Poor Basil Rathbone. After finding great success on stage and the screen, after becoming a huge star playing Robin Hood, after being nominated for two Oscars, and portraying the definitive Sherlock Holmes (at least until a certain Mr. Cumberbatch came along), he ended his career mostly hamming it out in drek. In the last decade of his life, he made films like Hillbillys in a Haunted House, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and this rather silly sword and sandals fantasy. The Magic Sword is probably best known today as one of the many films ridiculed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (though it should be noted on screen that the film was “pretty good for a Bert I. Gordon film”). Still, that’s not exactly how you want a great actor’s career to end.
Rathbone plays Lodac, an evil wizard who has kidnapped Helene (Anne Helm), a beautiful princess. He declares to the King that she will be fed to his dragon in three days as revenge for the King killing his sister. The conniving Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan) declares that he will risk the seven curses and rescue Helene but only if he can have her hand in marriage afterward.
Meanwhile, George (Gary Lockwood, six years before his starring role in 2001: A Space Odyssey) has been using his mother Sybil’s (Estelle Winwood) magic mirror to spy on Helene (the film demonstrates this by having him leer at her while skinny dipping) and though he’s never actually seen her, he is deeply in love (because nothing spells romance like a little peeping-tom action). He tricks his mom, who is a rather ineffectual sorceress, into giving him a magic horse, an indestructible suit of armor, a magic shield, and the titular magic sword.
He teems up with Sir Branton as well as a company of knights who had previously been trapped inside a mural painting. Together, they face the seven curses, destroy the dragon, and overcome Lodac (sorry for the spoiler, but really if you thought the outcome would be any different in this type of film, you haven’t been paying attention).
The seven curses (and I’m not entirely sure there are seven actual curses – the film sputters them out sporadically without giving much thought to numbers) range from pretty good (a giant ogre, a shapeshifting witch – played by Maila Nurmi of Vampira fame) – to the dreadful (a really hot desert, a cave with a disappearing entrance).
The writing is dreadful, the direction merely adequate, but the special effects are surprisingly decent (for a low budget fantasy film). The dragon is an especially nice bit of practical effects puppetry. Basil Rathbone and Estelle Winwood are having lots of fun hamming it up. This was clearly a film made for kids to enjoy and I suspect it would still work well for youngsters not opposed to older movies. For the rest of us, well there’s always that episode of MST3K, or you can make your own jokes while getting increasingly hammered.
Honestly, all things considered, it’s not bad. It is a long way from good, but it has a certain charm and it is goofy enough to keep you entertained on a lazy weekend.
Kino Lorber’s new release comes with a lively commentary from film history Tim Lucas and filmmaker Larry Blamire, and the usual set of trailers. Sadly, it does not come with that MST3K episode.