Basil Rathbone Goes Evil in Colorful Fantasy Adventure That’s a Revelation on Blu-ray.



It’s been said that filmmaker Bert I. Gordon never knew a matte effect he didn’t like.  Considering the proliferation of the compositing technology across the board in his own filmography, as unperfected as it was in his day, it’s hard not take the statement literally.

Considering, though, that Gordon’s legacy is a wild list of far-out fantasy/adventure/horror (The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth Vs. The Spider, and War of the Colossal Beast, to name a few) the need for such effects and their inherent ability to manipulate scale, makes solid sense.  Less solid, generally, was the reliability of said effects and anybody’s execution of of them in the 1960s and 70s.  

But that didn’t stop Gordon, an effects hound in his own right.  Besides merely directing, Gordon also worked as a visual effects/special effects technician on his own bevy of films, many of which involved exaggerated scale.  Giant spiders, giant men, giant beasts, et cetra.  That’s why no less than Forrest J. Ackerman himself dubbed him, per his own initials, “Mister B.I.G.”  That’s the legend, anyhow.  

Much of Gordon’s effects work has not aged well in the home video era.  There seems to be something inherent in standard definition that highlights matte lines and unrealistically flattens the giant spider, man or beast in question.  It is the beckoning of these deficiencies that attracts the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its subsequent offshoots to openly mock the films.  Happily, with this Blu-ray release of Gordon’s 1962 noble fantasy romp The Magic Sword, this now-familiar aspect is thoroughly minimized, though not altogether gone.  No, the effects (and there are many of them) are not invisible by today’s standards.  Then again, though, neither are so many of todays.  Their charm, however, remains undeniable, even as Gordon’s actual proficiency as an effects guy is ever so salvaged.

The Magic Sword stars Gary Lockwood as young Sir George in this lovingly truncated and economized variation on the myth of St. George versus the dragon.  For whatever reason, he’s “Sir” instead of “Saint”- though one can guess that such venerated sainthood must take more time than the brisk 80 minutes that this film runs.  George is smitten with Princess Helene (Anne Helm), a royal beauty he’s never met, but has regularly spied on from afar via magical spying that’s not creepy or stalker-ish at all, no sir. 

Considering, however, that George has been raised by a loopy sorceress (Estelle Winwood) with a weird bald two-headed servant and a monkey in a cave that’s lit like a photographer’s darkroom, is it any wonder that he retreats to looking in on the princess every chance he gets?  As fate would have it, he’s looking in as she gets captured by the film’s villain, the evil sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone, savoring the hamminess).

One day, the loopy sorceress just can’t help giving George a preview of his gifts for his upcoming 21st birthday: an enchanted steed, an enchanted shield, an enchanted sword, and a life-size cardboard cutout of six valiant knights of diverse origin.  George, knowing an opportunity when it’s handed to him early, traps the sorceress, absconds with the horse and the shield and the sword, and uses their magic to bring the six knights to life. Together, they will immediately set off on a quest to rescue the princess!

Along the way, they must face a perilous series of deadly curses: monsters, eerie red water, men with bird beaks, and strange coneheads.  Not a problem for George, who is overstocked with magic.  (Look at that sword glow and glisten!)  His cadre of resurrected, formerly cardboard knights, however, aren’t so blessed.  And when George loses his magic, he must truly man up for the ultimate curse that is Basil Rathbone and his dragon.

This is an absolutely beautiful Blu-ray of a movie that takes the viewer right back to one’s youth.  It cannot be overstressed how revelatory the vibrant colors and accurate effects composites are when viewed in this transfer.  On his audio commentary, film historian Tim Lucas gives mention to the fact that The Magic Sword has never, ever looked this great on home video.  This is a brilliantly colorful film, something that children of Lucas’s generation- himself included- genuinely ate up.  With this disc, it’s finally easy to understand why.

Hokey matte effects, hideous hags and rubber-masked giants never had it so good as they do on this terrific Blu-ray of The Magic Sword.  For that matter, and more to the point, neither have its fans.  

Basil Rathbone (left) in The Magic Sword. With fellow baddie Liam Sullivan.