Here we go with the first of a little series of reviews exploring the scores behind some of those dazzling (and not so dazzling in this case, perhaps) fantasy films from the early 80’s to the present. We’re going to delve into such ribald romps as those of Conan The Barbarian, Hawk The Slayer and The Sword and the Sorcerer, as well as the more fantastical romances and fairytales of Dragonheart, The Dark Crystal, and even Howard Shore’s incredible return to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
So, strap on your chainmail and armour, buckle up your shield and sword, rub whatever talismans you carry for good fortune and pray to your gods … for adventure beckons.
WOW– for this one, I would probably have to concede that only absolute die-hards need apply for we are now entering the near-mythical realm of only the purest of guilty pleasures. The film may not be up to much, although in the right frame of escapist and forgiving mind (read drunken) it can be tremendously daft fun, but regardless of its scant technical and narrative qualities you just have to acknowledge something quite unique and special about its position in the cherished-yet-frequently scoffed Fantasy Genre. When the big surge in all things sword and sorcery-flavoured inundated cinemas in the halcyon and rose-tinted days of the far off early 80’s – an incredibly ripe period that included the darkness of Disney’s kid-scaring Dragonslayer (I have already extensively covered Alex North’s score), the surreal brilliance of John Boorman’s Excalibur, the unequivocal might and majesty of John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian, the elaborate, throwback fun of Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer, the eco-brawn ‘n’ beauty of Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster, and the failed majesty of Peter Yates’ opulently silly Krull (epic score from James Horner reviewed already) – there was one ambitiously conceived but financially crippled pioneer that started the whole “heroic” ball rolling.
Coming across like a ragtime-panto stew of Dungeons & Dragons with its motley band of an elf, a dwarf, a giant and a hero, and Star Wars with its mystically noble mindsword (medieval lightsaber riff), demonic scarred villain in a mask (Darth Vader) and destiny-bound family feud, in this case two rival brothers, one good and one evil, Terry Marcel’s low-rent yarn, Hawk The Slayer, provided a cunning reason for all those geeky role-playing champions to leave their bedrooms and after-school clubs. This was, after all, their baby. Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had come and gone a couple of years before and left Tolkien’s classic saga frustratingly unfinished until Peter Jackson took the warg by the reins and roared with it all the way to Mordor. Conan was certainly in the pipeline for the big screen, but then the mighty Cimmerian had found his bulk stuck in that particular pipeline for a great many years, so Hawk, quite unwittingly, became the cinematic pioneer for the trend that would only really find true audience favour and critical justification once New Zealand became twinned with Middle Earth.
But Lord of the Rings this was not.
If those geeky but demonstrably imaginative Dungeons & Dragons players had been given access to video cameras and had made more practical use of their creative after-school time then Hawk The Slayer is quite conceivably what they would have come up with.
A movie much-maligned.
Terry Marcel and Harry Robertson (erroneously called Robinson up until this period of his career due to a clerical gaff) joined forces to make a valiant hero quest movie that combined elements of the Man With No Name with the now-typical Tolkien-tropes of wizards, mythical races and sacrificial valour. Whilst they both wrote the screenplay, Marcel directed whilst Robertson produced and composed the score. Estranged brothers Hawk and Voltan (you can already guess which one is the goodie and which one is the baddie) are at loggerheads. For years before, Voltan slew their own father, and after a botched attempt to take Hawk’s bride-to-be for himself resulted in the feisty damsel flambéing half his face away, murdered her also. Now, with some cockamamie scheme with which to gain power over the land, he and his sadistic men-at-arms have abducted a nun in order to benefit from a great ransom in gold coins. Hawk, now wielding the mystical, green-jewelled and telepathically controlled Mindsword, returns to the blighted forest in order to exact his revenge, save the nun, and end Voltan’s reign of terror. Or something like that. Together with a trusted band of rent-a-fantasy-warrior companions he journeys through the same patch of dreary English winter woodland, skirmishing aplenty amidst copious dry-ice until he confronts a brother who looks more like a grandfather in a final slow-mo showdown that lifts the realm from the clouds of evil.
For that essential global market, we have Americans taking the pivotal lead roles. As the titular Hawk, there is the stoic John Terry (no, not that one!), who would later be seen as 007’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter in The Living Daylights, and Hollywood legend Jack Palance would justifiably fill Voltan’s steel mask and swirl about in his black PVC costume with villainous zeal. Whilst Palance could definitely act, his unchecked propensity for wild-eyed and over-ripe performances is very intentionally brought to bear. Terry, on the other hand, couldn’t act if his life depended upon it. With just the one catch-all expression, that looks more bewildered than heroic, and some of the most risible line deliveries imaginable, he makes for a very leaden champion indeed. Then again, the script does no-one any favours.
“God in Heaven, what’s happened to his hand? Where are his fingers?”
“Left on the same battlefield with the rest of his hand.”
Right. Let’s get this straight. So his entire hand is gone … and you’re just enquiring about his missing fingers?
So runs the ineptitude of a screenplay that seems to have been cobbled together by selecting Scrabble tiles purely at random.
As with many fantasy tales, Hawk meets various mismatched yet highly skilled characters along the path to vengeance … but this is a format that owes as much of a debt to The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven as it does to King Arthur gathering his Knights of the Round Table, or to Robin of Locksley banding with his Merry Men in the forest of Sherwood. SF would get a similar treatment when Roger Corman unleashed John-Boy Walton upon the cosmos for his own Star Wars riff in Battle Beyond The Stars (which was the lucky recipient of a belting early James Horner score). When the nun, actually hailed as an Abbess, no less, is kidnapped and the ransom demand made, Hawk is sent for by William Morgan Sheppard’s rather unlucky one-handed village vigilante, Ranulf, under the wise command of the ever-curmudgeonly Harry Andrews’ high priest. Ranulf has somehow managed to stump up for, and – wait for it - arm himself with an automatic crossbow that even Hugh Jackman’s absurd Van Helsing would be proud of. The thing is, he had this formidable sidearm during the opening massacre of his dishevelled hamlet, so how come he didn’t waste all of Voltan’s men then and there when he had the benefit of two working hands? He seems to be an extremely capable one-man-army throughout the rest of the film.
The most interesting member of his team is, naturally, the elfin bowman, Crow. Sporting the haircut and poverty-row joke-store ears of Dr. Spock and the earthy, rustic fatigues of Last of the Mohicans’ heroic Hawkeye, Ray Charleston is surprisingly effective as this mystical woodsman warrior. Diminutive in stature and suitably eerie in demeanour, Crow marks the first time that live-action cinema had attempted to depict such an ethereal creature. Although he has been based upon LOTR’s super-archer, Legolas, he has a sure-fire Native American vogue that is brilliantly evoked via his own piano, synth and woodwind-laced theme from Robertson, but his oddly affected voice is still good cause for a chuckle or two. Charleston, himself, has the look of a late seventies punk – something along the lines of Sham 69 – which somehow makes him even cooler. That voice, though.
As the supposed “giant”, Gort (named after Klaatu’s protective robot in Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, presumably), cult funny-man Bernard Bresslaw may heft a huge hammer … but he really isn’t that big at all. There is a nice attempt made to portray his swiftly volatile nature, but this supposed man-mountain is much too personable to be credible as a brave and savage warrior. Bresslaw – who, incidentally, reminds me of uber-tall comedienne Miranda Hart, even with the bushy beard he wears here – obviously became quite smitten with this sort of fantastical milieu after his Carry On tenure because he also then attached himself to Krull, in which he played a rather ridiculous Cyclops who came as part of another unlikely package driving the quest in that lavishly misguided production. Funnily enough, even his Cyclops reminds me of Miranda Hart.
Dropping down in scale, there was then Peter O’ Farrell’s dwarf, Baldin. Looking a little bit like the curly-headed sword-fighting/dancing instructor in season one of Game of Thrones, this devious little trickster becomes the R2-D2 to Gort’s C3PO, the two forming a quirky double act who bicker and argue yet form a reluctantly close allegiance. The only time you would ever conceivably believe that Gort was a giant and that Baldin was a dwarf is when you actually see the pair standing side by side. When either or both of them is seen with the rest the cast, they possess the uncanny ability to look, um, perfectly ordinary. O’ Farrell would go on to work with Marcel and Robertson again on 1983’s unpardonably poor Prisoners of the Lost Universe, and he would also appear under a slew of Rob Bottin makeup as the goblin, Pox, in Ridley Scott’s lavishly dark and majestic Legend. Memorably scratty and irascible but not exactly all that small, O’ Farrell has moments of brevity, derring-do and, as with virtually everyone else in the roster, unconvincing idiocy. Listen out for his cheeky little reference to Tolkien’s dwarf-hero Gimli!
Interestingly, Hammer’s poncing pretty-boy Shane Briant (Straight on Till Morning, Captain Kronos, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell) appears here as Voltan’s odious son, Drogo. But he fails to make any sort of impact, despite sneering and snarling his own arrogantly treacherous path towards winning over his cold-hearted father’s affections … by killing off even those who offer him prized nuggets of intelligence. Briant was an effete yet often mesmerising actor … but he makes a rather pitiful attempt at physical menace here. Even more interesting, however, is the rumour that will appear in Jackson’s finale part of The Hobbit - There and Back Again.
Just before she went on to suffer the maggots, pus and putrid gore of Lucio Fulci in The City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery, English rose Catriona MaColl could be fleetingly seen here as the arboreal princess Eliane, the doomed fiancé that poor Hawk never got a chance to marry before the spurned ‘n’ burned Voltan put a crossbow bolt in her back. She is not onscreen long enough to make much of an impression, though Robertson does fashion a love theme that supports her star-crossed romance with Hawk.
Probably to her embarrassment, TV sitcom darling Annette Crosbie crops up as the Mother Superior, or Abbess, kidnapped by Voltan – a foul deed that spurs Hawk into retributive action. But with the likes of Patrick Magee, Ferdy Mayne and Rocky Horror’s Patricia Quinn (on a soothsaying sabbatical respite from television appearances) as gormless, gibberish-spouting shaman, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him king, and a swamp-wizened necromantic respectively, you can rest assured that the campery is liberally endowed with manic lashings of ominous portents and ill-tidings issued with tongues wedged firmly in blushing cheeks. As renowned as each of these thesps may be … they could rarely be relied-upon to take the productions they were getting at this time all that seriously. Crosbie, incidentally, had supplied the voice for Elf-Queen, Lady Galadriel in Bakshi's Lord of the Rings.
It does come as something of a shock to find that the late great Roy Kinnear manages to act everybody else off the set in his one small cameo appearance as a harassed innkeeper. In fact, beyond him the only person who seems to understand that this unholy mess is going nowhere fast is Palance … so much so that he hams it up quite ruthlessly as the big, super-scowling panto baddie in the cut-price Darth Vader/Phantom of the Opera head-gear. There has been much scratching of heads with regards to his decision to accept this rather woeful part but, truth be told, Palance made quite a number of low-budget naff-fests in his time. Nobody is ever going to hail The Warning as a classic (aka Without Warning, an intriguing proto-Predator horror/SF venture in which he co-starred with another slumming Oscar-nabber in Martin Landau as well as the big Predator, himself, Kevin Peter Hall in a galactic rehearsal from the smackdown with Arnie!), or the fantastical SF-Western Welcome to Blood City, for that matter. Let’s face it, he even chewed the scenery with hammy relish as the bad guy in the ace (but still silly) Stallone/Kurt Russell vehicle Tango & Cash!
The setting within Black Wood may have been economical and time-honoured, but it becomes horrendously restrictive and limiting. For instance, we encounter a blacksmith whose forge is outdoors, in the middle of nowhere and sans any type of shelter at all to thwart the rusting effects of inclement English Dark Age weather. Everybody – witch, sage, slaver, champion – is at large within the woods, like a whole slew of fairytale pervs. I know that during the period in which the story is supposedly set, Olde England was, in fact, predominantly forested, but this makes the samey-same aesthetic nay easier to swallow. And, as with the case of the blacksmith, this means that everyone has been given the character-placement and geographical narrative that only a 10-year old Dungeonmaster could have conceived.
Hammer-fans should take note that the often dreary-looking forest location is actually Black Wood, situated just outside of Pinewood Studios and the fondly recalled setting for many a buxom wench suddenly finding herself at the mercy of an aristocratic fang-face, and a good many thundering horse-driven carriages. Opting to shoot during the winter so as not to be accused of aping the lush look of the many Robin Hood outings lensed within the environ may have offered the great visual appeal of gnarled and spooky leafless trees, but is also gave the film a stark and barren look that made the whole enterprise appear as though it had been filmed in a mucky copse just off to the side of the M1.
Silly string and fluorescent ping-pong balls – ILM and Weta eat yer hearts out!
Although there is some creativity on show, the special effects are often woeful. Shimmering green orbs of energy that would shame an episode of Blake’s 7 and the laziest trick for making us think that Crow has supernatural abilities and prowess with his bow – merely the same shot repeated over and over, with an added Bionic sproing on the soundtrack to denote his incredible speed – and the even-worse frame-repeat for Ranulf’s machinegun-crossbow unleashing hell upon clusters of stationary opponents drag the action down to farcical kids’ TV levels. But, in its defence, the film is aimed squarely at a young audience, despite frequently grim scenes of murder and mayhem. One provocative moment when an enraged Voltan (hold on, there’s never a moment when he isn’t enraged) takes out his fury over his son’s death upon Drogo’s own bodyguards has a distinct Spaghetti Western vibe. His delirious cry of “DROGOHHHHHH!”over his wastrel heir’s dead body is like a glorious rehearsal for Rocky Balboa’s mountain-top war-whoop of “DRAGOHHHHHH!”in Rocky IV. And another terrifically Italiano touch has three nuns about to be hanged behind Voltan should Hawk not give in to his final terms. So for every dozen or so dunderheaded moments, there is one equipped with surprising bravura.
The film, should you actually want to see it (and despite what I’ve said, I bet you want to) is available on DVD from Network, with a cluster of weird contemporary extras, such as a Clapperboard special (who remembers that then?) and a slew of rather daft on-set interviews. The one with Jack Palance is a classic of embarrassedly misjudged mumbling – he clearly strives to promote his character and the story despite common sense and his own innate good taste contriving to halt such fabrications.
Marcel harboured ideas of a sequel even as recently as 2009, but together with notions of a spin-off TV series of adventures for Hawk, the over-cooked dry-ice has left them stranded in the boggy Black Wood. Cynics would insist that we should be grateful for this.
The music of Hawk The Slayer – a fantastical fusion of Disco and Spaghetti.
Going nicely hand-in-hand with the Hammer nostalgia of setting and supporting actors, and the studio’s TV honcho Jack Gill presenting, is the fact that Harry Robertson had actually scored several of the studio’s more lurid 1970’s offerings – Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and, most importantly, his monumentally robust pseudo-Western symphony for Twins of Evil. Robertson’s music for Hawk is best described as being Fantasy Disco. The trend at the time for films and television from all sorts of genres was for a funky jazzed-up vibe that occupied a cool and trendy niche in the London/LA/New York club scene. If you mixed the infectious beat of Lalo Schiffrin, who had been using contemporary pop sounds as the foundation for his hugely impressive scores for big screen outings like Dirty Harry, Magnum Force and Coogan’s Bluff, and for the hit TV shows Starsky & Hutch and Mission Impossible with the lush, easygoing melodies of such percussive, toe-tapping composers as Laurie (The New Avengers/The Professionals) Johnson, electro-wizards like Kraftwerk, the new surge of synth-balladeers like Vangelis, OMD, Sparks, The Motors and Yes, and experimental rockers like Deep Purple and ELO, then you were dancing to roughly the same tune. This driving pop-flavour would also make itself heard in Roy Budd’s pounding, rhythmic score for the SAS actioner Who Dares Wins and Francis Monkman’s for The Long Good Friday. But, taking a similar stance as John Carpenter did with his own synthesiser scores (electronic and self-composed = economical, fast and with complete creative control), Robertson would strongly embellish a limited orchestra with an array of keyboards and sampled instruments, electric guitar and mixing desk, his evocation of period and mood coming via catchy, rhythmic themes, insidious leitmotif and fuzzy, somewhat anachronistic sounds for the bleakly rustic, cod-medieval ambience that the visuals depicted. Synth drums had been brought into fashion by Rose Royce in 1978 and, by now, they were de-rigour for that cosy, hipster beat. Robertson employs them with the same softly addictive zing and snap. But he doesn’t forget that emotions are more fully engaged when strings tug at the heart and brass fuels the aggression of battle, so it is quite impressive how well he structures things for both the organic sound of the performing ensemble and the battery of manufactured effects at his disposal.
Intriguingly, he had most of the score written before the principal shoot was over, firmly establishing that the finished sound was precisely what he and Marcel had been after all along … with the editing strapping the film around the score in the style of Morricone and Leone.
Leonard Rosenman had worked wonders for Ralph Bakshi on his Rings adaptation, creating a beautiful, terrifying, lyrical and highly stylised score that was very much the epitome of his quite distinctive canon, and quintessential of his unusual approach to offbeat and jarring soundscapes. And prior to this, we’d had the likes of the maestro, himself, Bernard Herrmann, employing batteries of strenuous performers for the Harryhausen epics of Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Mysterious Island. But since the genre had long since fallen from public and box office favour, Robertson was something of a brave new pioneer in the field of fantastical scoring. Perhaps this is why, to some listeners, he appears to have played it safe by going for a trendy pop sound.
It is not a weighty score, running for under forty minutes of original cues, but it is great that it has finally surfaced on disc, so that collectors and fans can now put paid to those bootleg copies.
Fuzzy synth-pop whimsy meets mock-folk harmonising, but clashes with the robust and often delightfully wayward sizzle of electric guitar and the infectious disco drumbeat. Occasional textures and melodies hearken back to the likes of early Tangerine Dream and would be developed much further by Klaus Doldinger for Das Boot and then, more appropriately, The Neverending Story, and there are also sombre reflections of John Barry (with the exotic sound of a cimbalom reminding of his cynical, circuitous spy-film scores) at play in a composition that is unexpectedly rich and varied. The time when Hawk was made was a period of transition in almost every genre, and with a fantasy film that liberally borrowed from many sources – from Tolkien to SF to Western to Kurosawa – it is only fitting that the score be just as intoxicating a broth of concepts and ideas, all culminating in a melting-pot that rewards some, and undoubtedly irks others.
It is important to note that BSX’s presentation, which mimics the late Robertson’s original album assembly, is not the complete score, and nor does it play in full chronological order. There are lots of little cues still missing, such as a flirty mischievous frisson when the deadly gauntlet is thrown down during the sequence when we first encounter Crow winning gold coins in an archery contest, or later on, when we see him running in bizarre slow motion through the woods on a desperate errand. What we have, though, was put together by Robertson and, as such, it is worth noting that some tracks don’t play out quite as they do in the movie. Eliane’s theme, for instance, is cut up in the film to fit within several flashback scenes. Other characters gain from little extras and flourishes here and there that don’t make it onto the disc either. But this CD remains a superlative compendium of the musical milieu of Hawk’s Slaying in deepest, darkest Black Wood.
The most memorable and contentious element of his score would be his addictive main title theme called simply Hawk The Slayer, and heard in full force in Tracks 1 and 11, The Story Continues … even if, to date, the story actually hasn’t. But there is no mistaking just how much this glorious pop/orchestral fanfare resembles the world famous main theme from Jeff Wayne’s enormously popular prog-rock album production of The War of the Worlds. It is no coincidence, of course. Robertson clearly knew a good thing when he heard it, and there is no question of how effectively he utilises this rather shameless plagiarism into something that does, against all odds, become its own quite elaborate and distinctively propulsive entity.
Electric guitar, a cosmic-ecclesiastical voice from the synth, syncopated drums, sampled trumpets and all manner of electro-chimes, warbles and whistles bounces and flutter throughout. The central 5–note motif from pseudo-church organ/piano is a grin-gainer, especially when it is followed by that delirious Morricone-like woodwind trill. With all these whistles and calls, you can imagine that the prancing flute-player, Ian Anderson, from Jethro Tull had gatecrashed the recording.
Now, all this being said, one thing that I’m curious about is that although the way that the track sounds here on this disc is the same as on every other release I’ve heard – LP, bootleg, etc – it is not how it sounds in the film’s opening credits or, at least, how it sounds on its present UK DVD incarnation. Even if the theme is essentially the same, the differences in orchestration and arrangement are quite overt and apparent. The film omits the central heraldic synth motif, and focuses mainly on the thick galloping beat. The theme occurs regularly throughout the film – usually to depict the valiant vigour with which Hawk and his crew charge through the woods – but it never delivers the unmistakable WOTW motif that we hear in its full rendition in this track until the end titles, and even here, the film version differs in some ways. Sadly, I can find no information as to why this is so, yet the version on disc is definitely the original recording from Robertson. I obviously can’t recall how it sounded back during its theatrical run – although I saw the movie several times at the flicks as a child - so it is possible that some wringing of hands has been done since the film’s release regarding the track’s roguish similarity to Wayne’s work and that Robertson was compelled to modify his music for the film in an attempt to throw critics off the scent. This is just an assumption of course, because to be honest, I just don’t know. But it remains another little curiosity that only adds to the eclectic allure of a movie that is so nearly a cult it hurts.
Also, it is only fair to note that Robertson’s own phenomenal title theme for Hammer’s Twins of Evil was completely ripped-off and used as the main theme for the animated TV show of DC’s Justice League. So I guess what goes around comes around, eh? And, let’s face it, the main action motif from Jeff Wayne’s incredible Spartacus concept album was pilfered for use as the title theme for TV’s sporting Saturday evening gameshow, Gladiators! Arooo-gahhhh!
Jack Palance’s villainous theme is introduced in Voltan – The Dark One, and it is panto boo-hissery of the hoariest variety …but bloody entertaining it is too. Voltan’s theme is the first piece of music that we hear in the film, as he storms his father’s castle and murders him during the prologue. A low, steady 6-note synth lurch thuds ominously as he stalks through the woods with sadistic intent and enters the flimsy two-room set that a rather striking matte painting has suddenly transformed into. This becomes the backing to his main motif – and it is the purest and most basic of panto shudders that you can imagine. But the album presentation further embellishes this sinister theme by bringing in Robertson’s awesome cimbalom melody. There are sampled instruments in this score and purely electronically-created sounds, but the realisation of this eerie, medieval voice of Eastern European exotica seems perfectly authentic to me, and certainly provides an extra twisting layer of dark character characterisation.
Under the auspices and portentous instruction of Patricia Quinn’s semi-veiled witch, Hawk ventures out into the same drab forest to gather up his companions for the big fight, his team then becoming The Table of Five. Hawk stands amid a glowing green, white, purple phased variation of the helix-laser-prison that General Zod, Ursa and Non found themselves in as they stood trial on Krypton in Superman, Robertson adding some appropriately swishing and whooshing electro warbles to suggest the mystical energy filling the air. What marks this track out is the hysterical woodwind figure that whistles and soars to denote the spirit of the Hawk that our hero takes his moniker from. Teleported from place to place by the witch to gather up his troops from various little situations they find themselves in, the track acts as its own little gathering – accumulating many of these cues together and becoming a musical travelogue that builds with each new member of the team yet, courtesy of the spirited and upbeat tempo, rushes along with a perfectly enjoyable gambol. Synth, guitar and drums bound along, with the ever-present flourish of the electronic whoops and whistles leading the way.
Robertson’s love theme arrives in Track 4’s Eliane. In the film this seems to play across a small series of flashback scenes, although threat and menace will alter their mood when compared to the more subdued and lyrical theme that is created here in this album composition. The ethereal swoon of the synth undulates through a 6-note melody that is augmented by darker, more tragic tones, glacial, crystalline textures and faux-woodwind. One of the longest tracks on the album, this is also one of the high-points. Soothing, hypnotic and yet infused with a delicate sense of tragedy, this is very reminiscent of the mood that Tangerine Dream crafted for their ever-elusive score for The Keep. A warmer mood is created towards the end, the angelic theme becoming softer, more feminine and earthbound. Robertson is having a good time with this, though. Eliane is a veritable princess in a fairytale glen, in the arms of her rugged lover, so he paints a clichéd, though undeniably lovely romantic lilt. The track acts a brilliant counterbalance to the giddy action, celestial mystery and darkness that surrounds it. In the film, these segments are treated with a very Leone-like mood as Voltan keeps interrupting the betrothed with jealousy, rage and violence – reminiscent of Gian-Maria Volante disturbing the innocent lovers in For A Few Dollars More.
There is great fun to be had in Track 5’s Battle of Voltan’s Camp, the music for a scene that occurs much later in the film. In a blisteringly ridiculous narrative blur, Hawk and his men seek to whittle down the odds that oppose them before the final battle, and attack the Dark One’s base of operations – which is just a couple of tents in the woods. Marcel botches things with too much manufactured fog obscuring the action, and the editing is simply cardiac-arrest-inducing.Get a load of this. Hawk breaches his bad brother’s tent, in which the nun is kept in a cage (!), to find that Voltan has a blade to her throat through the bars, and is forced to withdraw. The abbotess could simply step away from the bars and leave her captor at her supposed saviour’s mercy. But worst of all is the abrupt cut from this stand-off to the heroes suddenly sitting back in their chapel/stronghold at rest. Honestly, put your lager down during this sequence because you’re going choke on it, otherwise. Like Hawk, however, Roberston tries valiantly to come to the rescue. Dynamic action for drums, synth and guitar bookends a wildly faux suspenseful middle-section for woozy woodwinds crooning in another spellbinding Morricone/Leone fashion. These lilting, bird-call-like trills are allied with hoots, wails and sizzles from Robertson’s armada of electronica. At times it is difficult to know which sound is from synth and which is culled from an actual instrument, the overlap between the two elements cushioned by a magical veil of musical esoterica. Listen out for the synthesised cutting/slashing effect that sounds like some sort of lightsaber carving through a tree-trunk … or, alternatively, a dog honking on a hairball. Robertson unleashes almost all his push-button tricks during this pell-mell passage, the overall cacophony like a bit tweet-filled wet-dream for a robot incarnation of Bill Oddie! The guitar competes with first-generation Space Invaders sound effects, but you can’t fail to be cajoled by such throw-everything-in-at-once blustering.
As you can gather, there are definitely times when Robertson is having a laugh, and the good-natured, make-do, synthesised cure-all exuberance of the affair takes on its own magical air of witty and knowing camp.
For Track 6, which is given over to the sprite-bowman, Crow – The Elf, Robertson creates a magical passage of folded synth, piano, chimes, bells and other scintillating metal percussion to depict the character of this strange, russet-garbed faerie entity. Harp-like electronic textures combined with this esoteric and hypnotic array of scintillating, glamorous punctuation is very similar to some of the subterranean and supernatural cues in the exciting score to Big Trouble In Little China, composed and performed by its director John Carpenter alongside his long-time collaborator, Alan Howarth. In fact, as undeniable as it is to think that Robertson had heard Wayne’s War of the Worlds quite a lot before creating his score, the similarity between the sound and atmosphere developed here, and then in Big Trouble could lead one into jumping towards something of the same conclusion. Certainly Carpenter would have taken an interest in other synth-based soundtracks appearing around this time (and Hawk played well on home video and TV in the States), so it is highly feasible that he would have heard this. A jangling phrase from a prepared piano sounds similar to something that Italian prop-rockers/film-scorers would have come up with. Admittedly, part of the sublime pleasure of dissecting movie scores is in finding these often bizarre little conjunctions and tissues of familiarity, and Harry Robertson’s music is like a fathomless treasure-trove for such connective dot-to-dottings. Although all the mythical characters in Hawk’s team are supposedly the last of their kind, it is Crow’s sentiments about hearing his people calling to him at night that has the most resonance. These free-falling and elemental cadences and flutters help to lend a destiny-bound vibrancy to his reverences.
Briant’s doom-sodden Voltanic heir gets his own track in Drogo – Son of Voltan. The opening phrases sound very similar to elements of Hammer’s House of Horror TV show – also presented by Jack Gill around this time – with a suitably tense and melodramatic air signifying Drogo’s aspirations of impressing a father who, as we see, could crush his neck just on a whim. Not quite as sinister as his father’s theme, Drogo still benefits from a devious and pensive tone from synth, and drifting medieval cimbalom – unifying the bad blood between him and his sire – although Robertson cannot resist the temptation to hurl it all into the disco pot for the track’s fast-paced final stretch.
Lots of floating, shimmering synth tones glide and soar through Track 8’s splendidly SF-tinged The Mindsword. Think of how Howard Blake provided a gleaming, spectral spell for the scene in Flash Gordon when Ming mesmerises Dale Arden with his demonic ring, just before the famed Football Fight (scored by Queen, who collaborated with Blake on the cult-cherished score), and this is precisely the same sort of swooning, glacial mysterioso at play. The imagery in the film is tacky and cheeseball, with the sort of visual effects that would shame even The Tomorrow People, but nobody could say that Robertson isn’t doing his utmost to create a true sense of the fantastique.
There’s action and reverence in the last three tracks. Appearing out of order, we have The Final Combat (Death of Voltan) in Track 9, in which Hawk faces down his beastly big brother for a shambolic duel staged with lethargic thrusts and parries made all the more insipid and telegraphed by the use of poorly handled slow-motion. Bizarrely, you can actually feel Palance’s pain as he endeavours to swing a large blade with tired old joints. At times it doesn’t even look as though he has been filmed in slow-motion, his moves are so laborious, stiff and aching. Terry only defeats him by being … ahhh … even stiffer, if you know what I mean. Watch how he even walks into the camera after instructing the freed abbess to “Wait here,” whilst he dramatically strides towards his final confrontation with Voltan. This cue is very consciously cribbed from the Morricone/Leone playbook. Chimes, woodwind trills, metal percussion and Japanese flute strike up an almost oriental flavour of violent destiny. Drums make little flurries of impending doom. A frisson of the Mindsword’s cosmic powers whirls about, and then it’s disco-time as the two sworn enemies meet in combat … with added cimbalom. Despite the action being slowed-down, the music is tremendously fast-paced until Voltan makes a foolish lunge and gets cut down, along with his plans for power, to moan in misery on the floor. Funnily enough, Robertson pays homage to John Morris’ sweetly ominous and tragedy-tainted theme for Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein with the final cue in the piece, suggestive of vanquished evil laced with the sadness of having slain a brother. Morris was able to turn this grand old school motif into parody almost on a dime, but Robertson, who acknowledges the joke almost everywhere else, seems to play his variation completely straight with mournful strings.
Out of film sequence, Track 10 starts off by continuing in this elegiac vein of hymns for the fallen.
Trussed-up again, Baldin makes a final sacrificial move in order to buy time for his equally bound comrades, by kicking Voltan on the wounded side of his mush. After sticking the rebellious dwarf with a dagger, the Dark Lord retreats to have his pain eased by his own satanic, cave-dwelling nurse, allowing his men to drink themselves into a stupor and the heroic band to escape and … well … come back again, with the aid of supernatural pingpong balls and foaming green silly string. If only Custer had thought to bring along a couple of cut-price party-bags for his trip to the Little Bighorn - he might have lived to fight his Last Stand another day. In Death of a Hero (Death of Baldin), his chums send his soul to his brethren under the mountains (by, um, leaving him encased in a mystical glass bubble in the middle of the woods), accompanied by much elegiac flute ‘n’ synth serenading, and a nice little soliloquy from the violin.
“We have further need of you, Dark One. Your sleep of death … will not last long.”
Well, that’s what they threatened us with back in 1980. Well … he mustn’t have set his demonic alarm-clock, because he hasn’t woken-up yet.
The climactic track, The Story Continues, as Hawk and Gort, the only survivors of the fight, move off towards fresh adventures, rolls ever onwards with the main theme in maximum overkill mode. The longest track on the album, this acts as a megamix version that throws in some of the other motifs in a blistering tour de force for all the synths, woods, drums and guitars that we have become so accustomed to throughout Hawk’s engagingly daft odyssey. But the theme is so brilliantly addictive that nobody’s going to mind such excess. In the film the end titles don’t last anywhere near as long as this, and musical cue remains something of a variation to what we hear here, although it is more similar to Jeff Wayne’s theme. Perhaps they thought that nobody would sit through the end credits and, therefore, wouldn’t notice. Who knows? It’s just another great little quirk to a score and a film that seems to have been concocted purely out of odds and ends, cut-offs, riffs, homage and blatant steals.
A Bonus Track gives us a spruced-up variation of the main title theme, this time created and performed by Dominik Hauser, who was the man behind the re-recording of Vangelis’ score for The Bounty, which I have reviewed separately. Now, although this was a score that has been crying out for a complete original version to be released since DAY ONE, and his interpretation seemed agreeably welcome at the outset, the result still sounded quite fanboyish and was clearly just an “interpretation”, and could only ever be described as a something of an interesting, though temporary make-do until the genuine article arrives. If it ever does. This time around, we have the original version and Hauser’s slightly more modern take. In something of an odd twist, it is Robertson’s that is the funkier. You would have thought that if someone was going to produce a revamped variation of what was already a catchy disco theme, they would make it a touch more contemporary and give it a techno dance beat, or a more zinging rock vibe. But no. Hauser basically keeps it the same, merely with a cleaner, fresher and more polished sound. There is more prominence given to the brass. A trumpet, albeit doubtfully a real one, gives the theme a slightly more jazzy, upbeat and brazen feel. More resonance from the electric guitar adds a bit of thrumming eloquence, and the drum beat is both softer and more laidback. Even if the end result is rather charming, I’m still a bit disappointed that something more wild, diverse and electrifying hadn’t been accomplished when the opportunity arose. Coming, as it does, right after a final rendition of Robertson’s original theme in the previous cue, it can seem as though you’ve just placed the track on repeat.
Personally speaking, I love this score. It has to ride over the top of something that is daft, continually irreverent and frequently unintentionally hilarious, but it is certainly the most consistently enjoyable aspect of this troubled movie. It is one of those scores that you can’t help returning to, over and over. There is abundant amounts of dated cheese on offer with the disco beat and pop-synths, though this is never a stiflingly pungent element, and it is hard not become completely beguiled by both its quasi-earnestness and unremitting sense of funky fun.
BSX supply a decent little 6-page illustrated booklet of notes from Randall D. Larson that chart the conception of the film, its lofty ambitions and its unavoidable compromises, as well as taking a brief but interesting look at what Robertson did with the score, with some respectful acknowledgment of the Jeff Wayne/Ennio Morricone influences that played such a prevalent part in its construction.
Hawk The Slayer may incur much ridicule, but its score, by hook or by crook, is something that gets under the skin and becomes something quite special.
Full Track Listing
1. Hawk The Slayer 4.07
2. Voltan – The Dark One 2.29
3. The Table of Five 3.25
4. Eliane 5.30
5. Battle Of Voltan’s Camp 3.24
6. Crow – The Elf 2.34
7. Drogo – Son of Voltan 2.36
8. The Mindsword 2.04
9. The Final Combat (Death of Voltan) 3.06
10. Death Of A Hero (Death of Baldin) 1.21
11. The Story Continues 6.16
12. Theme from Hawk The Slayer 6.16
Produced and Arranged by Dominik Hauser. Recorded at HauserMusic, Pasadena, CA.
Total Time 40.21
Harry Robertson’s score for Hawk The Slayer is very definitely big-time Fantasy-Disco. BSX’s release is severely limited to only 1000 copies, though I can imagine that there will still be plenty of them hanging about for a while to come.
The era in which it was produced is completely self-evident from the very first notes, and the steal from Jeff Wayne is utterly irrefutable – what was he thinking? – but this is splendidly boisterous and enjoyable stuff, nonetheless. Every time I’ve tried to sit through the film I’ve ended-up baulking at around the midway point … and it’s been something of a struggle to stay the distance without split-sides and giggle-ache. Despite my overly charitable nature and my time-honoured passion – nay, obsession – for this genre, Hawk’s incredible cheesiness and forlorn execution almost always conspire to derail my enthusiasm with regard to any form of serious critique. Yet the score has that addictive quality that can’t fail to bring a geeky grin to my face and, steals, riffs and homage be-damned, I’ll never grow weary of defending it upon grounds of cheeky charm and daftly danceable energy.
That main theme is superb – effronting steal or not. The use of mysterious woodwinds, cimbalom, electric guitar and pulsating, hip-gyrating glitterball action is actually quite unique. The essence of Morricone and John Barry gets a clubland “big hair” beat, and the result is surprisingly invigorating.
Hawk The Slayer doesn’t work very well as a film, but there is something damned likeable about its cheap and cheerful pioneering attempt to bring high fantasy to the screen, and it is definitely far better accomplished, actually more period authentic and downright enjoyable than any dozen or so Kevin Sorbo (mis)adventures. You can’t watch it and praise it as anything other than a so bad it’s awesome calamity of gorgeously well-intentioned ineptitude. And the score seems to acknowledge all this whilst still doing its absolute best to celebrate the few good points and determinedly boost its copious naff ones.
A limited release, but a welcome one … even if it forces you to visualise a film that many see as nothing other than an abomination.
Recommended for a perfectly funky fantasy!
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