King Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch) summons a demonic sorcerer (Richard Moll) to aid him in conquering a neighboring kingdom, then betrays the sorcerer, but fails in his attempt to kill him. Years later, Prince Mikah (Simon MacCorkindale), the closest thing anyone can find to an heir to the slain king, and his sister Alana (Kathleen Beller), are leading a small revolution to oust Cromwell. They are secretly aided my Cromwell’s Chancellor, Machelli (George Maharis). When Mikah is captured, Alana turns to Talon (Lee Horsley), a soldier of fortune who has just entered the kingdom and is, unbeknownst to all, the real heir to the throne. While Talon attempts to free Mikah, for a price, Cromwell seeks out the sorcerer, who he is sure is the real force behind the insurrection.
It’s all there in the title. There’s a sword and a sorcerer. There’s no pretension toward great art. There’s no message. There’s no socially acceptable viewpoint or warning for children to keep on the straight and narrow. There’s no insight into the human condition or heartwarming dramatic moment. And there are no family values anywhere. The Sword and the Sorcerer delivers exactly what it promises. You should know from reading the title if this film is for you.
Certainly the purest Sword & Sorcery movie ever made (Conan the Barbarian, released the same year, takes the epic route and almost screams to be taken seriously), The Sword and the Sorcerer has the requisite guy-with-sword-who-hits-things. And as this is no-flinching Sword & Sorcery, there are scantily clad and occasionally topless babes, torture—including a girl’s tongue being cut out and a man being crucified—horrific sorcery, blood, sex, and death. Is any of that gratuitous? No. Or all of it is. Take it whichever way you like, but it all fits together.
For its sub-genre, The Sword and the Sorcerer has a surprisingly complex plot (not so surprising if you read fantasy as Sword & Sorcery novels tend to make up for their limited themes with convoluted and detailed stories). There are political dealings, shifting alliances, secrets, mysteries, prison breaks (lots and lots of prison breaks), and a labyrinth of relationships. Of course this is all told at breakneck speed, so much of it is left for the viewer to fill in. The story is only dressing.
Lee Horsley is an appealing lead. He looks the part of a powerful warrior, and has almost enough charisma to make his character’s popularity believable (everybody in the world, from kings to prostitutes to thieves, loves Talon). Perhaps the greatest lack in the stream of fantasy films that followed in the mid and late ’80s was a skilled actor who had the presence to portray a near-mythic character. Horsley pulls it off admirably.
The rest of the cast is also a notch above the norm, with MacCorkindale and Maharis doing as much as their limited roles allow. Kathleen Beller—of the remarkably deep and hypnotic eyes—is beautiful and could easily inspire men to do truly stupid things; what more could you ask for? Richard Moll, best known as Bull on the TV show Night Court, was a common sight in ’80s low-budget fare. Here, he uses his six-foot-seven height and unusual appearance to create a suitably evil necromancer. Richard Lynch is a workman-like villain and while certainly better than most actors given similar roles, he is the weakest element in the film. A stylish antagonist (well, protagonist in this case since he sets everything in motion) is as important as an engaging hero in any action flick, and Lynch isn’t memorable.
While the budget was low, it was spent well. Many of the costumes could have been pulled from the racks of Joe’s Costume Shop, but the ones Beller wears shows her off to great advantage, so who cares about the others? I doubt the sets could survive a brisk wind, but are varied and filled to the brim with appropriate clutter. I wouldn’t want to shine a bright light on anything in this film as I’m sure I’d find seams, but the light is kept dim.
The fantasy elements occasionally strain the loose restraints of the genre where almost anything is allowed if it looks cool. Talon’s unwieldy, three-bladed, rocket-propelled sword fails to be “cool,” managing only silly. It would be too bulky to swing in a fight, and makes me wonder where he buys replacement blades since he never picks up the ones he’s fired.
You could argue that this is a Swashbucker. It has the charming, overconfident rogue. It has humor and witty dialog. It has costumes from another time, and plenty of swords. And it has fights filled with acrobatics. That’s just about everything needed. But what separates it from The Adventures of Robin Hood or Zorro is the morality. Swashbuckers are tales of good verses evil. This is a story of the self-centered and crude verses evil. Would Robin Hood ever agree to help the poor only if the poor babes put out? Would Zorro defeat tyranny provided there was a large chunk of semi-cooked meat and a nude girl in his bed when he was finished? And in the end, that’s what makes The Sword and the Sorcerer a joy. There is no attempt at a Hollywood ending. There’s no cop-out. No one learns a lesson and becomes a respectable citizen.
This is a tale of larger-than-life characters in a violent, fantastic world and it makes no apologies for saying absolutely nothing that will help you deal with your financial problems or ease your mind on the current political situation. It’s a story. And as that, it works.