Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Short Take: Hawk the Slayer

(1980) Directed by Terry Marcel; Written by Terry Marcel and Harry Robertson; Starring: Jack Palance, John Terry, Patricia Quinn, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter O'Farrell, Ray Charleson, William Morgan Sheppard and Cheryl Campbell; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I like a man with spirit. But remember this and remember it well… Voltan owns everything: the table, the chairs, the very food you eat. I own everything, including your useless life. Remember it well!” – Voltan (Jack Palance)

When we think of sword and sorcery films, our minds conjure visions of magical lands populated by wizards and elves, nubile damsels in distress, and swordfights aplenty. Okay, take your expectations and lower them a notch. And while you’re at it, take them down another notch. Now you’re ready to experience the wonder that is Hawk the Slayer. Director/co-writer Terry Marcel borrowed from a deep well for inspiration, including Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series of novels, and the Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Along with writing partner Harry Robertson, Marcel fleshed out a script in a few weeks. After failing to garner much interest for his fantasy adventure, Marcel struck paydirt with Chips Productions, the low-budget subsidiary of ITC.* The film enjoyed a strong run in England, but hopes of theatrical distribution in the U.S. were crushed when the distribution company folded.

* Fun Fact: According to Marcel, ITC head Lew Grade offered to make Hawk the Slayer a big budget production if he agreed to step down as director, and take executive producer credit (Source: “Hawk the Hunter Interview with Terry Marcel,” Rebellion).

Hawk vows vengeance against his older brother Voltan (Jack Palance) for murdering his wife, as well as his father. Wielding the powerful “mindsword,” he sets off on a quest to assemble a band of warriors to fight Voltan and his oppressive reign. He’s accompanied by Crow, the elf (played by Ray Charleson, who speaks in a clipped, high voice), the giant Gort (Bernard Bresslaw, who later appeared as the cyclopean giant in 1983’s Krull), Baldin the dwarf (Peter O'Farrell), and Ranulf (William Morgan Sheppard) a one-handed fighter.

As the titular protagonist, Terry is a tad stiff, although he deserves a pass for his earnest performance. Palance’s performance as Hawk’s evil brother Voltan* almost borders on self-parody, as he delivers each line with a reptilian hiss. He doesn’t quite chew scenery, so much as devour it. Some of the supporting performances seem subtle, compared to Palance’s maniacal, over-the-top portrayal. The good-natured interplay between Gort and Baldin seems natural and unforced. Patricia Quinn (best known as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is good as a blind witch, who helps Hawk with his mission. The small roles by veteran character actors Roy Kinnear as an innkeeper and Patrick Magee as a cult leader are also a welcome presence.

* Another Fun Fact: It’s easy to accept the magical mayhem in the film as de rigueur. It’s a bit hard to swallow that Hawk and Voltan are brothers (John Terry and Jack Palance were 31 years apart), or that Ferdy Mayne, who was only three years older than Palance at the time, played their father.

Part of Hawk the Slayer’s* considerable low-fi charms was its attempt to tell an epic story (Accompanied by a disco-tinged score by co-writer Harry Robertson) on an impossibly tight budget. The cut-rate production featured such “special” effects as glowing ping pong balls, rotating hula hoops (in a scene reminiscent of 1978’s Superman), and a witch’s freeze spell, in which one of Voltan’s guards is enveloped in silly string. And in one scene (if my eyes didn’t deceive me), the elf is sporting a pair of penny loafers. If you’re expecting something in the neighborhood of Excalibur or The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment. Taken in the right light, and the proper perspective, however, it’s easy to appreciate how Marcel and Robertson achieved so much with so little. Sure, Hawk the Slayer is easy to laugh at, but it’s more fun to laugh with it.

* Not-So-Fun Fact: After the relative success of the film, Marcel wrote a screenplay for a sequel. Unfortunately, subsequent attempts to bring it to the big screen (or small screen with a proposed TV series), including a 2015 Kickstarter campaign, have failed.


  1. First saw this on late night TV in the late 80s. Always loved it - apart from anything else, the score is clearly trying to be Morricone doing a spaghetti western, especially whenever Hawk appears!

    It's definitely a movie to watch on TV - God knows what it looked like on the big screen! (Having said that, I have bought the Blu Ray)

    It moves at a good speed (I wouldn't say at a good pace, just a good speed lol). Ironically, it has ONE of the strengths of the first Star Wars movie - it doesn't spend that much time on world-building, it just gets on with the traditional/cliched plot and expects you to follow it, because you've seen it all before!

    And it's always good to see Bresslaw in a non-comic role (although his scenes with the dwarf are a comic highlight)

    1. I think late night TV would have been the perfect place to discover this film. I can't believe I waited so long to see this, but I had a blast. As you mentioned, there's nothing new under the sun, but it sure is fun.