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Would you follow a king to the Black Fortress?

Krull
(1983)

(SPOILERS) Krull is the embodiment of what happens when a studio has a vision of money to be made but lacks a visionary to make it. It wasn’t just that it came late to the sci-fi-fantasy party, released the same year as the finale of Star Wars, the trilogy that spawned a thousand imitators. More damagingly, it was armed a paucity of inspiration and no grasp of the alchemy required to turn a huge budget into a blockbuster, or mould the tried-and-tested principles of the hero’s journey into something that would resonate with audiences.


What Peter Yates’ film actually is (which is not to denigrate the stop-motion pioneer’s fine and inspiring legacy), is closer in tone to the Ray Harryhausen mythic romps that peaked with Jason and the Argonauts some two decades earlier, with all the problems of vague travelogue plotting, listless pacing and indistinct leads that ensnared later outings. While offering tokenistic laser-zap and space-wise gestures as a nod to George Lucas’ saga, Krull is firmly grounded in the pure fantasy arena. One that had not, despite multiple attempts, really experienced a resurgence during the period. Harryhausen’s own Clash of the Titans was one such casualty (as if to prove it, Lucas’ later foray, Willow, would also meet with a tepid response).


Beyond our time, beyond our universe there is a planet besieged by alien invaders, where a young king must rescue his love from the clutches of the Beast. Or risk the death of his world. KRULL. A world light-years beyond your imagination.

And if that tag-line (or tag-essay) doesn’t have you itching to see it… Not to be confused with the Krell (pointy-eared, Sontaran-esque aggressors in DC Thompson comic strip Starhawk), Kroll (many tentacled giant squid and the fifth segment of the Key to Time in Doctor Who), or Kull the Conqueror (that would be plain old Kevin Sorbo), Krull (the planet, not the monster, which doesn’t really compute, as Krull sounds like a monster, not a peace-loving, pageant-promoting place), according to some (but not others, including TV cartoon producer E Gary Gygax), began life as a Dungeons and Dragons movie, before morphing in The Dragons of Krull and then coming to rest as plain old Krull.


Writer Stanford Sherman, a TV veteran who had contributed to Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before moving on to the glory of gargantuan Clint Eastwood orangutan sequel Any Which Way You Can (and later contributing to mystifying cult favourite The Ice Pirates), is unable to seize the opportunity to show he’s more than a plodding journeyman as he delivers a movie that’s no more a plodding journey.


You only have to re-read the lumpen sales pitch above to twig no one was going to be on fire for Krull, so Columbia’s decision to simply throw money at it seems abjectly foolish. Its cost is reported as between $27 and $50m (it made $16m in the US), so probably in the ballpark of a $100m movie in today’s terms, and unlike the recent Warcraft – another movie without any discernible hook for the average moviegoer – it didn’t have Chinese box office receipts to underpin the outlay. This was a period where studios were going after fantasy by simple dint of Star Wars having elements thereof: 2 and 2 makes 5. There were some successes – Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, Conan the Barbarian, the ultra-cheap The Sword and the Sorcerer (possibly entirely based on the poster art) – but none on a level that the average accountant would say would justified Columbia’s outlay. 


Notably, Krull’s failure did nothing to stop another expensive bomb, Ridley Scott’s Legend, from underlining the point that iconography isn’t enough; you have to have characters to invest in, something that didn’t really happen to the genre until Peter Jackson came along with an idea for bringing Tolkien to the big screen.


It sounds obvious to say it, and it’s certainly the case that plenty of pictures could be picked out to prove otherwise, but looked at in the cold light of day, Krull seems to have been fashioned on a basis almost determined to do everything Lucas did right entirely wrong, engineered by artisans with no aptitude or affinity for the genre, so mimicking its features badly or listlessly.


What it undoubtedly does have going for it is some strong design work, from the glaive (understandably central to the poster art, yet cluelessly hardly used in the movie, on the basis that it isn’t to be until its needed) to the eye-catching Slayers (they may not move with anything approaching dexterity, rather favouring standing around waiting to be slain, and their innards show the kind slavish devotion to copying other genres without much wherewithal why seen elsewhere in the picture, in this case the Alien squittery things that leaps down gutters when their lives are forfeit; but, in the right movie, they could have been as memorable as Stormtroopers). The Black Fortress and the Lair of the Crystal Spider are memorable pieces of design, effectively rendered (albeit, the former looks as if it’s been plundered from Time Bandits), as is the monstrous Beast and his black-eyed minions (albeit, he has no personality to speak of).


The locations are all well-chosen, and the sound stages well-stocked, but there’s little sense that they marry together. Director Peter Yates, who scored big with Bullitt and then spent the next couple of decades seemingly trying to convince everyone it was a fluke, shows little indication that fantasy’s his thing, but he at least seemed to understand what looks good in it, requisitioning Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; there are memorable scenes and shots throughout, but in crucial distinction to Kershner’s film, they fail to blend into a coherent whole. Adding to the vague, disjointed, languorous feel is James Horner’s score, resolutely evocative of the stirring adventure epics of yesteryear and so entirely missing out on much needed atmosphere and urgency. It’s bracing, triumphant, heady, and entirely dull. And yet, you can hear all the things in it that make his surrounding scores during that period so great.


Also, as a facet, the marriage of medieval and technological has merit (Doctor Who tried it, more successfully, with its Prisoner of Zenda pastiche The Androids of Tara about five years earlier), it’s just that the visual juxtaposition is all the conceit has going for it. Yates knows his shots and vistas, but if he cares about his story, he doesn’t convince us. Variety called it a “blatantly derivative hodgepodge of Excalibur meets Star Wars”, while Quentin Falk in the third Film Yearbook similarly complained that it was “a gigantic, unwieldy amalgam of hand-me-down ideas and plodding execution”.


But, while it’s certainly taking its cues from the success of those pictures, Krull’s trapped in a mode that condemns it to a then-exhausted style of filmmaking. The Variety review alludes to the Harryhausen formula when it refers to “a Ulysses-scaled series of tests”; this is closer to the Greek quests. Yates himself called the film “a swashbuckler and a love story, using modern special effects and told in a totally different way. It is not Captain Blood, it is not Star Wars, and it is not Excalibur, maybe it’s a mixture of the three…” 


Certainly, dramatically, Krull is stuck in the mode of ‘40s swashbucklers (and, to be fair, Errol Flynn was also invoked when Star Wars first arrived on the scene), something Rob Reiner could get away with when he commented cheekily on the genre in The Princess Bride, but which appears bereft and disconsolate in the MTV-inclined ‘80s. If you look at the most vital re-invigorators of genre, the Star Wars and the Aliens, and if we’re talking Captain Blood, the Pirates of the Caribbeans rather than the Cutthroat Islands, they came equipped with a quality that made their trappings seem fresh again.


And, while you cannot underestimate the importance of the filmmaker in those examples, you also can’t underestimate the importance of the cast (leaving aside for the moment that the screenplay stinks). Both Lucas and Boorman’s movies, even where the leads aren’t necessarily the biggest subsequent thing since sliced bread, are cannily cast, with much room for shade and texture. Ken Marshall, with his glue-on beard and ineffectual gait, is exactly the kind of indistinct hero you don’t need if you want an anchored movie.


It’s no doubt a difficult task to find a next-big-thing to cut a dash across your would-be epic. There’s John Carter and the Star Wars prequels on one side, and on the other The Force Awakens – and the recast Star Trek, even Avatar, despite Jai Courtney’s Sam Worthington’s subsequent career, for that matter – offering contrasting levels of success at the art. It certainly helps to have screen presence, and it helps if you can offer chemistry and contrast with your fellow performers. Marshall is able to do none of these things. He’s more Jason Connery than Michael Praed. Patrick Swayze in a vacuum tunnel.


He’s backed by a collection of stalwart British thespians who might easily have been summoned by Lucas for his trilogy (and one later was). Yet, without that all important intelligent design, their equivalents (the mentor, the rogue, the comic relief) fail to make much impact. Freddie Jones as Ynyr, the Old One (if this were Python or Mel Brooks, the next line would be “Why do they call you Old One?”) probably fares best; while Jones is too personable to bring Guinness-like gravitas to Ynyr, he pays it off with the sincerity of easily the best sequence in the picture, his visit to Lair of the Crystal Spider, where he encounters old flame the Widow of the Web (Francesca Annis).


Much of the picture’s internal logic amounts to little more than narrative non sequiturs, but Annis and Jones are able to invest something genuine into the sad tale of a spurned love who, out of loss and despair, killed her son when he was born. Ynyr’s response is that, far from not being able to forgive her, he cannot forgive himself. It provides a faint resonance too, that the Widow’s motivation in helping Ynyr is to aid one of the same name as her, that she should not suffer a similar fate. This scene also offers a glimpse of the urgency the picture so desperately lacks elsewhere, as time runs out for both one-time paramours and there’s a slender window in which to race to the ever-moving Black Fortress before it’s off on its travels again (a neat idea that feels like it could have been lifted from the labours of Hercules of Perseus).


Alun Armstrong, a through-and-through supporting character giant, here probably as close as he would get to top billing, takes on the Han Solo part of Torquil, bandit leader, but must rely on sheer dint of being Alun Armstrong to make an impression. He’s aided and abetted by Liam Neeson (Yates showing he took notes during Excalibur), Robbie Coltrane (rather unfairly dubbed by Michael Elphick, of all people) and Tucker himself, Todd Carty.


The merry band might be seen as Knights of the Round Table, but they owe more to Jason’s crew or Bilbo’s dwarves (especially so as most are indistinct, but for their recognisability from other roles). David Battley, offering the glass-half-empty comic relief of Ergo the Magnificent, who can magically transform himself, usually by error, into various ineffectual creatures, can’t quite hit that stride between likeably broad and irritatingly invasive, so he just settles for irritatingly invasive.


Bernard Bresslaw is more notable as the noble, monocular Rell, a Cyclops. His background, like much of the narrative approach here, speaks to an awkward stapling of fairy tale/myth logic and ostensible realism. We’re told the Cyclops used to have two eyes, but exchanged one for the power to see the future. Alas, it was a trick, and they were enabled to see only the time of their own deaths (the only consequence of this is that Rell ends up looking like a bit of a drama queen, staying behind to croak before giddying up on his flame mare to then succumb heroically in the fortress).


There’s a certain cachet to this kind of faux-Olympian punishment (also applying to the Widow of the Web, banished to her realm for infanticide by forces unknown) but it doesn’t feed into a coherent storytelling tone. Much like the simplistic polarities of Legend, the overlaying of sophisticated production values ends up jarring, and leaves a sense of the cobbled together, or lazily scripted; we discover that love kills the beast (rather than the all-important bit of gadgetry, Krull’s equivalent of a lightsabre) but its apropos nothing revealed hitherto.


There’s no rationale, so it means in the kingdom of Krull anything can be conjured, as the mood takes the writer. It also drains any drama form the big confrontation, because there’s no context to understanding why a marriage rite should pack this kind of punch – beyond the sophistry of “Power is fleeting. Love is eternal”. There’s a vital difference between such hasty improvisation and relaying the idea through the underpinnings of plot and character; for all its many faults, it’s this that lifts the best part of Return of the Jedi (the Luke-Vader-Emperor confrontation) to a different level, despite having the same basic message as Krull.


Like Coltrane, poor Lysette Anthony (also like Andie McDowell in Greystoke a year earlier) suffers the ignominy of being dubbed, this time by Lindsay Crouse. Trevor Martin, a one-time stage Doctor Who, at least lends the Beast’s nuance-free utterances some weight. The Beast tells us he’s out to fulfil the prophecy in his own special way by making the girl of ancient name choose him as a king, so his son will rule the galaxy. The actual outcome is rather suggestive of a reactionary approach to heroism; sure, the son may turn out to be a benign despot, but it still positions him as traditional wielder of power over millions of billions of minions (as opposed to shunning it for the nobility and altruism of the Jedi).


The production took up 10 soundstages at Pinewood, and elicits occasionally sublime results. Unlike Dagobah, the swamp set never truly impresses, though; it’s most memorable for the black-eyed doppelganger of the Emerald Seer (John Welsh), who is all too quickly disposed of, rather than employed for sustained tension.


Why do Slayers rise from ‘neath a swamp? Because it looks cool (basically the same answer as what that Dalek was doing trawling about in the Thames). It’s for the same reason that the monsters come from space. Because space is “in”, not because its pertinent to the tale being told.


The interior of the Black Fortress, with its smoothed, curved corridors, floors that become gaping crevasses and uneven surfaces, is a strong piece of design. Likewise, the scenes of the menaced Lyssa, wandering around the interior of a giant eye, as if plucked from a Dali dream sequence or set of an elaborate musical, and later within a giant claw that leads to the unreachable outside, are also striking.


And, while her interactions with the Beast never amount to much due to his absence of discernible characterisation (see also Tim Curry in Legend, and the monster in The Keep, cumulatively suggesting the mere incarnation of “evil” is insufficient; “it is because it is” isn’t enough), the doppelganger motive is employed effectively here too; the black-eyed Ken Marshall is the most substantial he is in the entire movie (“There is no love in that form”).


Krull was a snooze in the ‘80s, and it’s a snooze now. It follows a similarly miscalculated approach to the conceptually superior The Black Hole, whereby dazzling designs are for nothing if you don’t first have a clear sense of story, a filmmaker who knows how to tell it, and strong, definable lead characters, or at least ones illustrated by bold performances. I’d suggest that, due to its poverty of pace and potency, Krull would be ripe for remaking, but you’d still be starting with the only aspects that piqued interest in the first place: the concept art. Warcraft is illustrating just now that you desperately need relatable characters and a strong story if you’re going to make fantasy work. It’s not that it needed The Lord of the Rings for the genre come into fashion; it just needed someone to understand how to do it right (and it promptly took Peter Jackson a mere few years to forget all over again).




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. As soon as I read that you thought James Horner's spectacular score was dull, I just could not take your other comments seriously. Oh and I tried, good lord did I try....

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