“Hawk the Slayer” begins with the following title card:
“This is a story of Heroic Deeds and the bitter struggle for the triumph of Good over Evil and of a wondrous Sword wielded by a mighty Hero when the Legions of Darkness stalk the land.”
This is in accordance with federal regulations requiring movies that feature magic swords and/or randomly capitalized Nouns to declare such beforehand, lest the audience be taken unawares.
It is indeed the type of movie of which there was an abundance in the early 1980s, with swords and magic and loincloths and witches and cheesy synthesizer music. Even by the hilariously relaxed standards of the genre, though, “Hawk the Slayer” is quite special. Its actors are especially hammy, its music unusually goofy, its special effects particularly cheap. Perhaps it was this movie that inspired so many other people to make fantasy films in the early ’80s, since it is natural to conclude, upon watching it, that fantasy films do not require a lot of effort.
Our story takes place in Olden Tymes. An elderly king has two sons, the evil Voltan (Jack Palance) and the heroic Hawk (John Terry). You name your kids Voltan and Hawk, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when they turn out evil and heroic, respectively. Voltan kicks things off by demanding that his father give him the key to the Ancient Power, then stabbing him in the chest when he refuses to do so, which is probably the sort of behavior that made King Dad reluctant to give it to him. Voltan stomps off in a huff, whereupon Hawk enters the room and finds King Dad in his death throes. Before he dies, he gives Hawk some very elaborate instructions about how to use the Mind Sword, a weapon that responds to the user’s mental commands (as long as the commands are “Fly up off the ground into my hand, please”).
Hawk vows to avenge his father’s death and destroy Voltan. His brother’s been a pain the neck for a while now, but killing Dad was the LAST STRAW. Meanwhile, Voltan steps up his evilness and starts slaughtering entire villages, just to be a jerk. Then he barges into a convent, kidnaps the head nun, and demands 2,000 gold pieces in ransom. Voltan needs money, apparently, and it has not occurred to him to take it from the people he murders, or (if necessary) to murder people who have more money.
Well, the nuns don’t have a lot of cash lying around, being nuns and all, so they send their pal Ranulf (Morgan Sheppard) to talk to the High Abbot (Harry Andrews), who has that title because he’s the most important abbot, not because he is high. Although he may also be high. That would be coincidental, though. Anyway, the High Abbot says sure, the church has plenty of money — but the church also has a very strict “no ransom” policy. I guess people were always kidnapping nuns in Olden Tymes, and the church was going bankrupt paying the ransoms, so they had to take a hardline stance. This will be something of an embarrassment for Voltan’s organization, which ought to have known about the church’s no-ransom-for-nuns position before the abduction.
The High Abbot wants to help save the nun (just not enough to spend money on it), so he tells Ranulf to go find this dude Hawk, aka Hawk the Slayer, who is a mighty warrior, not to mention Voltan’s indignant brother. Surely Hawk can either rescue the nun or come up with the ransom, nun-saving and fund-raising being among his most renowned skills.
Ranulf finds Hawk through the tried-and-true narrative method of stumbling upon him randomly through no effort of his own. They consult a blind sorceress (Patricia Quinn), who reveals that Hawk and Ranulf need to recruit three other guys to help in their quest. And what is their quest? To defeat Voltan, rescue the nun, come up with 2,000 gold pieces, or some combination of those. It’s rather ill-defined, really, as far as quests go. And now they have this pre-quest of finding these three other guys to help them with the main quest. This part is easy, though, because Blindy McSorceress teleports Hawk to where the guys are, thus saving on transportation costs.
A few words on these three extra guys. They are a giant, a dwarf, and an elf. The giant is played by an actor who is 6’7″, and the dwarf is maybe 5’6″. This is what passes for “giant” and “dwarf” in movies that lack the money or willpower to execute special effects. And you think, well, if they can’t do anything to convince us that these actors are supernaturally tall or tiny, why refer to them as a “giant” and a “dwarf”? Why not just have them be regular dudes with magic powers or something? The answer is again provided by federal regulations, which require that all movies featuring wondrous Swords and Legions of Darkness also contain at least two (2) mythical humanoid creatures such as (but not limited to) giants, dwarfs, elves, fairies, hobbits, etc. It is only by exploiting a loophole in the statute that Hawk the Slayer was able to get out of having a dragon.
The elf is elfin enough, I guess, in that he has pointy Spock ears and talks in a squeaky voice.
The elf (Ray Charleson) is an expert archer. The giant (Bernard Bresslaw) is strong-ish. The dwarf (Peter O’Farrell) does not have any special powers to speak of, and indeed his only contribution to this Fellowship of the Rinky-dink is to provide unfunny comic relief and play practical jokes on the giant. In other words, the dwarf character is 1) not a dwarf and 2) not useful as a character. You have to admire the courage of the filmmakers, though, using the rough draft of their screenplay as the shooting script.
Since you were wondering why Voltan is evil and hates his brother so much, the movie lets Hawk have flashbacks. Years ago, Hawk married the young lady Voltan had his eye on. Voltan responded by picking a fight with Hawk, during which Hawk accidentally burned Voltan’s face and Voltan accidentally killed the girl. This skirmish could hardly have gone any worse for Voltan, but he nonetheless decided to spend the rest of his days picking more fights with Hawk.
(By the way, Jack Palance was 60 when the movie was shot. John Terry, playing his brother, was 29. The actor playing their father was 63. Voltan has brown hair in the flashback scenes, though, to indicate that he was very young and spry when those things happened.)
Hawk and his four compatriots get the ransom money by robbing and killing a slave trader, on the grounds that slave traders are bad and robbing and killing them is okay. Problem solved, right? Not so fast! Hawk knows his evil brother quite well, and he suspects Voltan will not actually return the nun when he gets the ransom money. Voltan is the kind of guy who will take the money, kill the nun, and then kill all the other nuns, too, as a dramatic flourish. Voltan is the kind of guy who would have killed the slave trader AND the slaves.
So Hawk and friends try to skip the whole ransom process entirely and just rescue the nun by themselves. They are thwarted in this by Voltan’s son, Drogo (Shane Briant), who looks to be about the same age as his Uncle Hawk. Drogo wants to prove that he can be even more evil than Voltan, a notion Voltan scoffs at. But if evil is measured in terms of over-the-top scenery-chewing — and you could make the case that it is — then Drogo definitely gives the old man a run for his money. He snivels and whines and pouts to a degree so annoying it’s breathtaking. And he’s acting alongside Jack Palance, for heaven’s sake, who is no slouch when it comes to being a big ol’ goofy ham. Jack Palance is like the version of Clint Eastwood that fell off the back of a horse and got his head stepped on.
Anyway, when Hawk tells Drogo to tell Voltan that his days are numbered, Drogo replies: “I am no messenger. But I will give YOU a message — the message of death!!” The only thing that could have made this threat more delightfully stupid is if Drogo had been dressed as Skeletor when he said it.
There is eventually a siege at the convent. Most of the bad guys are killed; then again, so are a few nuns; then again, so is dumb non-dwarf that I didn’t like anyway. For some reason that blind sorceress shows up, too, and fires a gun that covers a bad guy in Silly String, and somehow this incapacitates him. It’s seriously like a bunch of kids got together to make a movie, and just used whatever they had lying around: a friend who’s kind of tall, pointy rubber ears, Jack Palance, etc.