Okay, so I know I haven’t posted much lately and now that I am it isn’t even an Indian movie, but boy do I have a treat for you. Well…you might not see it that way, but I did ask over at the Facebook page if I should post it and one responsive reader said “Heck yeah, yaar!” with nobody else objecting (thanks Joelette for enabling me!). Truly in my opinion The Beastmaster is crying out to be Bolly’d up. It is Dara-Singh-sword-and-sandals meets Manmohan-Desai-clever-animals meets Hindi-cinema-separated-families meets Wadia-Brothers-fantasy-magic; but made in Hollywood so only half the melodrama and no songs, with possibly slightly better production values.
I stumbled across this on late-night television sometime in 1983, a depressed recent college graduate wondering desperately what she was going to do now that she was supposedly grown up (I have since learned not to worry about it). I’d missed the first hour or so and had no idea what was going on but it didn’t matter. I could not look away. Luckily it was on again the next night and I happened to catch it at the beginning, so naturally I had to watch it since I’d missed half of it the night before. The TV station must have paid a small fortune for it because they ran it about five times every day for months after that, and I can’t explain why I watched it over and over and over again.
Or maybe I can.
We open with three scantily-clad witches with scary heads but the bodies of supermodels. This would normally cause me to roll my eyes, but I know by now that there is plenty of equal-opportunity man-candy to come, so I don’t really mind. The “ladies” are peering into a magic cauldron, through which they are watching a sleeping woman. They are minions of High Priest Maax (because Max is too ordinary) (Rip Torn, who has gone off the rails a bit since this was made) and they have unfortunate news for him.
The woman being observed is the Queen of Aruk and she is pregnant with King Zed’s unborn son. The witches inform Maax that this son will one day kill him, and Maax vows that the child instead will die that very night. They are interrupted by King Zed himself (Rod Loomis) and his guard Seth (John Amos, hooray!), who has heard that Maax is planning a child sacrifice that night. Zed banishes him and his “heathen religion” (they worship the god Ar, which makes me giggle and think of “Talk Like A Pirate Day”) to the lands outside the kingdom of Aruk which are ruled by the barbarian Jun horde.
Before being escorted out, Maax informs Zed that it is his child who will be sacrificed that night, but for some reason Zed spares his life and lets him go. (This is not a movie built on logic.) Later that night, as Zed and his Queen sleep, one of the witches creeps in with a cow (actually, it’s a bull to begin with but I don’t want to quibble over petty continuity issues), paralyzes them with a bright blue liquid, and transfers the baby from the Queen’s belly to the cow’s, killing the Queen. She takes the cow away into the forest and then cuts the baby out of its belly, which seems needlessly complicated to me and why drag the
cow bull cow into it at all? Poor thing.
The baby’s little hand is branded with the symbol of Ar, as Maax had instructed, and the witch raises a knife to kill him. But a brave if foolhardy man has stumbled across the horrific scene and he intervenes, managing to kill the witch (or at least make her go away). He takes the baby home to his small farming village and names him Dar.
Dar grows up learning to fight with swords, and when he is about ten he and his father realize that he has a gift for communicating telepathically with animals, in this case a bear. I am sort of disappointed that it isn’t a man in a moth-eaten bear suit, but you can’t have everything.
Then one fateful day the village is attacked by Juns and Dar (Marc Singer), now a grown man, is knocked unconscious during the battle and dragged away from the battlefield by his faithful—and fatally wounded—dog Todo. He awakens next to his dead dog to find the village razed to the ground and all the inhabitants killed, with an eagle perched at the gates looking at the carnage.
He gathers up all the bodies and puts Todo into his father’s arms while I sob. After cremating his friends and family, he sets off to avenge their deaths on the Juns, armed only with a fringed leather skirt, boots, gauntlets and man-purse; and his sword and his father’s kapa (a jointed boomerang-type thingie with sharp blades). The eagle goes with him.
He soon picks up some other companions, however, beginning with a mischievous pair of ferrets who steal his murse one day. Chasing them, Dar falls into some quicksand and the ferrets help get him out. One of them falls in too, and is rescued in turn by Dar.
He names them Kodo and Podo and takes them along in his bag. He has discovered by now that he can see through the eyes of the eagle when he wants, and he soon has a vision through another pair of eyes. Continuing on his path, he discovers that some Juns are tormenting a black tiger tied to a stake. Aided by the eagle and the ferrets, he rescues the tiger after a thrilling fight sequence with the Juns (seriously, it’s thrilling).
The tiger comes with them too, and is named Ruh.
As Dar himself says: in his companions, he now has his eyes, his cunning and his strength.
The only thing missing is a girl! and fear not, people whose need for eye-candy is still unfulfilled (I have animals and Marc Singer, and am quite happy). Dar and his pals run into two girls bathing in a waterfall, and Dar is smitten with one of them on sight. Raj Kapoor might feel at home, except they don’t bother even with a transparent sari.
After scaring her with his tiger (not a euphemism) he discovers that she is a slave girl to the priests of Ar (Maax and his gang) named Kiri (the lissome Tanya Roberts, whose acting however is painful to watch indeed) (to be fair, good acting is not a hallmark of this film any more than logic is).
She refuses to go with Dar, saying that her family is also held captive by the priests and runs off. I wonder if it’s maybe because he’s forced a kiss on her and been quite grabby, but she doesn’t seem that smart. Curious and still smitten, he decides to follow her trail with his animal pals. Next up: a verrrry creepy bunch of skeletal people-eating pod creatures under a tree hung with pulsating Chinese lantern-type things.
They are saved from being boiled in a big cauldron and eaten themselves by the eagle; evidently the pod creatures worship eagles, and give Dar a talisman as they let him go. He and his companions finally reach the fort of Aruk and its distinctive pyramid (Maax’s headquarters). Maax is clearly in charge of things now, and the road to Aruk is not paved with good intentions.
He is still conducting child sacrifices and terrorizing the people of Aruk with the help of his witches and some really creepy zombie death guards. Can Dar and his anipals rescue Kiri and the rest of Aruk from Maax? Who is Kiri anyway? Will Dar discover that Aruk is in fact his home, and his rightful kingdom? Are any of his family, like his father Zed, alive?
If you are still here reading this, you will likely love The Beastmaster as much as I do. Believe me when I say there are still plenty of twists and turns to come. Lots of it is pretty crazy and nobody wears much in the way of clothing, not that I am complaining.
This is not a film for people who want their cinema to consist of good acting and a realistic plot with a message, but then those people mostly don’t read my blog anyway. I have seen it probably fifty-plus times in the last thirty years, and it never gets old. If there is a heaven, it will have a Hindi version of this.
Some casting parallels are obvious: Zeenat as Kiri, Sheroo the Wonder Bird as the eagle, and these:
but who would you like to see in it?
Beware: The Beastmaster is an addiction, but like many addictions, it is also a completely visceral pleasure-fest.