Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits the first feature of B-movie legend, Albert Pyun, with The Sword and the Sorcerer.
Albert Pyun made nearly fifty feature films across his four decade career, and we’re celebrating him in the wake of his recent passing. He hit the ground running in 1982 with The Sword and the Sorcerer, and despite having the misfortune of opening just two weeks before John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, it earned nearly forty million dollars on a minimal budget. Pyun never came close to that kind of financial success again — although 1989’s Cyborg was very, very profitable — but his filmography has found millions of fans all the same.
I saw both films in theaters (despite being a kid) thanks to a dad who loved adventure movies as much I did, but it was Pyun’s movie that stirred my imagination the most. Did I give my Dungeons & Dragons character a three-bladed projectile sword? Yes, yes I did. The film moved on to become a cable favorite, and this year’s 4K UHD release from Scream Factory left me loving it all over again. Watching any of Pyun’s films shows him to be as creatively ambitious a filmmaker as you’ve ever seen capable of stretching a budget to its breaking point. He built worlds for pennies on the dollar, and he will be missed.
Keep reading to see what I heard on Albert Pyun’s commentary for…
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
Commentator: Albert Pyun (director, co-writer), John Charles (moderator)
1. Pyun shopped the film around Hollywood for a few years with a pitch that eventually included heavy props and storyboards in the hopes of convincing a studio to fund the movie. He even snuck the script into Charlton Heston’s dressing room where the actor was doing a play, to no avail, and he was told more than once that security would be called if he didn’t leave. “I was such a pest.”
2. The opening sequence was filmed at Bronson Caves in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park (and the rest of the movie was also filmed in and around LA). Numerous films have shot there including The Searchers and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
3. The crypt of souls, and its wall in particular, was designed by the Chiodo Brothers, and remains a classic element from The Sword and the Sorcerer that went on to fuel both dreams and nightmares for many of us who saw the film as kids.
4. Richard Moll plays the undead wizard who’s resurrected, but the contact lenses he’s wearing reacted poorly to the muck he rises out of, and they ended up fusing to his eyes. He had to go to UCLA to have the lenses surgically removed, and as he was out of commision he was recast for some sequences later on.
5. Producer Brandon Chase bought into the production, in part, because he had never before seen a director pitch an entire film via storyboards. Two factions still formed on set, though, with one group loyal to the executive and the other to Pyun.
6. He and cinematographer Joseph Mangine had a “terrible conflict” during The Sword and the Sorcerer‘s production, and Pyun adds that both Mangine and editor Marshall Harvey were frequently in cahoots against him. “They didn’t understand the gee-whiz adventure quality in it,” he says about the on-set detractors.
7. Stuntman Jack Tyree died doing the big freefall drop at 11:04, and Charles asks if it was ever fully determined what went wrong with the stunt. Pyun says that Tyree had initially misled him stating that he had previously jumped from that location, and he adds that in addition to being “a babe in the woods” on his first film he was also elsewhere at the time shooting a different scene.
8. Chase’s son plays the young prince.
9. Many of the weapons in the movie, including the iconic three-bladed sword, were inspired by Pyun’s love of the Lone Wolf and Cub films. He also sees an anime influence in some of the early action beats.
10. Pyun’s temp-track music of choice was John Williams’ Superman score. He seems to prefer it to David Whitaker‘s actual score for this film.
11. The producers originally wanted David Hasselhoff in the lead role instead of Lee Horsley. “Yeah, that would have been a disaster,” says Pyun. The suits apparently didn’t like Horsley’s legs. Horsley returned the favor and was a great defender of Pyun’s.
12. Oliver Reed was originally cast as the film’s narrator, but the actor “showed up drunk and really just spittin’ mad that he was there at all.” His verbal attacks escalated to breaking things in the office, but once he calmed down he tossed a few compliments Pyun’s way. The director still asked for him to be replaced, and the role went to Simon MacCorkindale.
13. Pyun was attached to a Steven Seagal film around 2000, and he convinced the actor to watch several Japanese films — including the Lone Wolf and Cub movies — to show him the style and tone he wanted. Seagal didn’t quite get it, and the resulting film is 2001’s Ticker.
14. Kathleen Beller told Pyun that the producers were threatening her — do nude scenes or be blackballed in Hollywood — and Pyun said to ignore them. He shot her scenes fully-clothed, “maybe a little bit of cleavage,” and told her “fuck ’em.”
15. The attack at 38:00 was meant to feature giant fireballs, but instead Pyun had to settle for “little pittering things.” They were filming during California’s fire season and were not allowed to use larger flames.
16. He regrets that they had to use stock footage for many of the exteriors as he had a grand vision for several locations in California that they just never managed to get.
17. Casting directors brought Richard Lynch to the film, and the actor apparently felt like the film had Academy Award potential (?) which encouraged him to truly give his all. Lynch arguably always gives his all, in my opinion. Pyun says he was doing drugs at the time which served to enhance his character’s rage.
18. While Pyun criticizes Chase’s interference as a producer and the conflicts that followed, he points out that the executive also defended the filmmaker against others and ultimately supported The Sword and the Sorcerer. He namechecks directors including Paul Bartel and other New World Pictures talents as being upset that “this guy from Hawaii who doesn’t know shit about making a movie” was getting a feature rollout. Charles adds that “I’ve seen all the sword & sorcery films that Roger Corman produced, and yours is so much better than all of them.” All of that said, Chase didn’t want to give Pyun final credit — note the opening card calling this “A Brandon Chase Film.”
19. “I wish I could have made the film with the knowledge that I have now,” he says, adding that the cast deserved better from him. He had no shot list prepared and was instead cruising through production so that producers wouldn’t have a chance to replace him.
20. Pyun is proud of the film, warts and all, and was especially happy to see it play in his hometown theaters in Honolulu. “I called the theater chain that knew me and thought that I was a pest,” he says, because he wanted them to know he made it.
21. The filmmaker breaks down just after the hour mark [1:08:00]. He’s talking about having The Sword and the Sorcerer play in Hawaii after all the years of naysayers and hard work. “I wanted them to know that that was tough, that I’m gonna commit to what it took to get it to the screen, and it didn’t matter how much criticism I got. It was just important. It was so satisfying,for me to know not that I had made a successful movie, but that I had stuck to my guns and made a film that was incredible, and that they should have given me more help in the beginning.”
22. Talon (Horsley) shatters the enemies’ swords with his own at 1:21:57, and it resulted in injury when one of the sword shards flew through the air and skewered Horsley’s scalp. “I said, ‘the blood runs down your face, let’s use it.'” He mentions that Jean-Claude Van Damme also was part of a third-act fight injury on Cyborg, and adds that movies these days just avoid using physical blades all together when possible.
23. It was Chase’s idea to tease a sequel at the end with the on-screen text. Tales of the Ancient Empire finally arrived in 2010, for better (Pyun’s back!) and worse (Kevin Sorbo stars!).
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“People had a really bad sense of imagination.”
“Sometimes having too much money restricts imagination.”
“This is the three-bladed sword that makes no sense.”
“I was an inch away from being fired every day.”
“They all fell under the trance of Lee Horsley.”
“I didn’t expect to make any more films past this first one.”
“I’m sorry, I have dementia, so you gotta excuse some of my flaws in thinking.”
“We just had to be careful that Richard Lynch doesn’t actually kill anybody.”
It seems somewhat fitting that Pyun’s final commentary track was for his very first feature film, and while his age and illness have taken their toll, his presence here is warm and in tune with his memories despite some repetition. Charles’ contributions threaten to feel stale, mostly as he starts reading in a flat, emotionless voice at first, but he works well as a moderator to kickstart comments and stories from Pyun about the production of The Sword and the Sorcerer. The director is unsurprisingly a source of entertaining memories and anecdotes, and he’s absolutely unrestrained when it comes to his thoughts on others. The key here is his heart, though, as his love of filmmaking and his faith in himself are endearing and inspiring. If you haven’t already seen them, I recommend you seek out additional titles from Pyun’s filmography including Nemesis, Radioactive Dreams, Captain America, and more.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.