The evil warlord Voltan rules with terror over a once peaceful kingdom. His brother Hawk bears the only weapon that can stop the tyranny, a magical sword with incredible power. He sets out to defeat Voltan, and assembles a group of heroes worthy of the task.
The first epic fantasy movie that deserved the label arguably was Ralph Bakshi’s animated take on the Lord of the Rings saga, which came out in 1978. The next one – and that was two years before the genre expanded rapidly after the release of Conan The Barbarian – was Hawk The Slayer. The movie had the dubious honor of getting thrashed by Rifftrax, and it seems like easy prey with its hopelessly low budget, very basic plot, and slightly awkward acting. Despite its status of having become a trashy cult movie for some people, Hawk The Slayer has a lot going for it, if you can look past behind the usual issues of a low-budget movie. It trod on unknown territory in a new genre long before people figured out the perfect formula for epic fantasy movies.
Its premise and plot development feel like an archetypal adventure from the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, that was released a few years earlier. The game itself owes its very existence to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and it seems like Hawk The Slayer drew inspiration from both these works. The production quality of the film is so low that by today’s standards one could say that all sets look like they were assembled using props from a Halloween store. Most of the movie takes places in different parts of a forest, and there’s really only a single indoor location. We’re also treated with a couple of simple, but really charming matte painted composite scenes of a castle and monastery in mystical mountain landscapes. And the slightly goofy, but original combo of medieval and synthesizer music for the soundtrack is also quite endearing.
One of the biggest boons of the movie it that there’s always something going on, it never gets boring. There’s countless of skirmishes involving the full suite of medieval weapons and magic. Hawk assembles his crew by always teleporting into dire situations that are usually resolved violently. When his counterpart Voltan shows up he spends his time doing evil things to people, mostly intimidating them or killing them right away. I will say that the final skirmish between Voltan’s men and Hawk’s band of heroes goes over the top a little, and is more reminiscent of a children’s birthday party that anything else, with sparkling projectiles, snow explosions, and really silly upbeat music.
The characters are all one-dimensional, which was a fairly standard thing in fantasy movies until then, even classics like Ray Harryhausen’s Sindbad movies had zero interest in character depth and development. The same holds for the dialogues, which are thoroughly cliched, but again certainly not worse than those of its predecessors. John Terry’s portrayal of Hawk is as lawful and virtuous as can be for a true hero, and he leaves no doubt that he’s dead serious about every word he’s saying. Jack Palance as Voltan equally indulges in overacting on the other end of the virtue spectrum. He’s cranky and cruel to everyone he comes across, and looks beautifully deranged.
Hawk The Slayer has plenty of rough edges, but is certainly not the trash fest it’s known for these days, especially when putting it into the context of the history of the genre. I found it to be an innocent and charming fantasy adventure romp, that also turns out to be one of the most suited representatives of its genre for kids to watch, as it’s low on bloody violence and other scary images.