B-movie Inspirations: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

Rated PG (?)

Many of my gaming friends have mentioned Hawk the Slayer as a movie I should see.  I had heard of it but never sat down to watch it at length.  It is now considered a cult classic.  So I found a copy and decided to see what the big deal was about it.

Before there was a Conan the Barbarian and so many clones after that, Hawk the Slayer hit a relatively stark market of fantasy sword and sorcery movies.  The title character is played by John Terry, and Voltan the evil bad guy is played by the great and venerable Jack Palance.  Wearing a helmet that is somewhat reminiscent of Darth Vader’s helmet, Palance steals every scene he is in. How can you go wrong with a guy like that as the antagonist? However, if that is not enough, they have one those actors that is in everything – William Morgan Sheppard.  Look him up.  And then look up who his son is.  A long line of great sci-fi actors.

The story is of two brothers – one good and one not-so-good.  The setting is a fantasized Earth, with Christian nuns speaking of God and the Devil.  But there are giants, elves and dwarves, as well as black magic and witches.  It is established, however, that the old races of elves, dwarves and giants have all but died out as the members of those races that join the party are “the last of their kind” – a world obviously very influenced by Tolkien.

The story starts with Voltan coming upon his father in a dark castle, demanding the last of the “elven mindstone.”  The father refuses to hand over such power to the servant of the Devil and evil, and so Voltan murders his own father.  Hawk arrives not long after to find his father dying and Voltan gone.  In his dying words, the father hands over the “great sword” and the last mindstone to Hawk, charging him to protect them.  The stone joins with the hilt of the sword and now the sword will always come to Hawk when he calls it.

The movie then switches to some unknown time afterwards.  Voltan is rampaging across the countryside, killing men, women and children in various villages, in service of some dark being in a cave, which you assume is a demon servant of the Devil.  Meanwhile, Hawk helps a witch, saving her from being burned for witchcraft by some villagers.  She becomes the central focus of mysticism in the story and sort of drives the whole plot for Hawk.

A man named Ranulf (Sheppard) stumbles into a convent after Voltan has attacked his village.  Severely wounded, the nuns heal him back to health.  What most gamers remember about Ranulf is his one-handed, auto-fire, clip-fed crossbow.  I wonder how many people stat’ed out that weapon in the early years of D&D.  Voltan arrives and kidnaps the Abbess, demanding a large sum of gold for her return.  Ranulf is dispatched to find Hawk the Slayer, a man known to fight for the side of good.  Hawk, with the help of the witch, joins with Ranulf to help the sisters of the convent.  They work together to form a formidable party to rescue the kidnapped nun.

Dispersed throughout the movie as it develops, told through flashbacks, is a story of the two brothers when they still served their father.  This is perhaps one part I could have done without but obviously someone thought it best to throw a little more romance in the movie.  If patricide or wearing a Darth Vader helmet was not enough to hate the bad guy and if Jack Palance was not enough to hate the bad guy, there is more.  The two brothers fought over the same woman and, of course, she picked our hero over the dark and brooding Voltan.  Not only did the woman die in the conflict but Voltan was badly burned in the face, making him forever even more menacing.

The witch helps form the party, teleporting Hawk to various locations to find old friends of his that has journeyed with before.  These are a giant named Gort, a sullen and gluttonous giant who wields a mighty war hammer, Crow, an elf who speaks like a robot and wields a deadly bow, and Baldin, a wisecracking dwarf skilled in the use of a bull whip.  As said before, these are the last of their kind, at least known to man.  It is implied by the elf at one point that his people went off somewhere else and he hears their call, in much the same way as the Tolkien elves went off.  Interestingly, they simply used a very tall actor for the giant (Bernard Bresslaw at 6’ 7”) and a very short actor (though not a midget) for the dwarf (Peter O’Farrell).  To make them seem taller and shorter respectively, they ended up sharing quite a few scenes together.

The movie progresses in a fairly predictable manner from there on out.  Also dispersed throughout are moments between Voltan and the evil demon that he serves, speaking to “the one,” and the demon using a special crystal to subside the pain of Voltan’s facial scar.  In this, you get the feeling that this whole thing was a set up for Voltan to get at Hawk.  The demon creature has an interest in Hawk, and, although not explained, one can assume it is related to the mindstone.

One notable cool effect in the battle scenes that many of my gamer friends probably appreciate is the elf’s bowmanship.  For a low budget, I’d imagine most believe they nailed it.  Using simple rapid cutaway techniques, the made it appear as if the elf was firing off arrows with amazing speed.  Combine this with the rapid fire cross bow in the hands of Ranulf and you have a lot of sword wielding extras dropping with arrows or bolts sticking out of them.  It was a pretty cool effect for its time.

At one point – and I really hate scenes like this – in their journey to form the party, Hawk and Ranulf go through a Mirkwood-like forest – the Forest of Wyr or however you would spell it – to get to where they are going.  They instill this sense of foreboding about it.  They even built a large stone gate and surrounded it with gruesome skeletons hanging from trees.  Hawk says that the light of the mindstone will protect them as they journey through this scary place.  But what happens is a huge let down.  Probably because of budget, the forest turned out to be nothing more than what you would see at a Halloween haunted forest.  No illustration of the true power of the mindstone; just glimpses of cheesy puppets peaking around trees and fun-house like screams.  All they had to do is ride through it real fast and it did not look like it took them more than 5 minutes to get through.  Not much of a forest.  Total let down, it was one of many points in the movie that the low budget did not allow a full exploration of the concepts in the script.

In the final battle at the convent, several of the “last of their kind” die unceremoniously.  The dwarf (who I found a little annoying) was given more screen time when he died than the coolest of the meta-humans – the elf.  We never even saw what killed the elf.  We just walk into the room and there he is taking his last breath.  I would think we would spend a little more time on the death of the “last of their kind.”

Hawk the Slayer is an example of what has been lost in movies of today – simplicity with the potential of epic.  This is a simple story.  Bad guy harasses the nuns and a hero comes to their rescue – not very epic at all.  The underlying story of the mindstone and the demon master to Voltan has the implication of something epics but it is never explored.  In fact, without giving too much away about the ending, it was quite apparent that they hoped to have at least one sequel.  So the epic story of the mindstone was left untold.  All we know is that it allowed Hawk to call forth his sword at anytime and contains some other vague magical powers that protected them from evil.

Today, fantasy is not fantasy without being big and epic, using lots of CGI and little story.  In this movie, the world was introduced to you by each of the characters, strategicly bringing in elements in each encounter.  It was also a simple world –  a world not too much different from our own but with some fantasy elements.

From a role play gaming perspective, this is what you typically see in a level one or novice fantasy adventure.  Keep it simple and small scope.  Allow for the implication of something epic but do not throw too much at the players right away.  It’s a good model for a balanced fantasy party, although they did not have their cleric.  While the characters were not completely explored, they did have a very diverse group.

The plot elements are also fairly common fantasy plot devices.

  • bad guy rampaging the country side
  • hero with a mystical sword seeking a party to thwart the bad guys plans
  • an evil force influencing his minions with a darker plan
  • a mystical artifact that few know about or understand at the center of all the machinations

There isn’t really a lot of originality to Hawk the Slayer, but the value in the movie is its execution.  For a low budget film, it is well done.  The story has been done many times in many ways, so it’s hard to really pull much more out of it.  It’s inspiring from a setting perspective as well.  There is not a lot given about the world, but it is just enough to keep your interest. It is generally a good movie for the budget they spent on it and it is deserving of a sequel or a remake.  My fear of a remake, however, is that you will lose it’s simplicity and scope in favor of epic CGI-filled menagerie.