It seems to me that, in the Eighties, the motion picture industry went through a cycle of fantasy movies. I am not sure, but I think that more fantasy films may have been made in the Eighties than any other time. It is possible that there may have been more fantasy films made in the late Fifties and the early Sixties, when such movies as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the Hercules movies were released, although I tend to doubt it. Regardless, even if more fantasy films were made in the late Fifties and early Sixties, there were a good number of fantasy movies made in the Eighties.
The cycle began in 1981 when two major motion pictures in the fantasy genre were released. The first was Excalibur, directed by John Boorman. To this day Excalibur is considered the definitive movie about the Arthurian mythos. As such, it is most definitely a fantasy movie. Unlike some movies about King Arthur which downplay or even do away with the magical aspects of the legends, Excalibur played them up. Indeed, Merlin (Nicol Williamson) is very nearly the main character. The movie did well at the box office and maintains a loyal following to this day.
The second fantasy movie released in 1981 was Dragonslayer. Dragonslayer combined the classic dragon slaying motif with the idea of the sorcerer's apprentice. The result is a fairly original story with a few surprises. Dragonslayer also boasted some of the best special effects of its era. In fact, they hold up very well alongside today CGI creations and often look better.
Even then, when I was still an teenager, I thought it odd for two fantasy movies to be released in one year. After all, the motion picture industry can go literally years without even one film in the genre. It was a bit more surprising, then, when in 1982 Conan the Barbarian was released. Conan the Barbarian departed from Robert E. Howard's stories a good deal. And Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting left a little bit to be desired at this point in his career. Ultimately, Conan the Barbarian would do well at the box office and give a good boost to Schwarzenegger's career.
Of course, Conan the Barbarian was not the only fantasy film released in 1982. That same year saw the release of The Dark Crystal. The Dark Crystal is a unique movie in that no human beings appear in the entirety of the movie. Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz and produced by Jim Henson Productions, every single role was played by Muppets. But these Muppets were a far cry from Kermit and Miss Piggy. The movie is set on another planet where the good Gelfings have been in a long conflict with the evil Skekses. The key to preventing the planet from falling under control of the Skekses forver is to repair the Dark Crystal, a magical artefact damaged long ago and capable of restoring order to the world. The Dark Crystal is some of the best work Henson Productions ever did, with well rounded characters and some very interesting visuals. Definitely a different sort of movie.
Nineteen eighty three saw the release of Krull, an ill fated attempt to blend fantasy and science fiction. In this movie the planet Krull, a world with medieval technology and magic, is attacked by an alien force. Both the special effects and makeup left a bit to be desired in Krull. This could perhaps be forgiven if it was not for the very poor script. Krull is perhaps one of the worst of the major motion pictures released in the fantasy genre in the Eighties.
Nineteen eighty five saw the release of two fantasy films. The first here in the United States was Legend. Directed by Ridley Scott, the director behind both Aliens and Blade Runner, the movie was highly anticipated by sci-fi and fantasy fans alike. Unfortunately, many of them would be disappointed. The movie was severely cut for release in the United States. As a result the characters seemed little more than cardboard cutouts. The music by Eric Allaman was also replaced by a score by Tangerine Dream, an ill fit for a fantasy movie set in a fairy tale world. I have yet to see the European version of the film, but I have heard it is very good from friends who have seen it. It is a shame it wasn't the version that was released here in the United States.
The second fantasy film to be released in the United States in 1985 was Ladyhawke. Directed by Richard Donner and starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer (both at the peak of their careers), LadyHawke drew upon medieval folk tales to create a tale about two lovers, the man cursed with being a wolf by night and the woman with being a hawk by day. LadyHawke has a little bit of everything for everyone. There is romance. There is action. And there is beautifully shot medieval settings. It also features what may well be the longest sword fight in cinematic history (I can't recall if the one in Scarmouche is longer or not). Besides Excalibur and Dragonslayer, it may well be one of the best fantasy mvoies of the Eighties.
By 1986 the cycle towards fantasy movies seems to have been winding down. That year saw only one major release. Labryrinth was another Henson Production, once more featuring Muppets (as well as David Bowie as the Goblin King). The story centred on a girl who wishes her little brother to the goblins and then must rescue him from the critters. Beyond featuring a number of fanciful characters (various Muppets very unlike Kermit or Miss Piggy), Labryrinth also differed from other fantasy movies in that it was set in the present day (most were set in some past, whether real or imagined). Like The Dark Crystal, Labryrinth was well done, with well developed characters and a great sense of humour.
Humour took the forefront in The Princess Bride, released in 1987. The Princess Bride is a unique blend of comedy, swashbuckler movies, and fairy tales. It is also set apart from other movies of the fantasy cycle in having a more of a Renaissance setting rather than a medieval one. The Princess Bride is quite simply a crowd pleaser, a likable movie with a good cast, a good script, and good direction. It is no wonder it is considered by some a classic.
By 1988 the fantasy cycle had pretty much come to an end. That year saw the release of the last major motion picture in the cycle, Willow. Willow has taken its share of criticism for apparently being inspired by both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but ultimately it is simply a fun, well made movie. In the film, the dwarf Willow finds that he must protect an infant who will some day put an end to the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda. As the plot unfolds there is plenty of action and excitement, and even a bit of romance. While Willow may not be of the same quality as Excalibur or LadyHawke, it is quite an enjoyable film that most genre fans can probably appreciate.
Of course, it must be kept in mind that the fantasy cycle of the Eighties did not entirely consist of big budget, major releases. In fact, low budget fantasy films may well have outnumbered the big budget ones. Just like the fantasy cycle of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Italian producers flooded the market with cheap, often poorly made fantasy movies. Ator the Fighting Eagle and a very bad remake of the Fifties movie Hercurles were among the legion of Italian fantasy movies released throughout the Eighties. The Italians were not the only ones producing cheap fantasy movies. One of the worst fantasy films of the era was a British movie based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sword of the Valiant wasted the talents of Sean Connery and everyone else in it.
It is difficult to say what caused the fantasy cycle of the Eighties. It is quite possible that the continued success of Tolkien's works may have a hand in creating the cycle. In 1966 Lord of the Rings became a veritable fad on college campuses. By the Seventies, the novel had become an institution. Throughout the Seventies, books about Tolkien's works, as well as previously unpublished Tolkien works, were published in droves. Movie producers probably noticed this success and sought to emulate it on film. Indeed, this seems to have occurred in the book industry, as more and more fantasy novels were being published at this time.
It must also be remembered that in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games became a bit of a fad. Any producer keeping an eye on fads and trends may well have realised that fantasy movies would naturally appeal to the role playing set. Of course, the success of Excalibur, Dragonslayer (at least its success on video--Dragonslayer did not do well at the box office), and Conan the Barbarian undoubtably led to the production of more fantasy movies. In fact, the fantasy cycle of the Eighties could have owed its existence to one film--Star Wars. The space opera has its share of fantasy elemenets, including the mystical Force, Jedi Knights, and sword duels in the form of light sabre battles.
Since the Eighties only a handful of fantasy films have been released. Given the success of The Lord of the Rings movies, I have to wonder that this won't change. Indeed, the first book in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is being filmed even as I write this. If it is a hit, I have no doubt that another cycle towards fantasy movies might well take place.