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Krull is a big movie. Big action, big story, big ideas. It was one of the most expensive movies of the era, with lavish sets and a huge production schedule. What it didn’t have was a big name. Its lead was an actor no one had ever heard of (and unless you’re a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan, probably still don’t know). In an era when movie fortunes were made off bankable stars, this cost the studio dearly. The movie bombed in epic fashion and was quickly forgotten.
It tells the story of a planet invaded by a monstrous entity known as the ‘Beast’ and its devastating army of Slayers. Two rival kingdoms come together, planning to marry Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) in hope that the combined forces can defeat their common enemy. The Slayers attack the ceremony and kidnap the Princess, while killing the two kings. Now in chaos, there is only one hope for the people: Colwyn must rise up and hunt down the Beast. But he won’t go alone.
Directed by Peter Yates, this unusual film sits at the peak of the short-lived sword and sorcery trend of the decade and is best known for its memorable, five-pointed, magical throwing weapon called the Glaive. With astonishing practical visual effects and a seriously rousing score (by James Horner), Krull got lost in the glut of the genre and was dismissed for its bland hero and whimpering princess. Fortunately, it found new life on video and cable and continues to build a devoted following. That’s because there is a lot to love about this well-made and exciting adventure that strives to be more than what its description entails. The supporting cast saves this film in every way possible. While Marshall is miscast, never truly convincing as a hero, often too smarmy and smug, and Anthony, while attractive, isn’t given a chance to be more than a girl in a pretty dress running around a living fortress, the others are simply put, amazing.
Yates gives these characters great room to breath and explore, and in a film packed with a large ensemble of colorful adventures, that’s a feat unto itself. In fact, it often feels like Marshall and Anthony are in a different movie, or are under different direction. The supporting cast takes to the script with a real sense of authenticity, especially a young Liam Neeson, who shows up in an early role as a bandit. His presence is strong and even though we look back with eagle-eye hindsight, it’s clear he’s going places. His fate is one of the best performances in the film.
But let’s talk about a really great moment in Krull. It doesn’t involve any of the big cast, save for one, and not one that audiences might expect would get such a crucial role in the story. It’s the showdown between two former lovers and a creature guarding her destiny.
The aftermath of the attack at the ceremony finds the injured Colwyn rescued by Ynyr the Old One (Freddie Jones). He tells how the planet can only be saved by using the Glaive, though only the most deserving can fetch it from its mountain cave home where it lies at the bottom of a pool of fire water.
Well, it’s not long after that Colwyn shows his worth. The two then set out and soon gather others to the cause, including a less then effective magician, a band of thieves and bandits (with a young Liam Neeson), an old Seer and his child apprentice, and finally a cyclops. A very big and honorable cyclops.
The Beast resides in a massive ship called the Black Fortress, which resembles a steep, rocky mountain. Every sunrise, the Black Fortress shifts to a new location, making it impossible for armies to know where to attack. Only one person can help. She is the Widow of the Web, an enchanted woman who once loved Ynyr but was exiled for murdering their infant.
She lives in a deep cave at the center of a massive web protected by a savage, enormous spider repelled by her magical hourglass. When Ynyr leaves the men and journeys on his own to plead with his old lover for a vision of where the Black Fortress will appear, he convinces her to let go of the hourglass and sacrifice herself to save the young, beautiful princess and the world entire. She grants him the information and allows herself to be consumed by the spider. That’s love.
The sequence features one of the greatest big spiders in film history, a big white creature that is frighteningly realistic. Using stop-motion animation, the makers truly bring the arachnid to life, turning this crucial moment into the scariest and most effective scene in the story. In a time long before CGI, this startling good bit of special effects still holds up. Its attention to detail, accurate spider animation, and incredible set design, make it a great cinematic achievement.
To this point, focused on Colwyn as the film’s hero, its sudden shift to an elderly man is a good one. He must traverse the web in a short time without being killed by the spider. It’s a brave choice by the filmmakers really, considering the genre is a breeding ground for young men in heroic, high action roles. But what really sets it apart is the weight of the moment, revealing the importance and emotional depth that Ynyr has with the Widow, played by Francesca Annis.
Jones and Annis are older reflections of the young couple Ynyr has tasked himself with saving, and it’s a nice bit of romance, but not in the standard fantasy expectation. In a film that might be seen as padding itself with action, this genuine, character-driven moment is a surprising break from the journey, proving that it takes a certain emotional investment to make that journey worthwhile. Krull might not be the best or most slickly-produced film in the genre, but it is never cheap. Yates, doesn’t over-indulge in some of the excess of other at the time, keeping the story its focus. It sways a little too hard toward the fantasy at times, especially with a herd of flying horses called Fire Mares, but fares best with its characters, willing to give them accurate and believable deaths, something so few films today commit to. Like the Widow of the Web, who dies to save a princess she’s never met, others give themselves in hopes that their sacrifice will help bring peace to the land they shall never tread upon again. Krull is a great film.
Director: Peter Yates
Writer: Stanford Sherman
Stars: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis, Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane