The Beastmaster (1982)
Director Don Coscarelli, who came to fame with his third movie Phantasm, was a big fan of science fiction writer Andre Norton. One would not know this considering what he did with The Beastmaster, based on a novel by Norton about a Navajo named Hosteen Storm, who has the power to control animals on a distant planet, and his use of his powers in defeating an alien race that has all but destroyed humanity. I read the book so long ago - it was probably 1983, since my parents asked me if it had to do with the movie, and at the time I thought it didn't - that I remember little of the book. In honesty, I also remembered little of the movie, although it was played constantly on HBO and TBS.
Phantasm made Coscarelli a decent amount of money, and along with co-writer Paul Pepperman he was able to raise a fair amount to film a script they wrote in 1980. Andre Norton, however, was not amused, as her science fiction story was changed into a sword-and-sorcery film, largely following the story of Conan the Barbarian but with more magic and supernatural creatures. It is also the reason, other than the fact that Norton is unfortunately not as well known now as many of her contemporaries, that none of her novels have been adapted since. That's a shame, since it would be great to see a real version of The Beast Master. Still, all the controversy about its beginnings aside, Coscarelli's movie still makes for some nostalgic, if ultimately silly, viewing after all this time.
Due to a prophecy that the unborn child of King Zed of Aruk (Rod Loomis) will bring about his death, the fanatical wizard Maax (Rip Torn) plots to have the boy removed from his mother's womb and killed. To do this he sends one of his priestesses, who transfers the boy into the womb of a cow. However, before she is able to complete the sacrifice, a traveling warrior (Ben Hammer) kills the priestess and rescues the boy, whom he names Dar. Dar is taken back to his village and trained, over the years, to serve as a farmer and as a warrior.
Dar (Marc Singer) has a secret: he can befriend and communicate with animals, using them as his allies. After his village is destroyed, Dar uses his ability to gather an eagle, a panther and two ferrets to his side in order to take revenge on the barbarians that killed his family. Along the way he meets Kiri (Tanya Roberts), a slave girl in the Temple of Ar. He also meets Seth (John Amos) and his ward Tal (Joshua Milrad), the latter being the heir to the throne of Aruk and a cousin to Kiri. Forming an alliance, they aim to rescue Zed and free Aruk from Maax's rule.
While The Beastmaster wasn't successful in theaters, it was one of a number of movies in the early 1980s that was rediscovered on cable, largely because many networks, even HBO, didn't have as large a film library as they do now. A lot of prestige movies, like Star Wars, were held back from release for years both because of rights issues and their directors' reluctance to have a good portion of the movie chopped away to make it fit the small screen. That meant that what movies they did get got played a lot. The Beastmaster, with its PG rating, was a lot more acceptable in many parents' eyes than Conan the Barbarian - despite both having a fair amount of nudity and violence - and was definitely more on a juvenile level than its inspiration. Also, unlike a lot of the movies Conan inspired at the time, like Deathstalker and Barbarian Queen, there wasn't a whole lot of raping going on. Still, the first meeting between Dar and Kiri would probably not go over so well today.
The main problem with the Beastmaster, though, is that despite decent production values it still feels second tier. Rip Torn tries to chew the scenery, but doesn't make anywhere near the impact James Earl Jones did in Conan in what was largely a silent role. While Arnold Schwarzenegger at the time was shaky on his English and Sandahl Bergman was hired more for looks and physical ability than her acting skills, they wisely had little dialog as well. I think Marc Singer was either going for, or directed to go for, a more Luke Skywalker-type portrayal of Dar, but his line readings are wooden, as are Tanya Roberts's. John Amos is a different story, as is Josh Milrad, and the movie livens up quite a bit once they are introduced and are allowed to carry a lot of the spoken parts while Singer does the action and Roberts hangs around in skimpy outfits.
The highlight of the movie, and what set it aside at the time, were the animals. The ferrets, Kodo and Podo, are the best remembered, as well as the panther and the eagle. I guess there were difficulties getting them all to behave and, being pre-CGI, the cast was largely happy that the tiger (not a panther - they used Liz Clairol on a tiger) didn't get too hungry or too crabby. The other memorable part are the strange bat creatures that worship eagles. They are among a number of good ideas that Coscarelli had to differentiate his story and, like the deathguards in the Temple of Ar, they are severely under used.
Otherwise, this is a basic sword-and-sorcery film, with the usual story and a slightly different ending than expected. It is too long by about a half hour, and definitely should have taken the lead of Conan and concentrated on visuals rather than dialog. It is still a fun reminder of spending Saturday evenings in the rare instances where my family could afford cable back in the 1980s, even if most of Coscarelli's other movies, despite this one being the most well-known, are much better.
The Beastmaster (1982)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, John Amos, Josh Milrad, Rip Torn
Director: Don Coscarelli