Friday, February 26, 2016

I Can't Believe I've Never Seen Them Till Now!: Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Masters of the Universe


"I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" is a series of posts that appear sporadically here on the AFOS blog rather than weekly. In each post, I reveal that I never watched a certain popular movie until very recently, and that's largely because I'm Filipino, we're always late to the party and that's how we do.

The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian--made by John Milius, the director of the TCM staple The Wind and the Lion--is one of several popular '80s movies I just kept missing out on for the oddest reasons. I avoided watching it even when I had the chance to catch it back when my older brother--who was obsessed with D&D and the sword-and-sorcery genre during the years when Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed the Robert E. Howard character--taped both Conan the Barbarian and its way more family-friendly 1984 sequel off the TV and owned a copy of the first issue of artist John Buscema's two-part 1982 Marvel Comics adaptation of the first movie. His copy of that issue was where I first glimpsed the Milius movie's Wheel of Pain montage and then wondered to myself, "So Conan doesn't get to take any bathroom breaks at all during this shit?"

(Photo source: Marvel Masterworks Resource Page)

Conan the Barbarian, the tale of a former gladiator on a mission to kill the sorcerer who slaughtered his tribe and sent him into child slavery, was R-rated, and my parents rarely allowed me to watch R movies for the first few years of grade school. (Yes, I know Conan the Destroyer was a PG movie, so I could have been able to watch it, but I always skipped it. I still haven't watched it.) So I had to settle for the G-rated Conan, a.k.a. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, that 30-minute commercial for the '80s Mattel toy line that was rumored to have originally been a Conan toy line before Mattel changed it to Masters of the Universe because the company didn't want to be associated with an ultraviolent and brazenly sexual R movie.

Although He-Man gave acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini his start in writing for animation, it has not aged well at all as an animated show. But when I was in first grade, He-Man was a decent weekday-afternoon time-waster--it was never a Saturday morning show, by the way, so get your facts straight, HitFix--even though I noticed it would always recycle the same nine or 10 bits of animation like all other cartoons from the Filmation factory used to clumsily do in order to save money.

I lost interest in He-Man after its first two seasons in afternoon syndication and never again formed another attachment to a sword-and-sorcery franchise--until Legend of the Seeker (the hotness of both Bridget Regan and Tabrett Bethell was the main reason why I became interested in that show) and, of course, Game of Thrones came along. So my lack of interest in the sword-and-sorcery genre in the years between He-Man and Legend of the Seeker is mainly to blame for never watching Conan the Barbarian all these years, even though I got myself a copy of the movie's excellent Basil Poledouris score so that I could use "Anvil of Crom" and "Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom" for radio airplay.


Also, the Milius movie just always came off to me as ponderous and self-important like Man of Steel and--if my skepticism due to the largely dour footage I've seen in its trailers ends up being right--Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite those misgivings I had about the Milius movie, I added Conan the Barbarian to my DVD rental queue when I first got a Netflix account because I wanted to see if the movie lived up to its beloved Poledouris score (a score that, by the way, This Is How You Lose Her author Junot Díaz interestingly played repeatedly to keep his creative juices flowing while he worked on his first book). However, the movie was always slipping into "Very long wait" status on Netflix and was always getting pushed aside by other rentals I was much more interested in until one day, it became available to stream. And then like a Cimmerian thief in the night, it was suddenly gone from Netflix streaming. Fortunately, I stopped dilly-dallying and finally made myself watch Conan the Barbarian right before it expired.

You know what? Conan the Barbarian isn't as ponderous as I thought, but it has a certain grandiose style that would be described by younger, fidgetier film critics today as "slow." That "slow" style--contemplative and "devoid of clunky-sounding exposition" would be much better words for it--is actually what elevates Conan the Barbarian and makes it stand out as a sword-and-sorcery flick. It takes its medieval world seriously, but it's never an overly dour slog like Man of Steel. If anybody in the Conan the Barbarian cast is on the dour side, it's often Schwarzenegger, who did Conan the Barbarian way before Hollywood discovered you can work around the limited range of the champion bodybuilder and future California governor by feeding him distinctive and weird-sounding one-liners in movies like the original Terminator, Commando, Predator and Kindergarten Cop.


Schwarzenegger doesn't utter a single wisecrack during Conan the Barbarian, and the only times we get a hint of his future light-comedy skills are a scene where a stoned-out-of-his-mind Conan punches out a camel, a hangover scene where he collapses face-first into a bowl of soup and a moment where he pretends to flirt with a gay priest before knocking him out and stealing his identity to infiltrate an evil cult. But he looks convincingly like the '70s and '80s Marvel version of Conan while he broods and appears as if he's going to skullfuck Crom if he doesn't holler back at his prayers. Like Jim Kelly would have said, man, he comes right out of a comic book. The role of Conan doesn't call for you to do much. You just have to look convincing waving around a heavy sword. Barbarians aren't exactly known for being complicated men.

Conan the Barbarian may have made Schwarzenegger a movie star, but he's overshadowed by his co-stars in that movie (whereas he steals The Terminator from Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Paul Winfield, and he does so with even less lines). In a villainous turn way before he became America's favorite granddad/narrator outside of Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones makes quite an impression chopping the head off Conan's mom and later transforming into a snake. As cult leader Thulsa Doom, the perpetually scowling murderer of Conan's parents, the rather underused Jones sports the same exact hairdo as Janeane Garofalo's in Reality Bites. He looks kind of like Terry Crews when he strapped on one of his co-star Maya Rudolph's weaves to play President Camacho in Idiocracy. But the goofy-looking Jones relishes his lines like wine made from the blood of his character's virginal sacrifices. I cosign Roderick Heath's observation over at Ferdy on Films about how everything Jones says in the movie sounds like an admonition welling up from the depths of Hades.


There are two fascinating '80s movies that star Sab Shimono (who most recently had a guest shot as a Japanese internment camp survivor on Netflix's Longmire) and the late Mako, two Japanese American actors who are just incapable of giving an abysmal performance, even as animation voice actors, like when they both had roles on the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender. One of the two '80s movies is The Wash, a 1988 indie in which Shimono and Mako play a pair of old Japantown men who are both in love with Nobu McCarthy. Nobody outside of Asian American college professors remembers The Wash, which was based on a play by Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, but it was unique for its time because of its all-Asian American cast, the bold decision to have these Asian American actors portray ordinary (and unlike the more affluent Joy Luck Club, lower-middle-class) Americans instead of the stereotypes that were popular at the time and, best of all, the focus on an Asian American man dating an Asian American woman instead of the cliché of yet another white man hooking up with an Asian woman. Fuck all those things out-of-touch film critics like former Washington Post critic Hal Hinson wrote at the time about The Wash being a bland indie. The Wash features a stronger Mako performance than even the standout (and Oscar-nominated) one Mako gave as a coolie-turned-boxer in 1966's The Sand Pebbles.

The other fascinating '80s showcase for the character acting skills of Shimono and Mako is Conan the Barbarian. Shimono never appears on screen, but he did uncredited work on redubbing the voice of Subotai, Conan's Mongolian archer pal, played by Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez. The actual voice of Lopez can be heard in a deleted scene where Conan's stoic demeanor briefly disappears.



The YouTube clip summary for Conan and Subotai's deleted scene says one of the movie's producers hated Lopez and demanded that he be redubbed, which makes little sense because out of all the performers in the movie, you'd expect Schwarzenegger to be the one who would have gotten completely redubbed (in fact, Universal studio execs were worried about Schwarzenegger's thick Austrian accent, and that's probably why Universal's teaser trailer and main trailer for the movie didn't contain a single line of dialogue from Schwarzenegger). I have no idea what Schwarzenegger's saying when he briefly grumbles over his 20 years in bondage, whereas I can completely understand Lopez.

But Shimono's dubbing work for Subotai is so terrific that I didn't know Lopez was redubbed until after watching the movie and reading a bunch of articles about the physically demanding shoot. And this movie just adores the weather-beaten voice of Mako--who plays a storyteller and Conan crony known as the Wizard--so much that his voice is all over Conan the Barbarian. The gravitas of the voices of Jones, Shimono and Mako, especially during his narration--which Milius wisely uses to establish the movie's setting instead of awkwardly wedging exposition into the dialogue of these laconic warrior characters--is a huge part of why Conan the Barbarian stands up to repeat viewings.

If Jones sounds like he's straight out of Hades, then Mako sounds like the Hyborian Age equivalent of the world's goriest and most batshit audiobook. Potentially cheesy-sounding passages like "Language and writing were made available--the poetry of Khitai, the philosophy of Sung--and he also came to know the pleasures of women, when he was bred to the finest stock. But always, there remained the discipline of steel" become music in Mako's hands (during the bit about "Language and writing," is that the Oliver Stone rough draft talking or is it the Milius rewrite talking?). I wouldn't be surprised if Genndy Tartakovsky cast Mako as the evil Aku on Samurai Jack specifically because of his distinctive narration during Conan the Barbarian.

Though her character of Valeria, a precursor to Xena, Michelle Yeoh's Yu Shu Lien from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movies and Lady Sif from the Thor movies, is yet another clichéd example of a leading lady/love interest in an action flick who winds up getting fridged before the climax, the amount of fighting Sandahl Bergman--a professional dancer Bob Fosse recommended to Milius after directing her in All That Jazz--gets to do in Conan the Barbarian is the most surprising part of the material. It's surprising because at around the time of Conan the Barbarian's release, women rarely got to be warriors like Valeria in sword-and-sorcery flicks. They were either damsels-in-distress like Judi Bowker in the original Clash of the Titans or the bedroom conquests and evil sorceresses of Excalibur. TV was way ahead of sword-and-sorcery movies when it came to warrior women, thanks to Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman.

I found myself more taken with Bergman in the action sequences than with Schwarzenegger in action, not just because she's attractive in Conan the Barbarian but because I love heist movies, probably way more than any other genre, and the physicality she brought to both Conan the Barbarian's jewel heist sequence and the swordplay due to her dancing background constantly made me think, "Damn, she missed the heist movie renaissance by 17 years." Just like Schwarzenegger and Lopez, Bergman remarkably did most of her own stunts in Conan the Barbarian. In fact, she ended up accidentally slicing open her forefinger when a weapon she used for the rehearsal of a sword fight came without a handle guard, a good example of how physically rough it was to make Conan the Barbarian.



(Photo source: Unproductive Member of Society)


Speaking of rough, it must have been a rough experience for Conan the Barbarian fans to rewatch their favorite ultraviolent sword-and-sorcery flick on network TV. I'm glad I never watched the network TV version of Conan the Barbarian and waited all these years until Netflix. The network censor would have sliced off a lot of the sex and violence from the movie as if he were Conan slicing off his enemies' body parts.

I don't care for the right-wing politics of the filmmaker/surfer who was the basis for Walter Sobchak. But without the nutty traits of Milius (like his worship of real-life warriors like Genghis Khan and his surfer-ish fascination with philosophy, which seeped into some of the dialogue) and his insistence, especially to his sort-of-squeamish producer Dino De Laurentiis, that Conan's world should be as violent as an R would allow, Conan the Barbarian would have just been an average and lifeless sword-and-sorcery flick. Unexpected moments of beauty sometimes emerge from the director's twisted and brutal vision. For instance, Bergman has a quietly effective dramatic scene where Valeria confides to Conan her loneliness as a thief--"I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark, and I would see figures holding each other in the night. And I always passed by"--and she expresses so much yearning for him to "let someone else pass by in the night."

Another unexpected moment of beauty takes place over barbecued dinner between Conan and Subotai. I don't think you'd have a scene like the one where the Cimmerian and the Mongol compare religions in a tentpole action movie today ("My god is stronger. He is the everlasting sky. Your god lives underneath him," boasts Subotai). Right after that exchange, the shots of Conan and Subotai running, despite carrying heavy weaponry, from civilization to civilization to the sounds of the superbly written Poledouris cue "Theology/Civilization" are the quintessential moment of Conan the Barbarian for me, much more so than the beheadings, the sword fights and the sex scenes. Those shots of them running--thankfully, not in cheesy slow-motion--to the accompaniment of both "Theology/Civilization" and Schwarzenegger's "Does it always smell like this? How does duh wind evah get in heah?" are the first thing I think of when I recall Conan the Barbarian, mostly because they prove how badly a loss it was for the film music world when Poledouris died in 2006.



And any time Conan the Barbarian eliminates the chatter is a moment of beauty. The Milius movie is the perfect argument for why action flicks work better with minimal dialogue. There's no exposition other than Mako's narration. Take one look at Doom's decapitation of Conan's mother. It's a completely silent sequence. Then look at the excerpt from the Marvel adaptation above, where Conan unloads clunky-sounding exposition about his origin story. It's as if that excerpt comes from a version of Conan the Barbarian that was made by a different director who's much hackier and has no patience for letting movies breathe.

What Milius accomplished was pretty close to Alfred Hitchcock's idea of "pure cinema." Hitchcock chose those words to describe films that tell stories in ways that would be impossible to do in any other medium and frequently rely on the visuals and music rather than dialogue to advance the story (Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most recent examples of this). I sometimes wish Milius made Conan the Barbarian into a silent action movie, simply because the silent sequence of Doom's raid on young Conan's village is one of the movie's most memorable and effective sequences.



The quirks of Milius as a director also keep Conan from being an incongruously squeaky-clean barbarian, a.k.a. a boring protagonist. Despite his heroics at the end of the movie, Conan's kind of a dick during most of it, and you would be too if you were raised in bondage to be a gladiator and "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear duh lamentation uff der women." Evan Saathoff did a good piece for Birth.Movies.Death. about how Conan's imperfect qualities make him an intriguing protag in the Milius movie, even though Saathoff has no idea how to spell the name Schwarzenegger. "Once set free upon the world, Conan indulges in the hedonistic revelry befitting a guy restrained by captivity for most of his life," wrote Saathoff, who added, "Conan is a barbarian. It says so right there in the title. And it's a testament to John Milius that he actually lives up to that label."

I've never seen Lionsgate's much-maligned 2011 Conan the Barbarian remake, which starred Jason Momoa as Conan (it sucks that an actor of color who got to play Conan had to do so in a huge flop), and I don't plan to. I wouldn't be surprised if Conan isn't as hedonistic in that version because Lionsgate wanted to imitate the often squeaky-clean Marvel Studios superhero movie template, a template that's recently been turned upside down by the raunch and meta-humor of the non-Marvel Studios (because it's owned by Fox) smash hit Deadpool. I love how Conan, Subotai and Valeria get wasted to celebrate their successful heist in the Milius version. It's realistic. You won't see the protags do that today in superhero movies and tentpole blockbusters that aim for a PG-13. The studios would rather please parents' groups and let the kids in the audience know that heists and hedonistic post-heist partying are wrong.

In his Conan the Barbarian audio commentary with Schwarzenegger, Milius revealed that De Laurentiis wanted him to get rid of the scenes of Conan, Subotai and Valeria partying, but he resisted the producer's request because he wanted to show that "They aren't dignified. They have money, and they're totally drunk and excited with power." Fortunately, Milius doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience by having some character act as a voice of reason and disrupt their night out with "You aren't dignified! You have money, and you're totally drunk and excited with power! Why?!" I'll take Conan, Subotai and Valeria getting fucked up after their heist over Superman's relentless moping in Man of Steel any day of the week.

***

While I was only mildly interested in watching Conan the Barbarian after buying its score album, I had zero interest in checking out the 1987 Cannon Films version of Masters of the Universe, even though as a kid, I was temporarily a regular viewer of Filmation's He-Man, and I played around with some of Mattel's Masters of the Universe action figures. By the time the Cannon movie came out, I outgrew the Masters of the Universe toys.

The Cannon movie just always looked cheesy to me. After completing Masters of the Universe, Gary Goddard, the movie's first-time director, took another Mattel toy line, Captain Power, and turned it into Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a post-apocalyptic action show that lasted from 1987 to 1988 in weekend syndication and employed He-Man staff writer (and future Babylon 5 creator) J. Michael Straczynski as a story editor. Of the two Goddard projects based on Mattel toys, Captain Power, with its ambitious and mature storylines about ex-girlfriends who became terrorists and the horrors of fascism, intrigued me more than the Cannon movie. Captain Power also features one of the best end credits sequences for a TV show ever: sure, the dogfight footage that concluded Captain Power each week was a shameless ripoff of the Star Wars Death Star dogfight sequence, and it was strictly designed for the kids in the audience to fire their noise-making Captain Power jet guns at the TV screen, but I always liked how it was shot from the point of view of a fighter pilot.



The anecdotes about the making of Masters of the Universe during the hugely entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films made me finally put aside my lack of interest in the 1987 movie to go watch it on Netflix. While Conan the Barbarian goes for long stretches without dialogue and is wonderful for doing that, Masters of the Universe is overly talky and full of characters none of the Masters of the Universe toy line's kid fans would give two shits about. Those characters take away tons of screen time from the more familiar heroes and villains the franchise's kid fans would be much more interested in seeing, whether it's Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher, an odd choice for a heroic and compassionate Eternian military vet because of his memorably dickish role as Chief Daniels on Hill Street Blues) or Skeletor (Frank Langella). It's a problem that also afflicts Michael Bay's interminable Transformers movies, where the Autobots are basically guest stars in their own movies.

I wish the rumor that the Masters of the Universe toy line grew out of a Conan toy line Mattel rejected because of its discomfort with the 1982 movie's R-rated content were true. Then it would allow you to point out how Mattel is such a toy company of its word because apparently, Mattel experienced a regime change in the '90s and went on to make action figures out of the R-rated Demolition Man. That 1993 Sylvester Stallone blockbuster is an equally violent but much less sexual action flick because any time an oiled-up Stallone gets completely naked, the movie loses all its sexiness. No wonder Michael B. Jordan looks like he's about to vomit at one point in Creed over the thought of Sly walking around nekkid. I love Stallone in the Rocky movies (even though I agree wholeheartedly with the folks behind #OscarsSoWhite, I'm rooting for Sly to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Creed just because his Oscar win would mean a Ryan Coogler movie finally gets an Oscar for something), but, man, from 1985 to 2011, Sly always looked like the giant from The Goonies went on a GNC shopping spree and then got basted in Red Lobster butter.

In Masters of the Universe, Dolph Lundgren has all the charisma of a script reader on valium. Sly was wise to give Lundgren just four or five lines in Rocky IV. Lundgren has to say a lot more than that during Masters of the Universe, and his atrocious line readings are unintentionally funny.

So the castle gives He-Man all those fucking superpowers, but it can't give him a decent haircut?
(Photo source: ActionFigurePics.com)

Lundgren isn't quite yet the relaxed and nuanced actor we get to see much later in Universal Soldier: Regeneration (try that Jean-Claude Van Damme flick some time; it's surprisingly good for a direct-to-video flick, and director John Hyams interestingly gives Van Damme no dialogue for the entire climax). He's much more wooden in Masters of the Universe than his future Expendables co-star is in Conan. That's also because there's no depth to the character of He-Man like there is to Conan, even though Conan isn't really an angsty barbarian. One of the few good things about Masters of the Universe is that it ditches the animated version's pointless addition of He-Man's civilian identity as Prince Adam (in the DC mini-comics that were packaged with Mattel's first few waves of action figures, He-Man wasn't an Eternian prince and was all-barbarian, all the time). But the movie comes up with nothing interesting for Lundgren to play. He just moves mechanically from point A to point B to homoerotic, subjected-to-whips-and-chains-by-Skeletor point C, without any real internal conflict like the one that affects Chris Hemsworth when Anthony Hopkins strips him of his hammer and his superhuman strength in Kenneth Branagh's Thor.

That homoerotic whipping scene is a great example of then-57-year-old Cannon head Menahem Golan's completely batshit ideas of what he thought would appeal to kids. As a result, the Cannon movie interestingly has a gay following. One of the movie's biggest defenders because of its appeal to gay men is Chris Eggertsen, the openly gay writer from HitFix who keeps erroneously saying that Filmation's He-Man aired on Saturday mornings. As someone who remembers occasionally running home from the school bus stop just to catch He-Man in the same after-school time slot as Oprah's back in the '80s and who now kind of wishes he could get back a lot of those 30 minutes that were wasted watching preachy and poorly animated action on planet Eternia, that typo bugs me. Despite the typo, Eggertsen has a great quip in his HitFix listicle where he describes Skeletor's climactic rise in power and his major costume change as a transformation "from power-hungry Eternian overlord to Chinese contestant in the 1987 Miss Universe pageant." It's cool that gay men can find something to enjoy in Masters of the Universe as if it's The Apple, but it's still not a good action movie.

Even A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson, who got his start in Hollywood working for Masters of the Universe's art department, doesn't think the movie he worked for is a good action movie. In his Trailers from Hell audio commentary for the Masters of the Universe trailer, Olson points out how distracting it is that there are no people in the streets during the villains' nighttime invasion of a small California town (actually Whittier, California).



The lack of extras in the streets is typical of the ineptitude of Cannon action flicks that aren't Runaway Train. Cannon was at the height of spending recklessly on productions that ended up tanking at the box office, so when the studio ran out of dough during the filming of Masters of the Universe, it resulted in things like empty downtown streets and a rushed climactic sword fight that has neither dramatic impact nor cinematic flair.

Masters of the Universe is the kind of movie where the IMDb trivia page about its behind-the-scenes problems is more entertaining than the movie itself. The dozens of weird stories that fill Masters of the Universe's IMDb trivia page were pointed out on Twitter by Gillian Jacobs, the star of both Community (I wonder what her character Britta, who was obsessed with pointing out why she thinks fights between men are their way of sublimating their homosexual urges, would have to say about Masters of the Universe) and Netflix's Love.





The Masters of the Universe filmmakers' decision to move the action from Eternia to Earth is clearly intended to both cut costs and give audience members a bunch of audience surrogates to identify with, including a pre-Friends Courteney Cox as a small-town teen who stumbles into He-Man and Skeletor's battle over the McGuffin known as the Cosmic Key. But the move to Earth is pointless, especially when all the screen time that could be spent more often with characters like He-Man, Teela (Chelsea Field), Skeletor and Evil-Lyn (a perfectly cast Meg Foster) or inside the franchise's crucial setting of Castle Grayskull goes to James Tolkan's unfunny and bullheaded police detective character. It feels like somebody from Cannon noticed how popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was during the 1986 holiday season and pushed the filmmakers to copy Star Trek IV's fish-out-of-water humor and its moments of comedic conflict between the time-traveling heroes and the arrogant morons who interfere with their mission, but the humor never really gels.

After being a useless sack of shit for most of Masters of the Universe, the bullying and idiotic small-town cop is rewarded with Eternian bling and a supermodel on his lap?! A young blonde as a prize for the vice-principal from Back to the Future is the point of Masters of the Universe when I said, "Fuck this Cannon movie."

Meg Foster and Frank Langella received a visit on the set of Masters of the Universe from Richard Szponder, a young He-Man fan who won both a Mattel contest and a bit part in the movie. (Photo source: He-Man.org)

Only Cox, Foster, Billy Barty as an Eternian inventor whose name neither I nor Tatiana Maslany and the hosts during How Did This Get Made?'s funny Masters of the Universe episode can remember and, of course, Langella emerge unscathed from Masters of the Universe. There are so many reasons to enjoy the Frost/Nixon star as an actor, and they include his evident enthusiasm over playing the rather underdeveloped role of Skeletor. Langella has no regrets about having done Masters of the Universe. In fact, he pursued the role of Skeletor because his son was a fan of the franchise, and he's always considered it one of his favorite roles, which is so unlike the snooty thespian who does a kids' film, hates everything about the project and thinks he's the best member of the ensemble, and then you watch his performance in the film, and he's sleepwalking through the fucking thing.

Langella's spirited performance--he even tosses in a couple of lines from Shakespeare ("I'm not in the giving mood this day")--is the biggest highlight of Masters of the Universe. The real hero of this sluggish sword-and-sorcery flick--in other words, the one individual who makes parts of it bearable--isn't He-Man. It's the Chinese contestant from the 1987 Miss Universe pageant.



***

"En Garde!"


The 1982 Conan the Barbarian score cue "Death of Rexor" is one of 21 film or TV score cues that were written for moments of swordplay and have been compiled by me into a 100-minute mix I'm calling "En Garde!" On this day when I post "En Garde!," which contains a selection from Tan Dun's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score, Netflix happens to be premiering Michelle Yeoh's return to the role of Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Sword fights are often the most compelling part of an action movie, whether it's Crouching Tiger, an older Shaw Brothers flick or a sword-and-sorcery fantasy like the two '80s movies I discussed at length above.

Sometimes those sword fights have been accompanied by original score cues that turn out to be the real highlight of the sequence. The late James Horner's "The Fencing Lesson" cleverly takes the sounds of the steps of flamenco dancers and makes those sounds function as the percussion for a training montage between Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro. "Arthur's Farewell," a choral piece composed by the late Jerry Goldsmith for First Knight, is more memorable than the Richard Gere/Ben Cross sword fight it was written for.

Back in 2002, which was the year I launched the AFOS radio station on the Internet, Jay Rendon, a San Francisco listener, suggested to me a playlist of score cues from movies that feature sword fights. He must have either been a fencing nerd or a fantasy nerd because the list of movies he jotted down was a pretty lengthy one.


I always liked Jay's playlist idea, but I never liked the title "Sword Fightin' Soundtracks." The playlist idea deserved a more stylish and succinct title. "En Garde!" was perfect. I never really did anything with that sword fight score cue idea, although I kept typing up a note to myself about making sure I use the fencing sound FX from the 2000 Telarc album Mega Movies (an odd hybrid of a sound FX album and a typical Telarc concert recording of film score cues performed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and its conductor, the late Erich Kunzel), and then a few years ago, I went into my score album cabinets, took out any CD that contained a score from a movie featuring swordplay and placed the CDs together in a storage box, in case I ever felt like making a radio special or a mix out of Jay's idea someday.

I'm glad I waited until now to edit that mix together because in between 2002 and now, Samurai Champloo, John Woo's Red Cliff and Game of Thrones all happened. Also, the new Mixcloud page I launched before the demise of my radio station is the perfect place to post that mix.

Most film score music enthusiasts will probably gravitate towards the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings cues on my playlist, while my favorite cues on the playlist are the ones from Samurai Champloo, Yojimbo and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. "En Garde!" is another mix of mine where instrumental hip-hop gets to co-exist with classical music. Nobody thinks instrumental hip-hop and classical music can co-exist. But in my world, they do.

I don't know how people who like using film or TV scores as study music are able to concentrate. I've said it before: "That kind of music often wrecks my attempt to concentrate on filling a blank space with a paragraph." But if "En Garde!" does motivate someone to get their work done or if it does help someone to breeze through their studies, then that's great. And in that parallel universe where the funniest fictional characters from our favorite comedies are real people, if Britta Perry stumbles into "En Garde!" and it inspires her to get cracking on some thesis about how the men who take their weapons and collide them with other men's weapons during these works of fiction are actually acting out their desires to do each other, then that's great too. Actually, that's a little weird like everything else Britta does, but I'll accept it.



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