The Ultimate Warrior at 40: Survival of the fittest

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Oct 12, 2015, 4:03 PM EDT

Forty years ago, 1975 brought the arrival of a number of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films that made an impact on their genres -- some good, some not so good, but all interesting and all remembered even to this day. We continue our look back at each of those films on the anniversary of its release and where it stands four decades later with an overlooked post-apocalyptic thriller starring Yul Brynner.

Title: The Ultimate Warrior

Release date: Oct. 12, 1975 (U.S.)

Cast: Yul Brynner, Max von Sydow, Joanna Miles

Director: Robert Clouse

Plot: In the ruins of post-apocalyptic New York City, the Baron (Sydow), leader of a small community of survivors, has discovered a way to grow seeds again and possibly create a new food supply. But as his compound is attacked by savage gangs, Baron turns to a mercenary named Carson (Brynner) to help protect his seeds and his pregnant daughter -- even at the cost of many lives and, in one harrowing sequence, Carson's hand.


Why it's significant: The Ultimate Warrior was billed as an action film, and while it does have its share of action, it's much more thoughtful than the marketing would suggest (perhaps that's why it tanked when it first opened and was hard to see for years). The movie focuses on just how society would break down after some sort of cataclysm, presenting a gritty view of the future that fit neatly alongside other seemingly bleak offerings of the 1970s like Silent Running, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. Brynner's character could be considered a precursor to antiheroes like Mad Max: tough, silent, brutal when necessary but also intelligent and worldly. The emphasis on the sociological aspects of the story is unique to its era, and while it's not a great film, it deserves reappraisal as one of the more carefully considered end-of-the-world scenarios to be released in that decade.



Yul Brynner was best known for his iconic performance as the King of Siam in the classic musical The King and I -- a role he performed more than 4,000 times onstage as well as in the film version. But three of his last four films were sci-fi -- this one, Westworld and its sequel, Futureworld, in which he played one of his other famous roles, a robot modeled to look like an Old West gunslinger.



Shortly before appearing in The Ultimate Warrior, Max von Sydow played the title role in arguably the greatest horror film of all time -- The Exorcist (1973), where he was made to look much older than his age (44) at the time. The Danish-born actor has since shown up in genre films like Flash Gordon (1980), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Dune (1984) and Minority Report (2002). At 86, he's still with us, and we'll see him in the coming months in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the next season of Game of Thrones.


Director Robert Clouse directed Bruce Lee in Lee's only English-speaking film starring role, 1973's Enter the Dragon. After Lee's death, Clouse attempted to finish Lee's incomplete film Game of Death, eventually releasing it in 1978 with a new storyline and cast.


Clouse originally wanted Chinese martial arts star Gordon Liu to play Carson, but the studio insisted on Brynner because of his proven box-office power. The movie's alternate title is The Baron, since the main character is actually the one played by Von Sydow.


The Ultimate Warrior cost just $800,000 to make but was not a hit -- it was not widely released and received little notice at the time it came out. Unavailable for years, it was finally issued on DVD by Warner Home Video in 2008 as part of a double feature with Battle Beneath the Earth.

Other entries in this series:

The Stepford Wives
Deep Red
Terror of Mechagodzilla
Escape to Witch Mountain
Death Race 2000
Race with the Devil

The Rocky Horror Picture Show