—Review by Richard McKenna
Beware: spoilers ahead.
1980’s Hawk the Slayer is what a semi-cynical British attempt to crossbreed Star Wars mania with the cover art of Wishbone Ash’s Argus looks like, and its channeling of Roger Dean by way of Roger Corman is—in its small way—as awesome as that sounds.
The film flopped when it came out, and if it made it to the grim provinces I inhabited at the time, it didn’t stay long, more’s the pity. It would be nice to be able to claim that the ten-year-old me who spent most of his waking hours trying to wish a copy of Tunnels and Trolls into his possession envisioned fantasy film (or “Sword and Sorcery,” as we then knew it) as being possessed of the production values of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the socio-political nous of Game of Thrones, but that would be a lie of the most egregious kind: this is how I envisioned fantasy—an insane soup of lasers, elves, disco, tacky props, and plenty of folk in capes running through chilly woods tricked out with plastic skulls, dry ice, and green lights while swinging a sword. It’s exactly the type of film that I would have made in 1980, had I only been given the opportunity. Oh, and no girls allowed!
Britain’s Starburst magazine panned Hawk the Slayer at the time, disappointed that the first film “with a sword and sorcery slant” should be such a “cheap little” one, so I never bothered trying to see it in subsequent years, and perhaps that was wise—it’s definitely the type of thing best seen before you hit twelve or after you hit forty. Hard to believe that within two years of its release, films like Dragonslayer (1981) and Conan the Barbarian (1982)—which seem almost to come from another decade, if not another century altogether—would appear, though there are echoes of Hawk the Slayer‘s cheap pleasures in The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), and, weirdly, Excalibur (1981).
A prologue in a golden sauna sets things up: brooding Hawk (the disconcertingly Mike Oldfield-like John Terry) is good, while his disfigured brother Voltan (Jack Palance) is evil (obviously—his name starts with a ‘v’). Voltan kills their father after the “old man” (who looks a lot younger than Palance) refuses to give Voltan “the last of the Elven mind-stones,” which goes instead to Hawk after it lights up green, floats through the air, and is grasped by the cool living-hand pommel of Hawk’s sword. Hawk announces that he will kill Voltan and avenge their father.
After titles telling us that we have Chips Production to thank for what we’re watching (and what, to a Brit, could be more inviting, more dreamy, than the cozy domestic pleasures of a plate of chips?) come credits so dense with Harrys, Erics and Bernards that they look like something from the late 1940s: a good third of the crew seem to be actually called Terry, and the cast list reads like a postprandial fever dream of parochial British TV and cinema, although strangely it was the two American stars, Terry and Palance, who were singled out for criticism at the time for their respective lack of animation and overacting. In the second case, at least, that seems a little unfair—how the hell do you want Jack Palance to play an evil warlord in a no-budget fantasy world?
In blurry flashbacks which include one of the oddest tracking shots I’ve ever seen, we discover that a jealous Voltan killed Hawk’s beloved bride (City of the Living Dead‘s Catriona MacColl) before setting off on a rampage of cruelty around the land, and, flash forward, learn that he has now taken hostage the mother superior of a monastery (seemingly and incongruously a Christian monastery), promising that she will be put to death unless his demands for gold are met. Thus begins a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the woods as a wounded survivor of Voltan’s cruelty seeks out Hawk, who, with the help of a handy witch, reassembles his crack squad of elf, dwarf, and giant. In the meantime, Palance bickers with his headstrong son and repeatedly pops off to another dimension to have the scars on his face laser-anesthetized by the evil entity protecting him. You can practically smell the heat coming off the d12s.
As it turns out, Baldin the dwarf and Gort the giant are useless except for some laboured comic relief, and even Hawk himself does far less slaying than you might expect, given his name. It’s Crow the rapid-fire elf, Ranulf the crippled warrior with the hundred-rounds-a-minute wrist-crossbow, and the Sorceress with her polystyrene storms and crazy-string mummify spell who contribute most to Voltan’s eventual downfall in the film’s absurd denouement.
The soundtrack, written by the film’s producer and co-writer, Harry Robertson, who scored several Hammer films starting in the late 1960s, runs the gamut of inappropriateness, from spooky baroque harpsichord riffs to disco space-rock, and each time Hawk appears, his signature synth trill is heard—even the synth sound that starts Jon and Vangelis‘ virgin romance anthem “I Hear You Now” is in there. The matte paintings seem to have been taken from some completely unrelated book of fairy tales, there’s a laser hula-hoop teleport device, Patrick Magee (!) as a druid, and, were proof of metal intent needed, what must be a tip of the hat to Judas Priest’s 1978 Killing Machine in the line of dialogue, “What manner of man are you?”
Director Terry Marcel’s assertion that he wanted to create “something to top spaghetti westerns and kung-fu films” was obviously hugely optimistic (unless he was talking about the Foley work, with its incredible crushing-a-polythene-bag punch noises), and yet, for all its faults, the damn thing is just so enormously entertaining: enthusiastic, pacey, and ridiculous, its garish joke-shop world is engaging enough not to outlive its welcome, in part thanks to the almost total lack of character development, subtext, or anything except battles, magic, and Medieval/Renaissance/D&D yo-ho-hos, the naive cardboard-cut-out shallowness of the whole undertaking somehow serving to reinforce its archetypal power. It’s also, for anyone British, a weird window back into a country which was so much less sophisticated and demanding than it is today—though given the short shrift the feature got at the box office, perhaps not quite that undemanding.
Or maybe it’s just the fact that the whole thing seems to have been improvised in a British wood one overcast March that lends it peculiar resonance for those like me, who were acting out our longed-for fantasy worlds to even smaller audiences in similarly wintry and provincial woods at the same time.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living as a translator among the crumbling ruins of Rome. He dreams of being one day rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.