Looking back at Krull

As part of our Enchanted 80s week, we look back at the action family epic, Krull…

How can you remain objective about a film you enjoyed so much as a youngster? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. And it’s true that, when viewed in 2011, the influences of 80s fantasy film, Krull, are more apparent than ever. It borrows freely from Greek and Arthurian myths, Tolkien, and most noticeably, a certain sci-fi blockbuster directed by George Lucas.

And yet, at the same time, it’s impossible for me to view Krull without a sense of genuine affection. This is made easier by the fact that, while it’s showing its age in places, Krull is a well-made film, and an entire galaxy away from other cheap, quickly made knock-offs that showed up in the wake of Star Wars. This is probably thanks in large part to the experience of Peter Yates, the seasoned director of the classic Bullitt.

What’s notable about Krull, to my more mature, cynical eyes, is how much of a genre mash-up it is. It draws from the familiar fantasy touchstones mentioned earlier, with knights, swords, castles and mythical beasts, but it also adds in a large helping of post-Star Wars lasers and lightning effects. Krull even opens with what at first appears to be a gigantic ship floating through the inky depths of space.

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This ship is, in fact, the Black Fortress, a colossal citadel in which a powerful Beast lives with his army of armour-clad Slayers. Touching down on the planet Krull, the scene is set for a classic struggle between good versus evil.

Ken Marshall plays the handsome hero, Colwyn. You can tell he’s the hero, because he’s the only actor who gets to wear eyeliner, and looks a bit like Errol Flynn. He’s about to get married to big-haired princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony), when evil Slayers attack the castle, and after a protracted yet entertaining scuffle with swords and lasers, incapacitate the bride and carry her off to their Black Fortress.

Joined by wise mentor Ynyr (Freddie Jones), Colwyn heads off to rescue the princess from the clutches of the Beast. So begins what is essentially a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired road movie, in which Colwyn and Freddie gradually amass a band of allies. The first of these is the hapless Ergo the Magnificent, brilliantly played by David Battley. He makes a grand entrance in the form of a fireball, but then accidentally turns himself into a goose.

Then there’s Bernard Bresslaw in heavy make-up as a melancholy Cyclops. It’s weird seeing someone more commonly associated with the Carry On movies in such a series role. It’s also rather strange to see a young Liam Neeson turn up in a tiny role, as one of a gang of criminals. Krull was only his third film, so he barely gets a look-in here.

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Grange Hill’s Tucker (Todd Carty) and Robbie Coltrane are in here as well, with the latter’s voice dubbed by Michael Elphick. (This is probably the first and last time we’ll see Todd Carty’s name directly beneath Liam Neeson’s in a film’s credit crawl.)

A film that comes to life in individual scenes rather than as a whole, Krull is nevertheless full of quite captivating designs and special effects. Colwyn’s Glaive weapon, which he retrieves from a pool of lava (don’t try this at home, kids) is surely one of the coolest fantasy armaments of the decade.

The Slayers, too, are terrific. Silent save for the eerie scream they emit when they die, they’re a memorable screen foe. Their laser-spitting spears may make them the film’s equivalent of Lucas’ Storm Troopers, but the ominous silhouette of their armour, and the worm-like creature that erupts from them when they’re defeated, make them far less derivative than they may otherwise have been.

In fact, one of my enduring memories of Krull from when I was a child was just how scary it could be, albeit in isolated moments. There’s a great, tense scene set inside the lair of a giant spider, and a spooky sequence in a swamp, where a Seer (John Welsh) is taken over by a shape-shifting clone with black eyes. The Cyclops soon learns the truth when the real Seer’s corpse is belched up from the depths of the swamp.

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The Black Fortress, meanwhile, features some great set designs. It’s a place full of claw-like arcades, moving floors that swallow up unwary adventurers, and that mainstay of action fantasy, walls that sprout spikes.

It’s in Krull‘s concluding act, as Colwyn and his loyal band fight their way through the Fortress, that the film’s the most exciting. It’s also surprisingly harsh, with Colwyn losing allies at every turn. The Star Wars franchise never despatched quite so many characters in such a graphic manner. 

A special mention should go, while I think of it, to James Horner’s marvellous score. The 70s and 80s seemed to be the era of great sci-fi and fantasy themes, and Horner’s is high up on the list of the best, providing the film a grandiose sweep to match the broad vistas of Krull‘s location photography.

Admittedly, Krull is perhaps a little too derivative to earn a place in the major league of 80s fantasy movies, and its lead (not to mention his princess) are rather flat characters, but it’s nevertheless a film I have an abiding fondness for.

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For my money, it’s better made and more entertaining than Lucas’ later Willow, though sadly, Krull didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, making an estimated $16 million on its $27 million budget. The world, it seems, wasn’t quite ready for another Arthurian fantasy with lasers in it.

Gradually, though, Krull has amassed the following it deserves. It is, after all, a broad, brilliantly entertaining fantasy, and among he most visually creative and downright fun movies of the enchanted 80s.

See more of our Looking Back articles here. And our Enchanted 80s season will continue tomorrow with our look back at Return To Oz.