Monday, October 28, 2019

The Black Abyss

Kurux roused from black dreams and returned to himself from where his sleeping mind had wandered. He never seemed to fully sleep, not any longer. Instead his mind departed and ventured into vaults of nighted visions, and drifted through realms unseen by mortal eye. He felt great presences moving near to him in the dark, and when he woke they seemed to linger about him, like smoke from a slumbering fire.

He was cold, always cold now, and he rose from the bed and wrapped himself in his black silks. He had no need to command his servants with his voice, and indeed, they lacked the capacity to understand words any longer. He summoned them with the power of his mind, and they came silently. Blinded, their eyes sealed and their tongues cut out, they were pale, hairless remnants of humanity, existing only to wait upon him, to act as extensions of his great will.

They brought him his robe, and they carried the black-scaled train behind him as he went down the steps from his chamber to the shrine below. Here the walls were lightless and gleaming, and the smell of blood was intense and cloying. He detested it, but the warmth of fresh crimson was all that warmed him now. He passed down the wide hall between towering pillars, the walls lined with motionless guards encased in armor they could never remove.

The pool was deeper than he was tall, the sides cut into channels so the blood poured into it in dark streams. A hundred prisoners a day were sacrificed and poured forth to make his bath, and then their empty, pallid bodies were burned in the furnace beneath the palace. It made for a great, black plume of smoke that rose up high into the dark sky, and the smell of burning bones hung over the city of Zur like a curse.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior is a movie that casts a shadow far out of proportion to its initial success. Released in 1999 after a troubled and expensive production, the film was one of the biggest flops that year and still remains one of the worst financial failures in movie history. However, it found a home on video, and an audience who still enjoy and talk about it to this day. Not a lot of movies remain relevant in any way after two decades, and even fewer that cratered so badly when they first emerged.

Originally to be called Eaters of the Dead, it was, of course, based on Micheal Crichton’s 1976 novel that mashed up the 10th-century Ibn Fadlan manuscript with the myth of Beowulf to produce an interesting take on the legend and a rather rousing adventure story. There had been plans to film it as early as 1979, but it would be 20 years before the film reached theaters. There were even teaser trailers released still bearing the Eaters of the Dead title, though test screenings apparently put a stop to that.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, who was then riding pretty high on acclaim as an action director after starting his career with mega-hits like Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October. On this one he went famously over-budget, spending what is variously reported as $85 million all the way up to $160 million to shoot it. The test screenings went badly, and Crichton was brought in to direct reshoots and the whole film was recut and retitled. Considering the financial disaster that ensued, we will probably never see a director’s cut, which is a shame.

As a movie, The 13th Warrior is uneven. The storyline is pretty much straight from the book, depicting Ibn Fadlan on his long journey into Scandinavia in company with a band of Volga Rus warriors on a quest to help Hrothgar, king of the Danes, against an ancient enemy. The book and movie both posit the story of Beowulf as a mythologized struggle against a more primitive race of humanity, still existing as a remnant population. In this story, Grendel is not a monster, but the Wendol – a tribe of maybe Neanderthals living a Neolithic existence, and the dragon of the story is instead their force of torch-bearing cavalry.

The historicity of the movie is pretty bad. The armor and weapons are a slurry of anachronistic details when they are not just bad-looking, with the swords being thick and clunky, without any of the beauty of Viking-era sword designs. One character wears a Roman gladiator’s helmet, which would have been possible, but another wears 16th-century Spanish gear, and Buliwyf’s Viking plate armor is a total fantastical invention – even if it looks totally awesome.

The movie trades heavily on action, but the fight choreography is not really very good. Most of the excitement of the battle scenes is generated by good lighting, excellent editing, and solid direction. All this serves to make the fight scenes pop more than the rather crude choreography would otherwise indicate. The cinematography is excellent, really evoking this misty, ancient world, and while Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a replacement for the rejected original by Graeme Revell, it is an almost iconic workout in operatic mood, with a heavy, memorable theme that adds a lot of drama.

What really holds the film together is the cast. Banderas is perfect as the intelligent, somewhat timid and fussy Ibn Fadlan, and the depiction of his Muslim beliefs and habits is respectful, avoids stereotypes, and does not make him the butt of jokes. The rest of the cast is not as well-known, with Tony Curran in an early role, Diane Venora doing good work as Hrothgar’s queen, and Omar Sharif lending his gravitas in the first part of the movie.

Norwegian actor Denis Storhoi plays the fun-loving, devil-may-care Herger, who becomes Ibn Fadlan’s best friend, and he lights up the screen whenever he’s on it with his good humor and fearless bravado. He has an effortless charisma that the movie is smart enough to make good use of. The actors playing the warriors all have an easy camaraderie and really seem as if they have known one another for years, working and moving like an experienced team.

It is Czech-born actor Vladimir Kulich, however, who really sticks in the mind. As the towering, magnetic Prince Buliwyf he is barbaric, iconic, and radiates the kind of charisma that makes you understand why men would follow and die for him. It is a terrible, terrible shame he was never cast as Conan, because with the right hair and the right look, the looming, 6’5” Kulich could have been a Conan for the ages.

Despite its flaws, The 13th Warrior remains a favorite among Viking and fantasy fans. It is a very Howardian movie, with its focus on machismo, the Dark Ages, and battles against prehuman beings that dwell underground, it has shades of stories like “Worms of the Earth”, and considering how big a fan of pulp literature Crichton was, that is surely not an accident. Not a lot of movies manage to survive long in the constantly shifting mass consciousness of our media-saturated age, but The 13th Warrior still holds its own.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Blood and Fire

Shath rose in the dead of night, Ashari stirring beside him but not waking. The tent she traveled in was immense and hung with rich silks and golden ornaments, and he found it uncomfortable. She grunted and shifted in her sleep, moving into the warm place he had left behind. He left the pile of cushions and went out into the dark.

The camp spread out all around him, lit by thousands of fires. Realizing how vulnerable the ships were, Ashari had ordered them stripped and burned on the shore, and she and all her warriors and attendants followed as he marched inland. Together they were almost a quarter of a million people on the move, and twice as many animals. It was the greatest army Shath had ever seen or heard tell of. With Tathar’s eagles flying overhead and mounted scouts ranging far, he knew no enemy force could creep up on them unawares, and that very thought made him wary.

He drew his fur cloak around himself, took his sheathed sword from its hook and walked out into the dark. It made him feel good to have the old blade at his side again. Ancient, handed down from chief to chief, the invulnerable metal of the elder world unmarked by time, it had slain legions in its long years. It was like a friend returned to him.

No one questioned him, and he made his way to the dark, silk-draped tent where Ellai maintained her reserve and her quiet. She still rode alone, veiled against the sun and revered by the Urugan who would die to protect her.

Monday, October 7, 2019


I have seen this many times described as a Sword & Sorcery film, and while I am certain the comparison was not made with any kind of rigorous definition in mind, I think it bears consideration. Released in 1981, the film had been in development for over a decade, with director John Boorman planning it as early as 1969. The script he initially came up with, and the film he proposed, were deemed too long and too costly, and instead the studio, United Artists, told him to do a Lord of the Rings movie. He worked on that while shopping his King Arthur project around, and supposedly some of the set designs developed for the Tolkien film were ultimately used for this.

It shows, in that Excalibur is a completely fantastical version of the Arthurian legends. There is not a single nod to any kind of historical accuracy of any kind. The opening titles proclaim the setting is “The Dark Ages”, but the knights wear shiny plate armor that was not in use until the 15th century. The weapons used are a stew of anachronistic styles, and there are no recognizable English landmarks to be seen. The world of the movie seems to consist purely of primordial forests and mysterious castles. No doubt budget considerations prevented them from showing a period town or city, but it works in creating a purely fantastical mood lifted right from the legends.

Combining the shining armor, deep green woodlands, blood, and naked flesh together under the lush cinematography creates a primal and lurid landscape for the story. It seems to come bursting out of the screen in rich colors and dreamlike settings, grounded by the gritty, dirty details and the sometimes graphic violence. Far from a polite fairy tale, Excalibur is carnal and passionate epic, bursting with the larger-than-life characters of the stories we all know so well, seeming to distill them down to an archetypical essence.

Magic, represented in the film by an otherworldly green glow, is very much present, and depicted as a dangerous, unknowable power. Morgana tells Merlin she is a “creature like him”, setting magic as an inborn power, usable only by a few, who are thus not exactly human. Magic wields great power, but is highly dangerous, even to those who use it, and it is Morgana’s unrestrained use of that power which leads to her downfall

The moral landscape of the film could be argued almost endlessly, because while the characters within the world believe in absolute good and evil, the universe itself seems to reflect no such axis. The flawed characters, tormented by failures and driven by passions and oaths, struggle to live up to the standards they set and create, very few of them managing to do so. Even Lancelot – the paragon of virtue and knightly grace – is shown to fail, tortured by his love for Guenevere and the conviction that he has failed his friend and king. All of the characters, even relatively flat ones like Mordred, get little moments that add layers, and when the movie has a chance to out and out confirm the existence of God, it veers off and leaves us with more questions than answers.

The acting comes across as quite stagey now, and that’s because Boorman cast mostly unknowns who came from the theater, and so their style was markedly different from the more naturalistic acting then coming to dominate mainstream cinema. It works because the dialogue is also quite elevated, having much more to do with Elizabethan speech than anything modern. This is another divergence from S&S, as while the prose in Sword & Sorcery stories is often elevated, the speech usually is not, in line with the express lower class origins of the characters and the genre.

It is in the realm of symbolism that the film diverges most from a Sword & Sorcery tale, as Excalibur is highly symbolic, while S&S rarely bothers with overt kinds of symbolism. It is telling how the armor in the film begins as dark and dented at the beginning, during the civil wars that divide the land, and then becomes shiny and gleaming during the height of Arthur’s reign. Later, as the knights vanish in the quest for the grail, their armor becomes slimed with mud and dented by years of ill-repair. Percivals’ retrieval of the grail itself is almost entirely symbolic, causing him to shed his armor, emerge from the water, and cross a drawbridge to claim it from a disembodied voice that asks him riddles.

The truth is that Excalibur is not a Sword & Sorcery movie, really, but rather an adaptation of one of the prime sources of inspiration for the form. Myths and legends influenced and drove the kinds of adventure and fantastical literature that served as the bread and butter for Howard, Moorcock, Smith and Leiber. Tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Roland inspired the likes of Talbot Mundy, H. Rider Haggard, and Robert Louis Stevenson to invent the stories of adventure that would go on to sow the seeds from which new kinds of fantasy would spring in later years.