The other day, I was talking to my day job boss about pets. They apparently shelter rats at the ASPCA, so we were considering the ridiculous prospect of domesticating these animals. This opened up the conversation to the virtues (mostly the lack thereof, we supposed) of keeping other kinds of rodents as pets. Sooner or later, we inevitably came to ferrets. Now, I'm an eighties baby, but a late eighties baby. This leaves me more or less bankrupt in the eighties nostalgia department1. So you can imagine my confusion when my boss brought up the movie that, if you were the right age in 1982, very well may have already crept into your mind at the mention of ferrets: Beastmaster, which I admitted to not having had the pleasure of seeing. Our conversation completely shifted gears as she rattled off a bunch of 80s movies; an impromptu film buff litmus test of 80s movies. She was horrified. I hadn't seen one of them.
Stay with me here. When my boss went from ferrets to The Beastmaster in less than sixty seconds, it seemed to me like a pretty random association. But as our conversation continued, we crossed the path of another thirty-something. “Hey,” she said, “did you ever see Beastmaster?” “Yeah!” “What did you want more than anything after you saw that movie?” “A ferret.” Clearly, I was missing something. And given its meaty name and apparent abundance of ferrets, it must have something awesome.
Here in this latest installment of Trailer Trash, I got a cinematic Pu-Pu Platter of just what I had been missing, replete with sweeping scores and dramatic narrations. In the eighties, there was a whole movement of these pulpy films. They weren't generally big draws at the box office, but were saved like so many other titles by the home video revolution and ended up getting plenty of love at video stores and on endless TV reruns. They all starred blond, mostly-shirtless, and exceptionally muscular men who sought vengeance on evil sorcerer lords and generally managed to make a few friends/bed a few scantily-clad ladies along the way2. There's even a name for the genre: “sword and sorcery.”
Most of these films look cheap and horribly dated – at first glance, it's hard to believe they would mean anything to anyone who wasn't between the ages of eight and fifteen at the time of their release. But that's just a fancy way of saying they're a whole lot of fun – those who do remember these films do so for a reason. For one thing, there is some serious talent on deck here; you can practically collect the great character actor appearances like trading cards – I'll trade you my Jack Palance and my Max von Sydow for your Rip Torn. They hit a very specific set of pleasure centers, no matter how old you are or what you're into. Ferrets! Magic rings! Boobs! Violence! Whatever you get out of these films, their seamy allure is siren-like. Watching the trailers might even be more surreal than watching the films themselves. They showcase a blatant dishonesty and lazy craftsmanship not unlike those of an early-morning infomercial, and they're just as nauseatingly entertaining to watch. Put your dogs up, pop off the old thinking cap, and have a good laugh.
The sword-and-sorcery genre is not without precedent. Thanks mostly to these Trailer Trashy films, the term seems to evoke mixed feelings among the taxonomy-centric circles of today's fantasy fans. However, it was actually coined way back in 1961 by Michael Moorcock 3 to describe the work of Robert E. Howard, creator of the Depression-era pulp hero Conan the Barbarian. Moorcock was a member of a group of authors called SAGA (Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America) that revived and expanded upon the genre. It was all theirs until 1982, when John Milius's sensational film adaptation of Conan the Barbarian came out.
It might be a stretch to say Milius's Conan the Barbarian was the first film of its kind, but it definitely set the standard. Without Conan the Barbarian, there would be no sword-and-sorcery as we have come to know it today. It was the father to a style. At first glance, it looks just as ridiculous as any of the films that would follow in its wake. It has the same muscles, the same story, and the same (hell, maybe even more) violence. But Conan had a few important things that a lot of these movies didn't: Money (legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis) and talent (Milius). Arnold Schwarzenegger could not act his way out of a paper bag, but this was the role he was born to play 4. John Milius was a film school chum of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and it would seem that he picked up a similar penchant for large-scale productions. This ambitious project still looks brutal on paper, but he pulled it off with style.
Conan went a long way towards popularizing fantasy in eighties America. But the public appetite for heroic fantasy had already been whet by a certain role-playing game that went by the name of “Dungeons and Dragons” (D&D if you're nasty). The shadow of the game lurks all over these films – theBeastmaster trailer even goes so far as to blatantly namedrop it. Like D&D, interest in sword-and-sorcery ebbs and flows. If this years' Superbrothers video game and last year's Conan reboot give any indication, we might be due for a revival. Buy stock in ferret.
1 I'm man enough to admin that I've watched my share of VH1's I Love the 80s, but didn't really retain anything I didn't already know.
2 In a few, the scantily-clad ladies themselves were the vengeful heroes. But they were always scantily-clad.
3 A British fantasy writer with an unfortunate last name.
4 Well, I guess The Terminator was the role he was born to play. There are more awesome roles for hulking, stoic pieces of meat than you'd think, apparently.