Barbarian Queen (1985) Barbarian Queen / Queen of the Naked Steel (1985) -**½

     For me, one of the most baffling details of the 1980’s sword-and-sorcery boom is that Ari Nesher seems to have been the only filmmaker to have come out of Conan the Barbarian thinking, “You know, that Bergman gal really has something…” Granted, Dino De Laurentiis brought Sandahl Bergman back to play the villain in Red Sonja, but she really deserved a bigger and better chance at action stardom than Nesher’s bewildering take on She. Of course, it wasn’t just Bergman who got slighted like that. Throughout the decade, there was in the Hollywood mainstream a deeply entrenched preconception that women couldn’t headline action movies, and the failure of films like Red Sonja and Supergirl— justly earned for reasons entirely separate from the sex of the lead performer— would then be trotted out as proof of the assumption. The reason why that baffles me, instead of just making me shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, that’s sexism for you,” is because the stratum of the film industry directly beneath the Hollywood mainstream harbored no such prejudice. The big exploitation studios— American International, Crown International, Independent-International, and New World Pictures most of all— had spent the whole 1970’s raking in the dough by selling female ass-kickers to hormone-addled guys, and they spent the 80’s inventing new ways to continue doing so. For example, when Lana Clarkson stole the second act of Deathstalker out from under its beefslab nominal star, Concorde-New Horizons boss Roger Corman took due notice, and gave Clarkson a star vehicle of her own two years later. Nor was Corman the least bit hesitant to call attention to what he was doing. Although the theatrical posters for Barbarian Queen used the winking tagline, “No man can touch her naked steel,” the home video boxes instead proclaimed, “The blonde beauty of Deathstalker is back!” And in perhaps the most telling point of contrast with how things were done at the majors, Barbarian Queen was no cheaper or shoddier than any of Concorde-New Horizons’ male-focused sword-and-sorcery flicks.

     It’s a festive occasion in a barbarian village somewhere just beyond the frontiers of the nearest nominally civilized kingdom. Amathea (Clarkson, who was also in The Haunting of Morella and Brainstorm), firstborn daughter of one of the tribe’s foremost families, is getting married to Argan (Frank Zagarino, from Cy Warrior and Shadowchaser), the heir to the chieftaincy. The much-anticipated nuptials will never occur, however, for Arrakur (prolific pseudonym collector Armando Capo, who appeared under various names in The Warrior and the Sorceress and Amazons as well), the ruler of the aforementioned nominally civilized kingdom, is on his way through the woods at the head of a column of soldiers on a slave-raiding mission. The first of Amathea’s people to encounter Arrakur’s is her teenaged sister, Taramis (Dawn Dunlap, of Forbidden World and Laura), who is seized and raped while gathering wildflowers for the wedding. The soldiers have a real fight on their hands once they reach the village, but they also have decisive advantages in numbers and equipment. The only villagers who avoid being killed or captured are a high-strung girl named Estrild (Katt Shea, from The Rage: Carrie 2 and Psycho III) and Amathea herself. Estrild gets off by sheer happenstance, as she was searching for Taramis in the woods when Arrakur launched his attack, but Amathea’s escape is a matter of conscious strategy. Once the defeat of her people becomes too obvious to deny, she ducks into her hut and sets the place ablaze, taking shelter in the root cellar dug beneath the floor. Ignorant of her people’s food-storage practices, Arrakur’s men assume that she has burned herself to death in preference to life as a slave, and don’t bother looking for her as they march the rest of the tribe off into bondage. Now some might be inclined to condemn Amathea’s ruse as cowardly, but somebody has to stay alive and free if her people are ever to be rescued from captivity.

     An actual plan for effecting that rescue starts coming together when Amathea and Estrild are joined by the former’s friend, Tinaria (Happy Highschool’s Susanna Traverso), who killed the man who captured her, and rode off on his horse with all his weapons and supplies. Tinaria thus knows which way Arrakur’s army went, so that she, Amathea, and Estrild can take up the chase. They load up a canoe with whatever they can salvage from the village, and head off downriver. After a day or two of paddling, the women come upon one of Arrakur’s frontier outposts, where they fortuitously find Taramis after they’ve finished exterminating the border guards. Alas, she’s considerably the worse for her ordeal of rape and captivity. She keeps asking to be taken home, and her sister has a very difficult time getting it through her head that there is no home anymore.

     Some time after crossing the frontier, Amathea and her companions find themselves surrounded by archers belonging to another oppressed tribe, who bluntly assume that any armed riders on Arrakur’s territory must belong to his army. Frankly, every knife in that drawer could stand a good sharpening. Once it’s established that both groups share a common enemy, if perhaps not a common cause, a pubescent girl named Dariac (Andrea Scriven) comes forward with an offer to lead the barbarian women into Arrakur’s capital via a secret route known only to a rebel faction led by her father. (I’m at something of a loss to tell you who Dariac’s dad is, despite his considerable importance to the story. Like far too many of the characters in Barbarian Queen, he is never identified by name in the movie proper, but billing order suggests that he’s supposed to be called Zohar. That in turn would mean that he’s played by Tony Middleton. If that’s true, though, then we’re clearly talking about a different Tony Middleton from the one known to the Internet Movie Database, whom I don’t remember seeing in Barbarian Queen at all. That Middleton certainly didn’t play the rebel leader, who is a skinny, beardy white guy.) That route leads through a series of ancient catacombs, evidently predating the city, which pass beneath its outer walls and open into a mazy alley not far from the marketplace. The section of the catacombs within the city limits also serves, in theory, as the rebels’ base of operations. In practice, however, there’s little indication that the rebels have ever carried out any action deserving of the name “operation,” owing to their leader’s cautious and mistrustful temperament. In his defense, though, the eyepatch and the missing left arm suggest that Dariac’s father came by his caution honestly. The rebel leader isn’t happy to see Amathea’s party. He regards them as loose cannons who could jeopardize everything that he plans to start fighting for one of these days. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that a revolutionary whose insurgency remains stubbornly in the future won’t do anything in the here and now to interfere with Amathea, either.

     The lay of the land inside the city is discouraging until Amathea stumbles upon the ludus where the gladiators train. Among the new recruits being put through their paces are Argan and another man from the village, by the name of Strymon (Deathstalker’s Victor Bo)! Then Taramis, of all people, contrives a way into the royal palace itself. There’s no telling how much of this is conscious calculation, and how much is Stockholm Syndrome, but she remembers Arrakur personally from the night he spent raping her at the outpost, and when she spots him riding home with his retinue of bodyguards, she makes a scene at the castle gate begging to be let in along with him. Never one to look a gift girl in the mouth, Arrakur acquiesces, on the sole condition that the castle staff give her a good bath before sending her along to his chambers. Amathea, Tinaria, and Estrild, meanwhile, make their way into the castle by a rather more perilous route; they get themselves arrested by brawling with the guards in the market.

     The fates of the would-be avengers once they’re under Arrakur’s roof more or less correspond to how much fight they put up on the way in. Taramis is admitted to the royal presence as soon as she’s been made to look and smell fit to be a king’s concubine. Estrild, by far the least fierce or formidable of Amathea’s adult followers, is handed over to the eunuch who oversees Arrakur’s harem (Argentine comic actress Matilde Mur, in male drag), where she immediately finds herself helping to entertain gladiators on liberty from the ludus. Not her idea of fun, to be sure, but since two of those gladiators happen to be Argan and Strymon, the assignment creates an invaluable opportunity for the hatching of plots. As for Amathea and Tinaria, they’re mistaken (well, technically mistaken) for rebels and sent straight to the dungeon. Tinaria gets the beginner’s dungeon, where Arrakur’s right-hand man (Marcos Woinsky, who played bad-guy henchmen in practically all of the Corman Conan Cash-Ins, while also appearing in the conceptually kindred Stomquest and some absolutely screwball shit of purely Argentine origin, like The Punk Professor) makes threatening gestures at her with a red-hot brand while half-heartedly working some good-cop shtick about wishing she’d talk so that he wouldn’t have to do anything nasty to her. Amathea, however, sasses Arrakur to his face, and is consequently handed over to Shilbdiz (Roberto Catarineu), the Steve Wozniak of Hyborian Age torture machinery, who justly has the king’s unalloyed confidence as a breaker of human bodies, minds, and spirits. Dariac observed the barbarian women’s capture, though, and she begins leaning hard on her father to get serious about his supposed rebellion at long last. Even the most bloody-handed tyrant might find it challenging to keep his grip on the throne in defiance of a peasant revolt, a gladiator uprising, and a dungeon breakout all at the same time, even without a likely would-be assassin lying literally in his bed.

     There’s an interesting tonal evolution on display across Deathstalker, The Warrior and the Sorceress, and Barbarian Queen. This movie may not be any less sleazy than its predecessors, but in the manner of Corman’s cycle of women’s prison films from the 1970’s, it takes a noticeably less retrograde attitude toward its sleaze. Deathstalker treated its copious sexual violence almost as a joke. In The Warrior and the Sorceress, it’s a serious matter, but not one that directly or particularly concerns the hero; Caine seems to figure that Yamatar’s rape and sex-slavery problems will take care of themselves once Bal Caz, Zeg, and Burgo are no more. Barbarian Queen, however, is overtly about women fighting back against men who brutalize them. There may be nearly as much rape in this movie as there is in Deathstalker, all of it presented very much with an eye toward audience titillation, but Barbarian Queen invariably makes a point of turning around afterward to dwell on the victim’s perspective, in a way that no other barbarian movie I’ve seen even attempts. What makes that all the more remarkable is that Deathstalker and Barbarian Queen had the same writer, Howard R. Cohen, who’d been working for Corman off and on since The Unholy Rollers, way back in 1972. It’s enough to make me wonder if Cohen might have been so appalled by what Deathstalker director James “John Watson” Sbardellati had made of his script that he devised this one as a refutation of the earlier film.

     But to return now to what I was saying before about Roger Corman knowing an action star when he saw one, even if she was female, nobody’s going to mistake Lana Clarkson for a master thespian, here or in any other film. That’s not the point, though. Good, or indeed even decent, actors have always been starkly in the minority among action stars. It certainly doesn’t hurt for one also to have that kind of talent, but what the job description calls for most is a combination of charisma and physical impressiveness, be it in the form of size, strength, agility, or whatever. Clarkson has both of those prerequisites covered. Alone among the five actresses of Barbarian Queen’s central ensemble, she has a physique to match the Boris Vallejo painting that adorned the posters and video boxes, embodying power as much as mere sexual allure. But Clarkson also ably conveys Amathea’s position as a natural leader, whatever the limitations of her emotional expression or line delivery. She can even handle herself in a swordfight, which, absurd as this sounds, is not something you can take for granted in a cheap sword-fighting movie. She’s especially good in the attack on the border outpost, her share of which quickly descends into a nasty, dirty brawl, hip-deep in the river. All of the Corman Conan Cash-Ins were cheesy, junky affairs, but the effective ones each have somebody in the cast who can lift them over or force them through the rough patches, and that’s what Clarkson does for Barbarian Queen.



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