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Great Fantasy Films From Yesteryear

Before I begin, as I wrote this title I thought, “How did the 1970s become yesteryear?” I have to keep reminding myself that there are adults out there—many of them friends—who were born two decades after my childhood years. So yes, Amanda, your own lifetime includes yesteryears and bygone eras.

But let’s get to it. Here are a half dozen classic fantasy films worth watching.

Ivanhoe, 1952

Directed by Richard Thorpe
Written by Noel Langley
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Taylor

Ivanhoe (poster)Wait, Ivanhoe isn’t fantasy, it’s historical fiction.

It’s true, Ivanhoe isn’t fantasy. It’s an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel set in Twelfth Century England, which features a chivalrous knight named Ivanhoe and a not so chivalrous Knight Templar named Brian de Bois Guilbert. The book is about the culture clash between Norman, Saxons, and Jews amidst tournaments, banquets, and land grabbing treachery. In the film, a young and stunningly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor plays the heroine, Rebecca, who stands accused of witchcraft. There’s no magic, but there is a lot of medieval romance, with tournaments and a dramatic trial by combat, where Ivanhoe and Brian cross swords to decide whether Rebecca will be burnt at the stake. There are the requisite Twelfth Century cameos by Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart, some tidy plot twists, and a Shakespearean triangle of unrequited love that could have been engineered by Puck himself.

The most fantastical thing about the story (and the film) is how it looks. Filmed in Technicolor, Ivanhoe is bright. The colors pop off the screen, and everything is so clean. There’s not a speck of dust anywhere, and all in all it makes life during the reign of Prince John seem pretty desirable, so long as you don’t get tied to a stake with a smoking pyre under your feet.

Ivanhoe

When I was a kid in the 1970s, before cable TV, this movie would be shown on weekend afternoons, or occasionally as a special during prime time. Its shiny brightness—along with Rebecca’s beauty and strength of character, and the heroism of both Ivanhoe and Brian (ahem, spoiler)—inspired my love of medieval settings and turned my tastes toward fantasy.

The Lord of the Rings (animated), 1978

Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Written by Peter S. Beagle, Chris Conkling
Starring John Hurt, Christopher Guard

The Lord of the Rings (poster)Check that date—I’m not talking about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy from the early 2000s, but the animated film released in 1978. I was twelve when this film came out, and I immediately loved how realistic it was. Unlike all other animated films from that era, LOTR wasn’t (necessarily) meant for kids, and it took its subject matter seriously. First, it—blessedly—had no songs. At the time, I hated songs in animated movies, probably because so many of the songs in so many kids’ movies made at the time were bad. Just…bad. Plus I hated how unrealistic it was for characters to pause the plot to sing one of these nonsensical tunes. Second, I really dug the way LOTR looked. It was filmed in rotoscope, a technique in which the filmmaker first films live actors, then traces over the action on animation cells. The technique transformed the film from a kid’s movie into something new and wonderful and grown up. It was around that time that I stopped using the term cartoon to describe films like this, and started saying animation.

You can see the echoes of the 1978 film in Peter Jackson’s later trilogy (for a side by side comparison, see this YouTube video), and the influence is acknowledged in the DVD extras of The Fellowship of the Ring. I like imagining how Peter and I must have been around the same age, watching the same movie at roughly the same time—but on opposite sides of the world—and both thinking, “Wow, this is my jam!” The only trouble with the 1978 version is that it covers only The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

Hiding from the Ring Wraith (1978)

Hiding from the Ring Wraith (1978)

Hiding from the Ring Wraiths (2001)

Hiding from the Ring Wraith (2001)

In 1980, Rankin & Bass released The Return of the King, but this cartoon was no sequel. Instead of sleek, beautifully animated figures, the Rankin & Bass version included big nosed hobbits and the dreaded songs then considered mandatory for children’s movies—earworms like “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” and “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way.” Nearly 40 years later, I’m still haunted by the latter.

Hawk the Slayer, 1980

Directed by Terry Marcel
Written by Terry Marcel and Harry Robinson
Starring Jack Palance, John Terry

Hawk the Slayer (poster)Hawk the Slayer was the sort of film that used to be shown around midnight on the weekend, and whenever it was on, I was sitting two feet from the TV screen on my beanbag chair, eyes and ears lapping up the dark fantasy action. Hawk is not a great film—calling the script, acting, and effects B movie quality is probably being generous—but I loved it. My adolescence and this film arrived at roughly the same time, and a gray-shaded vengeance story fit perfectly into my expanding notions of morality.

Hawk (John Terry) isn’t trying to save the world from a dark lord. Instead, he simply wants to kill his brother Voltan (Jack Palance) for murdering their father. Hawk’s companions on his quest consist of the usual fantasy suspects: a giant, a dwarf, and an elf whose bow rapid-fires arrows. Aside from that coolest-ever bow (a weapon I always wanted in my D&D character’s arsenal), the thing I loved most about this film was that the core story was about a sibling rivalry gone too far.

Hawk the Slayer

The archetypal conflict of brother vs brother is relatable, unlike the typical high fantasy narrative of a chosen one, a talisman, and a dark lord. In Hawk, although Voltan is clearly an evil dude, there’s still a bit of nuance to the brothers’ relationship—a hint of regret, on both sides, that they’re rivals rather than allies. This film introduced me to moral ambiguity in fantasy, and since then I’ve mostly preferred it in my fiction, whether it be speculative or not.

Dragonslayer, 1981

Directed by Matthew Robbins
Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins
Starring Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke

Dragonslayer (poster)Dragonslayer is dark and full of moral ambiguity, which is surprising for a Disney production. This live action movie about a sorcerer’s apprentice named Gallen (Peter MacNicol) and his quest to slay a dragon had a big budget and great special effects. It began the film-making departure from the idealistic and glorifying depiction of medieval times seen in Ivanhoe, by showing life in the Middle Ages to be filthy and uncomfortable. Mud, cold, and darkness abound, while characters, even nobles, shiver in rough homespun wool rather than Ivanhoe’s bright and shiny silks. Cowardice and corruption infect every level of society, as the dragon-wrought terror causes everyone to look out for his own interests rather than team up for the greater good. (Seriously, this was a Disney film?)

Naturally, I loved it. I strongly identified with the female lead, Valerian, a young woman raised as a boy so her name would never be entered in the village’s semi-annual lottery for virgin-girl sacrifices, and the film’s dark cynicism further opened my eyes to narrative possibilities. Gallen and Valerian’s greatest foe isn’t the dragon, it’s the local nobility, who want to maintain the status quo in a society that raises its girls to be dragon fodder.

Excalibur, 1981

Directed by John Boorman
Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg
Starring Helen Mirren, Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson

Excalibur (poster)Excalibur hearkens back to Ivanhoe’s idealistic medievalism by presenting us with a Camelot filled with beautiful people wearing shining armor and shimmering gowns, but it also has its share of mud and corruption, as Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulls Excalibur from the stone and instantly rises from a poor knight’s squire to become king of England. It’s also Rated R, with a lot of S-E-X. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering that the plot of the source material, Mort d’Arthur, turns on rape, incest, and adultery. Nevertheless, I think my father, who was my sci-fi/fantasy movie buddy, was caught off-guard watching fully armored Uther on top of naked Igraine, while his fifteen-year-old daughter munched popcorn beside him.

On the surface, Excalibur presents the typical high fantasy narrative of good vs evil. Per the standard Arthurian narrative, Morgana (Helen Mirren) uses magic to seduce Arthur and then raises their son Mordred to bring down Camelot. What I loved, in my youthful embrace of nuance, was the way Arthur’s moral rigidity causes his downfall. When palace gossip leads to an (as-yet) unjust accusation of adultery against Guinevere (Cheri Lunghi), Arthur proclaims, “I am your king and must be your judge in this.” His unwillingness to take his wife’s side drives her into Lancelot’s arms, and initiates the dissolution of his reign and disintegration of his health. When he’s restored by a sip from the Grail, the first thing he does is go to forgive Guinevere, and they have this exchange:

Guinevere: I loved you as king, sometimes as husband, but one cannot gaze at the sun too long.

Arthur (surprised): Forgive me, my wife, if you can.

Excalibur

In response, Guinevere reveals that she has been keeping Excalibur, which Arthur thought lost, all these years, and she returns it to him. Thus, Arthur’s recognition of his own failings, and empathy for his wife, complete the restoration of his powers before he rides off to confront Mordred. Where Hawk the Slayer showed me that fantasy heroes can have a dark purpose (killing one’s brother for vengeance), Excalibur reminded me that self-awareness, empathy, and forgiveness are powerful forces too.

Legend, 1985

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by William Hjortsberg
Starring Tom Cruise, Tim Curry, Mia Sara

Legend (poster)Coming full circle to an idealized depiction of a medieval setting, Legend is a stunningly beautiful film. Mia Sara’s Lili gleams in white satin. Glowing white unicorns frolic amidst pink blossoms. Tom Cruise’s Jack is nimble and quick…and apparently left his pants on the set of Risky Business. The story also takes us back to a pure black and white, good vs evil narrative, as Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness captures a unicorn and Lili, and then tries to seduce Lili to the dark side. Stockholm Syndrome Lili exchanges white satin for black lipstick and lace, while pantless Jack teams up with a mostly annoying and entirely hapless assemblage of dwarves, elves, and fairies to rescue Lili and the unicorn.

Despite that snarky plot summary (inspired by my strong dislike of the supporting characters, especially the elf with his overdubbed voice—why, Ridley, why?), I love this movie and will watch it greedily whenever I catch it on TV. First, as I said, it is stunning to look at. I think it’s Scott’s most beautiful film, out of an entire oeuvre of beautiful films. (An exception is some of the magic effects, including those annoying supporting characters, are poorly meshed with the live action.) Also, even though I hate the supporting characters (have I mentioned this?), the three principal characters are wonderful. Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise—love him or hate him, his star-power is undeniable, and it’s fun to watch him play an early version of Standard Cruise Character #1: the cocky pretty boy who gets a comeuppance.

Legend

But the real attraction is the interaction between Lili and the Dark Lord. Mia Sara’s Lili is pure and lovely and no shrinking violet, distressed damsel as she matches wits with her horned captor, while Tim Curry rocks his ram horns and platform shoes, presenting us with film’s sexiest and most sympathetic dark lord, even outclassing David Bowie’s Goblin King in Labyrinth.

Labyrinth, 1986

Directed by Jim Henson
Written by Terry Jones
Starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly

Labyrinth (poster)Along with the villains’ enlarged headwear, Legend and Labyrinth both tell a story about the capture of innocence and an attempt to corrupt it, and both feature a spunky heroine and a seductive antagonist. (Come to think of it, these same themes run through Ivanhoe.) In Labyrinth, however, Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah isn’t the captured damsel, she’s the hero trying to rescue her baby brother. When David Bowie puts the moves on her in a (literal) dance with evil, her refusal to cave to his sex appeal permits her to continue on the quest to save the baby.

I missed Labyrinth when it was released and saw it for the first time in 2010 or 2011. My thought then was, how could I have missed this film? (I was in college and probably getting drunk somewhere.) Jim Henson’s puppets comprise the supporting cast, but they’re not nearly as annoying as Scott’s poorly executed elves and fairies in Legend. Unlike the other fantasies listed here, Labyrinth is definitely a children’s film: it’s really about Sarah’s transition from a petulant child to a young woman accepting of her adult responsibilities.

Labyrinth

It even has a few songs, but David Bowie sings them, and that’s always worth watching.

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7 Comments

  1. Davieboy says:

    Excellent job there, thanks! Love the shout-out to Ivanhoe; apart from being a great movie, the book itself was one of those that led me on my path as a reader of both fantasy and historical fiction. You could argue that the final showdown had a fantasy element. I’d put The Thief of Baghdad in there somewhere too….

  2. Lord Mondegreen says:

    To add a few painfully missing from the list:

    – Krull (1983)
    – The Princess Bride (1987)
    – Willow (1988)

    In fact, I just discovered this: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls000058831/

  3. Al says:

    Nice list. I’d add Krull and Beastmaster to it though.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I will never get bored reading people’s thoughts and memories of the films and books which shaped my childhood, and thus who I am today.
    “Proudfeet!” Ralph Bakshi’s LOTR was for me also one of those unique films that lingered in my waking mind and entered into weird dreams. Let’s face it, the film was like a nightmare with that mix of animation and the shadowy orcs, Nazgul and humans.
    I remember seeing the end of the Rankin & Bass ROTK and hearing that song “The end of the ring, the return of the king!” but not knowing what it was at the time. Then when I watched Bakshi’s LOTR and it ended with the heart-breaking news that the sequel was never made, I was confused. “But they did make it” I thought. I just Google Imaged that film and reckon it is probably best NOT to watch it.
    Appreciated your words on Excalibur. I watched it the other day and saw it in a different light (last time I watched was over twenty years ago). That exchange between Arthur and Guenevere is a good one to reflect upon. And yes, ha ha!, Uther & Igraine was a bit of an eye-opener to a ten year old boy!
    A few quick shout-outs to finish my comment:
    Hawk the Slayer – Crow!
    The Beastmaster – Tanya Roberts! …and a cool story, of course.
    Krull – Francesca Annis! …oh, and bad-ass Slayers.
    Red Sonja – Brigitte Nielsen! And the guy from Auf Wiedersehn Pet getting sass and sword.
    Anybody remember the animation with a young male hero and a fair maiden called Melisandre?! Niggling me.

    • A.M. Justice says:

      Thanks for sharing my enthusiasm for these films. I also loved Krull, and I enjoyed Mark Singer’s abs probably as much as you enjoyed Tanya Robert’s bare midriff in Beastmaster. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Red Sonja!

    • Scott says:

      The animation was A Flight of Dragons….a classic!

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