Despite being a popular staple of the literary world for years, the Sword and Sorcery genre of movies has had mixed success at the box office. From time to time it’s in vogue but often it’s overlooked in favor of science fiction, despite their many similarities. The ‘80s were a particularly successful time for Sword and Sorcery epics, spurred on by the success of Conan the Barbarian and the elements of the genre used in the original Star Wars trilogy.
While most Sword and Sorcery movies are fantasy, not all fantasy movies are Sword and Sorcery. It’s a subgenre within a subgenre, and not always an easy one to define. The key characteristics are brave warriors, mysterious wizards, epic themes, damsels in distress, powerful creatures, and, most often, the fate of a kingdom.
Despite Gods of Egypt falling flat at the box office, we'll take a look at the 12 Best Sword And Sorcery Movies Of All Time, many of which also faltered at the box office before becoming cult classics.
It goes without saying, there are MAJOR spoilers ahead as we explore the most epic of movie genres.
13 Clash of the Titans (1981)
Loosely based on the stories of Perseus from Greek mythology, Clash of the Titans was a modest success upon its release in 1981. Fresh on the heels of the success of Star Wars, studios were keen to capitalize on the themes of ordinary young men with hidden destinies, fated to save princesses. Perseus’s quest, aided by divine weaponry, sees him unite with brave warriors to defend the city of Joppa by slaying the gorgon Medusa and using her head to destroy the last of the Titans, a giant sea beast called The Kraken.
Unlike the ground-breaking effects of Star Wars, Clash of the Titans favored the stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen, which were made famous in Jason and the Argonauts.
While not a massive success on release, the film has gone on to achieve cult-status over the years for it’s fun nature. Due to it lacking the bloody nature of something like Conan, Clash of the Titans was a generation’s first step into fantasy and Sword and Sorcery epics. It also introduced the pantheon of Gods from Greek Mythology to modern audiences. If nothing else, the line “release the Kraken” is one of the most quotable lines of the ‘80s. You can forget the 2010 remake, however, it's not nearly as fun.
12 Kull the Conqueror (1997)
Originally intended to be the third part of the Conan trilogy, Kull the Conqueror was in development hell for many years. After Schwarzenegger refused to return, having turned his back on Sword and Sorcery after the failure of Red Sonja, the title character was changed to Robert E. Howard’s other barbarian character, Kull.
While the film is easily the weakest on this list, and far from successful, it does provide the audience with at least some closure to the story of Conan (albeit with a different name). Should Schwarzenegger return to the often touted King Conan project, Kull the Conqueror may just be forgotten about.
11 Immortals (2011)
loosely based on the Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and the Titanomachy, Immortals was released during a brief revival of the genre following the success of the Clash of the Titans remake. Why this movie makes the cut over that one, is that it offers the audience a fresher perspective.
Clearly influenced by 300, Immortals is stylish in the extreme and invokes renaissance styles in its overall look. While the story is a little weak, the visuals make up for it and deliver a fun and exciting, if slightly forgettable foray into the genre.
10 Red Sonja (1985)
While being adapted from the same source material as Conan the Barbarian and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Red Sonja technically isn’t part of a Conan trilogy; despite often being associated with it. Schwarzenegger doesn’t play Conan, but is in fact Lord Kaldor, a noble warrior and not the brutal barbarian from the Conan movies.
Red Sonja (Bridget Nielsen) was less faithful in its adaptation of Howard’s novels that Conan, and the direction was considered aimless and sloppy. It was a bomb upon release, but like many others, garnered a small following on home video.
Red Sonja does have some redeeming features however. The central character of Sonja, while miscast, breaks stereotypes as it puts a woman on equal footing as a hero. While Valeria in Conan had been a capable warrior, Sonja is a highly skilled sword master and fights as the equal to Schwarzenegger’s Kaldor.
9 The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Truly the Star Wars of its day. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was ground-breaking for its visual effects and exciting storyline. It is a rare movie that holds a 100% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, but in this case it’s an understatement.
The first of a trilogy, the film actually follows a story closer to the events from the book The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor and introduces several themes of the genre such as giant beasts being fought by magic and mortal men with swords.
The effects were, and arguably still are, breath-taking. The scenes involving the sailors fighting animated skeletons are a series high point. The skeleton scenes were so popular that they were recreated and expanded in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. The effects took the legendary Ray Harryhausen eleven months to complete, and were the industry standard for over twenty years until the introduction of the Dysktraflex camera in 1977.
While largely forgotten by most modern audiences, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was introduced into the United States' Library of Congress film registry in 2008, ensuring its place in history. While there have been repeated calls for a remake, it holds a position akin to The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars as a movie that you simply cannot remake.
8 Conan the Destroyer (1984)
While less successful than its predecessor, Conan the Destroyer is a great film in its own right. It doesn’t set out to merely remake the original, nor does it forget where it came from in order to have a fresh voice. It’s respectful to what’s gone on before, yet manages to find a fresh voice.
Playing down the violence of the first movie in order to secure a PG rating (PG-13 didn’t come into effect until later that year) gave the film a different tone, but even the more humorous moments don’t result in a camp feel. The film also sees a tonal change to embrace the more fantastic elements of the source materials, with the monster Dagoth being more in line with the genre than the cult from the first movie.
7 The Beastmaster (1982)
The Beastmaster is fairly generic in its premise. An evil high priest is given a prophesy that he will be defeated by the unborn child of his enemy so seeks to kill him first. He fails, and the child grows up to fulfil the prophesy. The neat twist was that the main character Dar, the "Beastmaster" of the title, can communicate with animals due to the unusual nature of his birth. He uses this power in his quest, making him more than the typical barbarian associated with the genre.
The Beastmaster barely turned a profit upon its release in 1982, but became a cult hit due to being played on HBO with a high degree of regularity throughout the ‘80s. The film was shown so often on HBO that comedian Dennis Miller joked that HBO stood for "Hey, Beastmaster's On." While it almost became a joke, The Beastmaster’s enduring cult popularity led to two sequels following the further adventures of the lead character Dar.
6 Krull (1983)
Krull has managed to polarize audiences since its initial release, with some praising its visuals and attempts to do more with the genre and others criticizing it for a lack of emotional depth. What makes Krull stand out from the rest of the pack is that it blends traditional Sword and Sorcery with elements from Sci Fi. The main antagonists are stated as coming from elsewhere in the galaxy as opposed to a far off land. The storyline, following the prophecy “a girl of ancient name that shall become queen, that she shall choose a king, and that together they shall rule their world, and that their son shall rule the galaxy” is pretty standard Sword and Sorcery fare.
Even with a huge budget, for the time, Krull failed to find an audience and was a box office flop. It has gone on to achieve a degree of cult-status over the years and is a regular on cable TV.
5 Willow (1988)
More of a straight up fantasy/fairy tale, Willow contains elements of both The Hobbit and The Princess Bride. What makes Willow a Sword and Sorcery film are the traditional themes of prophecy and a reluctant hero taking up arms against a tyrannical ruler. It’s the personal journey of Willow and Madmartigan, and their battles against Bavmorda’s forces that keep the story from venturing into a wider fantasy.
Willow wasn’t a great success on release, despite having George Lucas’s name attached to the project. Much criticism was leveled at Ron Howard’s direction, with many critics feeling that he was at the time too inexperienced to handle an effects-laden project. Like many films on this list, Willow became a cult hit due to home video and DVD releases, and it remains a family favorite for many.
4 Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Barbarian follows the story of a young Cimmerian who seeks vengeance against the cult leader who slew his family years before. Along the way, he encounters witches, kings and an assortment of warriors as he becomes a gladiator, a thief, and eventually a mercenary tasked with rescuing a princess.
On paper, Conan The Barbarian shouldn’t have worked at all. It starred the still largely untested Arnold Schwarzenegger and was based on an epic fantasy novel series that was deeply serious. Not only did it work, it became a classic and one of the definitive roles of Schwarzenegger’s career.
Largely due to John Milius’s direction, Conan succeeds where others have failed. It dared to take itself seriously. Not lured by commercialization, it was bloody and brutal and refused to be camp. Along with Milius’s direction, the score by Basil Poledouris received immense praise and remains one of the most revered film scores of all time.
3 The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
This is another series that was often considered "unfilmable" according to conventional wisdom, yet succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the studios. The Lord of the Rings had been in development hell for decades before New Line finally gave Peter Jackson, a largely untested New Zealand filmmaker, the keys to Middle Earth.
While clearly a fantasy, The Lord of the Rings has one hobbit-sized foot in the Sword and Sorcery genre. While lacking the typical barbarian-type men, the humans are depicted as more medieval and sophisticated than is typical of the genre. The inclusion of elves, wizards and magical beings being matched by mortal blades place it close enough to the genre to maintain its place in this list.
Like Conan before it, The Lord of the Rings succeeds due to its director being faithful to the source material and presenting it in a serious manner. It’s not self-deprecating and makes no apologies for itself. It sets out to be nothing short of an epic, casting serious actors over established stars, and lets the story and the visuals lead the way.
2 Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Jason and the Argonauts is an independently made 1963 American-British fantasy film directed by Don Chaffey, and starring Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack. One of the definitive movies of the genre, it features the most memorable example of the now defunct stop-motion technique for visual effects: the famous skeleton battle.
Beyond a mere cult-classic, Jason and the Argonauts stands as an epic piece of action cinema. When Ray Harryhausen was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the 1992 Academy Awards, Tom Hanks remarked "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made."
Epic, glorious, and spectacular even 50 years on, Jason and the Argonauts is often cited as an inspiration for modern masterpieces such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Do you have a favorite Sword and Sorcery movie we haven't mentioned? Please tell us about it in the comments!