Sunday, 14 March 2010

Hawk the Slayer (1980)

A film with a small but loyal cult following, of which I must count myself a member, for I saw it several times when I was but knee-high to an elf and it helped to form my affection for the fantastic genres. That said, Hawk the Slayer is the type of work which can embarrass most fantasy fans today, for it was a product of an era when fantasy was a ghettoised screen genre. Long before CGI invaded the form, and big-budget entries like Conan the Barbarian and Legend were still a few years away. Hawk is resplendent with TV-cheap special effects that bear a certain resemblance in their low-rent invention to what you might have once found in the classic days of Doctor Who. Acts of magic and superhuman motion are accompanied by a shimmering synthesiser sound effect reminiscent of the one that used to ring out with Wonder Woman's transformations. And yet, the resulting film not nearly as top-heavy and tiring as so many subsequent huge-budget, so-slick stabs at fantastic cinema, but instead provides a lucid marvel of low-rent energy and naïf charm.

Hawk the Slayer was the work of two yeoman British film and TV craftsmen. Director Terry Marcel was, and still is, a dexterous television helmsman, who had also worked as an assistant director on several notable ‘70s British films. He went on to make another low-budget fantasy film in the early ‘80s I have fond memories of, 1983’s Prisoners of the Lost Universe, the two films also sharing diminutive cast-member Peter O’Farrell and multi-purpose Ian Charleson. Marcel co-wrote the screenplay of both films with Harry Robertson, one pseudonym of a hard-working composer for many movies, including several Hammer horrors. Robertson also co-produced and, most indelibly, provided the film’s entirely dated yet perversely enjoyable synth-and-bass-riddled pop-epic score.

Hawk the Slayer, like the same year’s sci-fi schlockfest Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially transposes the familiar Seven Samurai set-up and remixes it with plentiful Tolkien plagiarism. The setting is a vaguely defined medieval Europe where Christianity coexists with sword and sorcery tropes. Hawk (John Terry) stalks the forest byways and draws together his band of super-warriors. These include a prodigious Elf bowman, Crow (Ray Charleson), a good-natured but formidable giant, Gort (Bernard Bresslaw), a quick-witted dwarf, Baldin (O’Farrell), and a blind but all-seeing Witch-Woman (Patricia Quinn). Hawk, as we see in the opening sequence, has lost his father (Ferdy Mayne) to the violent rage and ambition of his older brother Voltan (Jack Palance). But the patriarch, before expiring, still managed to pass on to Hawk the last of the Elvish “mind-swords,” with its glowing magic jewel in the hilt, allowing its master to will the weapon into his hand. Ever since, Hawk has been fighting for “the force of light”, as an Abbot (Harry Andrews) puts it. How and where he gets paid for that, and whether or not he's part of a union, I don't know.

When Voltan, now the overlord of a band of brutal brigands, kidnaps an Abbess (Annette Crosbie) for a ransom, Hawk is fetched by Ranulf (Morgan Shepherd), a crossbowman saved by the Abbess and her nuns after his village was annihilated by Voltan. When Hawk saves the witch from a burning by some louts, she gratefully aids him in tracking down his former comrades-in-arms to devise a way of saving the Abbess. He has reason to doubt Voltan’s honour however, as flashbacks slowly reveal that Voltan had tried to murder Hawk in jealousy for the love of Eliane (Catriona MacColl). Voltan accidentally killed her instead, but not after she had left him marked with a hideous burn to the face which he now hides behind a cut-off Darth Vader helmet, and needs the ministrations of a dark wizard (Peter Benson) to keep the wound from consuming him with pain.

The possibility that Hawk’s and Voltan’s ingrained hatred might get in the way of reasonable settlement of the Abbess’s fate inspires one of her underlings (Cheryl Campbell) to betray the defenders to Voltan. This of course this proves a very poor choice, but this theme makes for an interesting moral complication to the tale: does the will to combat evil often take on a life of its own that costs too much collateral damage to others? This theme gives Hawk the Slayer a peculiar substance, even relevance. That said, the characterisations and turns of the plot are all firmly one-dimensional, and yet that’s a part of Hawk the Slayer’s back-to-basics appeal. It represents a stripped-down, iconic edition of a familiar fantasy template. Good and bad retain firm delineation in spite of the hinted ambiguity of the fraternal struggle exacerbating other concerns.

Hawk himself is chiefly characterised by his stern approach to matters of justice. Terry, perhaps most recognisable to mainstream film fans for playing the supercilious Stars and Stripes editor in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and a stint as Felix Leiter in The Living Daylights (both 1987), inhabits the part with courtly strength and rectitude, and he lends the role, which ought to be defined by battle-hardened weariness and tragic loss, an attitude of stern, internally pained, essentially decent and single-minded strength. Whenever he appears on screen, Robertson plays a synthesised flute leitmotif that sounds like a bird call. Why he and Voltan sport American brogues in an otherwise entirely English-accented locale, and indeed how in hell Terry and Palance could be the product of the same genes, remains utterly mysterious. Marcel and Robertson’s screenplay seems intended to construct a franchise, with a conclusion that leaves the door open for continuing adventures that never continued. 

A stand-out feature of Hawk the Slayer is its bewilderingly good cast, however, mostly British acting stalwarts picking up a cheque for a couple of hours’ work, like Andrews and Crosbie, with the likes of Roy Kinnear and Patrick Magee also providing some welcome humour. Indeed, Hawk is a very funny film. Some of the fun is accidental, owing to the low budget's tinny effects, and Palance’s colossal ham performance. But the filmmakers' sense of humour, apparent in scenes like Baldin’s near-sacrifice by Magee’s cult of weirdo priests, is quite deliberate and droll. Most of the weight of engaging repartee falls to O’Farrell and Bresslaw as combative friends both defined by their dedication to their stomachs, immediately reminiscent of the byplay between Gimli and Legolas in The Lord of the Rings.

Another engaging aspect of Hawk the Slayer is indivisible from its tackier side: the almost naturalistic photography style possesses a similar feel to Boorman’s subsequent Excalibur, and the whole enterprise feels like a last gasp for the kind of invention-over-hype tradition in British film that the Hammer productions had once exemplified. Hawk maintains some of that same basic entertaining force, unfolding in raw, chill-looking landscape with its rough-hewn wooden and stone structures. Marcel manages some artful and atmospheric framings amongst the production's daffy joys, and a clean, spacious physicality dominates. Large faces edge into deep-focus frames, characters are balanced with care in the frame, and delicious touches of weirdness, like a tree laden with burning candles that greets the heroes as they escape a haunted forest, mean that the film never feels, in spite of its very low budget, vapid or dull to watch. There's even a moment that filches from the Sergio Leone playbook as a duel of eyes between Crow and enemy gives way to the more literal kind. Such rigorous, intelligible simplicity is overlaid with corny but somehow delightful art-department gimmicks to jazz up the visuals, including fog-machine billows, prop skulls, glowing hula-hoops, finger-thimbles for the dark wizard, and finally and most hilariously, the “whirlpool of flying fire-bolts” the witch conjures to assault their enemies, proving to be phosphorescent ping-pong balls tossed with force at the extras. Marcel unfortunately renders many of his action scenes clumsy with pointless slow-motion and double-exposure shots.

And yet the film sports some memorable flourishes, like the dark wizard’s treatments of Voltan’s wound, requiring zapping with an energy crystal, which, in their steadily increasing pain and ineffectiveness, resemble a metaphor for addiction to pain-relieving drugs, and the sexy weirdness of Quinn’s mysterious witch. The first two-thirds of the film are built around a series of well-composed vignettes as Hawk and companions fight their way out of sticky situations with the roaming thieves, killers, zealots and slavers who populate this remote setting. Palance’s performance is a chief pleasure, ranting and snarling and slurring like a rabid dog, abusing his adopted son (Shane Briant) and pitting two disappointing underlings against each-other with bug-eyed rage. Perhaps it represented a low ebb for the man who had once been Brando's understudy, but it’s worth noting that one of Palance’s stranger gestures, caressing Briant’s shoulders in malevolent intimacy, provided Palance’s later performance in Tim Burton’s Batman with one of its key jokes. Quinn's witch may also have influenced Miranda Richardson's witch sister in Burton's Sleepy Hollow (Such screen witches always intrigue me. Why do they live in caves? How do they make money? Do they ever get laid?). All in all, Hawk the Slayer is still an unpretentious tonic.


Timmaaay said...

A clear-sighted, fair and affectionate review. Most commentators fall into the Guilty Fanboi or Scathing Contempt camp. Many the latter, by a long chalk.

I am actually creating a sequel to Hawk the Slayer at the moment. Would be interested to bounce some thoughts. :)

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Tim. Hawk the Slayer has that rare mixture of artisanal rigour and unpretentiousness that I love in this mode of moviemaking, and it's a personal down-time favourite. I've heard that the possibility of a sequel's been kicked around in the last few years, and good luck to you with that. Personally I'd love to learn more about the dark wizard in the cave and the witch woman.