SPOILER WARNING: To write 35 things about a movie that's far better in my nostalgic memory banks than on actual celluloid, I needed to spoil a few things about the actual movie.
Though we give it our all each and every day here at SYFY WIRE, in the name of all things criminally underappreciated, I'd like to draw attention to a problem this website has had for many years now: a shameful lack of The Beastmaster representation. By my search, I see exactly zero stories with The Beastmaster – one of the, if not THE, most important films in my sordid HBO-raised past – in the title, which is an oversight that I apologize for, and am hell-bent on correcting right here, right now ... 35 times.
Are there more well-made sword-and-sorcery fantasy flicks than The Beastmaster, which celebrated its 35th anniversary yesterday? Certainly, even some from the '80s, as I found while rewatching the film (apparently for the first time since developing some actual taste). But for those of us who had HBO in the early part of that formative decade, few films could be more influential than writer/director Don Coscarelli's (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) melodramatic saga, which found Marc Singer – two years ahead of his global domination in everyone's favorite '80s alien-visitation mini-series, V. – donning a fur speedo, saving even more scantily clad slave girl Tanya Roberts, warging wild beasts, and hunting down the evil Jun horde and their freaky leader, Rip Torn and his eyebrows. So while Ar knows it doesn't live up to the nostalgia in my mind, there's still 35 good reasons to celebrate the film today.
1. Dar – Has there ever been a more apt-sounding one-named hero than Dar? Maybe Groot, but "I am Dar" came about long before "I am Groot." And Singer doesn't really even have to say that much more for you to realize just what kind of a strong, silent dummy we're dealing with here.
2. Ar – the chief God of the Kingdom of Aruk, who, if the high priest Maax (Rip Torn, in easily his best-nosed performance) is reading him right, demands the sacrifice of King Zed's unborn son, the man who would become Dar. Zed smartly has Maax banished, but not before his evil witches can transfer the child from his queen's womb to a cow's. Now, that's a powerful god, albeit a fairly twisted one.
3. The Witches – Their hot human bodies and terrifying witch faces confused this way-too-young-to-be-watching-such-filth lad back in the day, and may have led to some deeper-seated issues later on. It sure doesn't help my confusion to know that one of them was played by Wayne Gretzky's future wife, Janet Jones, who was also one of my favorite fictional gymnasts in American Anthem (right up there with Jonathan Cabot in Gymkata).
4. Dar's adoptive father – One of the witches brings the cow to term, births Dar, brands him in the name of Ar, then raises her knife to take the crying babe's life. But before she can, longtime character actor Ben Hammer – and I do mean long – one of the least macho actors ever to brandish a sword, kills the hot-bodied witch via one of the coolest weapons ever seen on film, the Caber.
5. The Caber – Kind of like a cross between a throwing star, a frisbee, a butterfly knife, and an ax, if it wasn't for Krull's Glaive, the Caber would definitely be the Best Throwing Weapon in all of '80s filmdom.
6. Dar's even older adoptive father – As if he weren't an old enough fool before time lapsed and teenage Dar turned into strapping, golden-hued field worker Dar -- Dar's adoptive dad shows himself to be an even older fool while drawing a line in the sand against the dreaded Jun horde. But certainly a brave old fool at that.
7. The Jun Horde – These black-masked rapers and pillagers were terrifying yet exciting, especially their leader, who went to the extra trouble of wearing an elk rack on his heavy head.
8. David Carradine's ex-wife – Though most adolescent boys growing up in the era likely remember (constantly) Tanya Roberts' totally irrelevant skinny-dipping scene, the first glimpse of gratuitous nudity was actually of David Carradine's ex-wife, when the pillaging Juns send folks screaming and running, including one who conveniently lost her shirt.
9. Minimal blood, for the kids – Though the '80s guidelines for a PG flick seemed awfully loose to this impressionable 8-year-old, apparently you risked your rating with too much blood, so there was rarely any on Dar's sword, even after so much slaying.
10. Dar's dog – Dar's dog, not Toto but Koto, who not only warns the inexplicably high-housed locals that the Juns are coming, but then pulls his master out of danger, even with a crossbow bolt bloodying up his gorgeous white fur. Why do they always have to kill the dog?
11. Warging bro – I can't recall an earlier example of someone warging, aka seeing through the eyes of an animal (which Game of Thrones, among others, have used to great effect). So Dar seeing through the eyes of his golden eagle, Sharak, was particularly cool for 8-year-old Adam. And now it's even more celebratory, seeing how hilariously stoned Singer looks when he's making the warg face.
12. Sharak what yo mama gave ya – With his town torched and his people and dog cremated, Dar decides it's the exact right time to ditch the fur tunic and go full barbarian stripper.
13. Podo – To my knowledge this is the second most important live-action ferret performance in film, far more vital to the action than Cyrano in Starship Troopers, more riveting than the ferret that Malfoy gets turned into in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, more believable than Jennifer Aniston's ferret on a leash in Along Came Polly, and yes, dare I say it, more important than even the poor ferret the nihilists drop in the Dude's tub in The Big Lebowski!
14. Koto – The only other ferret to have played so central a Hollywood role as Podo is Dar's other clothes-stealing furry friend, Koto, presumably named for Dar's dead dog. Indeed, Koto plays an even bigger part than his brother, because Koto's the little fella who ends up in the quicksand, after helping Dar escape, a favor Dar repays in a great celebratory-worthy shot of super slow-mo. To some, Podo and Kodo seem like they're a natural team, and should therefore be treated as but one reason to celebrate the film, but I know better. This team is made up of two equal parts (even though some 20 or so were used for different ferret stunts while filming), and they both deserve their own proper due.
15. Black tigers are so much cooler than lame orange ones – Just as Dar is really getting to know his little friends Koto and Podo, who fit nicely in his sharp leather satchel, Sharak informs him that another one of Ar's great creatures needs their help: a black tiger being taunted at swordpoint by people decidedly not for the ethical treatment of animals. So Dar hightails it over some Southern California hills, starts wielding his blade like a samurai, and eventually uses the Caber to free the glorious beast, which immediately eats some sandaled dude's face.
16. Ruh – After the black tiger comes on board, we get the penultimate Dar line, as he sizes up his beloved pets: "I have my eyes; I have my cunning; and now I have strength." And then Dar names the kitty Ruh, though you have to rewind it about 30 times to really understand that. And then we get another oh-so-celebratory slow-mo shot of Dar and Ruh running, young and in love.
17. Cut to: topless Tanya Roberts – Like it wasn't cool enough to have a pet black tiger and a couple of ferrets doing your bidding, Dar, crafty creep that he is, uses his pets to steal a partially-skinning-dipping slave girl's clothes, and then trick her into having the bejesus scared out of her in order to get her in bed. Of course, 35 years later you realize how predatory and rapey the scene could be construed as … if you didn't understand how important it is that these two fall in love and show more PG skin later.
18. Sheena – if you really think about it, without Roberts' moving role in The Beastmaster, she may never have gone on to play Sheena, the even more naked Queen of the Jungle. And then it would have been like 1984 didn't even happen. And without 1984, you're talking about a serious lack of Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, and The NeverEnding Story, without which you may as well just take away my soul.
19. John Amos's braid – Off the top of my head, I can't recall a better moment for the top of John Amos's head than his Kung Fu Theater/Gladiator look in The Beastmaster, certainly not in Die Harder, Coming to America, or Good Times.
20. Seth – Of all the great names in The Beastmaster, is there any more noble sounding than Amos' Seth?
21. Seth's staff – Steel is so overrated when you're a Jedi with a staff, especially when you have a little Seth mini-me twirling along with you.
22. Tal – Seth's staff-wielding little buddy Tal, Zed's other son (unbeknownst to Dar) and Kiri's cousin, which kind of also makes her Dar's cousin. Ew. Since he was a kid, movie-OSHA said he couldn't be filmed with the tiger, unless regulatory precautions were taken, like having a trainer armed and ready with a rifle on hand. So some of Tal and the tiger's shared scenes were shot not with actor Josh Milrad, but instead with a midget in a wig.
23. Rip Torn's nose – Maax haunted my pre-adolescent dreams, well, when Tanya Roberts wasn't skinny-dipping in them, and that's all thanks to Torn's crazy take on the character, which stemmed from him wanting to play the role like "a turkey vulture" (according to Coscarelli) and adding the fake nose himself, perhaps Torn's only film where his eyebrows are overshadowed.
24. The eye ring – A ring that opens up into an eye and spies on the bearer and his friends? I'm going to say that holds up as one of the cooler rings in filmdom. Name nine cooler rings in film: go!
25. The Bird Men – Eagle-worshipping freaks who look like vegetable-based Imperial guards who can wrap a man in their cloak, squeeze tight, and leave him for a pile of bones.
26. Billy Jayne – The guy who played young Dar also played Brett Camber in Cujo, and Buddy Griffith, journalist extraordinaire Terry Griffith's little brother in the 1985 masterpiece Just One of the Guys. Name 99 better movies about journalism: go!
27. Dar's au naturale center part – He doesn't even seem to need to comb his gorgeous blond locks that way, they just fall, flowing and feathered in perfect symmetry, down his finely chiseled cheek bones, like the yin and yang of beast and man.
28. Death guard production – As if the Jun death guards weren't scary enough from the get-go, you soon learn how they're made: draining a man's blood and replacing it with "a mysterious green liquid." For the record, other than absinthe once in New Orleans, I haven't experimented with any mysterious green liquids since I saw this movie, in case you were thinking I wasn't positively influenced by it.
29. Where eagles don't dare – Not sure if we should be celebrating this, and I'm quite sure PETA won't be, but since the eagle refused to fly on cue, to get aerial shots, they dropped it out of a trapdoor in a hot-air balloon. But the shots of the eagle flying are spectacular, and definitely worth celebrating.
30. Cacaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwww! – Can we just talk about how convincing Mark Singer is at summoning an eagle? If I was an eagle, I'd come on command. And then I'd fly a bunch.
31. Painted tiger – This can't be true, but this bit from IMDb's Beastmaster trivia page is just about the best thing I've read today: "Dar's black tiger is actually a regular striped tiger dyed black. The dye would wash off around the mouth whenever the tiger took a drink, so throughout the film the stripes are often visible around the mouth." Can anyone confirm or deny this?
32. The Beast Master book – Gotta give props where props are due, and apparently the pop-cultural phenomenon that is The Beastmaster and its subsequent spin-offs could never have been without at least some inspiration from Andre Norton's 1959 novel. Although the book is about a Navajo's "empathic and telepathic connections with a group of genetically altered animals" and is far different from the film, apparently Coscarelli read it as a kid and some vital parts stuck with him.
33. Who says there's never anything on TV? – According to the 2002 commentary for Anchor Bay's DVD release (via Film School Rejects), co-writer Paul Pepperman discovered that The Beastmaster was the second most requested film ever on TBS (aka "The Beastmaster Station"), after Gone With the Wind. Which is really a shame, because if you really wanted to see the film for how it should be, HBO insured such integrity with all the gratuitous art shots.
34. The HBO Generation – Really, what would HBO have done without The Beastmaster? At one point, Coscarelli even remembers being told that the network actually stood for "Hey, Beastmaster's On."
35. The Legacy – Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, Beastmaster 3: The Eye of Braxus and BeastMaster the TV series – if you didn't think the '80s cheese could carry on into the aughts, then you too have seriously undervalued Dar.
(GIFs via Giphy)