Monday, November 25, 2019

The Voice From the Deep

Shath sat on the ember throne and brooded on his fate, and the war that was not yet over. The great hall was silent, for his barbarian warriors were still out in the city, gathering their dead and slaying the last of their enemies. It would be days before they had hunted out the last remnants of the legions and piled their heads into great towers. In time they would decorate the walls of the city with the skulls as a reminder to all who would think to set themselves against the new emperor.

He looked up as a shadow flitted high in the towering columns, and he watched with pleasure as Ellai flew on her delicate wings among the great pillars, gliding with grace and a lightness that made her seem weightless. Her silken robes and veil billowed like colored fire in her wake, as light as she, and then she spiraled down, easy as a fallen leaf, and touched the floor with no more sound than a breath.

She came to him and he held out his hand, embraced her when she came close. Shath had never sired a child of his own kind, and he doubted he ever would. But this small child of the wilderness was as beloved to him as a child of his own blood.

“The battle is done,” she said in her small voice, relieved and weary. “I hope you shall never again have to preside over such destruction.”

“As do I,” he said. “In my youth I sought a great battle, a battle that all men would tell tales of and bow their heads in reverence at the carnage and the terror of it. Now I have fought such a battle, and I will be content if I never see one to equal it.”

“And yet you are not content. I can feel that within you,” she said. She touched his face, her small hand on his rough-hewn cheek.

“Kurux escaped me, at the end,” he said. “The power that sustained him, that rose him up, took him away at the end, and I cannot allow that to endure.”

“No,” she said. “No you cannot.”

“Can you tell me where he is? Help me, as you have so many times. Guide me.” He held her hand. “I could not have reached this throne without you.”

“You could have taken a throne,” she said. “But I would have you be a great emperor, not simply another murderous tyrant. I would have you become wise, now that you have conquered.” She closed her eyes. “I do not need to seek him. He is known to me. I know he has gone into the darkness, and it waits there. It is a power you must destroy, yet I do not know if you can.”

“Tell me,” he said.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Vikings

Hollywood has always gone through cycles of making historical-fiction epics, and the 1958 Kirk Douglas vehicle The Vikings is a product of the same cycle that also produced Spartacus and Solomon and Sheba. Directed by veteran Richard Fleischer (who also did Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja), the movie is very much a product of its time, but also retains a surprising amount of grit and energy.

Adapted from pulp writer Edison Marshall’s 1951 novel The Viking, it is a very loosely-based version of the highly questionable sagas regarding the semi-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. It is very much of a piece with the melodramatic “historical” adventure stories of the late pulp era. Marshall was a regular in the so-called “Adventure Pulps” of the 40s and 50s. These were the better-paying markets in the pulp field, as they tended to eschew any kind of magical or supernatural elements, and thus were more “serious” than the sort of thing that appeared in Weird Tales.

The movie has a great look, with brilliant cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff. One thing that adds a lot to the film is the dedication Fleischer had to authenticity. Rather than film somewhere in Baja and try to pretend it was Norway, they actually went to Norway, built some highly accurate period longships, and actually sailed them around in the fjords. The sets look great, the armor and weapons are (mostly) pretty accurate, and the climactic siege was filmed at a real castle in Brittany. It gives the whole thing a degree of verisimilitude and immersiveness it otherwise would have lacked.

Ernest Borgnine plays Ragnar, the Viking chieftain, with a lot of gusto – certainly more than I would have expected. Kirk Douglas plays his son Einar, who while given top billing is actually the antagonist of the movie. It’s surprising how he really bites into the role, as Einar is a vicious, cruel bastard with few redeeming qualities. He’s got a great physicality and famously did as many of his own stunts as he could. When he grabs hold of Princess Morgana and growls “If I can’t have your love, then I’ll take your hate” he does it with real conviction.

Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were a couple at the time they made this, and they are both just miscast here. Curtis is a fine looking piece of man, but his major acting style consists of staring off into space like he forgot his own name. He does well enough with the fight scenes though. Leigh is laughable as the Welsh princess Morgana, as she looks about as Welsh as Britney Spears. Nobody is even attempting any kind of accents at all, and while you have some Brit actors to add some ambiance, most of the leads sound like they are just from LA.

The music, overall, is bad. The main theme is a kind of tiresome fanfare that gets repeated and repeated, and the incidental music is forgettable when it is not just out of place. A better score could have really punched this up.

The action scenes are still pretty good, despite being of that particular school of bloodless 50s action. There is plenty of implied gore – like people being fed to starving wolves and getting their hands chopped off – but it always happens off-camera. Nevertheless, the battle scenes, when they finally kick off, have a lot of energy and still manage to be exciting. It helps that the principals really throw themselves into it, and the final showdown between Douglas and Curtis really sells the idea that they want to kill each other.

Watching this, I can kind of see why they tapped Fleischer to direct the second Conan movie and Red Sonja, as his kind of swashbuckling action was the standard ten or twenty years earlier. But the landscape had changed on him, and people wanted bloody, brutal action that just was not what he did. He was making movies for the 50s in the 80s, and missed the mark.

This really harks back to the kinds of adventure fiction that influenced the classic Sword & Sorcery authors. It was historical adventure that led to the popularity of fantasy and added the heavy strain of violence that always runs through a good S&S story. The Vikings may not really be a classic, but it still has legs more than 60 years later.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The City of Iron and Bone

The red sun cut the far horizons of the sea, and the sky was alive with ten thousand stars when Shath rode over the crest of the hill and looked upon Zur, the black city of the emperors once again. He had come to it as a prisoner, and now he came to conquer as he had sworn he would on that long-ago day. The wind was cold out of the sky, seeming to blow from the desolate places between stars, and he smelled the hot, reeking smoke of burning corpses.

The city was changed from his last vision of it. The walls were still towering and polished, black as obsidian, but the sky above the city was dark with the murk of many fires, pillars of smoke rising up from below to gather in a cloud that glowed from the light of the city cast against it. Motes wheeled in the darkened sky, and he knew they were the Skylords Kurux still commanded. They flew high on their leather-winged beasts and awaited the command to strike. Bolts of violet lightning lanced down from the smoke clouds and touched the tips of the innumerable towers, scrawling them with fire.

It was a city out of the ages, a city of ancient noble houses and depthless intrigue. It was a city older than memory, and its walls were mortared with the blood of slaves and those ground beneath the hell of the imperial might. The great gate stood shut, the bars of the portcullis like fangs stained red in the dawn fire. Zur slumbered like a great demon, hungry and fearless. It did not know that it would break today before the sun fell.

He reined in his war-steed as the mass of his Urugan warriors came up around him. They sang a low, echoing song of longing for battle, and they parted around him and rode down onto the plain around the black city. Already he saw specks of people fleeing from the ragged shantytowns outside the walls, clinging to the path of the rover where it flowed past the towering fortifications. He knew Kurux would not allow them inside the gates. The city was already fitted for war, fires blazing on tower and battlement.

Monday, November 4, 2019


A 2011 release that didn’t get much attention, Ironclad is a highly fictionalized version of the siege of Rochester Castle in 1215. Produced for about $25 million with a stellar cast and a devotion to bloody, savage violence above all, this movie is another highly Howardian effort, taking a historical event and making it into a brutal exercise in blood and thunder.

The historical setup to frame the battle is highly complex, and the movie starts with some narration to help the audience get a grip on what’s going on. Essentially, King John (of Robin Hood infamy) faced a revolt among his barons and was forced to sign the Magna Carta – an official treaty limiting royal power for the first time in English history. Afterward, recovering some of his spine, John waged a retaliatory campaign through England to chastise and punish those who had turned against him. In 1215 he faced a small garrison at Rochester led by Baron William d'Aubigny, and the siege held him up for some time.

Thus, the action is narrowed to a single point, with the focus entirely on a battle that stacked a few defenders against much more numerous attackers. The producers make the most of their location, getting great vistas of the Welsh countryside and a good-looking castle. The armor and weapons are pretty good, and the swords especially are very fine-looking period designs. You do get some fanciful axes and maces, but overall the look is pretty authentic.

The cast is amazing, starring James Purefoy as protagonist Marshal – a Templar on his way home from crusade. Paul Giamatti is at his sniveling, shrieking best as the petulant, cruel John, and in the scene where he rants about his heritage you swear he is going to burst a blood vessel. Brian Cox brings his down-to-earth cool to the role of the rebellious d’Aubigny. Kate Mara plays the requisite love interest with some grit, and Charles Dance makes a memorable appearance as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cast is rounded out by a torrent of familiar faces: Derek Jacobi, Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook, and the towering Vladimir Kulich as the imposing Danish commander.

The movie makes a complete hash out of the historical facts. Characters die who survived the siege, the politics are simplified to a tremendous degree, and events are shifted in time by months or years in order to create proper tension. John’s army is depicted as being made up of pagan Danish mercenaries, when the Danes had been Christianized for centuries by that point. The “Danes” also speak Hungarian and paint their faces blue like Celts. It is also never explained why a Danish mercenary captain is named “Tiberius”.

But the action scenes have tremendous grit and vigor. The blood is plentiful and the head-chopping and limb-ripping is all practical rather than CG. The choreography displays some real historical combat techniques, and the fighting is tightly edited and well-shot, adding excitement without losing much clarity. The actors all throw themselves into the proceedings, and the caliber of the performances allows this movie to work when it otherwise might not have.

Overall, Ironclad is a tense, entertaining movie with some first-rate acting and a lot of intense middle-ages combat. It is a brutal movie, with some scenes of torture and mutilation that are not for the squeamish. It has a really good score, and the production values are pretty high overall, never looking cheap or half-assed.

If there was a witch in it or something, then this would rate as an ace Sword & Sorcery movie, as it definitely depicts a world of morally gray characters struggling to do their best in a brutal, uncaring world. James Purefoy’s Marshal is a pulp hero of the first order – huge and physically powerful, feared by his enemies, in battle an almost unstoppable force of nature. He comes into the story driven by a tortured past and hardened by war, and he leaves it bloodied but victorious with a hot noblewoman across his saddle, headed for better days. After the blood-soaked, savage two hours that lie in between, you feel like he’s earned it.