The Eighties were something of a golden age for sword and sorcery films. I think part of the reason for the explosion of the genre was the growing popularity of the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons as well as the very successful Marvel Comic adaptations of Robert E Howard's Conan. Though John Boorman's Excalibur and John Milius' Conan the Barbarian seemed to be the big two films that kicked off the wave there was one movie that preceded them both. Hawk the Slayer was made by ITC, a British film studio run by Lew Grade. ITC made their name in the 1960s making such classic TV shows as The Saint, The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and countless others. It was only in the late 70s that they moved into film making and in 1980 nearly bankrupted themselves making the costly Raise the Titanic. Hawk the Slayer didn't make much money on initial release either but it's gathered a small cult following ever since.
film sees John Terry play Hawk, a wandering warrior who is looking to
get revenge on his evil brother Voltan (Jack Palance) for the murder of
not only their father but also his bride. When Voltan kidnaps the head
nun from a local convent Hawk is recruited to see her safe return. He
sets out to gather a group of soldiers from the four corners of the
earth - a fellowship(?) if you will - which includes Gort the giant,
Crow the elvish archer, Baldin the crafty dwarf, Ranulf a one armed
fighter with a rapid fire crossbow and a mysterious blind sorceress.
Together they join forces to trick Voltan in to coming back to the
convent where they face his troops in a final battle.
'Lord of the Rings on a budget' is best way to describe Hawk the Slayer. That sounds like quite a disparaging description but believe me it's not. Hawk is a great adventure film
it just doesn't quite have the budget to fulfill its ambition. Rather
than that be a negative there's actually a lot of fun to have watching
it struggle. The film is chock full of cheesy acting and cheesy dialogue
but it never gets grating because it's delivered with absolute
sincerity. My favourite line in the whole film is when Drogo, Voltan's
son, bursts into the convent and declares to Hawk and his men "I am no messenger... But I will give you a message... The message of DEATH!" before promptly slamming his sword down violently on a nearby table, splitting an innocent loaf of bread in two and leaving.
The film has a great old-fashioned feel to it. Most of it was shot in
the woods just outside of Pinewood Studios. The film may suggest that
Hawk is travelling the globe to find all his warrior friends but believe
me everywhere looks pretty much the same. The film also has some great
matte paintings which I absolutely love. I know with CGI is possible now
to make seemless landscapes but there's something still captivating
about matte paintings. It makes some scenes look like works of art. The
sets are also pleasingly fake and quite obviously shot in a studio.
I think the writer/director Terry Marcel was definitely influenced a little by Star Wars.
Voltan's mask and backstory is very Darth Vader-ish and Hawk's mind
sword (though admittedly awesome) is quite similar to a lightsaber in
the way that he can bring it back to him with a single thought. Hawk
also boasts a quite unique and atypical score by Harry Robertson (who
also produced the film) which sound very similar to Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds
album - sort of English folk meets Disco. Personally I loved it because
it added to the cheesy atmosphere of the film but I can see it might
annoy other viewers. My litmus test would be if you're okay with
Tangerine Dream's score for Legend you'll probably dig this too.
It's quite difficult to find fault with the film as so much of what I
love about it would be considered by other critics to be bad points.
For instance Jack Palance does one of the hammiest performances I've
ever witnessed (and he's also way too old to play Terry's brother).
Also, the giant Gort isn't really a giant he's just a slightly tall man
(Bernard Bresslaw from the Carry On
films) and the dwarf isn't really a dwarf he's just a slightly short
guy which I found hilarious. I do kind of wish that the film had a
couple more sets and locations. The action mostly revolves around this
one remote convent which basically consists of one large hall and no
other rooms. As a consequence the film never feels as epic as it should
There's also a few missed opportunities here and there. For instance as
one point Hawk takes a shortcut through a portal in the woods which lets
him ride through another plane of reality (not unlike the way Frodo
uses the ring to disappear in Lord of the Rings
into another plane of reality). He tells his colleague that it's
dangerous to ride in this dimension for too long. So you expect them to
run into danger. But they don't. Oh well. The ending also was a bit of a
letdown. I won't ruin it but they obviously planned to make a sequel at
some point and bring everyone back. Shame that never happened because I
could definitely have watched another of these.
Overall Hawk is a lot of fun. It's like an old ride at a fun fair. It's creaky and run down but gets the job down. Anyone who has watched Lord of the Rings
or who has even an inkling of interest in sword and sorcery films
should check this out for comparison. I think it will give you an idea as to what Lord of the Rings would have looked like if they'd made
it in the 1980s.