Hawk The Slayer (Special Edition) Review
Network, lovely as they are, include with their check discs a two-page summary of the film, special features and the DVD presentation. The one that accompanies Hawk The Slayer ends by saying that it will appeal to fans of cult adventure films like Krull and The Beastmaster. I haven't heard quite such a recommendation for anything since I was told that Amanda Donohoe was being cast on the West End stage in The Graduate and would be appearing nude in the seduction scene. Needless to say, I had front row seats then and if such a thing were possible in my own front room, I would too for Hawk The Slayer.
There is something marvellous about the fantasy films of the late-seventies and early-eighties, be that Conan The Barbarian, the animated Lord Of The Rings and, yes, even to Krull and The Beastmaster (and it's sequels). In my weaker moments, I'll happily admit to a liking for Red Sonja, Fire And Ice and Conan The Destroyer, even though they are somewhat weaker entries in the canon of fantasy features. And the Fighting Fantasy books of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. And JH Brennan's Grail Quest books. Oh, I could so easily go on...
Hawk The Slayer is a fine piece of nonsense set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy, a place where longswords, short bows and daggers are swiftly drawn, leather, chainmail and a kind of cloth notable only for its brown-ness remain fashionable and there's always an evil one roaming about. The evil one in this adventure is Voltan (Jack Palance), who's so very evil on account of him bearing a scar on his face that, as we're told by a mysterious figure who lives within a mountain, will not heal. Quite whether the scar came before the willingness to do evil isn't something that Hawk The Slayer makes clear but he is quickly doing all manner of terrible things, all of which seem to involve murder. Indeed, the film opens with Voltan murdering his own father as well as the woman intended to be the wife of his brother.
That brother is Hawk (John Terry), who arrives too late to save his father but in time to hear the prophecy that he had been guarding and which had seen him slain by his own son. As he dies, Hawk's father gives him a magical sword but it is one that Voltan had desired and the two are set on a path that will see them face one another in battle. When Voltan breaks into a convent and kidnaps the Mother Superior, Hawk comes to the rescue of the Sisters of the Holy Word, promising not only that he will raise the two thousand pieces of gold but will defeat Voltan. Carrying his sword before him, Hawk sets out to gather a band of warriors around him, trusting a giant, an elf, a dwarf and a soldier to accompany him to the convent and to defend the sisters against the evil of Voltan.
Hawk The Slayer is perfect fantasy material, not only in its handfuls of British character actors who litter the film but in its rusty old dialogue, its setting itself in deserted parts of the English countryside - forests, quarries and the like - but in its devotion to The Quest. Every fantasy film has such a thing - Krull has its rescuing of Lysette Anthony, the Lord Of The Rings has its destroying of the One Ring in Mount Doom - and Hawk The Slayer's is a decent one, that of two brothers, one good and one evil, who cannot live together in the particular world that they inhabit. All of that talk about the magic sword is but a distraction. What really matters is the relationship between Hawk and Voltan and it's a taut one. Palance has a great time playing Voltan recalling Shane in his throwing down of a sword and telling a be-leathered warrior to, "Pick it up!" John Terry isn't half as interesting but, with only a few exceptions, such is the way with fantasy films. The hero is a good deal less fun than is someone who keeps a nun in a cage, almost kills his own son and threatens Hawk with a brazier full of hot coals.
But the star of the film is its fantasy setting and its willingness to play along with the conventions of the genre. Much of the action takes place in various medieval-looking buildings, misty forests and dank-looking caves. Similarly, Hawk, magic sword or not, needs a band of men around him to defeat Voltan and, guided by a blind witch, he sets off to find them, discovering that the life of each one is already in danger. Actually, much of what there is to enjoy in Hawk The Slayer is this shopping for a dwarf, giant, elf and warrior, which isn't treated half as seriously as it might be elsewhere. The elf is duelling with another, though less honest, archer, the dwarf is tied to a wooden raft that some religious types are attempting to set of fire whilst Hawk's freeing of two thousand gold pieces from a corrupt slaver, who has a rather doughy selection of slaves, comes with a couple of decent visual jokes. Like so many fantasy films, the effects can be considerably less than special but like Krull and The Beastmaster, there is a rather ramshackle charm to it all, moreso that it was produced in Britain and not America. At least, even if one didn't notice the credits, that is what is suggested by the presence of Roy Kinnear and Christopher Benjamin, both being an uncommon sight in the land of fantasy. And that's largely what one takes from Hawk The Slayer, that there is a sense of fun here that's lacking from more serious fantasy fare and which, like with Erik The Viking, is most welcome. How else to explain the Silly String of Death? Rare is the film that depends on silly string to get its heroes out of a fix.
Network have done a decent job on Hawk The Slayer, going some way towards justifying their calling this a Special Edition. The image is fairly sharp, the print is clearly in excellent condition and the film has been transferred onto DVD with a fair amount of care, all of which adds up to a good job by Network. As regards the aspect ratio, they have stated in the promotional material that Hawk The Slayer is presented in its original 1.33:1, from which it was cropped for its theatrical release. Certainly, there isn't any reason to assume that it has been pan-and-scanned to fullscreen as there's no obvious sweeps across the image as it is presented here and neither is there anything lost from the right and left sides of the picture, suggesting Network are right in what they say.
The DD2.0 audio is also in good shape with a small amount of background noise but nothing to get particularly upset about, being a slight distraction but very little more than that. The dialogue is clear but the problem is more the balance between it and the score, a very-much-of-the-time mix of disco and English folk. Just when the volume is adjusted to the right level, the music comes roaring in demanding that it be turned down quickly. Then, just as suddenly, it stops and the volume has to be increased again. Annoying, yes, but not much that Network could have done without access to the original audio recordings, which one doubts they enjoyed. Finally, and something that they could have done with, there are no subtitles.
Once again, Network have scoured the archives for material relevant to Hawk The Slayer, finding a decent amount of behind-the-scenes footage produced for television at the time of the film's release. Once again, Chris Kelly and Clapperboard (25m50s) come to the rescue with a feature on the making of the film produced close to the end of principal filming. Although it's a parochial affair, Clapperboard obvious got a good deal of behind-the-scenes access to films in the late-seventies and early-eighties, even to Kelly interviewing Jack Palance in this feature, but he also covers the swordplay, the stunts and the special effects.
Elsewhere, Grampian Television's The Electric Theatre Show offers two features on Hawk The Slayer, By The Sword Divided (29m33s) and Sharpening The Blade (15m13s). The first of these is made up solely of interviews with the cast and crew whilst the second is a shorter selection of behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the film. There is an offscreen interviewer in one but the feel is very much of material that was grabbed quickly during the production and presented here as it was found by Network in the archives. Finally, there is a Trailer (2m22s) and an Image Gallery (2m24s).
Hawk The Slayer has made occasional appearances on television but these haven't been consistent enough for it to have been seen very often. The most recent showing that I remember, being on Five, was cancelled late in the day and not shown at all but Network's DVD is a fine way to catch up with Hawk The Slayer, a very enjoyable piece of sword-and-sorcery that, as Michael Weldon has it in The Psychotronic Guide To Film, arrived a couple of years before the genre really blossomed. That might well explain its flirting with humour but it's very welcome, particularly so in films that tend towards being far too serious.