Best thing you’ll see since you were a 10-year-old playing D&D: Hawk the Slayer

, | Movie reviews

Sure, we went nuts over Conan: The Barbarian, but it got less cool once all the dumbass jocks discovered Schwarzenegger action movies and lumped Conan in with that stuff.  The Terminator didn’t help. First Conan, and now a robot from the future? Schwarzenegger was the GURPS of action heros. Some of us were left with Beastmaster, starring a guy who looked more at home playing a doctor in a daytime soap opera.  No pet class barbarian looks like Marc Singer. Please. To be honest, we were mainly into it for Tanya Roberts. And the ferrets. The ferrets were cool. There was also Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoons. But there was something weird about those.  Something off. They came from some other state of consciousness we didn’t understand. A hangover from the 70s.

But our greatest cinematic joy as fantasy nerds of a certain age endures to this day.  It remains unknown to many. Unless you are among the initiated (i.e. you understood the GURPS reference), there’s nothing for you after the jump.  Move along. Nothing to see here. An enthusiastic review of The Division 2 or something will be along shortly.

Have the other guys all left?  It’s just us now? I can speak freely?  I hereby bring to order the Hawk the Slayer Appreciation Society.  And since you’re here, you know as well as I that Hawk the Slayer is as good as it ever was.  The level of quality hasn’t changed with the times. Not one iota. It’s as if it were frozen in amber since the day it was released, whenever that was.  No one knows when Hawk the Slayer was actually released. We only know the first time a friend brought over a VHS tape of it. We only know the day our lives changed forever because all our hopes and dreams and wishes and D&D campaigns were realized in all their cinematic glory.

Serious historians probably regard Hawk the Slayer as a turning point, heralding the arrival of 80s cinema.  It’s certainly the seminal fantasy film that set the stage for all the others. The sine qua non, if you will.  Krull, Dragonslayer, Deathstalker, Beastmaster, Ladyhawke, Conan. Punks, every one of them. Willow? Pfft. Willow killed fantasy for over ten years.  All of them are imitators. Pretenders. Hawk the Slayer clones, really. Even John Boorman’s Excalibur was following in the footsteps of Hawk the Slayer.  Look it up if you don’t believe me. Oh, and Star Wars doesn’t count because it was in space.

Hawk the Slayer was shot so that a maximum number of frames would look like cover art for a failed prog rock album you found with a bunch of your Dad’s old records.  Such as this:

And this:


I would be remiss to not include this:

And this:

Especially this:

Look at the craft in those shots.  The intentionality. You don’t get that kind of composition by telling Marc Singer to go stand over there.  I don’t care if you’ve got a John Milius script or Tanya Roberts on a zebra or an oversized ninja star that looks like something your little brother drew with a Spirograph.  Those shots from Hawk the Slayer have the same sense of artistic integrity as a community theater stage director who has to keep telling his actors to stop looking at each other and turn towards the audience/camera, dammit, because we’re only going to set up this scene and shoot it from this one angle.  I don’t care if you’re delivering your line out into thin air, just stay turned this way and don’t move off your mark.

Of course, Hawk the Slayer wouldn’t be the seminal work it is without its thespians.  John Terry’s performance as– Wait, is this where I need to remind some people who John Terry is?  I mean, besides Hawk the Slayer, of course. He’s Jack’s dad on Lost, okay? That’s John Terry.

His performance in Hawk the Slayer is a perfect example of a technique known among actors as “waiting until I have a line”.  It requires lots of patience. Even a certain level of uninterest to make sure you don’t get too eager and accidentally cut off another actor’s line.  To avoid this, you simply wait until they’ve finished talking. Then give them a little extra time, maybe a beat or two, to make sure they’re not going to talk anymore.  Are they done? Yes? Good. Now it’s your turn. And you say your line. It’s a form of acting Americans perfected in the 80s. The British have yet to master it.

Of course, Jack Palance does enough acting for the whole cast, which lets the rest of them off the hook.  There’s an elf named Crow, played by an actor who seems to have confused elfs with robots. But to his credit, he plays a convincing robot.  Which would explain why he can fire arrows so fast that it breaks the film and causes it to backup a few frames. Suck it, Legolas.

There’s also a comic relief dwarf:

I don’t know that guy’s name, but I’m pretty sure he ends up playing one of the Dr. Whos. There’s a giant named Gort who eats a lot, which is why trail mix is sometimes called gort.  Ranulf is a one-handed rando with a crossbow, but I don’t think he knows the other guys. I’m not sure why they’re bringing him along. I think they feel bad for him because he’s got one hand, which won’t be a cool thing until Jaime Lannister does it.  There are also treacherous nuns, which never really took off as a trope. A witch lady uses Silly String, ping pong balls, and hoola-hoops to cast magic. And if you like pan flutes in your soundtrack, listen no further than the rousing rock electronica of the Hawk the Slayer soundtrack, and especially Hawk’s leitmotif.  I suspect this is what inspired Zamfir to make all those K-tel albums.

By the way, here’s Patrick McGee as a priest who ties the dwarf to a raft and sets him afloat and then gets his vicars or whatever to shoot flaming arrows at the raft.  

The dudes miss a lot, which gives Hawk time to come along and save the dwarf during the mercifully brief “getting the band back together” stage of the movie.  You might recognize McGee as the guy who enjoined Malcolm McDowell to “try the wine” in Clockwork Orange. Which means that, yes, Hawk the Slayer is officially Kubrickian.

Here’s how Hawk the Slayer opens.

Just to be clear, it’s not a crawl, so it’s nothing like Star Wars.  Note the lack of punctuation, which makes this title card also a good breath control exercise.  See if you can say the whole thing without taking a breath. Go ahead, try. See? It’s not easy.

Now as we all know, Hawk the Slayer is about Hawk coming into possession of the Elfin Mind Stone and then sticking it into a sword pommel at the behest of his dying father.  Thus the Mind Sword is forged. Or assembled. Snapped together, I suppose. All that is Hawk the Slayer 101. But what you might not realize is that this was just the first movie of a pentalogy.  There are five stones, and the Elfin Mind Stone is just one down. With four to go, the plots of the successive movies would have detailed Hawk coming into possession of the other four stones and sticking them onto his sword pommel. Sound familiar?  It turns out that even Marvel movies are heavily influenced by Hawk the Slayer. This seminal work of fantasy transcends genres.

If I were a more cynical person — say, the type of person who would write a negative review of a videogame even though it’s fun — I might observe that Hawk the Slayer is a really bad movie.  But I would also note that two things make it exceptional. The first is that it was perhaps the first inkling I had that there were people out there with the wherewithal to make movies who really got what it means to go on a D&D adventure.  Hawk’s Mary Sue earnestness, his total unselfconsciousness about his terrible haircut, and those confident but bored steely blue eyes are just what I wanted to be in a D&D character. He stood there confidently, waiting for his turn to talk, while the bad guys gnashed their teeth in their worst British fantasy argot.  And then the fight choreography was all about him looking good and having the best weapon of all.

But even above and beyond that nostalgia value, the remarkable thing about Hawk the Slayer that stands out today is that no one involved in the movie has the slightest inkling that it’s bad.  Not the actors, not the director, not the cinematographer with his shot composition, not the composer, not the guy who made the movie poster, not whoever designed Jack Palance’s helmet, certainly not the writer who named the villain Voltan the Dark One, not the set designer.  This is an inner sanctum where the movie begins, where Hawk will get the Mind Sword:

In fact, the pre-Mind Sword is on the wall on the right.  The set was built and painted. The sword was hung conspicuously on the wall.  Those bored looking gargoyles were put in place. The lighting was set up. Someone showed John Terry his mark.  Someone on the crew dumped the dry ice into the bin. The fog started billowing. The cameras started rolling. John Terry burst in, hurried forward to his dying father, and hit his mark.

And on the set, going through everyone’s head at that moment: “Look out, Star Wars, here we come…”