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Flushing Artifacts Down Plotholes: Muddled Conflict in Sword & Sorcery Movies by S.E. Lindberg
Thanks to James R. Schmidt for inviting me to ramble about Sword & Sorcery on the Mighty Thor JRS site!
There seems to be so few S&S movies that I keep vigil over the pre-production pipeline and watch all those released—enjoying most despite failings. I’ll keep watching whatever is available, but what bothers me is the continued poor delivery on key promises, conflicts, & motivations set up in (a) titles and (b) opening scenes. Incoherent storytelling contributes to poor reviews & (sometimes) movie profits… which in turn stymie sequels (perhaps rightly so… but curses, I have less to watch).
S&S fans are often treated to movies that play out like Calvinball [that’s a Calvin and Hobbes comic reference about a kid’s game with rules that vary on the fly to benefit Calvin]. You’ll want to play along with the “rules” but they’ll change randomly. This post discusses how three recent S&S movies lured us in with conflict based on a magical artifact, only to sandbag us as the stories finished. Let us address the white elephants in the room! We need Calvin’s divine help deciphering our few S&S movies.
*** Warning, spoilers are below for the three movies featured ***
Arthur’s Non-Sequitur Sword
The recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 2017 was decently produced and features an awesome soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton (seriously, the tracks are intense and unique—great ambience for creating art). The movie has several nice nods to history that are lost when featured beside a modernized, “razzle-dazzle” Arthur (hunky Charlie Hunnam, presented to us by Guy Ritche). For instance, beside Camelot is the city named Londinium which comes across as a silly name for a faux-London, when, in fact, Londinium was a historic Roman district. Also, a compelling, animal-based magic system is handicapped by an in-your-face first-impression featuring the oliphants of Tolkien/Peter-Jackson’s Return of the King; how can you lessen a decent concept? Wrap it in packaging from a different movie!
Whereas Arthur’s intentions are clear [just survive], his antagonist’s motives are muddled. Vortigern (Jude Law) seems to need Excalibur, but why? We know he doesn’t like Arthur who takes the weapon. But really, why does he need Arthur or the Sword? Vortigern already rules Camelot. He has few real adversaries across England. He has plenty of other swords. His evil tower is growing at steady pace. If he had Excalibur, would he (a) wield it? (b) revert into a staff? (c) work it into his tower somehow? Calvin, can you answer on the movie’s behalf?
Alas, we are “told”, not shown, halfway through the movie. Bedivere and the female mage explain the mystery to Arthur in a 45 second narrative blitz. In short, Vortigern desires to complete the construction of a magician’s tower. Why he wants to do that is unclear—to become more powerful, I guess. Seems like he may get access to more oliphants. Great power is trapped within the sword, which is in turn bound to Arthur’s blood somehow. Is the sword full of good power (from Merlin who forged it?) or Mordred’s evil (whose staff was transformed into the sword)? Evidence is presented on all fronts, so who knows? Anyway, being informed, Arthur then rallies his friends to lure Vortigern out of Camelot (leading his lads and confused viewers to the heart of the matter):
[Arthur] What is it that Vortigern cares about most in the world?
[his lads] Killing you.
[Arthur] Apart from that. (side bar translation: Vortigern wants something besides Arthur, even though his name is in the title and he has dominated screen time)
[his lads] Getting the sword.
[Arthur] Could someone help me out here, please? (Vortigern doesn’t want Excalibur either! Really? The weapon sharing the “legendary” title with Arthur is also not a priority)
[his lads] Finishing his tower.
[Arthur] So what do we do about it? (Confirmation: the real goal is building the tower)
[his lads] Sink his barges carrying his supply of stone… Block up the river… (How about just “hand over the sword and Arthur to Vortigern”?)
Perhaps this movie should be called Legend of the Tower, if that is the focus of conflict. At this point it would seem reasonable to hide the sword and Arthur from Vortigern to delay the tower’s completion, but soon BOTH are voluntarily delivered to Vortigern in a contrived scheme to free the mage [I loved the mage’s role, but WTF is going on here?]. In any case, not knowing the details of Excalibur’s role in the tower deflates any conflict. Arthur is just a speed bump between Vortigern and… something else, and it is damned hard to care since we don’t know what the something-else is. Vortigern must have cared a lot, of course, since he sacrifices his family to get closer to it. Not sure if I care though.
You win Calvin, keep the sword! No, I mean: give it back… whatever…
Conan’s Lame Mask:
Like Vortigen in Legend of the Sword, the 2011 Conan flick suffered the same flaw: a villain rules the world already, but still wants more ambiguous power, and is superficially obsessed with an artifact [which may or not matter].
In the reboot of Conan the Barbarian, our protagonist (Jason Momoa) is matched against the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). Khalar, a human who spends his entire life re-assembling the purportedly sorcerous Mask of Acheron (infused with enough magic to transform the wielder into a god and ruler of the world). But repairing the mask appeared inconsequential in that it did not provide Khalar with any powers, nor did it transform him into a mythical creature. By the time he recreates the magical mask (>20yrs) he already rules over most of the land. The expected climax was a battle between Conan and the god Acheron, but instead viewers were treated to a magic-less melee between Conan and the human Khalar. Cripes, there was even more film footage & special effects devoted to a meaningless sewer-dweller-monster encounter than the film’s climax; and there is, of course, a forced inclusion of elephants (really, why are a bunch of elephants carrying Khalar’s ship across land?).
It was subtle, but Khalar Zym’s motivation was briefly explained late in the movie (again by curt telling/dialogue, and essentially no “showing”): he wanted to resurrect his sorceress wife, Maliva. That would have been a nice story if developed…in fact, I think it was THE story. How cool would it have been if (a) the movie showed her death in the opening and (b) she did return at the end, dishing out some Acheron-hellish magic while fighting with her jealous, creepy daughter (Rose McGowan)? Zym’s wife’s spirit almost returns near the end of the movie, but we know so little about her and the scene rushes by, so there is no real feeling of danger/consequence.
Calvin, WTF is the conflict in this movie? And again, why are there random elephants?
The Hobbit’s Lackluster Gem:
After Peter Jackson nailed The Lords of the Rings trilogy adaptation, he managed to stretch out the single Hobbit book into three movies: An Unexpected Journey (2012); The Desolation of Smaug (2013); The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). I confess to enjoying the three films, but the focus here is on deflated conflict & non-sequitur plots. Let’s stay focused on the white oliphant(s) in the room! So what brought all the dwarves together for their quest? The same gem that brought their home’s destruction: the Arkenstone. It is introduced as something akin to Sauron’s ring. It is tangible corruption. The owner of the gem rules the roost (i.e., the Dwarven kingdoms). The Arkenstone was the key prize, right? Bilbo has to steal it from Smaug, after all! It is the motivating piece for the entire journey to Erebor.
So why was its fate essentially ignored in the last movie (theatrical version)? Last we see it, Bard and Thranduil tease Thorin with the gem from outside Erebor’s entrance. Did Bard keep it after the battle? Shouldn’t Thorin’s cousin (Dain Ironfoot) seek it out? The extended edition offers an explanation in a funeral scene, but its exclusion from the theater release is inexcusable. Throwing away the scene represents the film’s disregard for storytelling.
Again, Calvin, I ask…what are the rules here? Does the Arkenstone matter or not?
Sidebar: Speaking of Tolkien/Jackson, The Return of the King movie & book suffered a similar WTF moment: after Eowyn slays the Witch King of Angmar, his magic ring is apparently left on the battlefield—no one claims it. Sure, it isn’t the One Ring, but it is still a powerful part of the human nine. According to the almighty Wikipedia, J.R.R. Tolkien noted in letters (not his books) that Sauron still held the rings, but passages in the novels seem to contradict that. Some fans claim the Nazgul rings are held separate from their shadow-bodies in Barad-dûr. Regardless, the fate of many rings are not explained well… BUT the trilogy’s focus & title are the “Lord of the RINGS” (plural! i.e., not “Lord of the RING”). Cripes, the fate of the titular items should not be marginalized. Even if all rings become impotent after the master One Ring’s destruction, some accounting is expected.
Despair & Therapy
Other, recent S&S movies like Solomon Kane (2009), Dracula Untold (2014), and Warcraft (2016) stayed truer to their promised plots (and all lacked elephants!). Yet they were not successful enough to garner guaranteed sequels. The pipeline of S&S movies is fragile. Since 2014, many of us have been waiting for Robert Rodriguez to deliver on his live-action remake of Frazetta’s Fire and Ice (1983). That seems to be stuck in hibernation. Likewise, a ~2016 Conan Movie (Conan the Conqueror, a.k.a. Legend of Conan or King Conan) was supposed to return Arnold Schwarzenegger in a portrayal of R.E. Howard’s only novelization of the hero: The Hour of the Dragon; sadly, it may never be made.
To lessen our despair, we shall recall many past S&S were utterly terrible. Every year I watch the embedded video review of the 1980’s Deathstalker movies by Cinemassacre. A great 14min review which is better than any of the 4 movies. The Kills-to-Boob ratio quantifies the madness. At least we can laugh at poorly made Sword & Sorcery films. This will make you laugh… and may teach us how to enjoy poorly made movies.
S.E. Lindberg resides near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist, employing his skills as a scientist and artist to understand the manufacturing of products analogous to medieval paints. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for the Sword and Sorcery genre, spurred him to write graphic adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors: Dyscrasia Fiction. Also, S.E. Lindberg co-moderates a Goodreads group focused on Sword & Sorcery and invites you to participate (link).
About the book
Helen’s Daimones – the gateway novella for Dyscrasia Fiction has just been released (Kindle in Sept. 2017, Paperback Due by Nov.).
Helen and Sharon are orphans haunted by supernatural diseases, insects, and storms. They are your tour guides in this entry-way novella into Dyscrasia Fiction which explores the choices humans and their gods make as a disease corrupts their souls, shared blood and creative energies. In Helen’s Daimones, guardian angels are among the demons chasing the girls. When all appear grotesquely inhuman, which ones should they trust to save them?
Cover Art by Daniel Landerman
Praise for Dyscrasia Fiction
Black Gate Magazine raves: “Lindberg is the real deal, a gifted writer with a strong command of language,” Joe Bonadonna
Beauty in Ruins: “[Spawn of Dyscrasia is] as much a horror novel as it is a fantasy novel, but it’s in that clash of genres that Lindberg distinguishes himself. [Spawn of Dyscrasia is] a gorgeous, textured, intricately layered story.” — Reviewer Bob Milne
Dyscrasia Fiction story chronology (publication year):
- Lords of Dyscrasia(2011)
- Helen’s Daimones (2017) <<<<< New to the Underworld? Start here!
- Spawn of Dyscrasia(2014)
- Helen’s Storm (working title)