A mild American college professor is transported to the savage fantasy world of Gor by a ring that his father left him when his car hits a tree. He arrives in the middle of a massacre, carried out by the warriors of Sarn on a peaceful village. Throwing in his lot with some of the survivors, they travel in search of the ‘Homestone’ that Sarn has stolen, the only thing that can return the professor to his own world.
John Norman’s sword and sorcery epics (33 volumes and counting!) were all over bookstores in the 1980s. A mixture of Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy with philosophical discussion (apparently!), they were much criticised at the time for their gender politics. Norman (real name John Frederick Lange, Jr) was a devotee of Nietzche and believed in individual prowess rather than collective co~operation. He also felt that a woman’s place was to be subservient to her man, and would ‘find herself’ in such a role and actively come to enjoy it. So, not a great feminist then! Publishers Ballantine Books were apparently quite happy to rake in the proceeds from this minor literary phenomenon but, perhaps fearing more controversy, did not approve of them being filmed. But author Norman found a legal ‘work around’ and the first film adaptation went into production in the mid-1980s.
So what is it like? Do we have an edgy, thoughtful meditation on the roles and relations of the sexes that provokes debate and disgust in equal measures? Err…no, not really. What we get instead is a cheap, generic, by the numbers, sword (no sorcery) adventure that is about as mystical and deep as a wet weekend in Rochdale. The plot is a collection of clichés that you’d hoped you would never see again; the hopeless hero who takes 5 minutes to become a master bowman and an expert with a sword, the comedy relief dwarf who saves the day, the big bully in the tavern fight sequence, the slave rebellion led by our hero, the best friend’s heroic sacrifice, etc, etc.
The acting doesn’t help much either with Urbano Barberini bland in the lead role and Oliver Reed hamming it up in a silly metal headpiece as the villain. Hollywood veteran Jack Palance is also along for the ride, seven years after he chewed up the scenery on seminal fantasy crapfest ‘Hawk The Slayer’ (1980). Four years after this Palance won an Oscar for ‘City Slickers’ (1991), but even that didn’t give his career too much of a shot in the arm. Perhaps producers had simply seen him involved with too many projects like this. There’s another familiar face in the scenes on Earth: Arnold Vosloo, who took over from Liam Neeson as ‘Darkman’ and later starred in the title role of ‘The Mummy’ (1999).
But there’s plenty of combat, right? And that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Sword fights, fisticuffs, stunt work? Well, yes, there is plenty of swordplay, but it’s laughably inept. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for a clumsy kind of realism that you might get in real life when handling heavy weapons? Hmmmm….maybe. But it simply looks as if the participants have almost no idea what they’re doing and are trying very hard not to hurt each other by mistake. Early on Barberini slays Reed’s son, but all we see is a shot of a stuntman falling from a horse and Barberini standing there with a bloody sword, looking slightly puzzled. Join the club, mate.
And what’s all that stuff about our hero’s father and that mystical ring? And how can the Homestone send him back to Earth? Haven’t a clue, and neither had the filmmakers apparently.
Rather incredibly, a sequel followed, ‘An Outlaw of Gor’ (1988), but I suspect it was actually shot back to back with this one, and crawled out later. Perhaps when the producers thought that everyone had forgotten about this. Why do I think that? Well, Palance only turns up for the last 5 minutes here, and his appearance is a blatant set up for a sequel. There was a different director, but most of the surviving cast returned. What’s it like? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it’s even worse than this. Wow.