Monday, October 05, 2009

Movie Monday - The Magic Sword

Saw that a friend of mine had this on his shelf and had to cover it. "The Magic Sword" was one of those movies that I caught halfway through on television as a little kid and never learned the name of until years later. It was produced and directed by Bert I. Gordon, who also did the special effects.

Like Harryhausen, Gordon was one of those guys who made movie after movie simply as showcases for his effects work, which mainly consisted of using miniature sets and optical compositing to make tiny things appear big, from "The Beginning of the End" (giant grasshoppers) to "The Amazing Colossal Man" to "Food of the Gods" (giant rats and chickens) to the cult classic with Joan Collins, "Empire of the Ants." Unlike Harryhausen, there aren't legions of fans praising Gordon's body of work.

In 1962, Gordon made "The Magic Sword," a fantasy film starring Basil Rathbone as the villainous Lodac, along with Estelle Winwood and Gary Lockwood (known to Star Trek TOS fans as the dude with the creepy silver eyes in the second pilot).

The film opens with Estelle Winwood as the goofy sorceress Sybil fretting over her wayward son, George, with a little exposition about how he's been mooning about lately. Her two-headed assistant says that George has been spending all his time at the magic pool watching the princess he loves.

Sure enough, George is there right now. He asks the magic pool to see if Princess Helene (played by Anne Helm) is in the throne room of her father's castle. He only sees a belly dancer entertaining the king as he plays with his scepter (seriously). Next, he asks to see the princess's pool, and sure enough, she's skinny-dipping while George secretly watches (although it can't be comfortable to watch everything all cockeyed like that).

It should be mentioned at this point that Helene has some tig ol' bitties.

George likes them a lot.

But suddenly, a mysterious spectral woman appears (played by Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira)...

but then the pool loses reception. George runs to his mother's underground lair, where she decides to consult her magic mirror to see what's going on. Apparently, it's a really long distance from the magic pool to the lair, because exactly 50 seconds of screen time after the princess was abducted, we see Sir Branton telling the king that they have searched the entire palace grounds and the princess is nowhere to be found.

Then Basil Rathbone, playing the sorcerer Lodac, strides into the throne room and channels his inner Maleficent as he proclaims that the princess will be devoured by a dragon in seven days' time. Sir Branton says he will rescue the princess, but Lodac places seven curses on the road to his palace. Then he departs by turning into a raven and then teleporting! Show-off...

George wants to rush off and save the princess, but overprotective Sybil will have none of it. George is only a mortal, adopted by Sybil as an infant after his royal parents died, and she wants no harm to come to him. To cheer him up, she tries turning into a panther (or what looks like a cougar painted black), but it doesn't help. So she shows him the presents she's saving for his 21st birthday: a magic horse, magic armor and shield, and a magic sword.

George tricks Sybil into a trap, then takes the magic items, along with 6 knights newly restored from petrification, to save the princess.

So George horns in on Sir Branton's quest. The first curse is a giant crippled ogre, who kills two of George's knights before George slays him. Meanwhile, Helene watches two other princesses get fed to the dragon (Lodac does this a lot, apparently) before being menaced by two dwarves who threaten to tickle her severely. Then Lodac shows her Sir George in a magic vision, and she, too, learns the joys of remote stalking.

Next the knights encounter Dry Ice Swamp, where George almost falls victim to treachery by Sir Branton. The bubbling pool reduces one of his knights to a skeleton (oogy)...

but George manages to get out with his sword's help.

Meanwhile back at home, Sybil breaks free, then dithers about the house, wondering what to do about George. She tries to watch him in her magic mirror, but Lodac interrupts to berate her about her inferior magic-fu, then cuts off her cable, so her magic mirror dissolves into static (really).

We next learn that Sir Branton is actually in league with Lodac. He and Lodac have set this entire charade up. Branton has a magical ring that Lodac "stupidly lost," which he has offered to trade in exchange for getting to "rescue" the princess and marry her, thus inheriting the kingdom.

Meanwhile, the suspicious French knight has followed Sir Branton, but got sidetracked by a passing French decolletage (actually one of Lodac's twisted followers). George saves the Frenchman from his own libido with his magic shield. They rejoin Sir Branton and continue on their way.

Back at home, Sybil decides to mix up a wacky potion to double George's magical powers, only to have it backfire and take away all his magic. That Sybil!

Unfortunately, George has just encountered the next curse, a blinding wave of heat that turns two more of his knights into blistered monstrosities before dissolving them altogether. George, Sir Branton and the last remaining knight ride madly for the shelter of a cave. Sir Branton then informs the others that this is a trap, and he leaves them sealed up in the cave. And George's now-non-magic sword won't save them. And then they're attacked by squeaky banshees! Doom!

But the last knight, as he is possessed by a banshee, manages to open the entrance to the cave in his dying moments and George is free. George proceeds to the palace, where he encounters zero resistance in finding his way to Helene's cell, guided by the magic of the sixth curse, according to Lodac.

Okay, so the ogre was first, and the swamp was second, and the heat makes three. But does the French hag count as a curse, seeing as how she was just there to throw off the Frenchman? And the banshee cave wasn't on the path to the castle, but was a trap that Branton led them into. But they have to be counted to get to five curses.

Oh well, it's not a movie about math, is it? George and Helene try to escape, but are trapped by Lodac's army of coneheads and mutants. Sir Branton gives Lodac the ring in exchange for Helene and is promptly betrayed and killed and his head mounted on the wall. Helene is scheduled to be eaten again, and George is thrown in the dungeon.

Wacky Sybil decides she needs to go to Lodac's castle to save George, while trying to remember the words to that spell she messed up. She turns into a dove, but doesn't teleport away. Amateur.

George is freed from the dungeon by some escaped mini-men and rides to Helene's rescue just in time to confront the two-headed, fire-breathing dragon. And not the worst dragon I've seen in a pre-ILM movie, I must say.

Sybil arrives to help, but Lodac casually ignores her. Sybil finally remembers the words to her spell and restores George's magic in time for him to slay the dragon.

Lodac is pissed. He then goes all Maleficent again, declaring that he is the seventh and final curse, and that he will destroy George with the power of his incredible ring!

The ring that wacky Sybil stole off his finger just now, that is.

Lodac's all "Wha?"

But he decides he doesn't need the ring, and starts to pronounce the curse to end all curses on George when wacky ol' Sybil decides she's bored, so she does that turning-into-a-panther trick again and KILLS THE FUCK OUT OF LODAC! Where the hell did that come from?

Poor Basil Rathbone. He was a dignified guy, a brilliant heavy and an excellent fencer. But by 1962, his career had fallen far. He had gone from leading man as Sherlock Holmes to a heavy in his climactic duel with Tyrone Power in "The Mark of Zorro" (one of the best swordfights on film) to being out-fenced by Danny Kaye in "The Court Jester" to being killed off by the comic relief old lady in this film. It might have been a relief for him when the fangs finally pierced his throat. Alas, his career ultimately ended on an even lower note in 1967, in "Hillbillys in a Haunted House."

So George is happy to marry Helene, and Helene is happy to marry George, and the six dead knights have been brought back by the power of the ring, which Sybil now wears, and am I the only one that thinks she's kind of scary now?

As kid's fantasy movies go, it's not the worst one out there. Far too many "fantasy" movies had miniscule effects budgets and held back on the magic and monsters. "The Magic Sword," for all its cheapness and stiff acting, has magical effects in abundance (including make-up by Academy Award nominee Dan Striepeke) , cheesecake for the dads, and gore for the teens. A film the entire family can love! It's no "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," but it's only 80 minutes long, and it's in the public domain, so you can watch it free.

See it here at Internet Archive.

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