Although the concept of the sword and sorcery line of adventure films had been in employment for several decades prior to the 1980s – most notably in the guise of Italian peplum movies that permitted some new stars to rise and old ones to fall just like the Roman Empire itself – it wasn’t until the beginning of that magical MTV era that the subgenre reached its very own zenith. Movies such as Excalibur, The Beastmaster, and Conan the Barbarian excited many a young soul’s imagination whilst simultaneously delighting the nerdy fantasies of older moviegoers whose adolescence had long been besieged by the ravages of time and post-puberty blues. And I should know: I was one of the former. In fact, I distinctly remember seeing The Beastmaster with my grade school chums as part of my birthday party.
Curiously enough, the same genre reached its nadir within just a few short years – even before the ’80s cashed in its chips at the time bank. The curious choice of keeping contemporary things such as feathered hairstyles and eye shadow in the movies that were supposed to be set thousands of years before the dawn of civilization was prone to dating even the best film within a matter of months. Alas, as numerous sequels, clones, and ripoffs of the more successful films appeared from all sides – sometimes upping the unbelievability factor considerably by failing to omit such anachronisms as handrails on staircases or tire tracks in the background (Ator, anyone?) – a market that was already quite limited with audiences to begin with became heavily oversaturated to the point of absurdity.
While the film fad was in the midst of its craze, the overlords of another magical realm – that of a place called CBS – took a chance on breathing life into a weekly television series akin to the many moneymakers and crowd pleasers at the box office after a poorly-received program known as Bring ‘Em Back Alive failed to bring ’em back awake. So, Wizards and Warriors first aired on television in February of 1983. And though such a commission would normally go unnoticed over the passing of time – especially after thirty-one years – it should be duly noted that Wizards and Warriors should have been more duly noted then (as well as now).
At first glance, one gets an uneasy feeling of “Oh God, it’s a TV ripoff of Excalibur – only with bigger hair!” might come to mind. Rest assured that any qualms or trepidations shall end immediately after one notes that the premiere episode of the series is entitled “The Unicorn of Death”. For you see, Wizards and Warriors creator Don Reo (The John Larroquette Show, Two and a Half Men) did what few others would have dared to do at the time, be it on film or on national television: he had a spot of fun with the concept. Instead of making just another boring spectacle that took itself entirely too seriously, Reo created a witty sitcom of medieval proportions. With great big huge flowing locks of feathered hair.
Here, the late Jeff Conaway gets a chance to let his inner silly out big time as Prince Erik Greystone, the good guy. Along with his trusted sidekick Marco (Walter Olkewicz) – who not only has Herculean strength but is able to talk to animals, too – the two attempt to rid the Kingdom of Camarand the many (or shall I say “weekly”?) nefarious plots and attacks executed by reigning villain Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr, clad in an outrageously ginormous black leather outfit that helped to earn the series an Emmy Nomination for Best Costume) and his less-than-trustworthy wizard, Vector (New Zealand legend Clive Revill, in one of his few regular on-screen TV roles). Most of Blackpool’s campaigns involve Princess Ariel, to wit the wonderful Julia Duffy was able to practice her later permanent role on Newhart as a spoiled rotten (whilst somehow remaining lovable) brat.
Speaking of Newhart, Wizards and Warriors also regularly features the great Thomas Hill as Duffy’s King father, while longtime character actor Ian Wolfe is given a chance to let it all hang out as Marco’s (benevolent) wizard uncle, Traquil. Though their parts are limited, both of these late TV players truly shine in their onscreen moments – as do their top-billed castmates. One senses Mr. Hill must have had a keen sense of humor, as he shows us the side of a ruler we seldom see on film: that of an annoyed father who does everything is his power to not kill his daughter and her equally spoiled mother (Julia Payne). Likewise, Mr. Wolfe – donning an unbelievable robe of long white hair – literally kicks back in most of his scenes, quipping that were it not for magic, he wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed in the morning.
Cult actress Randi Brooks is also featured in a few episodes as one of the hottest witches since Veronica Lake in this long-missing-from-home-video series wherein I immediately noticed was aired (probably deliberately) out of sequence by CBS. A two-parter respectfully entitled “The Kidnap” and “The Rescue” that establishes its characters and their strengths/weaknesses was probably intended to be (and was definitely written as, per the words of Don Reo) the original pilot. But then, the humor and more importantly, the performers’ comfortableness with the humor, is much better-established in what ultimately didbecome the series premiere episode.
As the show progresses, its leads grow even more unworried about their future: a classic moment from a “haunted castle” episode finds Blackpool and Vector drunkenly playing a board game and having a black-heart-to-black-heart talk about what they do for fun when they’re not being so gosh-darn evil. Alas, the cast being so unworried about their future was unsanctioned according to the Nielsen Ratings, and after only eight episodes, the mid-season replacement Wizards and Warriors was not renewed for a second round. Perhaps people just didn’t get it. Or those aforementioned older nerds still angry over the onset of growing up were disappointed that the series bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Mattel board game of the same name that was popular with future basement trolls at the time.
Either way, the time has come for Wizards and Warriors to finally receive a bit of attention it has so long gone without with this two-disc set from the Warner Archive Collection. Presented in its original broadcast order and in its original aspect ratio, all eight episodes (with Bill Bixby regularly directing) of Wizards and Warriors: The Complete Series looks quite nice here, with an image so clear that you can quite literally see some items in question that we would not have noticed on TV back in ’83 (a scene with a supposedly severed head cradled in the arms of its own body reveals to be nothing more than two people standing there with black cloth draped over their respective not-meant-to-be-seen figures). Likewise, some scenes – including stock footage from Excalibur nonetheless – come off as a bit dark, but it’s not an issue.
Sound-wise, you can actually hear all of the sounds that would normally be sorted out in post-production were Wizards and Warriors have been a major theatrical project. In particular is the previously touched-upon outfit as worn by Duncan Regehr; every single creak his leather goods made as they rub up against each other can be heard here, and it goes to show just how many ordinary sounds are usually omitted from movies and TV shows in order to not take us away from “the moment”. But of course, if creaking leather is of more importance than listening to some of the jokes Wizards and Warriors delivers, brother, you’re overdue for a check-up.