Wednesday, December 30, 2009


The ways in which a lame B-movie like Krull turns to relative dust the best efforts of some of today's most serious and "visionary" filmmakers (fantasy or otherwise), who come a dime a dozen, packed with dexterous imagery, fully aware of every cliché in their path and who steer accordingly, is something worth pondering.

In 1983, in the midst of the Star Wars inundation, when successive films were being turned out ("Let's start production and write the plot later!") that would typify the 80's as belonging enormously to fantasy/sci-fi, a very derivative (as though Star Wars itself were not derivative), unremarkable, badly acted but earnest film called Krull was released.

Columbia Pictures put approximately $50 million into it, and lost approximately 35 of that cost at the box office. Most of the movie was made in England, directed by Peter Yates with a mostly British cast. In the summer of 83, and ever thereafter, it hardly made a sound.

Talk to some people who grew up in the 80's and you might catch one or two who has memories of this film. I was a fan of it as a kid, and even remember having some of the memorabilia. For a number of years I had no idea what the name of that film was of which I could only remember certain moods, and one scene in which a man reaches his bare hand into lava to retrieve a powerful weapon, his hand remaining unscathed.

Only recently have I discovered what that film was. Some dear person has posted the movie in full on youtube, and I watched it the other night. Many memories came back to me.

There was the obligatory wincing over how corny was something you did not find corny as a kid. But what came as something of a quiet shock, after starting to actually enjoy the cheesiness, was how much of this film is actually not all that bad, and in fact, kind of stumblingly well done. I was quite surprised.

Krull is the name of the planet on which the story takes place. The planet is invaded by the Beast via his galactic spaceship which is also the Beast's fortress (once it lands), called The Black Fortress. He has his minions called Slayers. There are two rival kingdoms on Krull. Prince Colwyn, from one of the kingdoms, and Princess Lyssa, from the other kingdom, are to be married, which will bring the two kingdoms together; it is foretold that their child will rule the galaxy. Hence the reason for the Beast to attack the wedding and steal the Princess (after the nuptials have been made), so he can rule, somehow believing that he will marry the Princess. After the wedding is attacked and the ruling kings killed, Prince Colwyn, awaking from unconsciousness, must set out to rescue the Princess.

By well done, do not take it to mean in terms of any outstanding artistry or of a full-orbed mythology. Make no mistake: the film is unabashed B-grade, cheese-ball-o-rama, full of loose ends, plot holes, contrivances and the whole bit. But it happens to be there wherein the charm lies; not as self-conscious camp, but a kind of four-square forthrightness and onward plodding. (Some would simply describe the quality as being that of a markedly English [U.K.] production.) And if its sources of derivation are good, then they will eventually speak, through most bumbling obstacles, even in glimmers anew.

The good to be found is not so much in the individual parts - though it's sometimes there too - as it is in the linkage; the way a certain nobility starts to come through, to lend the props and prosthetics, the ham acting and special effects a sweeping pardon: the need in us for a king and chivalry are pronounced unhurriedly, and the characters develop an unselfconscious way of free-play. The film, for all its nonsensical eclecticism, is straight-laced (in a light manner) and has what is today the unique strength of remaining an actual story through to end; the filmmaker does not attempt to bridge the natural gap between storybook and storybook reader. Krull would rather look stupid and silly than try false assimilation.

That is the challenge of fantasy: how well and complete and vivid can you render your sub-created world without at any point trying to gainsay the mere fact that the viewer is just watching a movie - or reading a book (I'm not saying film and literature are the same or even similar). The object is to tell the story and everything in the film must be brought to bear within the hierarchal fact of the story. When a character moves he cannot just move; he must move in middle-earth. This must be the way of good fantasy as a kind of Rule #1 - unlike, for instance, what is seen in the bloated soap nonsense of Lynch's Dune.

And that is one thing that Krull has going for it, in the midst of everything else that would detract. In addition to this, Krull puts me in mind of T.S. Eliot's response to a friend who asked what he thought of Chesterton's poetry: "He reminds me of a hansom cab driver who beats himself to stay warm."

As cutting as Eliot's statement may have been, the truth in it is apparent. Chesterton was God's Tumbler, and thought of himself as such. He was obviously, as with every person, a whole lot more than anyone's summation of him, but for the matter of Krull we can take along this tumbling, rollicking vigor that looks out for the actions of the figures and not their presentment; looks for the cumulative (and gently kinetic) word of the parts and not the parts themselves.

Or take this more exaggerated comment made by one fan at

Reply #14. Posted on November 25, 2006, 04:10:12 PM by Derek

This movie is killer. It's really really bad and so excellently cool that i love it! :) The guy who plays the "old one" is probably one of the worst actors i've ever seen! He sucked in dune and he sucks in this movie too. The princess is about the wimpiest woman alive, the prince is blind in his goal and pig headed as hell, the "army" are about as incompetant as can be, and the slayers fight with the collective intelligence of a junior programmer. Nothing, but NOTHING makes sense in this movie! I absolutely love it!
Krull is lame by most means, but it is dogged. Take this doggedness and bring it to partake even just a little of Tolkien's "stewing pot", and you start to get something. In fact, I wonder if the stewing pot for Krull were given a little more time to cook (okay, a lot more time) it would be something of a great film today. The Star Wars elements are there superficially (and to me frankly could have been done away with), that is, nothing's there to do with the Force and its Gnostic baggage, but there's the laser beams and planetary context (the film even opens with a big "spaceship" coming into the picture plane from behind); while the earthier Excalibur/Arthurian legend and Robin Hood elements are the film's defining characteristics and general morality.

And the film does have the sparks and beginning fire-crackles of, the musterings of, mythology. Take for instance the Cyclops. The old man of the mountain, Ynyr, (Freddie Jones hamming it up juicily) explains some of the Cyclops race's story after Ergo nearly gets killed by a Slayer:

"A Cyclops."

"He was aiming a spear straight at me."

"Had that been so you would now be dead. He was aiming at a Slayer, for they have ancient hatred between them. Long ago his ancestors lived in a world far from Krull, and had two eyes like other men. Then they made a bargain with the Beast who was the leader of the Slayers. They gave up one of their eyes in exchange for the power to see into the future; but they were cheated. And the only future they are permitted to see is the time of their own death. They're sad, solitary creatures; born to know the day they will die."
I don't know how much or where it takes from (a bit of the palantir comes to mind), if at all, but dang, that has some meat to it! The problem is parts like this sort of just sit there in the movie; they lack cohesion of more fully developed myth.

There's also the Widow of the Web. But one of the scenes especially drew my memory to an image or idea I seemed inherently attracted to as a kid, which is the king with the key.

As Prince Colwyn travels with his two first companions, they are waylaid by a gang of merry outlaws. But Prince Colwyn, who looks an unlikely king, enlists the gang of robbers into his service. Taking a key from his glaive-medallion as a sign of his kingship - a key in the shape of a cross - he unlocks one of the robber's shackles, and offers to unlock all the shackles on their wrists if they promise to help him in his hopeless quest (sound familiar?).

What film today would even dare to approach such unabashed symbolism as a king carrying a master key in the shape of a cross that can unlock all the robbers'/outcasts'/sinners' manacles (or any lock on the planet) after calling them on his quest? Even Peter Jackson's last installment floundered in failing to adequately portray Aragorn's fearless and authoritative rousing of the cursed dead (yes, Krull's is better). What is it about such an archetype that even in its most meager, tossed-on-the-table, unadorned state it remains resonant, rich, ponderable - that is, something with a deep well of Real-History-within-our-small-history behind it?

Watching this scene on youtube, something like 26 years after the last viewing, my mind strove back to try and reclaim something just on the border of memory; again, something I was struck and enamored with as a kid and which still greatly tantalizes (and in the same degree eludes me) to this day: it is Christ as Trailblazer and Christ as Warrior-King, who also happens to possess the master key and, what is more, actually uses it; unlooked-for but suddenly appearing.

Can there be such a thing as a master key? Isn't that the stuff of…fairy tales? A king who we "waylay" who calls us to his quest is one thing in itself, but one who also carries a master key? "But," the child wonders to himself, "what if there really was? After all, it seems there would be if it's something so seared in my imagination."

With the incarnation of Christ there is. He goes before us, and has gone before us. His mercy is bestowed in a reckless yet seeing manner in rousing the outcasts to Himself, not as a tyrant, but as one who has become one of us, and as one who, being more than us, has an enormous task Himself to accomplish (the essential core of which He has already accomplished) and wants us with Him in that task. His sights are on us but also beyond us towards His end, His goal (which is completed) that subsumes us. How penetrating, how "lawless" is His calling and releasing of the outlaws! He is both king and rebel (rebel to the powers of tyrannical darkness).

What is this wonderful characteristic of Christ that He doesn't want us to be somehow chained to always recognizing his unchaining of us (No, I'm not a fan of the song Amazing Grace), as though that were the sole end of everything, but lifts our sights up to the distance He Himself is looking towards, the very helix-center of His quest? (Pope Benedict put it somewhere that Christ does not want us to be the "mere objects of His mercy". It goes without saying, we must recognize His mercy, but His mercy is not quantifiable; it's endless.) Therein lies our freedom; our freedom takes place within a larger task. We join Christ on His quest: thank God, it's not all about us. And yet within this larger picture we gain our true form, our true name; somehow miraculously our own small part is a very big part.

With an Apostolic echo, at the end of the movie, Prince Colwyn gives the master key over to the leader of the outcasts. Some criticisms of the movie are aimed at Ken Marshall's acting as Prince Colwyn (too shallow), but I like the bright lightness in how he both rouses the outlaws and gives the master key to Torquil (Alun Armstrong).

There's also the score by James Horner (who most recently scored Avatar). You can probably hear like-sounding elements from Krull's score in a number of scores throughout the 80's (many by Horner himself). The difference between them though is that Krull's score came first, and is easily one of Horner's best. Here's a good chunk of the score in the following scene. Prince Colwyn and his gang of merry outlaws are riding the Fire Mares over one thousand leagues to the Black Fortress; having disclosed its location from the Widow of the Web, they are trying to reach the fortress before it teleports to another location at sunrise in order to rescue the captive princess (yes, I liked writing that sentence):

"There it is."

"Yeah, and only a madman would want to get this close to it."

"We're going to get a lot closer. And quickly; it's almost dawn; we must get inside before the twin suns rise! Haw!"

Come on, you know you love it.

As for the way the film ends - not the very ending, but the defeat of the Beast - it is lame to say the least. In fact, just when you think the movie has expended itself in the matter of cheese, it takes a turn and seems to re-double the quantity in an amazing feat. But even in this lameness there is a noble recognition of the sacramental union of marriage and its power, whence the Prince derives his power to defeat the Beast.

And who really gives a shit about Avatar and its "new era" omni technology.

If you wish, you can watch the entire movie right here. Have a good time.


Tim J. said...

Wow. Hadn't thought of Krull in a long time... I had successfully purged my memory.

Now, look what you've done!

Paul Stilwell said...

I'm a horrible person. And I most likely deserve to be horsewhipped.