Friday, April 5, 2013

Forgotten Sword and Sorcery: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

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 be.

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.



  1. I saw this one about a year ago, found it amusing for the same reasons you stated, LOTR on a budget in deed! One of the first things to pop into my head was "what the hell is Jack Palance doing here?"

  2. Yeah, Jack Palance has some really random films in his back catalogue. Didn't he follow up his Oscar winning role in City Slickers with Cyborg 2?

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  4. True, he followed his Oscar win with Cyborg 2 which was a cheap straight to video movie, hey but at least he starred alongside Angelina Jolie. He also did Cops and Robbersons with Chevy Chevy's worst. I think the last good movie Palance was in was Tango and Cash (1989), in which he played the villain.