The Sword of the Barbarians (1982) The Sword of the Barbarians / Barbarian Master / Sangraal, la Spada di Fuoco (1982/1983) -***

     This didnít come to my attention until after Iíd written and posted my review of the film, but thereís a good chance that The Invincible Barbarian was actually the first Italian barbarian movie of the 1980ís. At the very least, it was rushed into and through production so rapidly that it was able to premiere on September 9th, 1982ó the day before Conan the Barbarian arrived in Italian theaters. The producers obviously had high hopes for Gunan, too, for they had Pietro Torrisi, Sabrina Siani, and various combinations of The Invincible Barbarianís behind-the-scenes operators attached for two follow-up films, at least one of which got underway even before the movie to which it was meant to be a sequel was released.

     That was a problem, as it turned out, because despite stealing a march on its big-studio rival, The Invincible Barbarian didnít make anything like the anticipated impact at the box office. This was where a peculiarity of the Italian way of filmmaking came to the rescue. For reasons Iíve described elsewhere, on-set sound recording wasnít adopted in Italy until the late 1980ís. Movies were shot silent, usually with the cast speaking English as a sop to the prejudices of American and British Commonwealth audiences, and then parallel dialogue dubs were prepared for as many national markets as the producers thought worthwhile. Because dialogue was recorded very late in the process, it was abnormally easy to rewrite a movie that had already been shot if that became desirable for some reasonó like, for example, if someone found themselves in the middle of making a sequel to a box-office dud. Change a line here, a character name there, and voila! Gunan becomes Sangraal, the Sword of the Stars becomes the Sword of Fire, and Gunan II: Nobodyís Going to Pay to See This One, Either becomes Sangraal: La Spada di Fuoco. Or as we in the English-speaking world know it, The Sword of the Barbarians. There was another layer to this particular case of devious dubbing, however. The Invincible Barbarian might not have made much money, but Ator the Fighting Eagle sure did. Consequently, when The Sword of the Barbarians finally came out, in November of 1982, it did so bearing an introductory voiceover claiming that its hastily renamed hero was none other than the son of the wise and courageous barbarian king, Ator! Italian movie producers have your ďintellectual propertyĒ right here.

     Thereís one more date, too, that we should keep in mind when considering The Sword of the Barbarians: May 29th, 1982, the day of Conan the Barbarianís domestic release. With that information in mind, we can pin down Piero Regnoliís original script for the proposed Gunan sequel to the summer of í82, because The Sword of the Barbarians plainly reflects a detailed knowledge of the American movieís plot, while The Invincible Barbarian just as plainly reflects the absence of such knowledge. Before we get to Asian sidekicks, reversible crucifixions, dead love interests, and helpful hermit-wizards, however, weíve got some groundwork to lay. Thus, as stock footage from the beginning of The Invincible Barbarian unspools, a narrator tells us of King Atorís ultimately doomed battles against the forces of evil, and the role of the Sword of Fire therein. Voiceover Guy goes on to clarify that all that happened a generation ago, and that the heroic kingís sacred weapon was passed down to his son and successor, Sangraal (Black Emanuelle 2ís Pietro Torrisi, reprising his Invincible Barbarian role in function if no longer in name), who now leads his exiled people in search of a land hospitable enough to support their permanent settlement. Just as the pilgrims are growing thoroughly fed up with their nomadic lot, they come upon a fruitful valley of exactly the sort that Sangraal has been promising them. Furthermore, they arrive just in time to save a group of the inhabitants from a party of raiders loyal to a warlord called Nantuk or Naluk or Neruk, depending on which of the profoundly confused dubbing actors happens to be speaking at the time. (Whatever the guyís actual name is, heís played by Mario Novelli, from Eyes Behind the Stars and 2+5 Mission Hydra.) In both gratitude and anticipation of similar acts of heroism in the future, Belem (Luciano Rossi, of Salon Kitty and The Slasher Is the Sex Maniac), the chieftain of the vale, welcomes Sangraal and his followers to live as one people with his own tribe.

     Life in the valley will be less idyllic than Sangraal imagines, however, for two reasons. On the personal front, thereís clearly trouble brewing between his wife, Lenne (Julie Darlingís Margareta Rance), and Belemís daughter, Aki (Yvonne Fraschetti, of Demons 2). Aki was part of the foraging party that Sangraal rescued when he and his tribe first arrived in Belemís territory, and sheís been covetously eyeing the brawny outsider ever since. But thereís also a far more general, and far more serious, threat to peace looming on the horizon, for there are those who donít consider the valley to be Belemís territory at all. Nantuk, for example, would tell you the place belongs to him, but the really bad news around here is Nerukís patron deity, Rani (Xiomara Rodriguez), Goddess of Fire and Wrath. Those raiders that Sangraal drove off were priests of Raniís, and their mission had been to round up virgins for the human sacrifices that the goddess periodically demands in exchange for her divine favor. Sure, Naluk was able to find enough girls even without their help to fill up the barbecue pit at the center of the altar in his throne cave, but few things piss off a deity worse than seeing her priests manhandled on the job. Rani identifies Sangraal as the chief perpetrator of this sacrilege, and commands Nantuk to wreak her holy vengeance upon him and all his people.

     Sangraal and the warriors of his tribe made a strong showing for themselves against that band of clerical kidnappers, itís true. Nalukís sending an army against them, though, and youíll recall that the last time they went up against an army, Sangraalís people got chased out of their ancestral homeland. This time, the result is nothing short of a massacre. Sangraal himself goes down like a chump in the very first skirmish, and spends the rest of the battle with the best (if perhaps the least comfortable) seat in the house, bound to an X-cross atop the ridge overlooking the village while Neruk and his horde slaughter and burn. And just to show how personally sheís been taking this whole business, Rani manifests in the middle of the fray to kill Lenne with her own immortal hands. Aki is the sole survivor, not least because she realized which way the fight was going early enough to slip away, and to circle around to the ridge where Sangraal is tied up. Her objective is to save his life the way he once saved hers, but she doesnít really have a plan for overcoming the several men detached by Naluk to guard the prisoner. Luckily for her, a friendly stranger (Hal Yamanouchi, from Endgame and Robot Jox) intervenes on her behalf, and heís a crack shot with a recurve bow. Nantuk and Rani are thus robbed of the victory they specfically wanted at the very moment of their apparent triumph.

     The strangerís name is Li Wo Twan, and he hails from a land far off to the east, in what he calls the birthplace of the sun. He never does get around to explaining what brought him all the way out here, but since heís an omnicompetent badass whose abilities eclipse those of all the other characters put together, itís a damn good thing for everyone who doesnít much care for Nerukís government or Raniís religion that he came along. For his next trick, Twan whips up a batch of healing ointment with which to dress Sangraalís wounds, getting the big lummox back on his feet in no time. It should be obvious already that this is exactly the guy that Sangraal should want at his side when he seeks out Naluk for a rematch, right? Of courseó except that Sangraal has no intention of crossing swords with the warlord a second time! In fact, Sangraal is so uninterested in picking that fight that he never even bothers to retrieve the Sword of Fire from the battlefield when he, Aki, and Twan return to the ruined village to give Lenne (but only Lenne) a proper barbarian funeral. Instead, Sangraal vows to undertake a quest to bring his wife back from the grave. Naturally Aki is rather dismayed to hear that, but not half as dismayed as she becomes when Twan volunteers that he learned in his travels of someone who might just be able to pull off such a feat of magic. His name is Rudak (Masssimo Pittanello, from Zora the Vampire and Frankenstein 2000), and heís supposed to live somewhere in the Black Mountains. Twan even knows the way, more or less, if thatís really what Sangraal wants to do.

     When the three travelers finally reach Rudak, after facing a haphazard grab bag of perils (my favorite being the cavern full of eyeless, web-handed, heat-seeking monster-men, whose bodies explode into alarming fountains of blood when pierced), he turns out to be a menacingly jolly undead guru, with a personal vibe along the lines of ďWhat if Yoda and Thulsa Doom were the same guy, and really wanted to sell you some CBD oil?Ē Rudak amusingly wastes no time in setting Sangraal straight regarding what a putz heís been thus far. Lenne is D-E-A-D dead, alright? And the only place Sangraal might get to see her again is in the afterlife. But if Sangraal ever wants to reach the plane of the afterlife where Lenne is now (as opposed to the one for cosmic-tier putzes, toward which heís currently speeding), heís going to have to quit shirking his heroic responsibilities. Like it or not, Sangraalís true destiny lies in confrontation with Neruk and Rani. Granted, his performance up to now would tend to paint that destiny as a suicide mission, but not to worry. If Sangraal can find the hiding place of the Ark of the Templars in a cave somewhere in the Forest of Arandaó and if the Templar spirits standing guard over the Ark deem him worthy to open the thingó heíll find within a weapon capable of slaying even a goddess.

     This time the haphazard grab bag of perils standing between Sangraal and the next Plot Coupon is considerably more perilous. Our so-called hero even winds up captured at one point by savage cannibals who not only worship Rani, but have a shaman in personal communication with her. Twan and Aki spring Sangraal before the cannibals sacrifice him to their goddess, of course, but not before Rani passes along word of his and his companionsí latest movements to Nantuk. Also, the Ark of the Templars turns out to be guarded by something that Sangraal was totally unprepared to face. Instead of the expected giant monster or immortal warrior or whatever, Sangraal is met by a nearly naked (but isnít she always?) Sabrina Siani (the original Lenne from The Invincible Barbarian, who was also in Daughter of the Jungle and Ator the Fighting Eagle), and instead of having to fight her, he has to refrain from fucking her. Dirty pool there, Templar spirits! Only by calling upon Rudakís spiritual aid is Sangraal able to wrestle his boner into submission. I guess the Templar spirits must be grading on a curve, though, because even that piss-poor performance doesnít result in Sangraal being found unworthy to open the Ark.

     If I had to point out one detail to exemplify what a brainless and absurd movie The Sword of the Barbarians is, the revelation of the Templar superweapon would be it. Thematically speaking, what ought to be in the Ark of the Templars is the Sword of Fireó the weapon of Sangraalís illustrious father, which he abandoned when he forsook the road of heroes to pursue his own personal happiness instead. Heíd open the Ark, see his own discarded sword awaiting him impossibly within it, and understand in a flash of clarity that Destiny is not optional, no matter how burdensome or unwelcome it might be. But the Sword of Fire isnít in the Ark. In fact, I rather doubt that anyone involved in making The Sword of the Barbarians even remembered by this point in the production that there ever was a Sword of Fire in the first place. Instead, the Templar god-slayer is a crossbow fashioned from a five-foot log, with a slack and tattered cord of hempen twine and a triple set of flight grooves allowing up to three quarrels to be launched simultaneously. To be sure, the contraption has a certain Stone Age charm about it, which is arguably appropriate for a weapon thatís supposed to be unfathomably ancient even in this Dollar General knockoff of the Hyborian Age. But itís far too unwieldy to be usable for anything except holding up piers, and Pietro Torrisi, for all his bulging muscles, is completely unable to disguise that fact. It takes a great deal of editing trickery to create the illusion that this Nephilim-sized crossbow can be loaded, aimed, and fired fast enough to get in even a single shot against any moving target near enough for it to hit, and the melee sequences in which Sangraal turns the weapon around to wield its stock as a gargantuan club require the stuntmen playing his foes to stand patiently in place for several conspicuous seconds while Torrisi completes each ponderous swing.

     Viewers well versed in Italian fantasy movies of the 80ís will have surmised a page or so ago that The Sword of the Barbarians is another one where the sidekick does all the work, but gets none of the credit. Indeed, until he gets his hands on the Templar crossbow, Sangraal might be even more helpless without Twan than Ator is without his bear. For fans of Hal Yamanouchi (and Iíve somehow become one of those over the past four years or so), thatís both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it means that he gets a whole movie to walk off with, instead of just the usual scene or two here and there. But because Twan canít be allowed to continue upstaging Sangraal indefinitely, it also means that heís doomed to a bullshit death around the beginning of the final act. Still, because this is the closest thing to a Hal Yamanouchi star vehicle that anyone was ever going to make, I recommend The Sword of the Barbarians to the four other people or so worldwide who might have desired such a thing.

     I also recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see the closest thing to a ďnormalĒ barbarian flick that the Great Italian Ripoff Machine was ever able to produce. Itís hard to explain quite what I mean by that, but think for a bit about the Conan movies, Red Sonja, The Beastmaster, The Sword and the Sorcerer, or all the Concorde-New Horizons sword-and-sorcery pictures shot in Argentina from 1983 on. They all have their eccentricities, but very few of them are as bone-deep weird as nearly all of their Italian counterparts. None of those films are doing Jack Kirby in ancient Greece, or predicating the entire storyline on impenetrable astrological mysticism, or hybridizing with caveman movies in the vein of Quest for Fire. In The Sword of the Barbarians, meanwhile, we have just a pretty straightforward effort to duplicate Conan the Barbarian on a fraction of the cost, to the extent that thereís very nearly a one-to-one correlation of plot elements. And yet if you look closely, youíll see that all of the correlates are somehow fucked up anyway. Like Conan, Sangraal comes from a massacred tribe, wields an ancient sword, and has an Asian sidekick, a dead lover, and a bald wizard he can call on for backupó only his tribe got massacred because heís an idiot who walks into traps, the ancient sword gets lost half an hour into the movie because he canít be arsed to look after it, the Asian sidekick is better than he is at literally everything, and so on. And on the opposite side, Naluk (or whatever his name is in this scene) resembles Thulsa Doom in being both a warlord and a cult leaderó only in Nerukís case, the evil deity whose temporal authority he represents is unambiguously real, and puts in frequent personal appearances on this plane of existence. If things were going to get this loopy even when the filmmakers were trying to behave themselves, no wonder all the other Spaghetti Conans needed an entire color guard to keep their multitude of freak flags aloft!



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