1982 (March 15, 2022)
Sorcerer Productions (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
While Conan the Barbarian is sometimes remembered as the film that launched the wave of fantasy films in the Eighties, Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer was arguably the real starting point. It was released a month earlier in North America, and given the fact that it had a significantly lower budget than the John Milius film, it actually turned a much healthier profit—in fact, it ended up being the most successful independent production of 1982. The Sword and the Sorcerer proved that credible fantasy films didn’t require unlimited means; just a lot of creativity on both sides of the camera.
The script by Pyun, Tom Karnowski, and John V. Stuckmeyer is a fairly straightforward fantasy tale where King Cromwell (Richard Lynch) makes a deal with a literal devil in the form of the undead sorcerer Xusia (Richard Moll) in order to expand his kingdom by conquering his rival, King Richard. Richard’s son Talon (Lee Horsley) escapes to become a mercenary, and years later his help is enlisted by a Mikah (Simon MacCorkindale), a contender for Cromwell’s throne, as well as Mikah’s sister Alana (Kathleen Beller). Talon agrees to aid the pair, but Cromwell has plans of his own, and the threat from the missing Xusia still remains. The Sword and the Sorcerer also stars Joe Regalbuto, Anthony De Longis, George Maharis, Earl Maynard, and Nina van Pallandt.
The Sword and the Sorcerer manages its small budget well by essentially being an epic writ small. Despite the size of the story, there’s a deliberate lack of scale to the proceedings, with most of the action handled in either close-ups or medium shots. Instead of spending money on vast sets or legions of extras, everything is kept much tighter. The limited resources were spent on making the limited sets and costuming of reasonably high quality. Whatever else can be said about The Sword and the Sorcerer, it looks surprisingly good.
It was a challenging production, since Pyun found himself in conflict with producer Brandon Chase, and the man with the money won out in the end. As a result, the tone of The Sword and the Sorcerer is inconsistent, with comic moments that don’t always mesh with the darker stuff. Chase wanted a swashbuckling Errol Flynn film, and he got it, but those elements sometimes seem at odds with the rest of the story. Actually, the film’s most effective moments are the darker ones, especially the scenes involving Xusia’s rebirths. The Sword and the Sorcerer wears its R rating with pride—Chase did get the T&A that he wanted, but Pyun really relished the gore. There are some impressive visions here, such as the wall of faces in Xusia’s tomb. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it works well.
Albert Pyun’s name will forever be associated with filmmaking on the cheap, and while The Sword and the Sorcerer was indeed a low-budget production, it still manages to punch above its weight class. Flaws or not, there’s a lot of impressive work in the finished product. It’s a shame that Pyun never really got to make his planned sequel Tales of the Ancient Empire (we’ll be generous here and pretend that the 2010 cheapie doesn’t exist, as Pyun was already suffering from health issues at that point). Yet The Sword and the Sorcerer is still fun enough on its own, warts and all.
Cinematographer Joseph Mangine shot The Sword and the Sorcerer on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. (There’s some stock footage of lightning near the beginning that was originally shot anamorphic, and it’s squeezed in the film, so it stands out like a sore thumb.) For Shout! Factory’s Ultra HD release, the original camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution (with the opticals obviously pulled from secondary elements), and graded for HDR (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are included). The opening titles and any other optical effects are softer, with coarser grain, but the rest of the imagery is much sharper, within the confines of the original production. Mangine and Pyun favored diffusion throughout the film, with frequent layers of smoke, and so it can never be as sharp as films that were photographed differently. There’s light speckling here and there, and the closing credits do waver a bit, but there’s little else in the way of damage. The HDR grade doesn’t significantly expand the contrast range, and black levels aren’t always the deepest, but there’s plenty of shadow detail visible, and the range of colors have been expanded—the reds during some of Xusia’s scenes look really red. Some of the highlights are brighter too, such as the torches that are carried by various characters, or the glittering sparks off the swords during the final duel between Talon and Cromwell. It’s not a reference-quality transfer, but it can’t be, and seems faithful to the original intentions.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The Sword and the Sorcerer was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, and as there were no original sound elements available, this 2.0 version is derived from the optical audio tracks. The 5.1 remix was created for the Anchor Bay DVD release. Shout! Factory has added a title card to the beginning of the film explaining the differences between the two, and while there was damage to the optical tracks that they couldn’t fix, they still recommend the 2.0 version due to directional errors in the 5.1 mix. They’re right—the 2.0 definitely has the edge. While there’s audible crackling and background noise, it sounds slightly fuller than the 5.1 mix, which is thin in comparison. Both versions are primarily focused on the front channels, with just a bit of ambience in the surrounds, but the 2.0 still has more body to it. David Whitaker’s Korngold-influenced score sound fine, though it really would have benefited from access to the original stems.
Shout! Factory’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Sword and the Sorcerer is a 2-disc set that includes a Blu-ray copy of the film in 1080p. The insert is reversible, featuring different theatrical artwork on each side, and there’s also a slipcover which duplicates the primary artwork. Aside from the commentary track, all of the extras are on the Blu-ray only:
DISC ONE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Albert Pyun
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Albert Pyun
- Tales of the Ancient Empire (HD – 33:06)
- A Princess’ Tale (HD – 24:08)
- Mightier Than the Sword (HD – 19:51)
- Master of the Blade (HD – 13:53)
- The Specialist and the Effects (HD – 12:10)
- Dedicated to Jack Tyree, Stuntman (HD – 11:50)
- Trailers from Hell (HD – 3:30)
- Theatrical Trailers (HD – 6:25)
- TV Spot (Upscaled HD – :26)
- Still Gallery (HD – 108 in all – 9:02)
While it’s not mentioned on the packaging or in the menu, the commentary with Pyun is moderated by author and Video Watchdog contributor John Charles. Pyun has been battling dementia, and Charles does a nice job of keeping things on track. Pyun’s memories of the production are still generally sound, and he tells good stories about making the film. He says that due to the difficult nature of the production, he felt like he was an inch away from being fired every single day, and he also goes into the conflict with Brandon Chase. He notes some interesting details, like the fact that Earl Maynard’s final moment was a deliberate reference to his fight scene in The Deep (something that seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d never thought of it before). At one point, he gets emotional and completely breaks down while discussing how important that it was to him that his film played in theaters in his home town of Honolulu, so that people who had dismissed him could see that he had successfully brought his vision to the screen. (Charles kindly steps in to reassure him that he has plenty to be proud of.) It’s a difficult moment to listen to, but it’s a real one, and it really humanizes the struggles that Pyun continues to face.
Tales of the Ancient Empire is an interview with Pyun, who relates the challenges that he faced bringing The Sword and the Sorcerer to the screen. He admits that he was a temperamental director, and put his cast through a lot, but that when he considered quitting, it was Lee Horsley who convinced him to continue. He also admits that he didn’t bother shooting his storyboards, but just winged it every day (not much of a surprise there, knowing Pyun). He discusses dealing with studio heads while getting offers after the success of the film, most of whom were taken aback to find that he was non-white. He also candidly acknowledges that at this point, his dementia ended his film career. A Princess’ Tale is a Zoom interview with Kathleen Beller, who talks about working with the rest of the cast, dealing with the snake, and shooting the nude scene. She felt that Pyun was out of his depth, and that the first assistant director was really in charge of the set. She also gives her reactions to watching the film for the first time in years (she’s still not a fan, though she’s come to accept it more now). Mightier Than the Sword is an interview with co-writer/co-producer John Stuckmeyer, who discusses the development process, raising money, dealing with Brandon Chase, and the successful theatrical release. He has nothing but kind words for Pyun, whom he describes as having infectious enthusiasm.
Master of the Blade is an interview with editor Marshall Harvey, who talks about his early career and his working relationship with Chase. Harvey says that the temp track that he added to a sizzle real created to sell the film is what was responsible for increasing the budget for the music, which resulted in Whitaker being hired. He also tells the story of what happened after they brought in Oliver Reed to do the narration (needless to say, that didn’t go well). The Specialist and the Effects is an interview with Allan Apone, who worked on the additional makeup effects inserts for the film. (The primary effects were supervised by Ve Neill.) He explains what it was like to work on such a limited budget, and gives a lot of credit to art director George Costello for creating some impressive sets despite the limited resources. Dedicated to Jack Tyree, Stuntman is a compilation of clips from all of the interview sessions, with everyone discussing the death of stuntman Jack Tyree, who was killed after he missed the airbag during his high fall stunt. A few of them share their feelings regarding the wisdom of including the footage of the jump in the final film. Brothers in Arms is an interview with the irrepressible Chiodo Brothers, who worked on the wall of faces in the crypt. It was the first film that the three of them worked on together, and it really launched Chiodo Brothers Productions.
Trailers from Hell features Marshall Harvey, who didn’t just edit the film, but also cut this Red Band trailer. He gives an overview of the production and explains why Chase demanded a Red Band trailer in the first place. The Theatrical Trailers includes the full version of that trailer, as well as one for general release that uses alternate footage shot for the film’s television broadcast. The Still Gallery collects posters, lobby cards, other advertising materials, production photographs, articles, soundtrack artwork, home video releases, and even tie-ins like the novelization and video game. It also includes an interesting 1982 letter from Marshall Harvey to Joseph Bensoua at the Daily Breeze, debunking statements that Albert Pyun had made in a recent interview.
The Sword and the Sorcerer is the kind of film that most people would have never expected to receive a UHD release, let alone a pretty comprehensive package like this one. Yet here it is in all of its 4K glory, thanks to Shout! Factory. Nothing in this set will change the minds of anyone who has already dismissed the film, but for fans (or for those on the fence), it’s the best possible way to experience it.
– Stephen Bjork