Friday, November 30, 2012

Films of 1983: Krull

Although it isn't heralded as much as it likely should be, the span from 1980 - 1987 surely represents a new golden age in terms of silver screen fantasy. 

This was the era that brought the world Clash of the Titans (1981), Excalibur (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Tron (1982), The Neverending Story (1984), Legend (1985), Highlander (1986) and many, many more.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Road Warrior (1981), Superman II (1981) The Last Starfighter (1984) and other titles of this epoch also leap quickly to mind, sterling instances of action, super-heroic, post-apocalyptic, and outer space-styled fantasy. 

In all likelihood, this renaissance in cinematic fantasy arises from the unprecedented financial success and cultural popularity of George Lucas's Star Wars in 1977. That grand space opera was the ultimate pastiche of Lord of the Rings, Arthurian legend,  Joseph Campbell's mythic heroic journey -- the so-called "monomyth" --and about a dozen other literary and filmic sources of both swash and buckle.

In 1983, director Peter Yates presented another big-screen fantasy in this mold, the handsomely-mounted epic called Krull.  The movie was a box office bomb, unfortunately, and has never really found a considerable audience.  

Yet in terms of visuals, the film remains both incredibly imaginative and dazzling in almost breath-taking proportions   Pre-CGI, Krull presented an alien world in terms that seem both realistic and legitimately other-worldly.  That's no easy trick, and perhaps Krull's greatest success is forging this sense of "place" that seems both tangible and a little magical.

Writing in terms of narrative, Krull's familiar fairy tale story plays mostly like a familiar re-iteration of the Campbell "monomyth," featuring stock characters such as the young hero who-would-be-king, the damsel in distress, the old wizard, the comedic sidekick and the embodiment of True Evil, here known as The Beast. 

Despite this overly familiar story, Krull offers viewers some unique and worthwhile flourishes.  In particular, one emotional and tense interlude involving a character called "The Widow of the Web" (Francesca Annis) contextualizes the classic  heroic journey in terms of generational passage. 

That's a novel and worthwhile twist that grants the Yates film a much-needed sense of gravitas leading up to the final battle.

Only if we're united do we stand a chance against them...

The Black Fortress lands on Krull.
In very broad strokes, Krull depicts a story about freedom and individual liberty (and not incidentally, true love). 

On the distant world called Krull, an alien Beast has landed in his menacing Black Fortress and set loose his destructive slayers to dominate the almost-Medieval-style landscape.   The Slayers are terrifying soldiers too: greasy insectoids housed in humanoid armor, boasting deadly, advanced technology.  When the armor is breached, the juicy insectoids squirm out, squawking plaintively.

The humanoid people of Krull bravely resist the deadly, planet wide invasion. In particularly, two kingdoms unite when young Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) and Colwyn (Ken Marshall) choose marriage over the political status-quo.  Unlike their bickering fathers (think the  Hatfields  and McCoys), the next generation of Krull selects unity over division and petty differences. 

But the Beast is not content to see his enemies unite.  His slayers lay siege to Lyssa's kingdom and capture the young princess.  His father murdered, Colwyn is left, barely alive, to brace an uncertain future. 

Fortunately, a wise old man named Ynyr (Freddy Jones) travels down from self-imposed exile in the distant Granite Mountains (think Obi Wan Kenobi in the desert wastelands beyond the Skywalker farm...) to instruct the boy how to destroy the Beast and rescue his true love.

The Glaive: An ancient symbol of freedom.
The first order of business is for Colwyn to acquire an ancient weapon called a "Glaive" -- a five-point, jewel- encrusted throwing-star (think of Tron's MCP-destroying frisbee/disc).  Colwyn climbs a treacherous mountain peak to remove the Glaive from a  bed of lava. Like Arthur's sword-in-the-stone, Excalibur, Colwyn holds the glaive up to the light to see it shine...

The next order of business is for Colwyn to learn where the Black Fortress is going to materialize the next day.  In one of the story's more interesting twists, The Beast causes his headquarters to teleport from day-to-day so that it can never be located, much less attacked. 

With the help of Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley), a robber named Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and his merry men (including  Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane), plus a lonely Cyclops, Rell (Bernard Bresslaw), Colwyn sets out to learn this information from a blind Seer (John Welsh).

Unfortunately, the Seer is replaced by a deadly changeling in a perilous swamp, and the heroic protagonists face an ambush by Slayers.  Many of the team are killed in the ensuing, leaving Ynyr no choice but to visit the mystical Widow in the Web -- his long-lost lover, also named Lyssa --  to acquire the important knowledge about the Beast's lair...

Meanwhile, in the Black Fortress, the Beast attempts to seduce Lyssa with a golden wedding gown and the promise of immense power (a clear predecessor to a similar plot-line in Ridley Scott's Legend).  She resists, temptation and voices one of the film's unpretentious themes.  When she is told by the Beast that "love is fleeting; power is eternal," she turns the axiom around on him, insisting the reverse.  "Power is fleeting; love is eternal," she insists.

Eventually, in Krull's prescribed and all-together expected ending, she is proven right, of course.  The Beast is defeated by true love, and everyone on Krull (and in the galaxy) lives happily ever after.

And if you're pure at heart, you simply wouldn't have it any other way.

Krull as Mono-myth

The Kingdom of Krull is threatened and order is overturned, true to the Monomyth.

In (perhaps too...) dutiful fashion, Krull ticks off every anticipated stop in the long-established "hero's journey."  There's Colwyn's initial "call to adventure" as he is forced to become King when his father is murdered by Slayers.

Then there is the archetypal "refusal of the call," -- a dedicated refusal to fight and to accept personal fate/destiny -- until Colwyn is guided by a surrogate father-figure, Ynyr.

In further compliance of the Campbell outline, Colwyn also calls upon supernatural aid in his quest to fight Evil.  Here, those supernatural auspices are the weapon with a mind of its own, called a glaive, a lonely Cyclops, an inept sorcerer, the wild fire mares, and the Emerald Seer  Without these supernatural tools supporting him, Colwyn could not emerge from his trials victorious.

Colwyn also succeeds at the Monomyth's "first threshold" by retrieving the ancient weapon -- the Glaive -- and, finally, in the third act, goes into deep into "The Belly of the Whale," the villain's frightening, Hellish headquarters.  Here, in the Home of the Beast, Colwyn undergoes a metamorphosis that allows him to understand his spiritual powers.   Specifically, his union with Lyssa -- true love -- makes him strong.

Why, there's even the archetypal a woman temptress in one important scene, and finally, Colwyn -- after his road of trials -- delivers a boon unto his people: a generation of peace, and a son who shall benevolently "rule the galaxy."

You can admire Krull's slavish devotion to the details of the human mono-myth at the same time you might feel compelled to yawn a little and note that -- especially in this fantasy film era -- we've been here before.

"No Man has Ever Seen Him and Lived"

Princess Lyssa trapped in the mind's eye of The Beast.

The primary reason that Krull is as diverting and entertaining as it is?  Even almost thirty years after it was made, the film's visual imagination is nothing short of dazzling.  The film is, without exception, gorgeously crafted.

In particular, visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings and production designer Stephen Grimes have forged a marvelous fantasy world that, even now, compares favorably with modern CGI epics such as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings installments.

There are several stand-out scenes the film that yet dazzle the eye and spark the imagination.  For Lyssa's captivity in the Fortress, for instance, the interior of that Pandemonium-like structure is depicted in utterly surreal terms.  The Beast is seen only in distorted glimpses for much of the film; but the inner chambers are bizarre, abstract and wholly impressive.  At one point, Lyssa appears to be trapped in a room that resembles a giant claw (she is literally trapped in the Beast's grip, the set design reminds us). 

At another memorable juncture, Lyssa is seen staring out from a chamber that appears to be a humanoid eye.  This means that the Beast's eye is upon her; and the weird surreal sets like this also express the notion that The Beast and the Black Fortress are two heads of the same monster; that its interior is a representation of his fearsome, inhuman Id.  The Campbell-ian idea of the "Belly of the Whale" is translated very literally: this is the belly (or brain?) of The Beast.

The point of all this strange and almost biological interior design is to preserve the mystery and terror of the Beast as long as possible; and therefore heighten suspense about his gruesome, malevolent nature.  He is not seen as a recognizable (and very alien...) life-form until the film's not-entirely-satisfactory conclusion. 

And then, after his wicked Fortress interiors have done so much work to establish his evil credentials, the visualization is almost a disappointment; a man in a suit.  It's a good suit; but clearly a suit nonetheless.  The Beast is more effective in close-ups, and even in the final battle, Yates relies on these close-ups, wisely, to accent the Beast's alien-ness and undercut our sense of place (and therefore safety).

The Slayers spring their trap in a wonderfully-realized visual moment.
Outside the Black Fortress, another visualization that holds up remarkably well involves the deadly swamp where the Blind Seer is replaced by a long-fingered Changeling.  All the trees in the swamp are dead, gnarled things; and the sky in the background is a hazy, menacing mauve color.  But the best moment sees a squad of Slayers rising slowly from the reflective waters of the swamp -- heavily armed -- to launch their surprise attack. 

There's something incredibly powerful about this moment: alien soldiers on an alien landscape, attacking the film's heroes.  It looks like a real evocation of an extra-terrestrial war in ways that CGI somehow can't yet manage (Avatar excluded, perhaps).  Watching this scene, you are immersed in the details of the planet's struggle, countenancing visions of believable "other-worldiness."

Perhaps the film's most dynamic visualization occurs as wise old Ynyr attempts to navigate a gigantic spider's web to reach his long-lost love, the Widow.  He is shadowed by a giant spider the whole way, and the scale of the web (and the albino spider) is nothing less-than epic.

Shot at Pinewood Studios in England, and on locations in Italy and Spain, Krull is a gorgeous fantasy that legitimately deserves comparison to The Dark Crystal, Legend, and other classics of the period.   Yes, the visuals are that good.

Where Krull comes up a little short, however, is in its pacing and an its perhaps too-simple narrative.  At just over two-hours the film feels over-long and slow-paced, even with James Horner's rousing, blood-pumping score. 

And the film's lack of major cult support from fans arises, I believe, because unlike Star Wars or other fantasies of the period, the film does not very clearly erect a believable or logical basis for its "magic."  

To wit, in Krull's last act, Colwyn learns that the Glaive is not the source of  his power.  Rather, it his love for Lyssa and vice-versa, that gives him such awesome power.  He takes on the Beast and literally shoots fire out of his hand, like a flame thrower

While this is undeniably a beautiful thought -- that unity brings great strength and power -- it is also somewhat child-like. 

On the one hand, that childishness grants the film a legitimate and nice sense of wonder.  On the other hand, it sometimes plays a little as arbitrary.  Convenient that Colwyn's hand should become a flame thrower, right?  Though, certainly, an early wedding ceremony in the film involving fire, as well his retrieval of the Glaive from fire/lava, embeds this eventuality as a possibility.

Another way of saying this is that George Lucas made sure in Star Wars that everything had a basis; a kind of sense. 

The use of "The Force" -- an energy field binding, penetrating and surrounding all life forms -- enabled the "magic" to not seem magical, if you get my drift.  There was an order to things, and if you could tap into the Force, you could influence others (Jedi Mind Trick), and even destroy the Death Star. 

Here, there's some sense of inconsistency, of magic haphazardly applied to resolve crises in the story.  How does Ynyr -- the wise elder -- know so much about the Black Fortress and the Beast, for example?  

It isn't even clear how long these "invaders" have been here, at all.  We see the mountain arrive (from deep space) at the film's opening, and a voice-over narration tells us of the Beast's history for taking over other worlds, but that doesn't answer the question. 

Is the Beast new to Krull, or is this a multi-generational campaign of terror? 

Also, how does Ynyr know of the Cyclops' otherworldly history?  He recounts a fascinating tale that positions the Cyclops as extra-terrestrials who were seduced by the Beast's promises, but how does he know this information?   Come to think of it, who first spoke the "Prophecy" of Lyssa, Colwyn and their offspring?  The answer: we don't know.

Occasionally in the film, Ynyr functions too much as all-purpose exposition without explaining how he knows so many important things. He is a convenient mouthpiece for the writer, for the most part.

Furthermore, since it is relatively easy to tame the film's flying "fire mares" (think Pegasus in the original Clash of the Titans), why aren't these impressive and fast-moving animals being harnessed in battle against the Slayers and the Beast on a regular basis?  Seems like that could even the odds a bit...

And where are the people of Colwyn and Lyssa's kingdom, anyway? We see a castle, beautifully-realized, and the palace guard decimated by the Slayers in a great battle scene, but no "regular folks."

When you couple the random application of magic with the overly familiar details of the monomyth -- the quest, the sacred Excalibur-like weapon, the wise elder, etc. -- Krull finds it hard to sustain interest at two hours. 

The make-up, visual effects, production design and scoring do a lot of the heavy lifting for a narrative that often seems to glide, on automatic pilot, to its pre-ordained conclusion. 

Even the occasional movie quotations -- such as a fight with Slayers in the palace that recalls Errol Flynn's Robin Hood -- don't do much to make the movie move nimblly enough.

"These are the Sands of My Life"

Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) play hide-and-seek.
All these criticisms and questions established, Krull is not without an overarching theme of relatively nice complexity. 

Specifically, the film balances the story of Old Ynyr and his Lyssa (The Widow of the Web) with the story of young Colwyn and his Lyssa. 

That both  female characters in the film are named "Lyssa" is no accident.  Rather, the identical name for this damsel in distress makes the audience consider the woman (the love object of the hero in Campbell's monomyth) as something more than a person. Krull contextualizes the princess as a woman "of ancient name," meaning that this name carries with it an historical legacy.

In two cases in the film, a "man" (Ynyr and Colwyn, separetly) has the opportunity to follow his heart -- to unify the world too -- and find peace and happiness with a "Lyssa."  In the case of the older generation, that opportunity is lost.  Ynyr forsakes his Lyssa and out of anger, she murders their child together.  As punishment, she is transformed into the eternal "Widow of the Web," a creature luring men to their doom.   She is not happy about her crime or her fate, but as this Lyssa tells Ynyr, her "rage needed a victim."

Ynyr is now an old man, and in this stand-out sequence, he forgives the woman he once left; realizing his part in her unhappiness and rage.  He was not true to their love.  They will have no future together ("no man has ever escaped the web"), but at least there can be final reconciliation.

With the current lovers, however, the mistakes of the past can be rectified. Kingdoms can be united...and love can become "eternal."  Lyssa does not accept the seductive wealth and power of the Beast; and Colwyn does not accept the sexual comforts of a woman who comes to him (really a minion of the Beast).  They have learned from the mistakes of their fathers and are not going to repeat them.

In short, this is an optimistic take on the world in the 1980s, a time when old men in the United States and the Soviet Union held the fate of the world in their hands (and could destroy civilization with the push of the button). 

Here, the young generation promises to set right that which the older generation has gotten wrong (and in terms of contemporary films, you can see the same theme played out in Wes Craven's 1984 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street).  The dream of Krull is not for a world of eternal enemies on opposite sides, but "a single kingdom under our children."

That's still the dream.

But the wistful, sad "Widow of the Web" interlude powerfully gets at the passage of the generations.  Every generation has its chance to succeed, and must grasp it or face death a failure. 

In this enchanting scene, Ynyr notes that his "race is run" and his Lyssa implores him to help the world anyway, even if they, personally, shall die.  "Save the other Lyssa," she pleads.  This is Krull's way of noting that there is a time when adults must stop living for today and for their own happiness, and start living for the happiness and continuance of the species; for the next generation; for their children.

Alone, this beautiful and sad passage nearly manages to redeem the almost rote "mono-myth" narrative of Krull.  One wishes the film could have followed through with a bit more of the complexity and adult perspective depicted here, but then perhaps wonder might have been sacrificed.

Still, overall enjoyment and appreciation of Krull arises from the film's stellar production values: effects, sets, make-up and costumes that still impress and even amaze nearly three decades on.  But also largely from the Widow of the Web sequence which is the red meat, perhaps, that grown-ups need to enjoy what seems like an almost childish fantasy at times.

It doesn't hurt if you posses that proverbial pure heart, either, at least during a screening of this movie. 

The are movie virtues other than originality, to misquote Ynyr in the film, and one of them is charming innocence. 

Krull succeeds on that front, which is one reason I feel "safe" sharing this film with my son, Joel while he is still young.  Without cynicism or skepticism, the movie dreams big for a better tomorrow and it does so with vivid, gorgeous visualizations. 

Maybe in these days, that's legacy enough worth cherishing.


  1. Nice appreciation of this long-forgotten fantasy film from the 1980s. Your assessment of the film's faults are right on the money and is probably why I've never been a huge fan of this film. It does seem too long and too slow-paced at times but, as you rightly point out, the visuals are so arresting. I really need to watch this film again. Occasionally, I will catch snippets of it on TV but I don't think I've seen it all the way through since it came out in theaters!

  2. This used to be a favorite of mine when I was a kid. I loved the visuals and the world that was created here. All the snippets and hints of backstory that Ynyr brings up fueled my imagination. But as you pointed out the ending always bugged me. It seemed to be a cheat that solved all the problems and had no basis in the rest of the film. How come Ynyr never explained that? Was he too busy explaining everything else?

    Horner's score is a classic, and really does it's best to make it's own brisk pacing. It nearly succeeds, but the film is still very sluggish in parts.

    I agree that the Widow of the Web sequence was one of the best in the film. Everything really came together there. Even as I kid who loved the action and adventure portions of the film, that scene would keep me riveted. Haven't seen the film in a long long time. May be time to revisit it.

    It's nice to hear you mention the fantasy boom in the early 80s. I think the other thing to consider in that boom (aside from the power of Star Wars) was the popularity (and infamy) of Dungeons and Dragons. I think the studios knew they had an audience for fantasy films, but weren't quite sure how to get those folks in the theater. "Conan the Barbarian" was pretty successful if memory serves, but many of the films that tried to follow its template were just not up to the task.

    Still those flicks deserve some respect. All to often I see people forget about that renaissance in fantasy and sci-fi films of the early 80s. For me it was even more impressive that the studios embraced these films because they tend to require a healthy budget to pull off well.

  3. Love this film and always wanted a sequel.

  4. Anonymous1:09 PM

    John, excellent review of Krull. This film is one of those stand alone films without a sequel, but deserving of one. I place it next to the Flash Gordon(1980) movie as an engaging adventure too.


  5. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that movie. I never understood why it's so little-known. And I still want a fire-mare.

  6. Anonymous2:05 PM

    One point: I recall seeing in-production bits of this film at one of the local sf cons. Part of Krull's problem was that it began as a sci-fi flick, then after about half of it was shot, got rewritten into a fantasy movie.

    Here's where we disagree:

    Though I really, instensely dislike the monomyth, you've missed a couple things in reading Krull as an example. The reson there's no common people (except the theives) is that the monomyth has nothing whatsoever to do with them. Heros are ordained from birth, and you can't be one.

    And as I recall, Colwyn and Lyssa are not the ones who decide on marriage, their fathers do. Sure, they're fated for true love, but they're not the instigators.

    Also, I think you're off base that there's no basis for the magic here. Yeah, none for the Beast, but he's the bad guy, ergo, has magic. But remember that the hero is interrupted during his unfinished wedding, there his prospective bride picks up a flame out of the water. Yes, it's lame that it's not explained at all, but it's there. It can also explain how Colwyn is able to stick his hand into lava to get the Glaive (which is a ridiculous weapon). Might also explain controlling the firemares, though that's a stretch.

    One of the key things unanswered by the lack of exposition re: fire is whether it's just Colwyn who can get this power, or all the nobles? The royal wedding implies the latter, but you don't see either King making with the flames.

    And though it's symbolic of true love, the flame-shooting thing only occurs after the interrupted wedding is finished by Lyssa giving Colwyn the flame she took from the water.

    And as far as that goes, the final battle is terrible. Neaither the Beast nor Colwyn moves during it, and may not even appear in the same shots. And if my memory is intact, the Beast falls to the flaming hand, not the Glaive.

  7. Trevor4:35 PM

    If you're ever in the mood, I'd love to read your take on Lucio fulci's 'Conquest'