Hawk the Slayer (1980)

It’s Sword and Sorcery Movie Season here at Taint The Meat, and this week it’s the turn of this humdinger from 1980. Get your neon ping-pong balls ready, it’s Hawk the Slayer. 

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spotlighting some of my favourite fantasy films (the cheesier the better as far as I’m concerned), and the early to mid-Eighties was fertile ground for the genre. I’ve already looked at some classics (Krull, Dragonslayer, The Sword and The Sorcerer and The Beastmaster) and over the next few weeks I’m be looking at even more. This week’s entry, Hawk the Slayer, is notable for two reasons: it was the first fantasy movie of the decade, and it was British made.

The film starred John Terry as the eponymous Hawk, who travels through an unnamed medieval land punishing wrongdoers and posing with his magical Mindsword. The film’s antagonist is his older brother Voltan (‘the dark one!’) played by Hollywood veteran Jack Palance (who was 60 years old at the time, and looked it) who, along with his adopted son and a bunch of ruffians, wanders the same land, shoving people around and generally acting like a dick.

When Voltan kidnaps an Abbess and holds her for ransom Hawk is charged with her rescue, and sets off to find a group of companions to help him in his mission. The assembled group is a checklist of fantasy tropes: a giant; an elf; a dwarf and a sorceress all agree to help Hawk rid the land of his brother’s evil influence.

Hawk the Slayer followed the standard three act set-up. In act one Hawk travels through the land collecting his team. Act two sees the group consolidate by rescuing some slaves and punishing the slave trader. Act three sees them face off against Volton, the film’s finale a sword fight between hero and villain. Although the film borrowed liberally from the plot of The Magnificent Seven, it was hardly the first — or last — film to do so (there are also a few nods towards Star Wars, especially where Palance’s outfit is concerned). There’s a fair amount of humour in the film, and it’s pretty action packed, with plenty of sword fights and daring-do. The film was clearly made on a limited budget so most of the action takes place outdoors, with only a few indoor sets used (most of the third act takes place in one room of the Abbess’s convent).

Along with Terry and Palance Hawk the Slayer featured a veritable who’s-who of British acting talent from that period. Bernard Bresslaw, Annette Crosbie, Patricia Quinn, Shane Briant, Harry Andrews, Christopher Benjamin, Patrick Magee, Warren Clarke, Derrick O’Connor and Roy Kinnear (at his eye-popping best) all helped fill out the cast, most of whom would have been familiar faces to British TV viewers.

The film was co-written and directed by Terry Marcel, who specialised mainly in TV and Hawk definitely feels like a TV movie (not helped by the film’s rather dull colour palette). Marcel does a decent job, and he kept the action flowing, although he clearly never saw a scene he didn’t want to jump-edit. He didn’t do such a great job with dialogue-heavy scenes however, which often feel stilted and stiff. He also bathed almost every scene in fog, so-much-so that during one fight sequence the actors are hardly visible. (I’m not exaggerating about Marcel’s overuse of the smoke machine, even some of the indoor scenes in the convent are shrouded in fog and mist!). So ubiquitous is the fog in fact, that in the case of Hawk the Slayer it’s with little exaggeration that I can state that the hardest working member of the cast and crew was probably the smoke machine.

In any Sword and Sorcery film special effects will always play an important part, and the effects on Hawk the Slayer rank from serviceable to flat-out comical. Although the floating neon hoola-hoops that the sorceress uses to transport Hawk are effective (the concept was clearly pinched from the beginning of Superman The Movie), the bit towards the end of the film where one of Voltan’s men is subdued with green silly string is hilariously bad. But that pales in comparison to the attack of the neon ping-pong balls a few minutes later!

Any review of Hawk the Slayer wouldn’t be complete without mention of the movie’s most oft-remembered — and most controversial — element: the music. Written by veteran theatre and TV composer Harry Robertson (who also produced and co-wrote the film) the score featured a heavily synthesised rock score that was clearly influenced by the Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds album, from 1978 (with a healthy dollop of John Barry’s theme from The Persuaders added for good measure). Here’s where the film divides viewers: you either love the soundtrack or you hate it. Personally I love it. Although at times it’s so pervasive it runs the risk of smothering the film, it’s so ludicrously catchy and upbeat it oddly suits the film (I defy anyone to watch the film and not whistle along with Hawk’s distinctive theme). If the film had been made a few years earlier, or a few years later the music would probably sink the movie. But coming at the end of the disco era, and at the dawn of Eighties New Wave, the music just flat-out works. It’s unique, and more than a bit bonkers, but for the life of me I just couldn’t imagine the film without it.

Hawk the Slayer may not be a good movie, but it is a damned entertaining one. It’s cheap and, at times, daft but it’s heart’s in the place and it never once winks at the audience. It didn’t do very well as the box-office — upon release in the UK it originally appeared in a double-bill with the terrible Saturn 3 — nor was it a hit with critics, although fantasy films from that period rarely were. Just before it’s release in December 1980 Marcel touted the possibility of a sequel (Hawk the Destroyer) but the film’s failure at the box office put paid to that. Over the years Hawk the Slayer has gained cult status (as has almost every fantasy film from that period), thanks mainly to its rocking synth soundtrack. Clearly believing that there was still life in the franchise, Marcel initiated a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to raise $500,000 to help fund a new film, Hawk the Hunter. Only $27,000 was raised and the project now appears to be in limbo. I can’t say I’m that gutted though. A much as I like the original, it’s such a product of its time that a sequel just couldn’t match its silly, cheesy fun. Let Hawk rest in peace I say.

Next: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brigitte Nielsen join forces to battle evil in Red Sonja, from 1985.