Friday, February 10, 2012

Sword and Sorcery Cinema - A Brief Personal Overview

Since I have decided that February is my own personal sword and sorcery month (as opposed to any other time of the year when I'm reading s&s) I decided that the time has come to check out a few of the recent movies, that, broadly speaking, fall under the s&s banner.

I've already written at length about Nicholas Winding Refn's 2009 film Valhalla Rising, but it's worth mentioning again, if only because it's such an absorbing and intelligent piece of film making and because it seems to me that that relatively obscure gem has set the tone for quite a few of the quasi-historical fantasies that have followed in its wake.

Of course, it all depends on your definition of sword and sorcery and there's an argument to be made that movies like Zach Snyder's 300 (2006) or 2004's Troy (and, it goes without saying Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings) brought fantastical warriors back to our screens, but these films are more epic in scope, more concerned with spectacle than the down 'n' dirty which is the hallmark of sword and sorcery.

That having been said, some of the films I've watched in the last while – Black Death (2010), Ironclad (2011), Solomon Kane (2009) and Season of the Witch (2011) wear their 'sorcery' aspects fairly lightly, Ironclad in particular being content to give its hero a mystic aura of sorts and leave it at that.

And then there is the recent remake/reboot of Robert E. Howard's iconic Conan the Barbarian (2011). Howard is inarguably the wellspring of sword and sorcery, although his legacy has rarely been treated well. But that, and the film, is a topic for another time.

One of the things that virtually all the above mentioned films do is to play fairly fast and loose with history (or in the case of Conan, with the established literary 'facts') never letting it get in the way of a rollicking good yarn – Ironclad is a particularly good example of this, with its bloody uprising in the wake of the Magna Carta and its re-envisioning of the Knights Templar as medieval supermen. Season of the Witch, on the other hand, sees no disparity between the shameless American accents of its leads – Nicholas Cage in fairly restrained form and Ron Perlman – even going so far as to tack a Transatlantic twang onto the Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham. Similarly, all these films exist in an odd Mittle Europa, regardless of actual setting, that is sometimes reminiscent of a big-budget Hammer film or, perhaps more pointedly, the muck and slime of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Partly this is for the sake of expedience, we all know that the cinematic Middle Ages look like, with muddy green tones and sweeping untouched, if hostile, landscapes. What the best of these films (and to be honest, with the exception of Conan, most of them are worth an hour or two of your time) also manage is that moral ambiguity so common to sword and sorcery, the heroes here are troubled men, sure of nothing but their own prowess with a sword, racked with doubt (James Purefoy as Solomon Kane and as Marshal in Ironclad) or seeking redemption for past misdeeds (Purefoy's Kane once again and Nicholas Cage as Behmen in Season of the Witch “No man has spilled more blood in God's name that I.”). Mads Mikkelsen's One Eye in Valhalla Rising is, at first glance, an exception to this, but his still and sombre performance still hints at something deeper, some unspoken tragedy that haunts the character.

They are also, without exception, unashamed and unabashed about their violent content. Great gaping wounds and clouds of CGI blood decorate Ironclad, Mad Mikkelsen is a remorseless killer, Cage and Perlman are seen happily slaughtering huge bands of Infidels (“You take the three hundred on the left, I'll take the three hundred on the right”) Sean Bean in Black Death does not flinch from killing a suspected witch and there are few problems in these films – physical or ethical - that cannot be solved the point of a sword (or a spear, dagger, axe or, in Ironclad, by beating an opponent to death with a severed arm).

So much for the sword, what about the sorcery?

Since at least two of the films mentioned above (Ironclad and Black Death) purport to be historical adventures (or historical action films, although Black Death does have a suspected necromancer as its central maguffin) rather than out-and-out fantasies, the sorcery aspect is fairly low key, but nevertheless resonates in the background - the fighting ability of the Templars in Ironclad, its seemingly invincible antagonist (the Elric-like Tiberius) or the unexplained mysticism of One-Eye in Valhalla Rising. Both Solomon Kane and Season of the Witch have no such compunction, Season of the Witch in particular relishing its status as an unashamed fantasy (featuring witches, demon possession and the blackest of black magic). But in some ways, sorcery is a state of mind in these films, since the milieu in which they are set is one far removed from the modern mindset, a time of deep religious belief and equally strong superstition. The default tone here is a dark one, where cruelty is common and violence never far from the surface.

Another thing that the majority of these films share in common is the use of venerable, mostly British, actors in minor, if important roles – Christopher Lee in Season of the Witch, Charles Dance in Ironclad, David Warner in Black Death, Max Von Sydow in Solomon Kane. More importantly what they all share is a sense of being outside contemporary Hollywood pattern, frequently being financed by European backers, with small budgets compared to the average Hollywood production – Season of the Witch, the most costly of the films looked at here, cost $40 million, whereas Conan the Barbarian, its big budget counterpart, cost $70 million (and a mere $6 million in the case of Valhalla Rising).

The crux of all this meandering – and there should always be a crux – is to suggest that sword and sorcery cinema is in relatively good shape at the moment, the seemingly endless parade of loincloth clad barbarians that wandered across our screens in the wake of the John Milius/ Arnold Schwartzenegger version of Conan the Barbarian (1982) have been replaced by a new breed of cinematic sword-swingers, grimmer and more 'realistic'.

It might not always declare itself as such, and sometimes the trappings are hidden just beneath the surface, but sword and sorcery cinema is alive and well, if not always on prominent display at the multiplex.

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