Thanks to Outposter Proinsias Cassidy for this Hawk the Slayer Retro Review!
A Fistful Of Tolkien
“They shall watch you suffer and when I have finished they will accompany you down the river of death.”
Thus spoke Jack Palance as Voltan. In terms of villainy, it was a role on par with the infamous character he played in Shane, and for me, as a kid, it was up there with the likes of Darth Vader and Ming the Merciless.
By all accounts Jack Palance was a really nice guy who enjoyed painting landscapes, writing poetry, and vegetarianism, but he always shone in the movies as a baddie. And he was never as much of a baddie as he was in Hawk the Slayer (1980).
I was way too young to see Hawk the Slayer at the cinema, so it was at some point in the early-80s when my dad and I rented it from the local video store and sat down to watch in front of our Betamax VCR.
I remember being instantly transfixed by the movie and especially the character of Voltan. He was essentially evil incarnate, committing murderous acts whilst throwing out quotably hateful lines. Palance easily dominates the film, but he wasn’t the only reason I loved it.
Love it I did, and love it I still do. I love it for what it is. The budget is low, the special effects are a little shaky and some of the acting isn’t the best, but it’s still great in my book.
I think the premise and structure of it really work. There are two brothers, one evil (Voltan) and one good (Hawk) who both end up with reasons they want to kill each other. Voltan ends up horribly scarred and goes on to lead a life of killing and pillaging, whilst Hawk lives a life of virtue with the aid of a semi-telekinetic mind sword and comrades to fight by his side.
It was the archetypal comrades who made me love Hawk the Slayer. Hawk brings them all together to defend an abbey of holy women who are under an imminent and ominous threat from Voltan. There’s a witch, a giant with a hammer, a dude with a crossbow, a dwarf with a whip, and an elf with a bow.
These days an elf with a bow may seem obvious and well worn, but to me, as a kid, that character was every bit as awesome as a Jedi.
Remember this was 1980, before the deluge of sword and sorcery films of that decade (and the subsequent procession of Tolkien-inspired films that came along in the early 2000s).
Sword And Sorcery
80s films that had yet to come along included The Beastmaster, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Krull, and the Conan movies. In its own way, Hawk the Slayer was a forerunner to all that.
The film was conceived by writer/director and self-confessed “Tolkien lunatic” Terry Marcel in conjunction with collaborator and composer Harry Robertson as a medieval version of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars.
It was initially envisaged to have no magical elements in it, but Marcel came upon the concept of the mind sword whilst trying to work out how to effectively allow the hero to draw the weapon from his back-mounted scabbard. Witches and sorcery naturally followed.
Marcel worked up a 60-page treatment, which was then further developed in conjunction with Robertson (who added most of the film’s overlooked humor, especially the interactions between the dwarf and the giant) over the course of three weeks.
As an assistant director on the likes of Straw Dogs and the Pink Panther movies, Marcel had some standing in the industry and was quickly offered a low-budget deal to make the movie with Chips Pictures. At that point, the legendary producer Lew Grade stepped in and offered to make the film on a big budget with the proviso that Marcel wouldn’t direct.
Marcel refused Grade’s offer. He made it his way. He directed and Robertson created the score.
Hawk the Slayer is without a doubt a product of its time and budget. Palance lifts the entire thing, but there are notable performances from other recognizable faces. There are the likes of Carry On actor Bernard Bresslaw as the giant, and future UK comedy star Annette Crosbie as the head abbess. There are great cameos by a post-droog Warren Clarke and Verruca Salt patriarch Roy Kinnear.
TV actor John Terry played the titular role and despite some slightly iffy reviews, I thought he was great. For me though the best heroic character was Crow, played by Ray Charleson. The preternatural elf with the lightning-fast bow arm was the coolest part of the gang and in retrospect is the soul of the movie for me.
Crow only spoke when he needed to, often in a monosyllabic and virtually atonal manner. But there is one almost incongruous moment of effusive eloquence, spoken as the heroes await the enemy onslaught:
“We have sat waiting like this many times before. Sometimes I tire of the fighting and killing. At night, I can hear the call of my race. They wait for me. When I join them, we will be forgotten.”
Is he the last of his people? I don’t think we can be sure. But we do know from that mini soliloquy that he has fought beside Hawk before. We know he is weary of it all. But a key theme of the movie is brought to light in that single moment. The theme of moral duty and fighting for what’s right, regardless of the toll.
And in the end, that’s what Hawk the Slayer is about. It’s about fighting for what’s right and standing against evil. Sure, it’s a low-budget film from 1980 that UK’s Empire magazine only gave one star to in a snobby 2006 retrospective review. But they don’t get it. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg get it, and that’s why the film is mentioned more than once in their TV series Spaced. It may seem trite to end a review on that point, but the fact that it is revered by geeks like those guys says it all.
Anyone who loves genre films gets the point of Hawk the Slayer, and if you haven’t seen it I suggest you watch it and get it too.