Before the Lord of the Rings, before Conan the Barbarian, before Red Sonja, there was Hawk the Slayer... but no one really noticed him, because he was low budget.
In the late 1970s everyone was making science fiction movies, in the wake of Star Wars came Battlestar Galactica (a TV movie in the USA, but considered good enough for the big screen in the UK’s tatty fleapits by the American distributors), Battle Beyond The Stars, even flimsy TV cult Star Trek was declared good enough to be put up on a wider screen, though the public were a little disturbed by the high philosophy quotient and low phaser and green monster count. This was soon rectified with Ricardo Montalban's return for Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
In the wake of the science fiction boom (I am told you may also call it SF, but not sci-fi as that belittles it) producers decided to mine another seam of twisted creatures and general nonsense and ventured into the realm of fighting fantasy, or as it became known, Sword and Sorcery. The early eighties saw a slew of such films: the overlong and boring Conan the Barbarian, the gorier and more enjoyably stupid The Sword and The Sorceror, starring Lee Horsley later to make very little impression whatsoever as TV's Matt Houston, Beastmaster (great news for Marc Singer fans - V: The Second Generation has just been announced) and lots of Roger Corman productions called things like Beauty of the Barbarian Queen, in which a silicon-enhanced blonde would remove her breastplate after a brief sweaty sword fight and soap herself whilst ordering a midget slave to do something with the wizard's head she's chopped off.
Despite all this stiff competition though, there is only one sword and sorcery masterpiece that can be returned to over and over again, despite the fact that the short-sided people at the Games Workshop failed to make a mould to cast lead figurines of the cast... and that is Hawk the Slayer.
Hawk the Slayer managed to make it to the cinema before all the competition, probably because it took less time to make and had considerably less care put into it. Yet despite this it is one of the most entertaining of the genre. The problem with high budget fantasy films is there level of perfectionism make any discrepancy in detail or inconsistency of black magic logic shout out for attention. Hawk’s limits in budget, script and acting pardon it of having to do anymore than entertain by any means necessary.
We start with a few words "this is the story of heroic deeds and the struggle of good over evil..." - these are both printed up on the screen and also spoken in a portentous Shakespearian voice, just in case the viewer lacks the ability to read. Or is blind.
We cut to a horse in a wood, not just any old wood, but that wood where Hammer filmed all those women running away from vampires in their nighties, somewhere in Berkshire. This is the wood that must surely be twinned with that quarry where Dr Who kept landing when Blake’s 7 weren't in it.
On the horse sits Jack Palance, a vengeful, hate-filled warrior with a bony scarred face and ready for a rumble. He ventures into his father's lair demanding his offspring rite of a magic sword with a glowy bit on the top. But his father knows that he will not use it for good and so ends up stabbed, bloodlessly, in the guts. Voltan, for that is Jack Palance's name, goes off through the backdoor whilst his brother, Hawk arrives to discover his wilting father. The father passes on the knowledge of the magic sword and Hawk is ready to avenge his father (and the death of his fiancée, though we don't know that yet).
At this point the film's masterstroke kicks in: a fantastically dated, synthy disco soundtrack written by the co-writer and producer of the movie, Harry Robertson. Fans of Jeff Wayne's War of the World's ("listen, can you hear them drawing nearer for the search of the sinners" - "they're not devils Nathaniel, they're Martians" - Oh well, that makes it so much better you idiot Julie Covington. Whatever they are, Phil Lynott's right to be going bonkers) will find themselves dancing in their socks on numerous occasions during this film.
After the credits we hear clash of steel and see the dry ice of battle, though we don't actually see anyone fighting, just Morgan Sheppard (grizzled RSC actor who recently guest starred in Murder She Wrote: The Celtic Riddle, lucky bastard) stumbling from the fracas, grasping his mangled hand. Luckily, his delirious path leads to a nunnery. He is fed, given a bed and has his arm chopped off by the Abbess (fans of The Beguiled note this is not because he has not given out sexual favours, it had just gone manky).
Once he wakes up he tells of the nasty shenanigans that have been going on since Voltan started killing everyone everywhere. The abbess, played by Annette Crosbie, a proper actress now best known for playing the wife in One Foot in the Grave, is kidnapped by nasty Voltan, and grizzly Morgan is stabbed in the shoulder with a knife - this must be a job for Hawk and his super magic sword.
Morgan rides out and is soon attacked by three ne'er-do-wells (this man really does seem to be a jinx), Hawk turns up and the quest for justice begins. At this point the film goes into full Seven Samurai mode, though perhaps it is more clearly influenced by Blake's 7, and there are only six of them. Each one of Hawk's sidekicks is involved in a different scrape, allowing for a slew of cameos by well-known British faces who must have been working on other films nearby and gave up 10 minutes of their time for a bit of cash in hand; Roy Kinnear is a cowardly inn-keeper, Patrick Magee (a highly praised actor for his work with Samuel Beckett) is the head of some crazy, white linen sect who want to purify a dwarf on a raft, Peter Sellers' friend Graham Stark is a bloke and so on.
Hawk's team is made up of a not very short dwarf, a not very tall giant (the marvelous Bernard Bresslaw who also played a Cyclops in Krull), a blind witch, the grizzled jinx and the last of the red hot elves with a super quick arrow hand. Hawk is ready for the fight, in fact he is ready for some fights, but will there be enough dry ice to mask the poor choreography of battle? And which nuns will make it through the night? And will the film have one of those endings that suggest there will be a sequel but after poor box office receipts such thoughts are cancelled (Like Tarzan Ron Ely’s ill-fated outing Doc Savage - Man Of Bronze)?
Reasons to Love Hawk the Slayer...
Jack Palance is quite startling as Voltan, every line is tortuously mangled in his lizard way. At this point in his career he would never have dreamed that one day he would be receiving an Oscar for doing a film with the gay son from Soap (much in the same way as Martin Landau's teak performances in Space 1999 didn't suggest Oscar worthiness some 20 years later).