his vast DVD collection into increasingly pedantic sections. He lives in Hertfordshire, England with his wife, cats and collection of hideous shirts.

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