By JJ Mortimer
1982's The Beastmaster still remains one of my favorite films to be released during the height of 80s producers' hard-on for "sword and sorcery" movies. I would still claim that John MIlius' Conan the Barbarian, and 1981's Dragonslayer (with what still remains the greatest movie dragon of all time) are the two "best" films from the genre, but as a child growing up in a decade where computer effects were few and make-up and miniature effects were at their illustrious high, The Beastmaster is easily my perennial favorite. This is also the film that was rated PG and had full-chested nudity from Tanya Roberts, resulting in what I may remember being the cause of my first pants-tightening experience.
One of my favorite stories about the shoot of The Beastmaster comes from director Don Coscarelli, who describes the surprise everyone on the crew had when star Marc Singer (as the hero Dar, last of the Emurites) arrived on set, shredded and in ridiculously good shape. Nowhere in the contract was there a definitive dispute as to the level of awesomeness Singer's physique was meant to be, but given his background as a black belt in the Chinese art of kung fu, Singer took it upon himself in the weeks leading up to the shoot to get himself into the kind of form that, in my mind, is now iconic to any role in a movie where the hero wears only a loin cloth as his armor.
Watching the film now, over three decades later, there is still a very specific charm that few movies have matched since. There was a very knowing limitation on budget, evident in the production's shooting on location in such places as the golden shores of Lake Pyramid off of the 5-Freeway, as well as the grand, majestic valleys of.....Simi Valley. Regardless, I still get lost in this film.
Many elements and scenes from this movie terrified me as a boy - the ritualistic torture that turned slave men into masochistic zombie soldiers with metal-studded gloves and leather masks; the sacrifice of crying children into a raging inferno in the name of a the god "Ar"; the creepy ring with the open eye that sees everything (and then gets poked out, resulting in a witch losing her eye); and my favorite, the winged bat people who could digest men by simply hugging them (something I used to pretend to do to my dogs with a sheet around my shoulders).
On the other hand, there were also a great many scenes that I used to reenact around the house after watching them. My outdoor play time used to consist of me either pretending to be Indiana Jones or Dar. I used to find a long, thin tree branch and wield that thing around my body like Dar with his bad-ass sword. I would act out the fight scenes between Dar and the Jun Horde leader (especially with that final jump kick into the blazing fire); I would watch the birds flying in the sky, and pray that one day I would be able to make a loud screech that would enable me to have control over a hawk or an eagle, and send it around town to spy on my friends. And of course I could see through the eyes of my dog as though she were the black tiger.
Without going into too many specific details, all I can say is The Beastmaster works, especially BECAUSE of its relatively small budget. You can sense the hard work that went into the film from behind the camera, and you can feel the passion behind Coscarelli's direction. Actor Rip Torn absolutely nails it as the villainous sorcerer Maax, with lines we used to quote (and sometimes still do) on a frequent basis.
But, for me, what sets the movie above and beyond other films from the early 80s is the musical score from composer Lee Holdrige. Aside from Basil Poledouris' Conan the Barbarian score (which is one of the greatest of any decade), The Beastmaster is elevated to another level of sword-slashing excitement by the sweeping score that, at times, feels way better than the movie itself. You also have to remember that this was a time when classical compositions were at their greatest peak, amidst the revelation that was the classic, Oscar-winning John Williams scores from the late 70s/early 80s. Other composers followed suit and arranged music that was epic in their own right, and could be listened to outside the confines of the film itself and still feel as though they had a life of their own.
Holdrige composed a massive 80-minutes worth of music for the film which had a run time of under 120 minutes, an epic undertaking that is nearly unheard of in 21st century productions. Here's a cool video montage of shots from the film with the musical main theme overlay:
The Beastmaster has ingrained itself into my imagination. This film was such a childhood favorite that the musical score, as well as the "Dar vs. the Jun Horde leader" fight scene, were what inspired me to make the short film "The Pilgrim" that I produced while in film school (which I, not surprisingly, used many cues from Holdridge's score to compose the film). I even had the privilege of learning a semester of cinematography under a man who worked on the camera crew of this film, under the late, great John Alcott.
At its heart, this cult classic is a sword-and-sorcery adventure, as well as a revenge flick, with quite a few biblical contexts thrown in for good measure. It's violent, unique, sweeping, action-packed, and still able to bring tears to my eyes when one of the ferrets (can't remember if it was Kodo or Podo) sacrifices itself by killing a villain in order to save our hero.
One of my "necessary viewings" every couple of years.
P.S. Piece of Trivia:
The Beastmaster still holds the record as the most played film in the history of Turner Network Television (TNT) and Turn Broadcasting System (TBS).