Sword and sorcery is a subgenre of fantasy fiction often associated with the writing of Conan scribe Robert E. Howard. Typically, sword and sorcery stories center around sword-wielding heroes on quests. These tales often have an earthiness to them, feature magical elements, and follow protagonists that are somewhat self-motivated, rather than simply acting for the greater good of society.
Fantasy films with strong sword and sorcery themes had a short-lived resurgence in the late '70s and early '80s, particularly following the success of Conan the Barbarian in 1982. These films were often cheesy, low-budget, and horribly acted, which, historically, is the perfect formula to attract a cult film fan base. Were these movies great works of art? Absolutely not. But sword and sorcery movies like the following six titles represent an entertaining, interesting chapter of fantasy film history nonetheless.
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The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
If swashbuckling adventures are your thing, look no further than The Sword and the Sorcerer. This early '80s film was directed by Albert Pyun, who also helmed cult favorites like 1989's Cyborg and the god-awful Captain America from 1990. It stars Talon, a dashing rogue who is caught up in a battle for a usurped kingdom, and seeks revenge for his slain mother. Perhaps the biggest draw to The Sword and the Sorcerer is its weapon design—the weapons in this film look like they came from the mind of a 10-year-old, but in a good way. Talon’s sword might as well have been made by Gillette, consisting of three parallel blades that also act as projectiles. I would suggest Sword and the Sorcerer to anyone who is looking for a bit of fun, but doesn’t want to completely abandon darker, adult themes.
A hybrid of fantasy and sci-fi elements, Krull is like if Lord of the Rings and Star Wars had a baby. The film follows Prince Corwyn as he embarks on a quest to save his betrothed from a group of evil aliens. Unlike most of the sword and sorcery films of the '80s, Krull actually had a decent budget of around $47,000,000—and it shows. Instead of the desolate world of Conan the Barbarian, the universe of Krull is bright and vibrant. Krull’s mixture of high-tech shootouts and age-old hack-and-slash action make this a film that sci-fi and fantasy fans can still both enjoy.
Conquest is an Italian sword and sorcery film by legendary horror director Lucio Fulci. The film follows two men, a wide-eyed hero and a savage barbarian, who must defeat an evil witch. The film stays true to Fulci’s background in horror and gore, featuring brutal, over the top deaths. Conquest is a horror/fantasy hybrid, and you can tell Fulci is trying to emulate the aspects of Conan that made Conan so popular—maybe a bit too much. The film is absolutely full of nudity. For instance, the main villainess, Ocron, wears nothing throughout the majority film but a pair of metallic boy shorts and a gold mask that makes her look like Destro from GI Joe. If you’re a fan of Italian horror and fantasy, this one is worth checking out—although for many people, it will understandably exhaust their tolerance for objectification and violence.
Wizards is a film by controversial animator Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi was known for films such as Fritz the Cat, Coonskin, and Heavy Traffic, which used sexploitation and blaxploitation themes to comment on sex, race, anti-semitism, and '70s counterculture. 1977’s Wizards was Bakshi’s first foray into the fantasy genre, but not his last —among other fantasy titles, he also directed the 1978 animated Lord of the Rings adaptation. Although his 1983 film Fire and Ice is a more traditional sword and sorcery title, I feel Wizards is a far more interesting pick. The film features social commentary mixed with plenty of the steel-on-steel action sword and sorcery fans love. Wizards' hero, Avatar, is motivated by a very personal grudge against his evil brother Blackwolf, who plans to enslave the world using unearthed 1930s Nazi propaganda. Unlike many of the other titles on this list, Wizards is serious in tone, using a fantasy backdrop to address the horrors of World War II.
Deathstalker is not one of my favorite movies, but I feel it has to be included on the list for a few reasons. First, it’s produced by cult film icon Roger Corman, known also for his work on , , and . Second, it’s a complete Conan knockoff, following a lone barbarian known only as Deathstalker who bears allegiance to no one. Finally, Deathstalker just might be the of sword and sorcery films—in other words, it's notable for being the worst of the worst. The film is pure cheese, with horrible acting, oddly timed humor, excessive violence, and horrendously bad special effects. The gratuitous nudity in Deathstalker would make a Cinemax late night movie blush. There might be more bare breast shots in this film than actual kills, although I can’t be 100% sure since I wouldn’t hazard a second viewing to find out.
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
stars John Terry (also known as Jack’s ghostly father from Lost) as a warrior who dresses a bit like a medieval Han Solo and wields a magical sword he can control with his mind. Hawk wishes to avenge the deaths of his father and fiancée, who were murdered by his evil brother, Voltan. Throughout the film, Hawk enlists the help of his own “fellowship” consisting of a dwarf, elf, witch, and a giant. Hawk the Slayer is known for its horrible acting and laughable overuse of repeating jump cuts. It's also a favorite of director Edgar Wright (, , and numerous other beloved nerdy movies), who devoted a scene to Hawk the Slayer in his comedy series Spaced. In it, fantasy store manager Bilbo Bagshot when someone dares to suggest that Hawk the Slayer is “rubbish”.
Still from "Conan the Barbarian" via 20th Century Fox