(1983) Directed by Peter Yates; Written by: Stanford Sherman; Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis, David Battley, Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“What we were doing was portraying a fantasy story with realities of its own. This is no period no country. It’s completely a fantasy about what could happen.” – Peter Yates (from “Cast and Crew” DVD commentary)
Thanks to Becky from Film Music Central for hosting the 3rd Annual James Horner Blogathon, profiling the career of this talented and prolific film composer on the third anniversary of his untimely death. Horner created some of my favorite film scores from the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and The Rocketeer (1991). Today, I’m taking a look at Krull, featuring another fine score.
Director Peter Yates stated he wanted to distance his movie from the sword and sorcery films of the era, but other than a few odd sci-fi flourishes, it doesn’t quite diverge from the conventions of the genre. Krull* could best be described as sword and sorcery meets Star Wars, combining swashbuckling derring-do with alien invaders. It’s notorious for being an expensive flop, with budget estimates ranging from $40 to $50 million, and a paltry $16.5 million box-office take. There are plenty of possible reasons why Krull never won over audiences back in the day, but perhaps Columbia Pictures’ biggest mistake was releasing it two months after Return of the Jedi, into a summer crowded with sequels.* Moviegoers might have suffered from fantasy fatigue by this point, and were probably looking for the safe harbor of established properties, rather than new adventures. Despite the diminutive box office receipts, Krull gained a small but ardent fan base over the years, due in no small part to the starfish-shaped weapon, the Glaive (more on this later).
On the eve of two kingdoms uniting, a dark force arrives from the stars in a massive fortress. The horrible Beast, and his army of Slayers (who resemble a cross between a storm trooper and a crustacean), lay siege to the castle where Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and his betrothed, Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) are about to be wed. The Slayers handily defeat the combined armies, and capture the princess. Thus, begins the hero’s epic quest to defeat the Beast, rescue the princess, and restore peace to his shattered kingdom. But first, he must assemble a bunch of misfits and endure many trials and travails, as he learns what it means to be a king. None of this sounds very original, of course, and I would be misrepresenting the film if I said it was. What Krull lacks in surprises, however, it makes up with a desire to entertain.
Fun Fact #1: As a means of cashing in on the early ‘80s sword and sorcery craze, the original title was The Dragons of Krull – even though there were no dragons featured in the script.
The good: For starters, the practical effects are quite fun, particularly the stop motion spider by Steven Archer. It’s suitably creepy, and its lifelike movements are worthy of Ray Harryhausen.* I always thought the cyclops Rell** (played by 6’ 7” Bernard Bresslaw) was pretty neat. In his tragic backstory, he explains how his ancient race made a deal with the Beast, trading one of their eyes for the ability to see into the future. Alas, the only future they could see was the time of their own death. Krell also boasts some fine performances, including veteran actor Freddie Jones as Prince Colwyn’s sage mentor Ynyr. Jones lends his role the necessary gravitas and bearing, as is if he were acting in a Shakespearean play. In a similar vein, Francesca Annis is great as the doleful Widow of the Web. David Battley (who played Charlie’s teacher in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is the shape-shifter Ergo. He’s mostly played for comic relief, but Battley gives his selfish character heart, and more than proves his mettle before the movie is over. A discussion of the good elements in Krull wouldn’t be complete without mentioning James Horner’s lush score, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Yates, Horner’s “…music contributed enormously to the film,” and imbued the characters with a sense of “size and majesty.” There’s something about a great score, which can elevate a movie, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the level suggested by the music.
* Fun Fact #2: If the animation style looks like familiar, there’s a good reason. Archer apprenticed with Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans, and was recommended by the effects master himself for the job.
** Fun Fact #3: According to makeup designer Nick Maley, “It was important that the shapes we model into his face had a gentleness, a pleasantness, without going overboard. He’s a nice, gentle character, but has a melancholy quality about him.” (from “Behind the Scenes” DVD commentary, from November 1982 Cinefantastique magazine article).
The not-so-good: Calling this film derivative is a gross understatement. You only need to watch The Seven Samurai, its American remake The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, or even its quickie Corman-produced knockoff, Battle Beyond the Stars to see where this movie is going. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A young, eager (albeit green) protagonist, under the tutelage of a wise old man, bands together with a rough but like-minded bunch of freedom fighters to fight a common oppressive foe. The leads are attractive, but unimpressive. Marshall has an amiable presence as Colwyn, but he comes across as a low-rent Errol Flynn. As Lyssa, Anthony is pretty to look at, but she’s given nothing to do, except act the damsel in distress while she’s waiting to be rescued from the clutches of the foul Beast. Speaking of the bad guys, a worthy adversary is required for any good hero story. Unfortunately, the Beast doesn’t quite measure up (pun intended). We never get a good idea of scale – is he human-sized, 10 feet tall, or the proportions of King Kong? Also, what does he have to offer Lyssa, outside of a lifetime of imprisonment? Was he keeping track of her before he arrived on her home world? Everything about him is vague and indistinct, from his motivations to his physical appearance (the Beast and his lair is shot in soft focus). The Beast and his army have mastered interstellar space, conquering one planet after another, yet they still ride on horseback. It doesn’t appear to be a choice made out of necessity, so is it a traditional thing?
While some effects are quite good, others are less than awe inspiring. When the warriors fly through the air astride their Fire Mares, it resembles a scene from E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (think kids on bikes). The biggest letdown, however, is reserved for Krull’s raison d'être, the cool-looking but unwieldly Glaive. In the end it’s only a MacGuffin. We’re led to believe it’s an ancient, all-powerful weapon powered by mystical energy, which Ynyr cautions not to use until the right time. When Colwyn finally does, at the film’s climax, it’s little more than an over-glorified can opener. (Spoiler Alert) In a moment of hastily constructed mythos, we learn the weapon’s power is nothing more than an extension of the power he wields inside (The Force, anyone?).
* Fun Fact #4: The Glaive’s original design looked more sword-like, as a cross-shaped weapon, before it evolved into a five-pronged throwing star.
Krull was an expensive failure at the box office, but as I’ve indicated many times before, poor performance and/or initial critical reception doesn’t necessarily correlate with a movie’s true worth. It’s difficult to dispute that Krull had several strikes against it, as a victim of bad timing and not enough distinguishing features, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a look. There’s a liberal dose of mindless fantasy mayhem, a few notable performances, and it’s fun to see Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane before they were famous. Krull isn’t easy to defend, but it’s hard to hate. While it might fall short in certain respects, it’s worthy Saturday morning matinee material.