The Beastmaster (1982)
Dir. by Don Coscarelli
Starring Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn and John Amos
[content warning: sexual assault, animal cruelty]
A prophecy states that the son of the king of the Bronze Age kingdom of Aruk will kill the evil high priest Maax (pronounced MAY-AXE). To prevent this, the priest’s witches use magic to transport the unborn child from his mother’s womb to that of an ox, with the intent to sacrifice it at birth. The infant is saved by a farmer from a small village, and the boy, Dar, grows up with the ability to communicate with and control animals. When his adoptive father and the rest of his village is killed by a barbarian attack, Dar strikes out on his own, to head to Aruk and discover his destiny.
When I was a pre-teen, live-action fantasy for me consisted of three films: Willow, The Princess Bride, and The Beastmaster. I must have seen this movie thirty times or more before I was a teenager. I was helped by the fact that it was played on the basic cable channel TBS so often that comedians joked that TBS stood for “The Beastmaster Station.” And come on. What twelve-year-old WOULDN’T want a pet tiger (cat allergies nonwithstanding)? I’ve seen this one quite a bit more than the other movies I’ve covered, enough to be able to write out a decent plot outline of the whole thing pre-rewatch. But there’s definitely things that I didn’t recall (or were edited out of those TBS broadcasts).
In the spring of 1982, a little movie called Conan the Barbarian came out, and was an unexpected box office smash, kicking off a brief sword-and-sorcery boom. Don Coscarelli was busy with pre-production for what was expected to be an independently-produced fantasy movie at the time, and it was quickly snapped up by MGM and put into an accelerated production. It managed to come out less than six months after Conan‘s premiere, making it the first of many Conan ripoffs out of the gate. It’s probably the best of them, but it’s still clearly in the “Blood and Thunder” tradition of Robert E. Howard and other pulp authors. Lord of the Rings this is not.
The plot is definitely a disjointed mess. After Dar is rescued from being sacrificed as a baby, there are a couple of brief scenes of him growing up and learning about his ability to communicate with animals. Then barbarians attack, kill everyone else, and Dar decides to stop wearing shirts and start wandering around Spain…er, the ancient wilderness. At this point, the movie becomes a series of unconnected events for almost half of its run-time. Even after Maax (whose name still sounds like a brand of laxative to me) re-enters the movie, there’s really no sense of any sort of goal for him beyond sacrificing babies and chewing scenery.
At least Rip Torn is clearly having fun as the evil priest. Marc Singer just kind of squints his way through the movie like a low-rent Clint Eastwood, always with the same expression and tone of voice. I will say, though, that I actually prefer Rip Torn’s performance here to James Earl Jones’s in Conan. Thulsa Doom never really left that much of an impression with me, whereas Maax is the sort of larger-than-life villain that I associate with the pulps.
Also in keeping with the pulp origins of this story*, there’s a whole lot of gratuitous nudity. I, of course, didn’t notice it during any of those pre-teen viewings, because I was watching a copy taped off the aforementioned TBS, with commercial breaks and content editing. Viewed now, the movie almost certainly would have gotten an R if it had come out today (it’s PG, but there was no PG-13 rating at the time). Most egregious is a scene where Dar is first introduced to his love interest for the film, a slave girl named Kiri (played by Tanya Roberts). In a scene straight from the early 80s sex-comedy playbook, Dar spies Kiri bathing in a river, and has his ferrets steal her clothing. When she chases after them, topless, his tiger corners her, and Dar steps in to “bravely” fight off the beast and “rescue” her. Not content to have our hero grossly manipulate a woman during a moment of vulnerability, the script actually doubles down by having him forcibly take a kiss as “payment.”
Granted, I realize that the movie is now 35 years old, and is following a literary tradition that dates back to the much-less-enlightened 1920s and 30s. But even Arnold’s Conan (released the same year) actually displayed some concern and affection for the women that his slave-masters forced into his cell. This was straight up coercion and assault, and left a bad taste in my mouth every time she displayed interest or affection for him for the remainder of the film.
On another “still very 80s” front, the movie is very very white, despite being set in an ancient culture with architecture that strongly suggests ancient Sumeria or Assur. At least the token actor of color, John Amos, is probably the second-most-badass person in the film after the lead, and his skin color is just accepted by everyone and never remarked upon negatively. Amos is actually really good in the role of the former captain of the guard, now a wandering protector for the disenfranchised prince of Aruk (and, unknown to him, Dar’s younger brother). It’s a shame that his character pretty much devolves into the “listen to Dar, he knows what to do” guy by the 2/3rds mark.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time being negative about the movie, and I’d say that on the whole it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as I’d remembered it. However, there are definitely some parts of it that I really still enjoyed. Most notably among them is this out-of-left-field, completely incongruous horror sequence that feels like it was borrowed from Robert Howard’s colleague H. P. Lovecraft. While wandering, Dar investigates weird lights at the top of a ridge. He finds strange glowing pods hanging from a tree, and a man in a cage. He frees the man, who is immediately grabbed by a strange bat-winged, no-mouthed creature, which digests him while holding him in his arms and throws out the bones onto the ground. Dar himself is only saved by the arrival of his eagle, an animal that the bat-things worship. No explanation for them is ever given, and I for one don’t care. They’re the most memorable thing about the movie.
Also, ferrets are cute. Especially ferrets that rescue our hero from quicksand and lead rampaging spike-studded killers on chases through evil temples (you know it’s evil because it’s got a giant Styrofoam skull blocking the exit passage). Can we have a movie just about them?
This is the sort of movie that’s really awesome when you’re thirteen, and not as much when you’re thirty-eight and have seen a whole bunch of better fantasy movies in the interim. There’s definitely some good ideas here, but it’s hampered by some very outdated attitudes towards women. It’s telling that the movie’s sequel almost immediately devolved into outright self-parody. If we’re going to keep doing the remakes/revivals of 80s properties, how about this one? They could certainly do it better now.
-I ragged on the movie for its sexism and gratuitous female nudity, and it’s criticism that is well-deserved. However, almost all of the major male characters go around bare-chested with loincloths, so it’s not like they’re fully armored and the women are from a Boris Vallejo painting. And Marc Singer IS ripped in the movie. There’s like a two minute sequence of him flexing and swinging his sword on a mountain-top that I distinctly remembered before my re-watch.
-The director apparently wanted to cast Demi Moore as Kiri, but the producers overruled him.
-Some of the production design and cinematography decisions are really bizarre. For example, Dar’s childhood village is entirely build on tall posts, with the buildings themselves suspended twenty feet in the air. They’re not in a swamp or right next to a river or anything that I recall, so I can’t really see any reason for this.
-Dar’s tiger, Ruh, was painted black because the director had originally wanted a black leopard but couldn’t get a good camera-trained one. I’ve read unconfirmed reports that the dye used was toxic and gave the tiger involved fatal cancer. The animal handler was fired halfway through production, but that really doesn’t make up for it if that’s true.
-The score, especially the main theme, is actually quite good, and is way above the movie’s pay grade. I wonder why I’ve never really heard it in fantasy score compilations or anything.
*Technically, this was based off of a 1950s Andre Norton novel, but literally the only things they kept were the concept of a man who talks to animals, and the species makeup of his animal team. The film’s DNA very much belongs in the 1930s.