Star Wars Rip-Offs: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

Saturday , 16, December 2017 26 Comments

A more innocent time, when a Swedish actor playing an Asian villain bothered no one.

As a major, SJW-infested corporation trots out another installment of a beloved franchise, devoid of excitement and fresh ideas but pumped to the gills with Social Justice, it’s interesting to go back to an earlier, more innocent time, shortly after the first Star Wars (1977) came out.  Not only was it legitimately excellent, it also became an insane success that changed the very economics of the film industry from a system dominated by directors making serious art for adults (think Network (1976)Chinatown (1974), or even more action-oriented fare like The French Connection (1971)) to one focusing on special effects-laden blockbusters for teens.  Many, myself included, would argue this was ultimately for the worst, but that’s a topic for another column.

The point is that in the wake of Star Wars’ success (the second-highest grossing film of all time when factoring in inflation, after Gone with the Wind (1939)), there were a slew of imitators.  Ignoring obvious foreign crap like the infamous Turkish Star Wars (1982), let’s look at a few of these.

Flash Gordon (1980)

Sure, Flash Gordon started as a comic strip in 1934 and there were several film serials released in the late 30s and early 40s.  But would there possibly have been a big-screen adaptation 40 years later if not for the success of the Star Wars franchise at the time?  Not a chance.  And it was produced by none other than Dino de Laurentiis, the brilliant, incorrigible, and utterly insane Italian mogul.

The film is a mess in many ways.  It went through numerous directorial changes (at various points, Fellini, George Lucas, and Sergio Leone were all considered!) and according to script writer Lorenzo Semple Jr, they couldn’t figure out whether to make it more serious or comical, eventually settling on the “wrong” choice of a cartoonish approach.  The lead Sam Jones physically looks the part of a tall, well-built, handsome American hero.  Unfortunately, being a nude model with no acting experience, he lacks charisma and even basic personality.  A disagreement with De Laurentiis also led to much of his dialogue being overdubbed.  Beyond that, the movie is a series of one set piece after another, frequently mediocre, with little rhyme or reason for them, but full of Three Stooges style hijinx.

And yet, there is a definite charm to the picture.  While Jones fails to impress, future James Bond Timothy Dalton is a fine roguish prince, the great Max Von Sydow is a solid villain, and the wonderful British character actor Brian Blessed, with his booming voice, is a memorable leader of the Hawkmen.  It’s a loud, boisterous movie, with colorful costumes and a genuine energy to it, no matter how silly the set piece.

And of course, it features a genuinely great soundtrack by Queen.  When most people think of the film, the opening lines of the theme play in their heads, and many of its other flaws melt away.  The song being used for the final, climactic battle is genuinely thrilling.

Krull (1983)

Reminds me a little of the character select screen for Golden Axe!

As I’ve mentioned in the comments here, this is my absolute favorite of the Star Wars rip-offs, which is equal to or even superior to the original in many ways.  Directed by the great, now slightly forgotten English director Peter Yates, it was my favorite movie as a child.  I dreaded revisiting it as an adult, as my reaction to most of what I liked then was “How the hell did I ever like THAT?!  This is crap!  I must have been a dumb kid!”  However, watching it as a jaded adult, not only did I enjoy it, but at its best, it inspired the same feelings of awe and wonder I had felt as a child.

Krull is a sprawling epic, with a ragged band of adventurers going on a hero’s journey to rescue a princess in a beautiful, enchanting, and deadly world.  Unlike Flash Gordon mentioned above, the set pieces in this movie are incredible, and feature considerable ingenuity.  Even the mystical weapon in the movie, a multi-bladed mix between a shuriken and a boomerang called a glaive (not to be confused with the actual historical weapon of the same name) proved so popular it has been many used in many fantasy properties since.

The fights are thrilling, the heroes likable, and the villains, including their creepy, insane castle, are dark and menacing.  In fact, it succeeds at many of the same metrics that Star Wars did, if not to the same extent.

However, in one regard it is clearly better than Star Wars, and that is the soundtrack.  Yes, Star Wars is excellent there, but I consider James Horner’s work on Krull to be the best in all of film history.  Even better than Basil Poledouris’ work on Conan the Barbarian (1982) or Ennio Morricone’s numerous masterpieces.

The music is ever-present, a constant element throughout the picture, elevating each scene.  If the picture wasn’t fundamentally good, the soundtrack wouldn’t matter so much.  But in this case, it infuses with that additional drama, pathos, and heroism to go from good to great.  The main theme is outstanding and the Ride of the Firemares is thrilling, but my personal favorite is The Widow’s Lullaby.

If my enthusiasm didn’t make it obvious enough, I encourage every reader here to check out this simultaneously overlooked and underrated classic.

Wizards (1977)

“Dull, adventure-less fantasy of propaganda and Marxism” would be more accurate.

Okay okay, I’m cheating here, as this was actually released three months before the first Star Wars.  Still, I can’t resist highlighting this left-wing, scaremongering screed masquerading as a fantasy film, since it shows the pitfalls of political propaganda in movies and was made 40 years before the current year.   It’s similar to Star Wars in some ways, including an earlier use of plasma rifles.

The plot of this animated movie would make any fairy tale seem complex.  In a post-apocalyptic world, magic is everywhere, and a Good Wizard defeats an Evil Wizard but spares him.  The Evil Wizard then stumbles upon an old reel of Nazi propaganda (I wish I was kidding), which he displays on a projector to a bunch of monsters.  Instead of being confused at what the fuck they’re watching, the monsters become an unstoppable killing machine, routing elves and other good creatures in battle.  The Good Wizard, along with a few travel companions, go on a journey to stop the Evil Wizard.

I’m not simplifying this, either.  The Good Wizard is even named Avatar and the Evil Wizard Blackwolf.

The use of film as a weapon of propaganda is classic SJW projection, as Wizards is as heavy-handed as anything by Leni Riefenstahl.

The story is thoroughly idiotic, features no adventure and little in the way of excitement.  Instead, it is constantly cloying and preaching what would have been cutting-edge leftist sociopolitical orthodoxy back then.

Amusingly, as soon as the projector goes out, Blackwolf’s unbeatable Nazi army of hulking monsters gets easily slaughtered by a bunch of scrawny elven wimps.  I thought this was illogical and stupid when I saw it, but it makes perfect sense now, understanding the pathology of leftist thinking.  They always think it will be a piece of cake to defeat their enemies, contrary to all evidence.  (Admittedly, this is a trap certain right-wingers fall into as well, in the opposite direction)  And American leftists never appreciate what a force the Nazis truly were, which is also an insult to their victims.  Being a Russian Jew, with many ancestors who had fought in the war, the sober assessment I heard growing up was that the Germans were the best soldiers in the world then.  But in this film, Blackwolf’s army is actually weak, and their success is based around a single film projector.  Ergo, the menace of the villains is revealed as illusory, and there is nothing significant worth celebrating in the elvish victory.

Also, in a climactic scene, the hippy, non-violent good wizard Avatar, who had spared Blackwolf and preaches non-violence and mercy, shoots Blackwolf dead with a gun.  In cold blood.  There is nothing wrong with such a solution by a different protagonist in a different situation, but after all the preaching we’ve heard, it makes Avatar nothing more than a hypocrite, fraud, and very possibly evil himself.  It also renders the high-minded leftist themes that the movie had pushed so hard as nothing more than trite bullshit, to be disposed of whenever convenient.  (Gee, doesn’t that attitude sound familiar?)

Anywho, I hope you have enjoyed this look at some old movies similar to Star Wars.  Sadly, among major studio releases these days, one is far more likely to get a picture in the mold of Wizards than that of Krull!

26 Comments
  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    “…Even better than Basil Poledouris’ work on Conan the Barbarian (1982) …”

    Whoa. Let’s not start talking crazy now.

    Actually, I mostly agree with you here. My only quibble is that Poledouris’ work captures the spirit of Conan (the book Conan) better than the movie does. I consider them a tie, objectively.

    But if we’re talking which one makes my heart soar, cheese and all, Horner’s Krull wins every time.

    I love Flash Gordon as well but couldn’t get through 15 minutes of Wizards.

  • A fine survey, but The Ice Pirates and Starcrash also deserve mention

  • Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

    and Galaxy of Terror (1981)

    Both by Roger Corman

  • Anthony says:

    Starcrash! MST3K did a beauty of a job on it. Cracked me up.

  • Skyler says:

    Battle Beyond the Stars was another remake of the Seven Samurai.

    What about Silent Running? I know it’s full of SJW Granola but it was a magnificent spectacle in its Day.

  • Skyler says:

    Did you ever play the Krull video game. I remember spending hours trying to beat it and Tron at a Pizza Place in Landmark Shopping Center in Alexandria in 1982.

    • Vlad James says:

      No, and despite being very familiar with a lot of old arcade games, I had never even heard of it! Looking it up, it’s similar to Ikari Warriors and other bird’s eye, multidirectional, run and gun shoot em’ ups. Looks pretty good for 1983, too. Shame they didn’t try to do a remake or further adaptation on the NES in the late 80s, but understandable given the movie’s lack of success.

    • Andy says:

      Yeah, Krull is a regular part of my MAME rotation 🙂

      What I like about the movie is the depiction of the villains. I love that you never quite get a good look at the Beast, and a lot of his appearances in the movie are just distorted close-ups of his eyes. They’re more like horror movie creations than generic “evil overlord and henchmen” types.

      • Vlad James says:

        Exactly correct.

        In many movies, less is more when it comes to the primary villain, especially if he is meant to be especially powerful and hideous. A brief, indirect shot here and there. An occasional line of dialogue, or a short demonstration of his power. No more than hints and broad brushstrokes, with the viewer’s imagination filling in the rest.

        By contrast, long, boring speeches and extended shots remove all menace and mystery, and frequently leaves one rolling his eyes at how lame he is.

  • Yes, Sam Jones is the weak point of Flash Gordon. But I would posit the set piece nature of the film is mostly because it couldn’t quite be what it should have been.

    Epic heroes, larger than life villains, big scenery and odd conventions? It’s opera. It should have about 3 times the music, and stretch to about 3 hours. Yes, I’m serious. Opera does much the same, but the set pieces don’t feel as much because there’s transitions in songs that have plot exposition in them.

    Yes, it’s crazy. Doesn’t make it wrong. As to some of the set pieces being silly, Roman Emperor Heliolgobulous killed people with flowers. Buried them in petals. Dramatic and bizarre.

  • Ben says:

    Well, that was the good part of Star Wars, it helped mainstream Scifi and led to the mainstreaming of Fantasy too. The Governator “Conan” movie is the top of this.

    And, please, don’t Knee-Jerk the SJW stuff on Wizards. My only issue with the film is it “Stole” though you can’t patent an art style Bode’s a bit too much, ensuring that Cheech Wizard would never get an animated film even in the era of Fritz the Cat due to the similarity.

    Note it was written by Jews and the Holocaust in living memory so they wanted to show “Kids, Nazis are bad, Mmmmkay!?” Also, these aren’t “Triggypuffs” for left wingers…

    Like when Weehawk pretended to be morning his mount then suddenly attacked the assassin?

    “Now LISTEN, this has been the Biggest BUMMER of a day ever… And if you cross me, if you hurt the elf or the broad…especially the broad…I got stuff planned for you that’ll take 20 years to kill you and you’ll be begging for mercy the first ten seconds…!”

    This is the real left, right now hiding under the Triggypuffs created by a generation of “Nonviolence” media propaganda. Ready to be CheGuevara or PolPot, not reacting but planning and waiting as right wingers hoot and holler but the guys at the top do nothing save corporate welfare to the elites in ways that will hurt sooner than later.

    As far as “Dream machine” (heh, Burroughs ref…) well, do you believe your own eyes? IMO – if the media hadn’t given Donald Trump the attention he’d have had to spend his fortune ten times over in ad buys he’d have not been president so while a bit shallow the “Dream Machine = Will to fight” isn’t that crazy. Look at Moore losing to a Democrat Jones despite being in a 90% Republican highly Jerry-Mandered area… There was a huge will to vote for him, such as from minorities who hated him back, so very high voter turn out. And, whoops, aren’t Child Molesters bad guys…? Like Democrats felt feeling they had to vote for a lousy Democrat, even if – maybe – she didn’t eat ground up missing kids on Pizza…but c’mon, you gotta vote for her or EVIL wins… They didn’t vote Democrat but they boycotted the election because his own party didn’t have the guts to out him. And he lost because the will was taken out.

  • Kenny Cross says:

    Flesh Gordon was much better than Flash Gordon let me tell you. I saw it at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood with my Uncle. I’ll never forget the man in front of us turned around and saw me and turned to my uncle, “Um, this isn’t Flash Gordon.” and my Uncle said, “Oh he knows. It was his idea to come see this. I’m just here for the popcorn.” Flash Gordon was bad. The Queen song good. Flesh Gordon much more entertaining than Flash Gordon to me as a kid.

    Ah Wizards. One of my favorite movies as a kid and still is. Come on, Blackwolf sitting on this throne in the middle of the swastika, great stuff! Its not like Ralph Bakshi is a subtle director: Fire & Ice, Fritz the Cat. Just think, if it wasn’t for Peter Jackson the only Lord of the Rings on film would have been Bakshi’s. Oh well.

    I know I’ve seen Kull once. I have zero memory of it. I will have to watch it again.

    Great post!

    • Vlad James says:

      Thanks.

      Being a fan of exploitation films, I have heard about “Flesh Gordon” for many years but never quite got around to watching it. You’re also far from the only person to call it better than “Flash Gordon”!

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Vlad.
    Interesting post. Do you think a new Flash Gordon movie can be made? I’m thinking independent as i distrust any major movie studio. They’ll botch it.

    xavier

    • Andy says:

      There have been rumors of a Flash Gordon movie in development for a few years now but they always seem to involve graying it up, making Flash into an asshole who needs to learn how to be heroic, complete with a lot of “We’re not so different, you and I” stuff with Ming. Also a lot of hand-wringing over the Yellow Peril elements of Ming even though Alex Raymond himself had largely stripped those out of the strip by the end of his run. Ming more resembled a European dictator than an Asian one when Raymond was done.

      I love Flash Gordon and I’m not even ironic about it. It just makes me happy. The cartoonish approach Semple used works the same way that Semple’s work on the Batman TV show works – to an adult it’s comedy, but to little kids it’s just pure adventure. I also really like the colorful, artificial “comic book” style of the movie (I’m also a big fan of Bava’s Danger Diabolik movie for similar reasons). My biggest complaint about the movie is that Flash and Ming never have a proper confrontation at the end. Flash just hits him with his spaceship and then Ming disappears. Meh.

      • Vlad James says:

        As someone who has raved about “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu” in one of my early columns here, I like the Yellow Peril trope and find it silly that anyone considers it rayciiis. As a kid, there was nothing cooler than being an evil genius, and being portrayed as an endlessly brilliant, powerful, ruthless, and brave adversary, evil or not, always struck me as complimentary, not insulting.

    • Vlad James says:

      A Flash Gordon movie can certainly be made, and it can certainly be a good one. Will it? Probably not, whether made in Hollywood or anywhere else. Making good films is difficult and unusual, and among talented directors who even have a chance of doing anything worthwhile, I doubt many are interested in a 1930’s science fiction comic strip character.

      • Devitt says:

        Did you see “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”? It’s set in the early forties and heavily indebted to the Fleischer brother’s Superman cartoons.

  • Rick Derris says:

    Personally my favorite Horner soundtrack is the “Wrath of Khan” but his “Krull” soundtrack is great!

    The “Krull” ATARI 2600 game was good too. Amazing what the programmers did with a 6502 and hardly any memory:

    http://www.ataritimes.com/index.php?ArticleIDX=301

  • I saw Krull when it was released in that awful 3D that gave me a headache. You’ve convinced me to seek it out and give it another chance.

    Regarding “Wizards”, my wife and I re-watched it recently. It’s still one of her favorites, but I had significant problems with it then and now. I’m an animation snob, raised with classic Disney and Warner Brothers. Bakshi’s shortcuts and poor artistic quality were so bad I didn’t even consider the silly story line.

  • I always viewed Wizards as a bit of a send-up of various political stances. I think Bakshi is at heart an ultra-libertarian liberal in the old hippie bohemian mold rather than the New Puritan style “liberal” of today. His Underground Comic sensibilities skewered many stereotypes, and though he skewed liberal, he also gored sacred oxes on the left. If you watch Wizards with that in mind, it’s a fun an entertaining film.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *