The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) Retrospective

SUMMARY
King Titus Cromwell and his men land ashore of Tomb Island in search of Xusia of Delos, a long-dead sorcerer who may be the key to overthrowing his rival King Richard, whose land of Ehdan is the richest in the world. Using one of Xusia’s worshipers to awaken him, Cromwell convinces Xusia to join his cause. With the sorcerer’s black magic at his command, Cromwell easily lays waste to Richard’s formidable army.

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Eventually, Cromwell becomes eager to be rid of Xusia. Fearing that the sorcerer could turn against him, he attempts to kill Xusia by stabbing him in the chest and chasing him off a cliff. With only one army left to defend the city, King Richard prepares to lead the charge against Cromwell in a last-ditch effort to save Ehdan. He orders his family to evacuate to the river, and entrusts his youngest son Talon with his triple-bladed projectile sword, instructing the boy to avenge his death should it occur.

While searching the corpse-littered battlefield, Talon comes across Mogullen, his father’s closest adviser. Gravely wounded, the old soldier confirms that the battle is lost. At that moment, Talon spies his father in the distance, just seconds before his execution. Enraged, Talon starts off to claim his revenge, but Mogullen warns him that Cromwell will be heading to the river to intercept the queen. Talon desperately races to the river on horseback, but is too late to prevent his mother’s death at Cromwell’s hands. After narrowly surviving an ambush, Talon manages to evade capture and flee from the kingdom.

Eleven years later, Talon returns as a seasoned warrior seeking to avenge his family, even as the sinister Xusia, still very much alive, vows to repay Cromwell for his treachery. In the city of Ehdan, a rebellion has begun under Prince Mikah, son of King Richard’s closest adviser, who many believe to be the rightful heir to the throne. After confirming the final plans with Machelli, Cromwell’s war chancellor (who is secretly a double agent), Mikah relays the news to his sister Alana, but Cromwell suddenly bursts into their hideout and a battle ensues. Although Mikah is captured, Alana flees through the city streets, but is eventually cornered by Cromwell’s men. She is then rescued by Talon, who easily dispatches her assailants.

At a nearby tavern, Alana learns of her brother’s imprisonment and asks Talon to rescue him, along with a faction of rebels who have been recently trapped by Cromwell’s forces. Unable to bribe the lustful mercenary with gold, Alana reluctantly offers herself to him for one night. Satisfied, Talon departs on his mission, but Cromwell’s men arrive shortly thereafter and capture Alana as well.

Successful in freeing the rebels, Talon infiltrates the castle through the sewers and is able to rescue Mikah, but is subsequently detected and captured by Cromwell. After forcing Alana into marriage, Cromwell invites the four neighboring kings to their wedding feast, where he intends to assassinate them with Talon crucified in the dining hall. Before the plot can be carried out, Talon summons the strength to pull himself free of the crucifix, just seconds before the rebels, led by Mikah, storm into the dining hall and overpower Cromwell’s soldiers.

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Cromwell attempts to flee the castle with Alana in tow, but Talon intercepts them. Machelli then takes custody of Alana and brings her to the catacombs beneath the castle, where he reveals his true identity as Xusia. Although Cromwell tries to intercede, he is no match for the sorcerer, but Talon is able to resist Xusia’s power long enough to strike him down with his projectile sword. He then engages Cromwell in combat, finally slaying the evil king. Afterwards, Talon saves Alana from a giant constrictor snake, but Xusia suddenly rises again, prompting Talon to finish off the sorcerer with a blade concealed in his gauntlet.

Having no wish to rule the kingdom, Talon yields the crown of Ehdan to Mikah, and Alana honors her commitment to spend one night with her brother’s savior. As Talon and the mercenaries prepare to leave Ehdan, they are approached by Rodrigo, a member of Mikah’s rebellion, who asks to join them. Talon agrees, and the group sets off for another adventure.

DEVELOPMENT
The Sword and the Sorcerer,” explains Brandon Chase, producer of the independent fantasy hit. “Our company, Group 1, is a distribution company-it has been for 15 years – and we decided that the picture had the profile of a winner. We decided that if we made a deal with a major, we wouldn’t be able to retain as much money as we would if we distributed it ourselves and gave it that hand-care kind of treatment. With majors you tend to get lost in the shuffle, especially if it’s a movie they don’t know how to sell.”

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When Chase first heard of the Sword and the Sorcerer property, the screenplay had already been making the rounds. Chase recalls, “The three guys who put it all together – John Stuckmeyer, Thomas Karnowski and Albert Pyun-had been peddling it for about five years. They’d gone everywhere with it and been turned away. They came up here and we weren’t that thrilled with it either. And then Excalibur came out and we saw the box office numbers on that. We figured that maybe this is a new genre. We pushed the button right after Excalibur.”

The director of this ambitious project was one of the screenwriters, Albert Pyun, a 26 year old who had never directed a feature-length picture before. Chase says Pyun got the call to direct, even though he had little experience, because “he was tied to the project. In other words, they (Pyun, Karnowski and Stuckmeyer) had worked on it all these years and they felt that he should have a shot.” Chase admits he was nervous about trusting such an elaborate property with a first-time director, but even though he had the option of dismissing Pyun at any time he let him stay on. The producer feels that the experienced crew on the picture was able to keep things running smoothly. “Having Joe Mangine as cinematographer, who has directed himself, and guys like George Costello on art direction as well as experienced lighting people to watch over Pyun allowed us to keep him on for the whole picture. It was a unique kind of experience for Pyun, but now, I think, he has some experience behind him, and I think he’s learned a lot from this movie. If he gets another job | think he’ll do a lot better.”

To make the Sword and the Sorcerer, dungeons, costumes and medieval weaponry had to be designed and made, and an extensive array of special effects had to be engineered: the hero wields a tri-bladed sword whose three blades take off like rockets towards their targets; 120 faces come alive on the side of a mausoleum; a chest bursts open; the hands of the sorcerer glow; actor George Maharis reaches up to the top of his head and splits it right down the middle as he speaks. A production of this sort would be a demanding task for a full-scale studio production with tens of millions of dollars at its disposal, let alone for a four-million dollar independent feature. Working within this relatively limited budget the Sword and the Sorcerer team came across with a picture of impressive production value. Chase explains: Unlike the big studios, we’re not locked into certain ways of spending money. We get a lot more up on the screen per dollar.”

Chase’s thoroughness in overseeing every aspect of the picture was crucial to maximizing the production value on The Sword and the Sorcerer. Says Chase, “We made sure that in those areas of vital necessity, such as set design, costume design and cinematography, we had the absolute best people. We don’t say, ‘Go build a set and send us the bill.’ We shop first. We actually hired the individual people to bang the nails into the walls. So it’s just by being very careful, by establishing an attitude overall where money’s not to be wasted. We’ve worked with a lot of the same people before on other pictures – we know how good they are, how fast they are, how conscious they are of the dollar. That makes all the difference in the world. The majors, for example, take twice as long to shoot because they’re involved with numerous unions which we don’t have to become involved with. That causes them to take a lot of extra time and spend a lot of money.”

Interview with Director Albert Pyun
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How did you initially become attached to direct THE SWORD & THE SORCERER?
Albert Pyun: SWORD & THE SORCERER was my conception. It took me 4 years to attach an investor. The same is true for most of my films.

What was the inspiration for THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER?
Albert Pyun: It was really influenced by the films I had seen in Japan when I was in the second grade. I would go down to Shibuya and watch historical costume dramas and fairytales. I really enjoyed watching them so I brought those elements into THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, along with stuff like the Lone Wolf and Baby Cart series.

Was there any reservations at directing such an ambitious film?
Albert Pyun: None. After spending a year on the storyboards, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

The film was extremely imaginative. How did you respond to the challenge to fulfill your vision on a lower budget?
Albert Pyun: I had done a lot of commercials, so I had some experience in how to make cheap compromises that looked good. I knew that if I threw as many ideas up on screen in each shot as I could, some of them would come through.

Did producer, Brandon Chase direct any of the film? I notice it says during the opening credits, ‘A Brandon Chase Film’.
Albert Pyun: No, he did not direct any portion of the film. Brandon Chase’s company put up the money which gave them control. I was too young to know better.

Despite CONAN being very different, was Milius’s film ever an intimidating factor during the production of TS&TS?
Albert Pyun: No intimidation. Communication about who was making what and how was slim in those days, compared to now. I knew the Conan film was in the works and held admiration for Milius. I personally hoped the film would be tremendous and did not realize SWORD & SORCERER was in competition until later.

What are your memories of working with Lee Horsley? Judging by his performance, he seems to have enjoyed himself as the lead, Talon.
Albert Pyun: Horsley was terrific. However, the wig gave him a scalp infection. There was too much blood and he hated being put on that cross.

What was it like working with Richard Lynch?
Albert Pyun: It was wonderful and inspiring. Richard was intensely creative. He literally spilled over with ideas everyday. He worked hard to make each scene the best it could be. Richard remains one of the most focused and professional actors I have ever worked with. A very gifted, courageous artist. The Sword and the Sorcerer was actually a quite difficult shoot and I was tempted to quit or was threatened with being fired throughout. Richard and Lee Horsely were instrumental in supporting me.

What are your memories of Richard Moll? Judging by his propensity for doing comedy, was he a cut up on set?
Albert Pyun: No, he was not comfortable with the makeup and contact lenses. His cornea got scratched when he emerged from the tomb and he was taken to hospital.

Was there a moment that you, or any of the production crew considered not completing the film after the tragedy that befell stuntman, Jack Tyree? I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Albert Pyun: We were all terribly shaken and upset. I was not involved in the discussion of what would happen next. I waited with the crew while the decisions were made. It was tragic and it taught me a lesson. I never had another death on one of my sets.

Veteran stuntman Jack Tyree was filming a scene for The Sword and the Sorcerer on the production’s Malibu set in which he was to jump from an 80-foot cliff. He unfortunately landed a few feet away from his landing airbag, causing severe injuries that ultimately cost his life.

The stunt was ultimately left in the film, despite his tragic passing, and the film was dedicated to him. Tyree was 37.

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Did Kathleen Bellar have reservations about her characters (tastefully done) nude scene? I am assuming it was a double during the shot where the camera slowly pans over her body as she is being massaged.
Albert Pyun: Yes, she had a body double. I don’t remember any discussions or reservations.

What was the initial critical reaction to the film overall? The public seemed very receptive to the film.
Albert Pyun: Gene Siskel loved it and Roger Ebert hated it. That’s indicative of the overall critical reception. Fan reception was very enthusiastic and long lasting.

Are there any memories, good or bad, while shooting the picture, that you would like to share?
Albert Pyun: I enjoyed the cast very much. As my first experience directing seasoned actors, it was really fun and magical to see them bring the characters to life.

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Interview with Producer Brandon Chase
How did you get involved with The Sword and the Sorcerer?
Brandon Chase: Two years before Excalibur, three young guys [director-cowriter Albert Pyun and coproducer-cowriters Tom Karnowski and John Stuckmeyer] came into this office with a fantasy. I was not excited for two reasons: their own moviemaking naiveté and my misgivings about the genre. Excalibur changed my mind. That movie showed there was an untapped audience for the sword-and-sorcery genre. As soon as I saw Excalibur‘s opening grosses. I said, “Let’s go.” There’s always a danger that when something new catches on, everyone will rush to cash in But the logistics of making a movie like this were too complicated for that to happen, and we were ready, to start right away.

How were you able to make a film full of special effects, with a large cast and almost a hundred stunt men, for so little money?
Brandon Chase: In pre-production on a movie of this scale, a big studio has up to 150 people. We had 30. The studios have created an overhead charge of 25 percent on every dollar because of their facilities and bureaucracies. Pre-production was crucial for getting this film made for a price. Our art director, George Costello, didn’t just do line drawings, he did dimensional drawings, so that we could work out camera moves weeks in advance.

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Richard Lynch
Do you think that your performance as the villainous King Titus Cromwell may have been partly responsible for you getting larger roles in the films that followed?

Richard Lynch: On The Sword and the Sorcerer, I am going to give all the credit to the director, Albert Pyun. He is a very creative writer. It’s one of his earliest movies, and he was very inventive what he did with film. It was a difficult film to make, by the way; a person was killed on that picture. There were many difficulties working on it. Films run in cycles and that was the year that they came out with Excalibur, and then there were a whole lot of movies that were just like it. Brandon Chase, one of the producers on The Sword and the Sorcerer, decided to make this little movie, and they made a large profit on it. It was the number one top-grossing independent film worldwide that year. My work stood out, and I won a Saturn award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Is there anything else that you recall about the production of that film?
Richard Lynch: The death of Jack Tyree, who was a wonderful stuntman. God, man, that is a heavy thing to remember, but I remember the day it happened. He jumped off a cliff and missed his airbags. It is a dangerous job, stunt work. I will never forget that, it was a very sad event. The other thing was the heat. We shot a lot of it in Riverside, California, and in those costumes, it was boiling.

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SPECIAL EFFECTS
The Chiodos proved quick learners and soon landed their first major assignment: creating a crypt of bloody, fleshy, living heads for Sword and the Sorcerer. Steve and Charlie designed and sculpted more than a hundred urethane puppet heads to cover the five panels of animation needed for the film which were worked, as puppets, from behind. “Siskel and Ebert singled it out as the movie’s scariest part,” says Steve. “But there was some problem with the camera that resulted in the sequence not being highlighted enough. The film was on such a tight shooting schedule that there wasn’t enough time to go back and fix it.”

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Greg Cannom provided the special makeups seen in THE SWORD AND THE SORCEROR. Makeup Effects Lab of Hollywood contributed a few “blood and guts” effects –like the black witch’s exploding heart-and Ve Neill did straight and character makeup, as well as burn and torture effects under Cannom’s guidance. Cannom, who created and applied many of the special effects makeups for the THE HOWLING, was able to complete only half of the makeup effects planned for THE SWORD AND THE SORCEROR. His four stages of progressive makeup for demon Xusia are particularly impressive. For Xusia’s first appearance as a “fetus-Buddha,” Cannom made foam pieces to fit actor Richard Moll’s body. The pieces were covered in fake blood by Effects Lab of Hollywood and did not need to be highly detailed.For Xusia’s next appearance, Cannom sculpted a series of foam appliances that gave Moll an extremely wrinkled visage. Cannom jokingly christened this stage the “LITTLE BIG MAN look,” referring to Dick Smith’s classic old age makeup. The third stage was the re-use again of the molds from the “fetus-Buddha.” without the blood and with detail and coloration visible.

The fourth, and most impressive stage is Xusia’s transformation from a man back into a demon. To achieve this startling effect, Cannom used air bladders a la THE HOWLING, a falsechest oozing a mixture of Kayro syrup and black dye and an elaborate fake head which is literally torn in halfand stripped down the sides of a dummy like a banana peel exposing a puppet head of Xusia.

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CAST/CREW
Directed Albert Pyun
Writing Credits
Tom Karnowski John V. Stuckmeyer  Albert Pyun  

Lee Horsley as Prince Talon
Kathleen Beller as Princess Alana
Simon MacCorkindale as Prince Mikah
George Maharis as Machelli, Cromwell War Chancellor
Richard Lynch as Titus Cromwell
Richard Moll as Xusia

Makeup Department
Allan A. Apone        …       special makeup effects (as Allan Apone)
Greg Blocker …       makeup assistant: special effects
Greg Cannom         …       special makeup effects (as Gregory Cannom)
Anthony Esposito    …       hair designer (as Anthony E. Esposito)
Jeff Kinney    …       makeup assistant: special effects
Karen Kubeck         …       assistant makeup artist

David B. Miller         …       makeup assistant: special effects (as David Miller)
Kenny Myers …       makeup assistant: special effects (as Kenney Myers)
Ve Neill         …       head makeup artist
Mark Shostrom       …       special makeup effects artist
Ronald W. Smith     …       hair stylist (as Ron Smith)
Douglas J. White     …       special makeup effects (as Douglas White)
Vera Yurtchuk         …       assistant makeup artist

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
coolasscinema
money-into-light
SensCritique
looper
La Cosa Cine Fantastico Issue #113
rollingstone.com
Fangoria#21
Cinefantastique v12n05-06 (1981)
Tales from the Cult Film Trenches

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