The Sword and Sorcery Movies You Have to See
Okay, okay, I admit it – I’m a sword and sorcery nerd. I can’t help it. I was raised on a steady diet of Dungeons and Dragons, pulp sword and sorcery novels and old school 80s movies about muscle-bound heroes tracking down evil wizards.
Sure, it can be a little cliché from time to time, and the special effects on some of those older movies haven’t aged so well, but that’s where a lot of the charm comes from. As long as you don’t go in expecting a 2020 Hollywood blockbuster from a movie that’s potentially as old or older than you are, you should be fine.
I love sword and sorcery, but I’d forgotten just how much I loved it until I started re-watching all of my old favourites to write this article. As with most genres, as long as you go in with the right expectations, there’s a lot to love. You wouldn’t go into a western expecting serious questions about life and philosophy, and the same holds true with sword and sorcery. If you do get it, it’s an added bonus.
And so without further ado, let’s dive on in and take a look at just a few of the sword and sorcery movies that you’ll want to check out.
The Sword and Sorcery Movies You Have to See
1. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
This epic movie is arguably the fore-runner of sword and sorcery despite not technically being an example of the genre. Still, it’s a stunning take on Greek mythology and offers up everything from hydras and giant metal gods to the iconic stop-motion skeletons that pursue Jason’s crew towards the end of the movie. It still holds up nearly 60 years on and there’s a reason why it’s often cited as one of the greatest movies ever made.
2. Hawk the Slayer (1980)
For some reason, when I think of sword and sorcery, I think of America. This one bucks the trend though, because the project was helmed by a British director. It follows the intertwined stories of two brothers who find themselves pitted against one another in a pretty standard sword and sorcery tale of revenge, betrayal and, of course, a magical sword.
3. Excalibur (1981)
This American epic has managed to stand the test of time for nearly forty years and still remains a firm fan favourite, which is impressive considering it tackles the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which have been done to death. Plenty of other, similar movies have been made since then, but Excalibur is the closest to true sword and sorcery and it’s also responsible for launching the careers of Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Ciaran Hinds, amongst others.
4. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
You can’t really talk about sword and sorcery movies without mentioning Conan the Barbarian, because as well as helping to establish Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Hollywood celebrity, it also singlehandedly ushered in the science fiction boom of the 1980s. Created by Robert E. Howard, Conan is arguably the most well-known and influential sword and sorcery character of all time, the benchmark that other characters are measured against.
5. The Beastmaster (1982)
I grew up on this movie and so perhaps I’m a little biased because of its sentimental value. I also haven’t heard anyone else ever talk about it, which is a shame because it’s a cracker. Marc Singer plays a muscle-bound warrior called Dar who can communicate with animals – and who can also kick some butt when he’s wielding his sword. Also starring a fresh-faced Rip Torn who plays antagonist high priest Maax, it wasn’t a commercial success but gained a lot of notoriety after repeats on network and cable television.
6. The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
This one’s a classic and so the chances are that you’ve already seen it. Still, if you’ve missed this tale of a mercenary with a unique sword rediscovering his destiny, it’s not too late to make up for it and to see what the fuss is about. It’s probably the closest we’ve come on this list to pure, unadulterated sword and sorcery.
7. Deathstalker (1983)
This movie is another strange one because it was produced in a sort of Pan-American partnership between Americans and Argentinians. That’s why you might have heard of this one under the title Cazador de Muerte. Whichever language you watch it in, you’re sure to enjoy the action sequences, and if you enjoy it you’re in luck because there are four other movies in the series.
8. Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Basically everyone agrees that this movie was nowhere near as good as the first one, but I’m biased because it’s the first one that I saw and it reminds me of my childhood. Sure, there was more of a focus on the Hollywood side of things than on classic sword and sorcery, but it’s a Conan movie and so you also have no excuse to miss it. Even the 2011 remake is worth a watch, although it’s easily the worst of the lot.
9. Red Sonja (1985)
You might be noticing a bit of a theme here. This Dutch-American sword and sorcery movie starred Brigitte Nielsen in the titular role as another of Robert E. Howard’s iconic creations. It takes place in the same fictitious universe as the Conan movies and featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in a supporting role, and while it might not have been as commercially or critically well-received, it’s still well worth a watch.
10. Masters of the Universe (1987)
This is the movie version of the iconic TV show in which He-Man goes up against the evil Skeletor. At its heart, it’s sword and sorcery at its purest, although it’s better for the nostalgia value these days than it is as an actual standalone movie. It’s worth a watch just to see Dolph Lundgren kicking some butt, and the sword and sorcery elements are an added bonus.
11. The Princess Bride (1987)
This cult movie, along with the William Goldman novel that inspired it, has proved to be impossible to categorise. It’s a romantic comedy, a straight up fantasy, an epic tale of adventure and, yes, “a sly parody of sword and sorcery movies” according to film critic Roger Ebert. If you’re a sword and sorcery purist then it might not be for you, but if you have a sense of humour then give it a shot. Plus there’s that epic swordfight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black.
12. Willow (1988)
Willow is often thought of as a straight up children’s fantasy movie, and it’s certainly true that there are elements of that. At the same time though, there’s plenty of sword fighting with a little magic sprinkled in, and it also cuts right to the heart of classic sword and sorcery with a storyline that follows an unlikely hero fighting against a tyrannical ruler. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a cult classic for a reason.
13. Kull the Conqueror (1997)
This was originally supposed to be a third Conan movie, but Arnie didn’t fancy reprising his role and so the studio execs turned instead to another one of Robert E. Howard’s iconic characters. Honestly, there’s not a whole heap to say about this one and it could easily be forgotten, although it does star Kevin Sorbo, the actor who played Hercules, in his first big screen role.
14. 13th Warrior (1999)
Another one based on a novel?! This one was based on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, which itself is a retelling of the legend of Beowulf. This one’s as close as you can get to classic sword and sorcery without just rewatching a Conan movie, so it’s definitely one to take a look at if you’ve missed it so far. It stars Omar Sharif and Antonio Banderas and has the dubious claim to fame of being one of the biggest box office flops in history, but I blame that on the marketing.
15. Dungeons and Dragons (2000)
You can’t write a list like this without talking about this movie version of the iconic role playing game. This doesn’t do much to buck the trend of bad movies of video games and board games, but it’s far from the worst of them and it’s a notable entry into the sword and sorcery canon just by virtue of the name attached to it. Just don’t bother with the sequels.
16. The Scorpion King (2002)
This movie’s a little unusual because despite it being a spin-off of the Mummy movies, it’s different in both tone and genre. Here, there’s a lot less humour and a lot more magic and mayhem, and you also get to see The Rock as a gigantic scorpion. It’s the kind of movie that’s best enjoyed for its spectacle and you might even enjoy it more if you keep your brain switched off, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
17. Beowulf (2005)
This second retelling of Beowulf is probably my favourite of the two, mainly because it stars both Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgård, which virtually guarantees that it’ll be worth a watch. Produced in a joint effort between Canadians and Icelanders, it was filmed on location in Iceland, which gives it a truly epic feel that none of the other films in this list can compete with without the use of CGI.
18. 300 (2006)
Expect more swords than sorcery here and not a huge amount in the way of mythical creatures, but the battle scenes alone make this movie more than worth a watch. The epic tale of 300 Spartans taking on the might of the entire Persian army became an instant fan favourite as soon as it came out, and it also sparked a bunch of memes and cemented the phrase “this is Sparta!” in popular culture.
19. Solomon Kane (2009)
This more modern instalment in the sword and sorcery canon got stuck in development hell, with filming starting eleven years after the rights were secured. Solomon Kane is another Robert E. Howard creation and so if you like Conan or Kull, you’ll like Solomon Kane. Planned as the first movie in a trilogy, this was a combined effort between French, Czech and British production companies. The main reason why this one is worth checking out is that it shows us what sword and sorcery can look like through a more modern lens.
20. Black Death (2010)
Arguably more relevant now in the coronavirus era than it was when it was first released, this movie follows an outbreak of the bubonic plague in which there are reports that people are coming back to life. Starring Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean (no spoilers as to whether he dies or not here!), it’s got a bit of everything from sword and sorcery to historical fiction and flat-out horror. There’s something for everyone, though it’s not exactly family friendly.
Of course, these are just a few of my recommendations, and there are plenty more fantastic films out there for you to choose from. Use this list as a starting point and then build out from it, and start renting a few of the movies that have caught your eye in this post.
One of the beauties of today’s artificial intelligence era is that algorithms get better and better as they’re exposed to more and more data. In other words, a machine learning algorithm that recommends fantasy movies will quickly get better at recommending movies specifically for you than any human being could hope for.
That means that once you log into your streaming site of choice and start checking out some of the sword and sorcery movies that are on offer, they’ll be able to figure out what you like and what you don’t like and to make suggestions accordingly. They can also trawl through their archives to find obscure recommendations that you might have missed.
But that doesn’t mean we mere humans can’t share recommendations and keep the discussion going, which is why I want to hear from you. Be sure to let me know in the comments what some of your sword and sorcery movies are. I can’t wait to get stuck in and to watch them.
First, though, I’m off to re-watch The Beastmaster.
Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment
Copyright ©Epiphany Entertainment 2020