Tuesday, February 11, 2014

THE MAGIC SWORD (1962) (shown April, 1994)

     Our April film was this children's epic by prolific producer Bert I. Gordon, know as "Mr. B.I.G." for his predilection for "big and small" films, such as THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, and more.

     A loose (very loose) retelling of the legend of St. George and the Dragon, THE MAGIC SWORD stars a very young Gary Lockwood (years before his appearance in the pilot of STAR TREK and his iconic role in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) as George, the foster son of the sorceress Sybil (Estelle Winwood). As the film opens, Sybil is upset that her lovesick "boy of 20" keeps sneaking off to the Magic Pool to view the Princess Helene (Anne Helm). Her two-headed servant (who speak in unison) tell her, "Love is his curse. He is in love", to which she responds, "You think I don't know it? I've tried to cure him of it. Am I losing my skill as a sorceress? Doesn't my witchcraft cure snakebite, chilblains, carbuncles, pinkeye, hangnail and unhappy memories? Then why can't I cure the boy of this fever?"

     George observes the Princess being abducted from the palace by a servant of the evil sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone), who tells the King (Merritt Stone) he has taken Helene as revenge for the death of his sister, who the King's father had executed for witchcraft when she was 18. Now that Helene has reached the same age, Lodac has taken her "so that my dragon could relish the flesh of the Princess".  Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan) promises the King he will rescue Helene, to which the King replies that the man who rescues her will have her hand in marriage, as well as half his kingdom.

     This doesn't sit well with George, who begs Sybil to let him go after the girl he loves. She refuses and tries to take his mind off his quest by showing him the birthday gifts she has for him when he turns twenty-one. They include Bayard (a magic steed), armor that can't be pierced by any weapon and the titular sword, Ascalon, which "defies all swords in battle (and) black magic is overcome by a touch of the blade". Finally, Sybil shows George "the six most valiant knights in the world", frozen in place until they are needed again. For the record, they are: Sir Dennis of France (Jacques Gallo), Sir Pedro of Spain (David Cross), Sir Patrick of Ireland (John Mauldin), Sir Anthony of Italy (Taldo Kenyon), Sir James of Scotland (Angus Duncan) and Sir Ulrich of Germany (Leroy Johnson). George tricks Sybil and locks her up, taking the magic items (and the freshly thawed-out knights) to rescue Helene.

     Lodac had warned the King of seven curses awaiting anyone foolish enough to make the rescue attempt. George and the knights arrive at the castle to offer their services, much to the annoyance of Sir Branton, who at first tries to dissuade them (especially after finding out George is a rival for Helene), but is overruled by the King and must join forces with the knights. The stage is set: seven curses ... seven knights ... and seven days until Helene is dragon chow to Lodac's two-headed, fire-breathing pet.

      The first curse on the road to Lodac's castle is a giant ogre who blocks the path against all travelers. When the knights try to rush him and get past, he crushes two knights (Sir Ulrich and Sir Pedro) to death with a log. George orders all the other knights back and proceeds to run Bayard in faster and faster circles around the ogre, who is watching and trying to strike down George. After multiple passes, the ogre gets dizzy and falls over, which was George's plan all along. As soon as the giant hits the ground, George rushes in and uses Ascalon to put the beast out of its misery.

     The second curse involves a tarn-like swamp the knights must pass through - a horse throws one knight (Sir Anthony) and, as George rushes to save him, Sir Branton pushes him in from behind. Sir Anthony drowns in the acid-like ooze (with a quick skull shot to terrify the more impressionable youths), but Ascalon saves George (remember it can overcome black magic) - when he touches it, it pulls him out of the swamp, whole and well. Sir Branton must hide his disgust and the remaining knights continue their quest.

     As the knights sleep after their ordeal, Sir Branton rides ahead to a mill - and a meeting with Lodac. The two are revealed to be working together, albeit reluctantly. Sir Branton has Lodac's magic ring, which he wants back, and Lodac has agreed to let Sir Branton "rescue" the Princess in order to claim the reward. They both berate each other for not stopping George and the other knights, but as they bicker, Sir Dennis arrives at the mill, having followed Sir Branton. Alighting from his horse, he is distracted by a beautiful French girl, Mignonette (Danielle De Metz), who lures him into the woods. One romantic interlude later, Sir Dennis is declaring his love to the bewitching girl ... as he embraces her, her eyes glow green and he pulls back from the hug to find himself in the clutches of a vampiric hag {the third curse} (played by Maila Nurmi, known for her "Vampira" persona from the 1950s). She attacks him, but George arrives in the nick of time and brandishes his magic shield (with Saint George's Cross), which glows and causes the hag to disappear. They go to the mill and find Sir Branton, who claims he rode ahead to scout the territory. Once again off the hook, he suggests they wake the others and proceed on.

     Lodac figures out Sir George is being assisted by magic and contacts Sybil via her magic mirror. Taunting her and calling her magic "tenth rate", he informs her of his plan to kill her son and feed the Princess to his dragon, knowing his magic is too powerful to her to stop. Just to be annoying, he disconnects her magic mirror (which shorts out with a static hiss, like a TV losing its picture, which always made me laugh as a kid ... go figure).  Sybil in a fury tries to cook up a spell to double George's magic powers - which backfires horribly, removing ALL his protective magic, instead!

     We next see Sir George, Sir Patrick and Sir Branton all on the road, searching for Sir Dennis and Sir James. They have gone ahead to reconnoiter, not trusting Sir Branton. Sadly for them, they ride right into Lodac's fourth curse, the curse of fire. Both of them are burnt to a crisp, surviving only long enough to warn the others away. Both Sir George and Sir Patrick are broiling in the unnatural heat, but Sir Branton barely notices it. When called out on this, he gallops away, into a cave where the other knight's horses refuse to follow. Dismounting, they rush in, only to be tricked by Sir Branton who informs them he is off to save Helene in Lodac's castle, just on the other side of the mountain. The entrance to the cave closes and Sir George finds out his magic items no longer work. Even worse, they are confronted by an army of shrieking blue-green wraiths (the fifth curse) whose touch is death. Sir Patrick confronts one and is absorbed by it, sacrificing himself to save Sir George by creating an opening in the cave for him to escape.

     Racing to Lodac's castle, George arrives and frees Helene. On trying to leave, however, they are confronted by Lodac's pinheaded henchmen - hey; don't take my word for it, see the comic book cover below!  Surrounded, with all hope of escape cut off, they see Lodac and Sir Branton. Lodac gives Helene to Branton and receives his magic ring back. The moment he does, he double-crosses Branton by showing him the true form in his arms - that of the vampiric hag from the mill! Tiring of Branton, Lodac then disposes of him ... by turning him into a mounted head on a plaque on the wall (rather strong stuff for a kiddie film from this era)! And yes, for the sharper-eyed readers out there, this still DOES have something extra on the bottom - Joel and the 'Bots did their own take on THE MAGIC SWORD on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Surprisingly, they admitted during the show that the film wasn't that bad and that they kind of liked it ... (all except Crow, who hated it! :)

     Back to the film - with Sir Branton out of the picture, Lodac gives Helene to his henchmen to prepare her for the dragon and has Sir George escorted to the dungeon. Helene is lashed to posts in the courtyard to await her fate, while George has a front-row seat to see her demise from his lashed-up vantage point in the dungeon. He is saved at the last minute by a slew of little people, who were slated for the henchmen's feast (you know what? Don't ask ...). Using Ascalon, they cut George's ropes and he dashes out to fight for Helene's honor. Also winging her way to the castle is Sybil, who has transformed herself into a dove.

     The climactic moment that we've all been waiting for has arrived - the feeding of Helene to the dragon. When we finally see the fearsome beast, he's rather ... cute! Two-headed and breathing fire, he also has whiskers and square, Gorgo-like ears! He roundly trounces Sir George until Sybil remembers the proper words to her spell, which restores the magic to all of George's belongings. Ascalon glows and George makes short work of the dragon.

     You are to be forgiven if in the midst of all this you've totally forgotten about the last two curses. The filmmaker's did, too! Debate still lingers as to what number six was supposed to be, with some arguing it was Lodac's castle itself and some saying it was the fake Helene who tricked Sir Branton (except that she was the same hag from earlier in the film, technically Curse # 3) - most (including me) give number six honors to the dragon, even though it's never named as such.

     After witnessing his pet's demise from the parapets of his castle, Lodac goes totally berserk and screams out his wrath against George and Helene, calling down the seventh and final curse ... himself! Rather egotistical, but whatever ... he works himself up into a frenzy, calling down the powers of Hell to strike down the young lovers. Sybil has had just about enough of this sorcery against her boy. She reaches out and removes Lodac's magic ring in mid-rant and (just for good measure) turns into a black panther and mauls him to death! Never piss off a Mom - that's the motto of this film! :)

     All ends well back at the King's castle, with the wedding of Sir George and Princess Helene. Just as they kiss, the trumpets blow, the doors open and in march all six of George's compatriots, restored to life by Sybil, who now has the powers of Lodac's ring. And they all lived happily ever after ... except for Lodac (mauled to death), Sir Branton (a head on a platter), the dragon (who was just minding his own business doing what dragons are supposed to do), etc., etc. etc.

     Like THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON before it (see my October 17th, 2011 entry), THE MAGIC SWORD had its own Dell movie tie-in comic, which was quite the go-to collectible for kids at the time. Imagine the thrill of going to see the film and stepping out to the lobby and buying the comic of what you just saw!

     The film is available in full online (via YouTube) and MGM has recently released it as a completely restored, letterboxed DVD. If you are looking to start the next generation of young fans on a life-long love affair with sword and sorcery, fairy tales and cinema of the fantastic, these films from the 1960s are an excellent place to begin. Films such as THE MAGIC SWORD, CAPTAIN SINDBAD (1963) and others serve a niche even today. Suspenseful without being too scary for young minds, they will pay dividends in the child's imagination for years to come.

Next Time: One of the all-time favorite films from my childhood is given the Conjure Cinema in-depth treatment: Tony Randall, Burl Ives and Barbara Eden star in 1964's THE BRASS BOTTLE - the film that inspired I DREAM OF JEANIE!   See you then!

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