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More Christmas Panto than Star Wars with swords and sorcery
on 7 December 2012
At one point called The Dragons of Krull until someone noticed that they'd written the dragons out in one of the early draft screenplays, this 1983 underachiever was the end result of Columbia's desire for a big fantasy film - any fantasy film - to compete in the Star Wars stakes: the story came later, and came made to measure.
The result is a pic'n'mix of several genres, from swashbuckler to sci-fi as Ken Marshall's Prince must rescue his Princess (Lysette Anthony, dubbed, although on past form this is no great hardship) from the alien Slayers who have invaded his world. The notion of a medieval society literally fighting an enemy armed with scientific weapons with swords and sorcery is intriguing, but nothing here does it justice - where Lucas established an entire credible universe for Star Wars, we know nothing about this world: it exists purely for the purposes of the story.
This is more of a Christmas panto than anything else, with dialogue to match, although at least the latter improves when Marshall teams up with Alun Armstrong's outlaw band that includes Liam Neeson, a cockney Robbie Coltrane (looking all cloned up for a night in a gaybar) and even Eastenders Todd Carty.
Stephen Grimes' production design comes into its own with the organically designed Black Fortress, although his sets always look like sets (everything is peachy clean - even the swamps), leaving the paradox of an obviously very expensive film that still manages to look a bit cheap, for which Peter Suschitzky's photography must take much of the blame. Perfect on the exteriors, he consistently proves unable to match them with the interiors. Even worse, the camera feels like it is often in the wrong place (courtesy of director Peter Yates), and the editor seems more interested in what's going on in the sidelines than in the action itself, particularly in the fight in the swamp where the last Slayers are despatched in the background with the minimum of interest.
Not all is lost, however. There is one terrific sequence when Freddie Jones' Obi-Wan substitute must venture into a giant spider web to find out the location of the Slayer's Black Fortress from his long abandoned lover, Francesca Annis' Widow of the Web. There's heart, soul and a painful sense of lost opportunity to the scene that shines through, a magical moment that defies the lack of inspiration in the surrounding scenes and Freddie Jones' unrestrained ham (elsewhere his performance is pure "Can you hear me at the back, mother?" grandstanding) to create something quite touching. Similarly, Bernard Bresslaw's Cyclops, doomed to know the moment of his death from birth, benefits from a dignified, sincere performance that makes more of his scenes than they deserve. James Horner's score is one of the film's greatest strengths too, but the mix tends to lose much of it - a shame, because it is possibly his best work to date.
Columbia's DVD boasts a goodwidescreen transfer and a good selection of extras - audio commentary by Peter Yates, Ray Lovejoy, Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony, Cinefantastique article commentary, documentary Journey to Krull, Marvel comic book adaptation with music and dialogue extracts, 4 stills galleries, and trailer.