The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Four
The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Four by Jerry Whitworth
The 1980s was a time of many advents in pop culture still seen today (occasionally rebooted in an effort to reinvigorate slumbering franchises). One such recent re-invigoration came in the Muppets franchise. In 1954, high school student Jim Henson would get a job making puppets for a Saturday morning children’s program, a profession that would bring the young man international acclaim in the years to come. The children’s program Sesame Street would come to discover and admire Henson’s work, hiring the puppeteer to design, create, and operate puppets for their television series in 1969 (bringing Henson national coverage). Henson, who came to refer to his unique creations as Muppets, thought the appeal of his work could be much wider and brought to fruition a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy series called The Muppet Show in 1976. By 1979, the popularity of the Muppets would evolve into a feature film called simply The Muppet Movie telling of how such a diverse group of misfits came together to form an entertainment group that appealed to children and adults alike. The success of the film lead to The Great Muppet Caper in 1981 and The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984 (not to mention Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird in 1985). The same year Henson first brought his Muppets to the big screen, he formed Jim Henson’s Creature Shop offering his talents to film and television outside his popular original creations. Two notable films to employ Henson, released in the 1980s, was The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The latter featured actress Jennifer Connelly portraying a teenager trying to save her half-brother Toby from the malevolent Goblin King, Jareth (played by singer David Bowie) while solving the riddle of his mystical Labyrinth. It was a commercial failure at box office. However, the film would earn back its cost several times over in the home video market, becoming a cult classic and favorite among children even today (Tokyopop would produce a manga series using the property in 2006’s Return to Labyrinth). For television, Henson would bring to life the Fraggles in the series Fraggle Rock (with separate live action and animated series) and saw his Muppets animated through Marvel Productions in Muppet Babies. In the late 1980s, Henson negotiated to have his company bought by the Walt Disney Company only to tragically die in 1990 before bringing this desire into reality. Eventually, Disney would acquire the Muppets and bring them back to the big screen in 2011’s hit film The Muppets.
As the 1980s were the final years of Jim Henson’s life and his life’s work in puppetry, the decade would see the final James Bond films for actors Roger Moore and Sean Connery (arguably the actors most closest associated with the character). Bond was created by author Ian Fleming in 1953 for his novel Casino Royale becoming a major literary character with the novel being adapted several times (for television in 1954, a film in 1967, and another film in 2006 which rebooted the film series). Bond would become a major motion picture franchise starting in 1962 with the film Dr. No (based on the novel of the same name) starring Sean Connery as Bond. Connery would portray the character in seven films, handing Bond over to actor George Lazenby (who fans didn’t take too well toward) before returning and handing the role over again, this time to Roger Moore (who starred as a similar character in the television series The Saint). Moore would play the role for seven films as well. The final three films featuring Moore premiered in the ’80s, beginning with For Your Eyes Only in 1981 and ending with A View to a Kill in 1985. 1983 would be a year seeing both Moore and Connery playing the part of Bond. For Moore, it was Octopussy while Connery starred in Never Say Never Again. The Connery film would see the actor’s final time playing the character, where the movie’s title is actually a reference to Connery’s remark in a 1971 interview that he would never play Bond again. The movie came about when writer Kevin McClory, who co-wrote the novel Thunderball, retained the rights to make a movie based on the book (despite it already being adapted in a film starring Connery). Regardless, McClory went to an independent production company and saw the novel adapted again with the same actor creating a unique phenomenon (especially considering twelve years had passed since Connery took up the Bond character). With Connery and Moore retiring the role, actor Timothy Dalton would take over the character finishing out the 1980s with two films leading to a six year absence of Bond films till Pierce Brosnan (who played a similar character in the television series Remington Steele) picked up the torch in the 1990s. The same month For Your Eyes Only hit theaters, America would get a major action movie franchise.
The original Star Wars trilogy made George Lucas a hot commodity but the creator certainly didn’t rest on his laurels. While his science fiction franchise was still rolling into theaters, Lucas took supporting cast member Harrison Ford from that franchise and gave him a starring role as Indiana Jones (actor Tom Selleck was primed for the part but was in an ironclad contract for his television series Magnum, P.I. that prevented him from taking the role). Inspired by the film serials of old, Raiders of the Lost Ark saw archaeologist Indiana Jones battling the Nazis to protect the Ark of the Covenant from being turned into a weapon against the world. The film would prove to be one of the most commercially successful of all time leading to three more films (two of which came out in the ’80s and the latest in 2008) and various other adaptations (including as a Marvel comic book series). While Star Wars, James Bond, and Indiana Jones were tearing up the box office, Americans (and the B movie aisle) would enter the ninja craze.
Chuck Norris, who famously fought Bruce Lee in the film Way of the Dragon (1972), was on his way to becoming a household name with films like Good Guys Wear Black (1978) and A Force of One (1979), helping ring in a new martial arts phenomenon that blew up in the 1980s (though, ninjas would appear in American comics a decade earlier). The Octagon (1980) told the story of half-brothers Scott James (Norris) and Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita) trained in the ancient Japanese art of ninjutsu who become enemies when the latter decides to use this knowledge to train terrorists. James must now find Seikura and stop him and his army of ninja and terrorists (Norris would fight ninjas again in his animated series and toyline Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos). The film gave rise the ninja genre, one dominated by Japanese actor Sho Kosugi. Claiming to be trained in ninjutsu by a neighbor growing up, Kosugi starred as a ninja assassin in the film Enter the Ninja (1981) leading to a major hit (with significant global distribution) for the low budget studio that produced it. Kosugi would become so identified with ninjutsu during this time, his likeness was often used by companies trying to sell ninja equipment (likely without his permission), even some video games bearing a strong resemblance to the actor on box art and promotional work. The action star would do several films, the television series The Master (as the series’ primary antagonist), the instructional video Master Class, and was the host of the Ninja Theater series of video tapes. The company behind many of Kosugi’s films would also introduce the American Ninja franchise in the ’80s. It wouldn’t be long until ninjas made it into toylines, featured prominently in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Kosugi’s films, and various other American films with ninja, would make their way to Japan becoming a hit in the country that created that warrior class (Kosugi gaining fame in his home country in a similar fashion to Bruce Lee’s fame in China following the Green Hornet). Ninjutsu would not be the only martial art craze to hit America in the ’80s.
While karate certainly wasn’t an unknown quantity in America, the martial art found new life with the film Karate Kid. Telling the story of a bullied youth befriended by a kindly old man from Okinawa, young Daniel LaRusso learns the art of karate from the elder Miyagi becoming able to defend himself and to find the confidence he always had inside him. The film was a hit, spawning sequels, a toyline, and animated series (recently rebooted in 2010 changing focus to kung fu while oddly enough retaining the original title). Speaking on bullying, the month following Karate Kid‘s premier saw the film Revenge of the Nerds hit theaters featuring stereotypical nerds trying to find some way to coexist on a college campus that largely hated them. While not always true in real life, an intriguing message in the film was of the acceptance of nerds, taking in members of different skin colors, sexual orientations, and general undesirables (in essence, outcasts and otherwise banding together). The film would do well, spawning three sequels. In 1985, another group of outcasts would form another Hollywood hit.
You can’t really talk about the 1980s without talking about The Goonies. Conceived by executive producer Steven Spielberg, composed into a screenplay by Chris Columbus, and directed by Richard Donner, The Goonies tells the story of a group of misfits banding together to save their homes from demolition by uncovering the treasure of the pirate One-Eyed Willie. Featuring the likes of Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, and Josh Brolin, the youths were pursued by a family of crooks (befriending one from this family in the deformed hulk Sloth). The movie would be a huge hit and amass notoriety that persists today. A couple months later, another misfit in Pee-wee Herman would become a phenomenon for American audiences. Conceived by comedian Paul Reubens (with help from close friend Phil Hartman) in the late-1970s, the immature Pee-wee would become Reubens’ most famous character and would be the focus of the raunchy The Pee-wee Herman Show which gained Reubens national fame when it was aired on the premium cable channel HBO. However, it wouldn’t be until Pee-wee was re-imagined as a kid friendly entity in the feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (directed by a young Tim Burton) that he became an icon of the 1980s. The film lead to a film sequel in Big Top Pee-wee and television series in Pee-wee’s Playhouse (which featured a young Laurence Fishburne) with accompanying merchandise including a toyline that had virtually every child in America performing imitations of the character (much to the chagrin of many a parent). The series ran for five seasons ending in 1990 (Pee-wee made a big comeback in 2010 with a live show and is in the process of producing another feature film with director Judd Apatow). The success of Pee-wee opened the door for another loveable outcast. In 1980, actor Jim Varney would first don the baseball cap of the dope Ernest P. Worrell, a screw-up with an unquenchable childlike naivety but who despite his mistakes never gives up (on himself or his friends). He would star in commercials becoming wildly popular, selling everything from cars to electronics to ice cream. In 1987, Ernest would make the jump to star of a feature film in Ernest Goes to Camp which was a box office success (especially considering its small budget). The character would go on to several films (first in theaters and later directly to video) and the television series Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! (which aired on the same station that broadcast Pee-wee’s TV series). Sadly, Varney would pass in 2000 to lung cancer. The same month Pee-wee Herman made the transition to weekly television, American audiences were treated to the eccentric character of “Crocodile” Dundee.
Based on real life bushman Rodney Ansell, “Crocodile” Dundee (1986) starred comedian Paul Hogan (star of Australia’s popular series The Paul Hogan Show) as the titular character as a vehicle for a commercially successful Australian film to appeal to American audiences. The movie would destroy expectations becoming a wildly successful international release. The film would spawn two sequels (most recently in 2001) and make Hogan a globally recognized celebrity (though his reluctance to play serious tough guy characters limited the roles offered him in the years that followed). Pop culture wise for geeks, the 1980s would be rounded out by the parody musician “Weird Al” Yankovic’s feature film UHF (1989). Having gained a name for himself parodying popular music (arguably most notably hits of Michael Jackson), “Weird Al” tried to dovetail his unique twist on comedy into the film industry with UHF starring the musician as the manager of a television station that turns a profit when by chance janitor Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards) makes it on to air and becomes a hit with audiences. Sadly, the film wasn’t a hit with the American public as a variety of blockbusters released around the same time vastly overshadowed the piece. In addition to pop culture, the 1980s was a huge time for the genre of Fantasy.
While Fantasy is a broad term for a genre, the specific focus here relies on sword and sorcery. As noted in part two of this series, Lord of the Rings and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien would have a lasting impact surviving several decades after their publication (with live action adaptations of his Middle-earth stories making their way to theaters even today with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug arriving in a couple months and The Hobbit: There and Back Again set for next year). However, before live action adaptations of Middle-earth became blockbusters, it arrived in animated form first in The Hobbit (1977) by Rankin/Bass (famous for their mostly stop motion Christmas specials and ThunderCats) and animated by Topcraft (precursor to Studio Ghibli) and then The Lord of the Rings (1978) from Ralph Bakshi described as a painting brought to life (making extensive use of rotoscoping, or animating over live action models) which had an accompanying toyline. Bakshi also produced other animated Fantasy films like Wizards (1977) and Fire and Ice (1983), the latter collaborating with Frank Frazetta, Gerry Conway, and Roy Thomas. In 1980, Rankin/Bass and Topcraft would finish out Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy not covered by Bakshi in the film The Return of the King. Rankin/Bass and Topcraft would also collaborate to adapt the novel The Last Unicorn in 1982. In terms of live action, Arthurian legend would be an early blockbuster of the 1980s.
Based on the famous tome Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, Excalibur (1981) retold the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The film featured the likes of Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds. Opening number one in the United States, the film was a hit and was notable for introducing many Irish actors (such as those just named) to a world audience. A few months later, audiences were treated to the Greek myth of Perseus in Clash of the Titans. Featuring the final work of special effects guru Ray Harryhausen (having previously worked on Jason and the Argonauts) and starring Harry Hamlin as Perseus, the movie featured stars like Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Burgess Meredith and proved to be a hit for MGM. The film would be remade in 2010 with a sequel in 2012’s Wrath of the Titans and a third film currently in development. The year following Excalibur and Clash of the Titans, Hollywood would give a break to an actor that would become a huge player in the film industry.
Bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger had been active in films for several years, including as Hercules in Hercules in New York (though his voice was dubbed) and as himself in Pumping Iron. He auditioned to play the part of the Hulk in the television series The Incredible Hulk but was deemed too short (the part would go to Richard Kiel but when his physique was brought into question, he was replaced with Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding rival Lou Ferrigno). Schwarzenegger would eventually get his break playing Robert E. Howard’s pulp magazine character Conan. Having been adapted for a popular Marvel comic book series in 1970 that blew up into various spin-offs and alternate series, Conan made the transition to feature film with Conan the Barbarian. Making use of James Earl Jones (who famously voiced the character of Darth Vader in the popular Star Wars series) as the film’s villain Thulsa Doom (nemesis of Kull, another Howard creation, that went on to trouble Conan in the comics), worshiper of the snake god Set (making the character more in line with Conan’s nemesis Thoth-Amon), the movie was a hit with audiences spawning a sequel in Conan the Destroyer and a spiritual successor in Red Sonja (adapting the Marvel comic character loosely based on Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino). In 2011, another Conan the Barbarian film was introduced rebooting the series but was met with a mostly negative response. A few months after Conan invaded movie theaters, another barbarian-like hero would make his mark.
The Beastmaster told the story of prince Dar, his kingdom taken from him and his adopted people massacred by the evil sorcerer Maax. Trained in the ways of the warrior and born with a telepathic link to animals, Dar quests to topple Maax and his horde the Jun. While only making a lukewarm impact at box office, the film became a cult classic especially after its popularity on various cable television rebroadcasts. As such, it built enough of an audience to spawn two sequels and a television series. 1982 would give fans of Fantasy the two aforementioned film franchises, but its greater contribution was in literature. The Shannara series from Terry Brooks started with the novel The Sword of Shannara in 1977 but grew into a prolific series of entries in the 1980s with books like The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara leading to twenty four more titles since (the most recent being Witch Wraith in July 2013), a video game, and a television series in development at present. The story of Shannara is a post-apocalyptic world where science is being restored like artifacts while magic has become the preferred weapon of the Four Lands. Shannara itself is a reference to the family featured in the series made up of a mixed bloodline of men and elves. In April 1982, David Eddings began publishing his series The Belgariad starting with the Pawn of Prophecy. The original series was made up of five books followed by a sequel series in The Malloreon (also with five books) in 1987 with three other books produced. The series focuses on the hero Belgarion and his quest to slay the Dark God Torak and choose a successor, resulting in the “Child of Light” who is destined to end the eternal conflict. Also in 1982, the Riftwar saga by Raymond E. Feist would begin and thus launching the author’s prolific career. Set in the Fantasy world of Midkemia, a place of limited technology (before the discovery of gunpowder) but where magic reigns, Feist’s trilogy would be followed by twenty six more novels (and two short stories), the latest in Magician’s End in May 2013 which appears to end the series after thirty one years.
In 1983, Marion Zimmer Bradley would begin her series Avalon based on the Arthurian myths with The Mists of Avalon. Bradley would produce three more novels before her death in 1999 where author Diana L. Paxson (who co-wrote with Bradley on those last three books) would pick up the torch and publish three more novels (the latest Sword of Avalon in 2009). Also in 1983, the Fantasy-Science Fiction film Krull would enter movie theaters to mixed to negative reviews despite its great expense to produce. Telling the story Prince Colwyn who must obtain the mythical weapon the Glaive and rescue his betrothed Princess Lyssa from the alien known simply as the Beast, the movie bombed at box office but would become a cult classic. The following year, popular German Fantasy novel The NeverEnding Story would be adapted for film and, at the time, was the most expensive movie outside of the USA or USSR ever made. The film would do quite well, becoming a great blockbuster in its native Germany and a bit of a success in the United States. The movie would spawn two sequels and a reboot of the franchise currently in development. In 1985, Rutger Hauer, Matthew Broderick, and Michelle Pfeiffer would headline the Fantasy film Ladyhawke directed by Richard Donner. In this movie, an evil bishop summons demonic forces to curse the knight Navarre and his love Isabeau (the holy man having lusted after the latter and whose jealousy drove him to madness). Navarre transformed into a wolf by night, Isabeau a hawk by day, the two may never meet again in human form. The couple team with the thief Philippe to confront the bishop and to break the curse forever. The film wouldn’t do well at box office but would become a cult classic.
1986 would prove to be a monumental year for Fantasy films. In March, the film Highlander starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, and Clancy Brown would hit theaters to little success. However, despite this, the movie would become a cult classic and spawn four more films, two television series, an animated series, an anime adaptation by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), and cross over into various other forms of media. The story tells of Scotsman Connor MacLeod who dies in battle only to learn that he is in fact immortal. Discovered by fellow immortal Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (Egyptian by birth masquerading as a Spaniard), he instructs Connor in the use of the sword and tells of “The Game”, a contest that sees immortals slay each other by taking their opponent’s head (and with it their power) until only one remains and is awarded “The Prize” (ultimate power, mortality, and the ability to bear children). At present, the franchise is in the process of being rebooted. The month following Highlander‘s premier, an up-and-coming superstar of Hollywood would star in his own Fantasy film.
While All the Right Moves and Risky Business helped give actor Tom Cruise exposure, it was 1986’s Top Gun that made him a Hollywood giant. That same year, however, Cruise would also star in the film Legend when it made its way to America. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Cruise, Tim Curry, and Mia Sara, Legend told of the unlikely friendship of woodsman Jack and Princess Lili who dared to spy upon the last two unicorns. When Lili breaks the taboo of touching a unicorn (desecrating it with her human hands), Darkness (who dwells beneath the earth, sunlight his only weakness) has his goblins seek out the unicorns (whose existence safeguard the Power of Light which confines Darkness). Along the way, Lili is captured and brought to Darkness who lusts after her. Jack and his woodland friends must save Lili as Darkness tries to corrupt and woo her to his side. The film would do poorly at box office but became a cult classic. In July, film director John Carpenter, known for such movies as Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing, would delve into the supernatural with Big Trouble in Little China. Again teaming with actor Kurt Russell and set in modern times, a truck driver, a kung fu restauranteur, and magician must battle ancient Chinese mythological entities in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The film would bomb at box office but become a success in the home video market. The film came about in large part to compete with a similar film that premiered later that year in The Golden Child. Starring Eddie Murphy as “the Chosen One” in social worker Chandler Jarrell, he must rescue “the Golden Child” from the demon Sardo Numspa with the help of beautiful Tibetan warrior Kee Nang. The film was a box office hit (though considered a disappointment by the studio when compared with Murphy’s last film in Beverly Hills Cop).
The 1980s was rounded out by two more notable Fantasy films. The first was 1987’s Princess Bride. Based on the 1973 novel of the same name, Princess Bride is a cult classic fondly remembered today and considered one of the best films of the decade despite only modest success when it first premiered. An all star cast with the likes of Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Billy Crystal, Robin Wright, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, and wrestler André the Giant directed by Rob Reiner, the film had a unique blend of action, romance, comedy, and drama. The story features the love between the beautiful Buttercup and farm hand Westley that takes a tragic turn when the latter is captured and believed dead by the hand of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Heartbroken, Buttercup is forced into a marriage with the malevolent Prince Humperdinck only to be kidnapped days before the wedding. Fortunately she is rescued by Westley, who had adopted the mantle of the Dread Pirate Roberts to earn his fortune in order to marry his love. Humperdinck would capture his would be wife and her lover, blackmailing the former into going through with her vows while torturing the latter he believed to death. Instead, Westley survives and leads a revolt against the prince to rescue his one true love. A notable element of the film was its use of fencing, an art largely out of fashion in cinema at that time despite being exceptionally popular in years prior. One last Fantasy film of the 1980s that would also become a cult classic was Willow.
Conceived by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, 1988’s Willow starred the likes of Val Kilmer, Warwick Davis, and Kevin Pollak in a world deeply rooted in sword and sorcery. Opening number one at box office, the film’s earnings didn’t meet studio expectations (believed due in part by strong competition in theaters at the time). The story featured a hobbit-like Nelwyn named Willow who had to protect a baby destined to topple the rein of the evil queen Bavmorda, a sorceress commanding a brutal army. In his quest, he is joined by vagrant swordsman Madmartigan, sorceress Fin Raziel, Brownies Rool and Franjean, and, eventually, Bavmorda’s adopted daughter Sorsha. For its time, Willow employed new advents in computer generated morphing technology that revolutionized the film industry. The film would spawn several video games and novels based on its story.
In Part Five of “The ’80s – Geek Edition,” we’ll examine Horror of the 1980s.
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