Director: Peter Yates
By Roderick Heath
The early 1980s saw a brief, but admirable flowering in pure fantasy filmmaking. Sailing on the zephyr of the Star Wars cash cow, the fantasy genre, which had previously been a province of tacky productions, suddenly gained larger budgets and loving labour, and a new gloss of prestige. Not that some admirably cheap, elemental examples, like Hawk the Slayer (1980) and The Beastmaster (1982), didn’t sneak through, but others, like John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1981), Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), and Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1985), offered dazzling landscapes, thematic heft, and creative filmmaking. With Krull, Peter Yates, one of a wave of creative British directors who had emerged in the glory years of the mid ’60s, took a stab at the genre in one of the many attempts to duplicate the Star Wars magic.
Yates, who died last year at age 85, has been chiefly associated with his tough, soulful crime films like the modish classic Bullitt (1968) and the dryly brilliant The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), and more character-based dramas like Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1982). He wasn’t averse to tackling the odd blockbuster-wannabe, as he had done so with his enjoyable 1977 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s schlock novel The Deep. But he had not tried a film like Krull before, which is surprising because Yates’ sense of style really makes Krull worthwhile. Nonetheless, despite its ingenious visual design, fluency of motion, and depth of feeling that make it more than another formulaic adventure flick, Krull was nowhere near as big a hit as it was supposed to be. Criticised upon release for its lack of imagination, today it looks more eminently classical.
I use the word classical advisedly: the greater part of the pleasure Krull offers now is that it was essayed in the polished, spectacular ’80s style of large-budget studio filmmaking, with a marvelously oversized score by James Horner and crisp, painterly, widescreen cinematography by Peter Suschitzky. It is the product of a cinematic sensibility that valued a sense of grandeur and physical vitality over today’s CGI, wobbly camerawork, and attention-deficit editing. The old-school set design and costuming-based style of fantasy filmmaking can look a bit stodgy at times, especially in the lumbering Slayers, who are villainous soldiers who look nearly as slow and unthreatening as the old Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons. But Krull positively glows with care in the filmmaking, with a firmly achieved mise-en-scène and some very clever special effects, most notably some stop-motion animation in a sequence with a giant crystal spider.
Krull’s first half moves in fits and starts: the title refers to a faraway planet where a kind of medievalism is still the mode of life, and preternatural mysticism is part of its texture. Out of the depths of space comes a gigantic ship piloted by the Beast, a monstrously powerful, shape-shifting creature determined to subdue the galaxy. After the ship, known as the Black Fortress because of its castle-like appearance, lands on Krull, the Beast sends out his army of Slayers to wipe out all human civilisation on the planet. To combat the Beast, Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony), the heirs of two Krull realms, agree to marry and unite their strength, setting aside the ancient feud between their fathers, Eirig (Bernard Archard) and Turold (Tony Church). “Great fighters make bad husbands!” Eirig warns Lyssa. During the wedding ceremony, Slayers invade Eirig’s castle and kill everyone except for Colwyn, who’s wounded and left for dead, and Lyssa, who’s carried away to the Beast, who wants to marry her himself.
Colwyn is found amongst the dead and revived by Ynyr (Freddie Jones), the “old man of the mountains” (“Not that old,” he insists), a retired sage who is initially sickened by the young man’s indulgence in despair. But Colwyn gets over his grief quickly and asks for the sage’s aid in finding the Beast’s lair and rescuing Lyssa. The great problem facing them is not merely in breaking into the Black Fortress and battling the Beast, but in finding the place, because it changes location every day at dawn, disappearing and reappearing thousands of miles distant. Much of the subsequent story revolves around their attempts to find someone who can guide them to the Fortress’s present locale. Ynyr takes Colwyn to a priestly, green-robed seer (John Welsh), who can’t penetrate the Beast’s magic, so they take a detour to a sacred place in the midst of a swamp where the seer believes he’ll have more power. Along the way, Colwyn recruits the only talented fighting men he can find to aid him—a gang of criminals led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and including Kegan (Liam Neeson) and Rhun (Robbie Coltrane)—on the promise they’ll be pardoned if he ever manages to restore his kingdom. Also along for the ride are the seer’s boy apprentice Titch (Graham McGrath) and a boastful, but inept wizard named Ergo (David Battley). But the Beast’s agents and lurking Slayers prove competent in eliminating the seer and almost killing Colwyn; only the intervention of a Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw), member of a cursed race with a deep grudge against the Beast, saves Colwyn from assassination.
At this point in the film, Krull shifts gears, from awkwardly trying to tick off the compulsory elements for a fantasy adventure, to employing them with verve. Whilst some of the humour and by-play are a bit twee, Yates conjures an appropriate edge of gothic horror to give the film some menace and atmosphere. A xenomorphic assassin with black eyes and sprouting claws kills the seer and takes his place. The Beast’s disembodied hand appears out of a crystal ball to shatter it when the seer tries to find him. The Slayers are creepier when they die than when they’re menacing the heroes—when killed, their brainstems rip themselves out like escaping parasites with shrill screams and burrow into the ground. The best fantasies tend to have not necessarily a moral to them, but certainly an engagement with some vital fact of life mediated through extreme metaphors. Here it’s the struggle with accepting death and defining one’s life that haunt the Cyclops, Ynyr, and the other members of the heroic party, many of whom fall in battle trying to work out what they’ve let themselves be killed for. The Cyclops, like his entire race, had been betrayed by the Beast, which had promised them the gift of foresight, but only gave them the ability to predict the time of their own demise, and left them all with one eye to boot. The Cyclops aids the heroes right up until the threshold of the time he’s supposed to die, knowing that to go on will cost him great pain. In the finale, he, of course, makes the last-minute charge to the rescue of his friends, and ends up getting crushed in the sliding stone doorway he props open to let them by. Talk about cruel fate!
After the murder of the seer, Ynyr has to venture into the lair of another sorcerer in order to track the Fortress. He seeks the “Widow of the Web” (Francesca Annis), a woman who lives in a chamber at the centre of a gigantic web watched over by that huge spider. The widow’s real name is Lyssa, too, and long ago she and Ynyr were lovers; he abandoned her for court duties and she, in her bereavement, murdered their infant son. This murder is the reason for her cocooned, haggard entrapment, offering oracle services for anyone who can brave the spider, but nobody ever escapes it. When Ynyr manages, with the Widow’s help, to reach her, he sees her as miraculously rejuvenated, the years of shame falling away. After she tells him where to find the Fortress, to help him escape, she shatters an hourglass and gives him the sand to carry; he’ll live only as long as it takes for the last grains to flow through his fingers, and he manages to escape the web as the spider consumes the Widow. Ynyr makes it back to Colwyn before expiring as the last sands escape his grasp. It’s a surprisingly weighty, beautifully filmed, and well-conceived sequence, and the intriguing suggestion of a kind of circularity of time and experience encapsulated in the shared name of the aged and young women and the shared quest of the old and young men, not to mention the history of rage and sorrow and the metaphors for emotional damage and awareness of mortality, deepens the film immeasurably in the dovetailing of plot, theme, and special effects.
Meanwhile, Lyssa is prettily menaced by the Beast, who offers to transform himself into the likeness of Colwyn if that will make her likelier to accept him. But he’s really a grotesque alien, looking a bit like the creature from Xtro (1980). Whilst Krull doesn’t toy anywhere near as interestingly as Legend with the efforts of the gruesome villain to seduce the innocent heroine, the stylisation of the interior of the Black Fortress, with its shifting walls, organic coiling corridors, and facades and features shaped like eyes and hands, is excellent, as the Fortress is a suggestively eroticised space indivisible from the thing that inhabits it. The Beast assails Lyssa with visions of a giant, grotesque hand that morphs into a burning rose of love. The design here has a quality reminiscent of a lot of ’60s psychedelia-influenced fantasy, including the set design of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1967) and even the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968), as well as the recognisable influence of the fantasy scenes in Powell and Pressburger’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and The Red Shoes (1948) in the shots of Lyssa dashing through cavernous, hallucinogenic spaces.
Whilst the filmmaking is, overall, straightforward and linear, Yates manages to employ some of the New Wave gimmicks he offered in his earlier films in a sequence where Lyssa and her father’s conversation is heard on sound whilst the vision offers shots of Colwyn and his retinue journeying across the grandiose Krull landscape. Yates’ work is however best distinguished by his lack of tricks, and his sense of how to shoot those landscapes and the effects in such a way as to make them seem awesome. A good example is a strong early sequence in which Colwyn performs a regulation mythic task—climb a mountain and retrieve an object called the Glave, a boomerang-like bladed wheel that’s a traditional symbol of lordly authority, hidden within molten rock. Yates films his tiny body traversing colossal ridges and cliffs, situating his camera far away from his character and framing his actions obliquely.
The supporting cast of Krull is much more interesting than its leads; Marshall is merely upright and good-looking in a fashion reminiscent of Kerwin Matthews and Todd Armstrong, stars in Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasies. Anthony, who went on to become a familiar face in TV movies, was actually dubbed by Lindsay Crouse. But stalwarts like Jones and Armstrong, and the tantalising cameo by Annis, really make the film. It goes to show that sometimes star quality is an elusive thing to pin; where Marshall was plucked from obscurity and went back to it, dashing, but less conventionally handsome young Neeson plays a criminal with a girl in every village. Whilst Battley might as well spend the movie with a sign on his forehead reading “comic relief,” he does it well, as Ergo stumbles through the film, constantly attempting to turn antagonists into animals and usually only doing it to himself. In the finale, he works this to his advantage and turns into a tiger, tearing Slayers to pieces.
Yates delivers another scene invoking both pure fantasy thrills with an edge of almost poetic beauty as the heroes, needing to reach the Black Fortress before it relocates again, muster a herd of wild “fire-horses,” which can gallop at such great speeds that their hooves blaze and they can fly over great gorges: it’s a scene of pure boyish wonder when the flying horses make arcs of fire through the night sky and along vast landscapes. Once the band manages to break into the Fortress thanks to the Cyclops’s self-sacrifice, most of Torquil’s criminal entourage die in battling the Slayers and the Fortress’s living defences. Colwyn, finding Lyssa trapped in a chamber, uses the Glave for the first time to cut her out, only to attract and do battle with the Beast. The Beast proves less vulnerable to the Glave than the magical fire Colwyn can wield, due to an aspect of his marriage rite with Lyssa. The couple are finally invincible when united against the tyrannical intruder, a fitting closing point for the film’s motif of violated rites and pairings, and Yates closes with the awesome sight of the fortress crumbling bit by bit, the rubble falling up into the air, as if Krull’s very atmosphere is rejecting it. The swashbuckling, yet poignant pleasures of Krull’s second half make up for the faults of the first, and the film might have been truly great if it could have sustained the synthesising qualities of its best scenes. As it is, Krull sings visually with the essence of the genre, and remains a fun ride.