Monday, January 7, 2013

The Magic Sword (United Artists, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie from the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 collection: The Magic Sword, a pretty dull sword-and-sorcery movie redeemed slightly by the presence of two genuinely talented actors, Basil Rathbone (who knew he was that desperate by 1962, when this film was made?) and Estelle Winwood. They play rival sorcerers, Lodac (he’s the guy, Rathbone’s part) and Sybil, and though this Sybil doesn’t have any discernible alternate personalities she does seem to be channeling Agnes Moorehead’s performance as Endora on Bewitched — and she does such a good job at impersonating the mother-in-law literally from hell that it’s a shocker when we get through half the movie and suddenly we’re supposed to realize Sybil is on the side of good! The gimmick is that the King (Merritt Stone) has lost his daughter, Princess Helene (Anne Helm). Lodac has kidnapped her and insists that for revenge (it’s not all that clear what he wants revenge about) he’s going to feed her to his pet dragon. The King promises her hand in marriage to whichever noble knight can rescue her, and among the comers are a group of bozos in armor writers Bert I. Gordon (who also produced and directed, and as the MST3K crew solemnly intoned every time his name flashed across the screen — including the credit for special effects to himself and Flora Gordon, which one of the other times they showed a Mr. and Mrs. Gordon production they joked about: “Honey, pass me the plastic head, please”) and Bernard C. Schoenfeld (who had the unenviable task of turning Herr Gordon’s dull tale into a complete screenplay) obviously intended as a sort of medieval version of the United Nations: Sir Dennis of France (Jacques Gallo), Sir Pedro of Spain (David Cross), Sir Patrick of Ireland (John Mauldin), Sir Anthony of Italy (Taldo Kenyon), Sir James of Scotland (Angus Duncan) and Sir Ulrich of Germany (Leroy Johnson).

Alas, all of them bite the big one, falling victim to the so-called “Seven Curses” with which Lodac has surrounded his castle (the MST3K crew joked that Lodac is supposed to be a super-sorcerer and he lives in an isolated building that looks like an outhouse — and I counter-joked that maybe he saw Metropolis and thought Rotwang’s little house looked really cool), which included a sort of medieval Jacuzzi with red running water that eats away a person’s flesh and turns them skeletal if they stay in too long, and a tacky-looking dragon at the end that resembled one of those papier-maché constructions carried in Chinese New Year’s parades and which was so tacky, and so obviously faked, the Ultra-Man people would have been embarrassed by it. The person who saves the day, withstands the Seven Curses, kills Lodac, saves (and gets to marry) the daughter and sets up the happily-ever-after ending is George (Gary Lockwood), foster son of Sybil, who took him in the forest after something-or-other killed his parents. George got to watch medieval TV via reflecting pools (maybe they got the secret from the ancient Egyptians and the TV set on which Boris Karloff conjured up the flashbacks in the 1932 The Mummy) and a Snow White-like magic mirror, and via these means he saw Princess Helene even before she got kidnapped, fell in love with her before ever having met her, and determined to rescue her despite the machinations of Lodac and Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), who’s supposedly the King’s officer in charge of the search for his daughter but — stop me if you’ve heard this before — is really in league with Lodac and is hoping Lodac will give him Helene as a reward for his treachery. Rathbone’s line delivery is as authoritative as ever, and Winwood matches him as a pair of intriguing antagonists, but the rest of the movie is dull, dull, dull — often the MST3K crew picked films whose badness manifested itself as tedium — and the Magic Sword itself only makes a few brief appearances, glowing yellow to signal that its charm is working.

For some reason, George loses his magic powers (he’s not a born-and-bred sorcerer but his mom has shown him some of the ropes, only to take away what powers he does have in a hissy-fit over his decision to leave home and try to rescue Helene) and regains them in the final reel just in time to vanquish that tacky papier-maché dragon and gain Helene as his reward. What it looks like he’s actually wishing for when he grabs that glowing sword is a part in a better movie, an acknowledged classic — which he got a few years later when Stanley Kubrick cast him as astronaut Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Needless to say, the MST3K crew couldn’t resist a reference to Lockwood’s most famous credit; just before he enters a secret underground hideout which looks like a storm cellar under a tree (why), one of the crew said, “Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.” (Actually it reminded me more of the 1932 Million Dollar Legs movie, particularly the villains’ underground hideout in that film, accidentally discovered by the heroine when she accidentally sits on the above-ground button that opens it.) The Magic Sword is far from the worst movie we’ve seen on MST3K — it was respectable enough that Bert I. Gordon got two stars to appear in it and United Artists to distribute it — but without the MST3K interjections it would be just another boring, and sometimes silly, costume drama.