A film notorious for its showings on TBS, which is, I imagine where I believed I had caught it, but it seems that I was mistaken–certainly I remember Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, but apparently not this one. At the least, I know I had not seen the unedited version before.
As a film I watched–or so I thought–numerous times on TV, it sat on a fine edge as to whether I would pursue ownership or further viewings of it. Some of those movies I bought almost instantly upon beginning my DVD collecting, others I waited or ignored completely, knowing I had watched them simply because they were on and on constantly. However, I later learned that in fact this movie was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, who is, of course, responsible for the Phantasm films, which I dearly love. The fact that Anchor Bay saw fit to bestow a special edition upon it sealed the deal for me. It seems, though, that I was completely mistaken and really had never seen this before. I was not expecting to find Rip Torn as a villain in the piece, amongst other things, nor so much nudity, supernatural/magic stuff, violence (to a degree) and the rather darker elements that appeared in dialogue and some scenes.
Dar (Marc Singer) is the firstborn of King Zed (Rod Loomis), stolen from his mother’s womb and planted in an ox (!) by evil sorceror Maax (Torn), after being prophesied as the source of Maax’s downfall. As with most sword and sorcery, yes, he is a solo hero with some background sidekicks who raises himself up from nothing to reclaim the kingdom for its rightful ruler. The vague twist here is that Dar is the “Beastmaster,” and he is not an ass-kicking mercenary so much as a relatively strong guy who has been trained decently with a sword, but who communicates with animals. He walks with his “eyes”–a wedge-tailed eagle, his “thieves”–Kodo and Podo the ferrets, and his “strength”–Ruh, the (dyed-black) tiger. He meets up with a slinky slave (of course) played by Tanya Roberts, who is cousin to Tal, a young boy and son of King Zed that Dar runs across, guarded by Seth (good ol’ John Amos–see Good Times, etc.) who we saw earlier as the guard of King Zed.
Sword and sorcery flicks (unlike their more “realistic” brethren, the sword and sandal) never get much in the way of budgets, and with a name like Coscarelli behind it (instead of, say, Milius?) there’s even less to go around. Despite this, the effects, costuming and especially the set design are quite good. The make-up for the less-than-human elements (such as Maax’s prophetic witches) is quite good and doesn’t show its seams easily. Marc is enjoyable as Dar, with a bit of arrogance, some humour and a little pinch of pathos. This is not Milius’ Conan, he speaks regularly and has a heart (so he’s sure as heck not Howard’s Conan either). Naturally that film is the one most often compared to this one, but that’s a bit ridiculous, as the script is, while not unbelievably stellar, far too well put together to have been hastily written, filmed, edited and released in a mere three months after the classic Conan the Barbarian. This is a relative at best, not a rip-off. There’s a gentler sense of humour about it, and an awful lot more heart to it. Torn, of course, is pretty darn evil, with some dialogue that’s actually reaching further than I expected, especially when he discusses his plans for the unborn Dar.
In all, very much one of the better put together movies of this genre (and there was indeed a mass of them in the 1980s, but it was one of the earliest, after all) and it does not suffer near the cheese level of, say, Krull as Coscarelli and friends tend to know how to hide the seams, at least so that you can go “Ah, good thing we didn’t see a close-up from that other angle!” and the bemused approach to the whole thing helps to accept it as an epic fantasy that is just damn good fun.