It's rare for a series of movies to get as far as the fourth installment without a noticeable drop in quality. It happened to the Alien franchise; Lord knows it happened to Halloween; and the fourth installment of Sam Raimi's Spiderman series was recently euthanized, before it could fall victim to the same fate. These were all series that got off to a good start: imagine what happens to a series whose original is a total piece of crap!
Actually, you don't have to imagine. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Quest for the Mighty Sword, otherwise known as Ator, Part 4.
The original Ator the Invincible was Italian director Joe D'Amato (né Aristide Massaccesi)'s answer to 1982's Conan the Barbarian. It was one of the first movies to rip off the Schwarzeneggar film; and as one of the first, it probably got more attention than it deserved. I'll leave it to others to explain the mess that is Ator, but one thing I need to point out is that in the original, our hero falls in love with his sister. OK, it turns out she's not actually his sister; but he didn't know that at the time, so it's still pretty creepy.
Ator Part One was typical of post-Conan "Sword and Sorcery" films, in that it mixed up its mythological references without any concern for sense. So you had guys in Roman armor coming up against other guys in samurai suits, all in a landscape that mixed in everything from neolithic cave-dwellings to medieval castles. It was ridiculous, but it was reasonably successful, so it's no surprise that it was followed by Ator the Invincible 2 (a.k.a. The Blademaster) two years later (the fact that a second Conan film had been released the same year is, ahem, probably coincidental). Like the first film, Ator 2 starred slab o' beef Miles O'Keefe (Tarzan, the Ape Man); but in spite of this tiny attempt at continuity, Ator 2 has very little to do with its predecessor. Instead, we find the familiar character battling a sorcerer who's invented an atomic bomb. Ator must fight ultra-low-budget enemies like the dreaded Invisible Warriors before building a fully-functional hang glider out of animal skins and flying to the rescue. As far as historical plausibility goes, Ator 2 makes the first Ator look like a National Geographic documentary1.
O'Keefe, but not D'Amato, returned for Ator 3... or what would have been "Ator 3", if anybody had felt there was a shred publicity value left in the name. The movie's real title is Iron Warrior (1987): imagine the shock of those first audiences when they found out they were about to be subjected to another Ator movie! Making matters worse, D'Amato's place was filled (apparently without D'Amato's permission) by none other than Alfonso Brescia — Italy's worst director of science fiction, the man responsible for Cosmos: War of the Planets, War of the Robots, Star Odyssey, and his ridiculous mish-mash of Alien and Borowczyk, The Beast in Space.
By 1987, Sword and Sorcery flicks were starting to outwear their welcome, and the completely incomprehensible Iron Warrior did nothing to improve the situation. By 1990, the whole subgenre had pretty much been exhausted. Oh, sure, the Beastmaster series was just getting started; but then again, Beastmaster 2 (1991)'s subtitle — "Through the Portal of Time" — seems accurate in more ways than one. Yet somehow, as late as 1990, the usually market-savvy D'Amato felt compelled to return to his creation, and make one more lousy Ator film. Whatever his reasons may have been, he not only concluded the Ator saga... he also made a pretty convincing case that the whole Sword and Sorcery subgenre should be consigned to the mythical past.
Quest for the Mighty Sword begins with Lord Ator ruling over the land of Akili with wisdom, justice, and... well... a Really Big Sword.
It's the Day of Justice, and Ator — in the presence of his vaguely simian herald, and two rows of white-clad and black-clad lizard-men — has just condemned two criminals to death. The criminals demand the right to trial by combat, and Ator agrees; so, while his wife and infant son look on, he demonstrates the Will of the Gods by making short work of his flabby-looking challengers.
(It seems that Miles O'Keefe had a bit more sense than D'Amato about going back to the well... so this time, Ator is played by Eric Allen Kramer [Robin Hood: Men in Tights], who is a bit softer around the edges than O'Keefe. Ator's little son is also named Ator, and it should come as no surprise to learn that the grown-up Ator Jr. will also be played by Kramer.)
Lord Ator has been given a vision of his own impending death; so after the combat is over, he turns to his infant son and gives him some important instructions. The sword he wields is the Blade of the Sacred Graal, given to him by the god Thorn — yes, Thorn, not to be confised with any other similarly-named gods. I'm not sure how Thorn got his hands on a Holy Graal, but we've got plenty more mixed mythologies to untangle before the movie's even half over. Anyway, Thorn has promised to come back and claim either the sword or Ator's life. "But justice is needed more among men than among gods," he continues; so to preserve justice among men, "this sword must always belong to Ator." You know; because his son's name is Ator, too. Get it?
No sooner has Ator confided this important plot point to his one-and-a-half year-old son, when a figure in armor appears at the far end of the hall, calling his name (yes, he's also calling his one-and-a-half year-old son's name, too, but it's more likely that... oh, never mind). By strange coincidence, it's Thorn himself, come to take back his Sacred Graal. Ator vows that he will not return the sword willingly. His defiance is made a little less impressive by the fact he holds the sword out in front of him, as though begging Thorn to come take it.
Thorn is about to javelin Ator to death — you can tell he must be a god, because he chooses such a cowardly way to defeat his rival — when an Amazon warrior comes running up: "NOOOOO!" she cries. Then, because she's been running all the way through the opening credits, she has to take a moment...
...to catch her breath.
... while everybody stands there expectantly...
... she continues:
"Do not kill Ator!" she says.
(Yeah, thanks; we sort-of figured that's what you meant).
She tells Thorn that he should spare Lord Ator because he has ruled with wisdom and justice. Meh, shrugs Thorn, and sends his spear stright into Ator's solar plexus. Ator attempts to block the spear with his sword, but the spear breaks the blade into two pieces.
This would seem to be a little counter-productive, since Thorn had apparently come to take the sword back in one piece. But just then, Thorn changes: he's no longer a god, but a hideous troll! The Thorn costume is instantly recognzeable as the possum-like Goblin from Troll 2, which D'Amato produced the same year.
(In case you're wondering, the lizard-men just stand there impassively while all this is gong on.)
So Ator the Elder is dead; the sword of justice is shattered, and the Amazon warrior Dejanira has been failed in her attempt to change fate. The poor woman has to drag herself all the way back to the Secret Amazon Cave, where the Queen tells her she must be punished for defying the gods. She will be imprisoned behind a wall of fire, until the day when a mortal man has the strength and courage to rescue her. When that happens, she will lose her magic powers, as Thorn's penalty for preferring a mortal to him.
We're not even ten minutes into the film, and we already have:
We also have a kid who, by the setup of the original movie, may be the child of a brother and sister. Some of you may see where I'm headed with this; but for everybody else, don't worry. I'll explain it later.
The years pass, and Ator the younger grows into a man. We know this because a woman we've never seen before tells us so. Actually, she tells Ator, who (you'd think) knows that even better than she does. The woman is Nephele, and she's played by Marisa Mell in one of her final screen appearances. Nephele goes on to tell Ator that the man who restores the magic sword will become invincible... but that somebody named Grindl "has hidden the two fragments of the sword, and he will do everything he can to break the promise he gave to your mother... son."
(insert comic double-take sound effect here)
What did she just say? Did she just refer to Ator's mother, and then call Ator her own son?
It doesn't help that Nephele speaks in Marisa Mell's own, Austrian-accented English. I had to go to the IMDb to check that my suspicion was correct: Nephele is saying, "your mother, Sunn." Ator's wife... that is, Ator senior's wife, and Ator junior's mother... really is the same character from the first film. But although her name was Sunya in the original, here it's been shortened to "Sunn". That's right: not only was the elder Ator's wife his sister, the younger Ator's mother was his father's Sunn. And I'm my own grandpa.
But all at once, without any attempt at transition, we're back twenty years in the past! Ator junior is still a tiny child, and his mother Sunn has taken the fragments of the magic sword to the cave of the troll Grindl — yes, Grindl; not to be confused with any other mythical cave-dwelling monster (Grindl is yet another re-used costume from Troll 2).
Sunn demands that Grindl re-forge the magic sword, so that he can give it to young Ator on his eighteenth birthday. Grindl reminds her that she has little power to demand anything any more, now that she's a mere widow. But Sunn insists: it's destiny. Besides, Grindl himself is so ugly that not even the women of his own kind will have anything to do with him. So, Sunn suggests, why doesn't he raise little Ator as the son he never had, and was never likely to have?
Well, mulls Grindl... maybe he will. But if Ator had been his own true son, then wouldn't there have been a little nookie first? Hint, hint?
Sunn's response: just kill me now.
Hmm. Not as much fun as the nookie, perhaps, but just as satisfying to Grindl in the long run. The troll agrees — but slips her a love potion instead of poison, causing Sunn to writhe in ecstasy and offer herself to the hideous creature.
(The resulting "love scene" might seem tailor-made for a director like Joe D'Amato, who had previously made movies like Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust, and went on to make films called Jurassic Pork, The 120 Days of Anal and Raiders of the Lost Virginity. But surprise! The actress doesn't even take her clothes off! In fact, D'Amato's Ator films are some of the tamest Sword and Sorcery flicks, as far as nudity and graphic sex are concerned; and though D'Amato did eventually make some hardcore peplum-style films, like The Sexual Adventures of Ulysses and The Erotic Labors of Hercules [his last movie], he never made an X-rated Ator riff. If he had, I'dbe reviewing that instead, and my readers and I would both be having a better time.)
Before things can get too unsavory, ZOOM! We're back in the future, 17 years later, with the grown Ator. Nephele informs us — er, excuse me: Ator — that his mother was cursed by the gods with eternal madness after sleeping with Grindl. The news makes Ator so angry he punches out a tree: he's always been told his mother was dead. At this moment Grindl comes back, and Nephele transforms herself into a bird and disappears. Ator pushes his way into the cave, past Grindl's stuffed Dimetrodon (?!). Grindl offers Ator a foaming cup to drink; but Ator, now aware of Grindl's treachery, declines.
Ator is now on the eve of his eighteenth birthday (yeah, right: in base 20, maybe... they must be using Mayan math!), so Grindl presents him with what he claims is his father's sword. Still fuming about his mother, Ator takes the weapon and smashes it down on the troll's head. The sword shatters. Cackling, Grindl tells Ator this is just what he expected of the perfidious race of men: the sword was a dummy, and so is Ator.
Some time and several fake-swords-to-the-head later, Grindl blinds Ator and leaves him locked in the cave, while he goes out to do Grindly things. Polish his McGuffins, perhaps. Or maybe he has tickets to the opera. But Ator accidentally manages to restore his sight, and (equally accidentally) discovers the hiding place of the real fragments of the Graal-sword. While Grindl is out, he forges the magic sword anew; and then, with revenge on his mind, he waits for the troll to come back...
OK, let's see what else we have here:
And now he has to go out on his own, to fulfill the prophecy by which he will break the power of the king of the gods. This will seem overpoweringly familiar to some of you. But for those who are still in the dark, let me introduce you to the uncredited co-author of Quest for the Mighty Sword:
Richard Wagner, 1813 - 1883
Richard Wagner wrote a series of four "music dramas" collectively known as Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelungs"). They're much more than a set of individual operas: they're a Gesamtkunstwerk ("total art work", a union of art, music and literature) for which Wagner not only wrote the libretto and music — all 15 hours of it — but also designed special musical instruments (the "Wagner tuba"), and even built his own specially-constructed opera house.
The story of the Ring is loosely based on an ancient German poem called the Nibelungenlied. But Wagner's adaptation of the story has become much more familiar than the original, in the way that (say) the many film adaptations of Frankenstein have eclipsed Mary Shelley's original in the public mind. You'll find echoes of Wagner's tetralogy in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, to name one obvious example (though Tolkien denied the influence); also, the image of the typical "opera singer" as a towering blonde in a Viking helmet comes directly from Wagner's Ring.
Wagner's story is immensely complicated, as you might expect from such a huge series of operas — you could watch three Ator movies in the time it takes to listen to any one of the last three operas, and still have time to spare. But let me just go over the plot of the third of the four works: Siegfried.
Actually, I have to backtrack a little first. At the end of the second opera, Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie"), Wotan, the king of the gods, had killed the hero Siegmund. But Wotan's Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde had defied him, and allowed Siegmund's love Sieglinde to escape with their unborn child. That child might be destined to bring about the death of the gods, so Wotan was angered by his daughter's betrayal. He couldn't bring himself to destroy her, though; so he'd placed her, asleep, on a rock surrounded by fire. No longer immortal, Brünnhilde could only be rescued by a man who was not afraid of Wotan's curse.
Did I mention Siegmund and Sieglinde were brother and sister? Oh. Well, they were.
So anyway: at the beginning of Siegfried, Sieglinde has died, leaving her child (Siegfried) in the hands of the ugly dwarf Mime (that's MEE-muh). She's also left him the fragments of Siegmund's magic sword, which was shattered by the spear of Wotan. Mime needs both the sword and the young Siegfried, because without both of them he'll never be able to retrieve the Ring of the Nibelungs from the dragon that guards it.
Siegfried is young, fearless and stupid, and he's always played by a performer at least twice as old as he's supposed to be (sound familiar?). Upset over the story of his mother's death, he orders his guradian Mime to fix the sword that is his inheritance. In fact, Mime has been trying for years to fix the broken sword, but is unable to do so. Impatient, Siegfried tries repairing the magical blade himself... and succeeds.
Mime sends Siegfried off to kill the dragon (since Siegfried is young, fearless and stupid enough to think that's a great idea). And Siegfried does manage to kill the monster. But after he's done so, the young hero accidentally tastes the dragon's blood. This gives him the power to understand the language of the animals. He hears from a Forest Bird that the dwarf is planning to poison him once Siegfried brings him the treasure. So, once he returns, Siegfried spurns the drink Mime offers him. Reading Mime's thoughts as easily as the Forest Bird's, Siegfried then kills the dwarf and takes the Ring for himself.
Learning that there is a beautiful warrior woman lying on an enchanted rock, and that he may finally learn fear from her, Siegfried goes off to find Brünnhilde. Wotan tries half-heartedly to stop him, but realizes that his own actions have brought about the inevitable death of the gods. Siegfried's new sword easily destroys Wotan's staff, and the weary king of the gods exits the Ring cycle, never to reappear. Siegfried finds Brünnhilde, the first woman he has ever seen, and learns fear from the overpowering emotion he feels on seeing her.
In the last opera, Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods"), Siegfried is betrayed by a pair of siblings named Gunther and Gutrune. Eventually he is stabbed to death with a spear by Gunther's half-brother Hagen. It's all the fault of that damned Ring... anyway, the deeper details are far too complicated to describe here. But I think you can see how much of the superficial plot points of Siegfried and the other operas of the Ring cycle have been plundered to make Quest for the Mighty Sword.
Would it surprise you to learn there's a character named Gunther coming up in D'Amato's film, played by Zombi Holocaust's Donald O'Brien? Gunther's sister's name is Grimhilde2 this time, instead of Gutrune. But when you consider their lieutenant is a troll by the name of Hagen, then... what's left to say?
Of course, Wagner never dreamed of including sword-wielding siamese twin robots in his operas:
Nor did he ever imagine a cameo appearance by Yongary, Monster from the Deep — covered in slime, no less:
There is no scene in Die Walküre set in a cheap version of the cantina from Star Wars. And Wagner's tetralogy ends with the death of the gods, not with a riff on Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood.
As for the script: while "Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle... wagala weia! wallala weiala weia!" and "Hojotoho!" are every bit as meaningless as they sound, they still beat lines like "I may have lost some of my immortality..." — or Dejanira's stumbling attempt to explain Ator's mission: "Back... to, uhh, find the path back... mmm... to the middle world."
"Dejanira", though, is not a name from the Nibelungenlied. It's the name of the wife (and later murderer) or Hercules. But what's in a name? Who needs a consistent frame of reference? After all, this is a world where dinosaurs and robots wander through the ruins of Gothic castles. This is a world where Ator Junior manages to go the Blademaster one better — by not only inventing the wrist-mounted crossbow, but conjuring it out of thin air using the power of his mind (...and he does it, by the way, only to imitate Indiana Jones). In a word: this is an Ator movie.
Come to think of it, even the "quest for the mighty sword" came to an end when the movie was only a third of the way through. Not even the title is consistent. Yes, it's an Ator movie all right: the Ator movie to end all Ator movies. And (Thorn be praised) it did end all Ator movies... and probably drew a few Sword and Sorcery stragglers down into the pyre with it, in a catastrophe I like to think of as...
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1. I should point out that both of these films were financed by the Metaxa company, which is appropriate: you'll need strong liquor to get through both of them back to back.
2. There is no "Grimhilde" in the Ring, although there are Valkyrie named Grimgerde and Gerhilde. Grimhilde is played as an extended cameo by Laura Gemser.