It is generally considered — at least by those who have bothered considering it — that The Magic Sword (1962) is schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon’s best movie. But let’s face it: This isn’t saying all that much. Gordon is, after all, the guy who had grasshoppers crawl across photos of buildings to convey the illusion of a giant grasshopper invasion in The Beginning of the End (1957), thereby assuring him a place in the pantheon of bad filmmakers. The most incredible thing about these movies, though, is the fact that Gordon (now 90) thought (and thinks) the films were actually good. I find that rather charming actually. (I should note that I know Gordon slightly and have had dinner with him a couple of times, though I knew his late daughter Susan much better. In fact, it was she who clued me in on the fact that he thought his pictures were good.) The truth is that his movies are almost aggressively awful or at least dumb — and that is their peculiar appeal.
Now, I freely admit that when I first saw The Magic Sword, I thought it was really swell. I was also 7 years old, and 1962 was a simpler time — at least a time when we were more easily amused. Even at the distance of about 50 years, I can see the appeal — especially if you’re not apt to care about the dodgy effects, the amateur makeup, the moronic dialogue and the mostly awkward performances. What works now is what worked then — an abundance of imagination in an admittedly rudimentary form. Here is an 80-minute movie that manages to pack in a dotty good witch (Estelle Winwood), an evil sorcerer (Basil Rathbone), Siamese twins, a chess-playing chimpanzee, a magical stallion, a giant ogre (in a bad mask), a vampire hag (in an even worse mask), a sinister pond that’ll take the skin right off you, a fireball (boy, is it hokey) that’ll toast you to a blistered crisp, assorted dwarves, guys with blue skin, what looks like the prototypes of the Coneheads, a cage full of tiny people, some supernatural knights, a damsel in distress (with really 1960s hair), a stalwart hero and a two-headed fire-breathing dragon (actually not that bad). Oh, yeah, there’s also a magic sword (pretty cheesy). I mean, it’s tough to get bored when there’s just that much stuff going on — even if it isn’t of the highest quality.
It’s easy enough to complain about…well, almost any individual aspect is — apart from Basil Rathbone’s gleeful villainy. (Estelle Winwood isn’t bad either, but some of her material is a little too cute.) As is almost always the case, Gordon’s ambitions are defeated by his abilities, but it’s nice to see him trying so hard. Somehow he got onto the idea of creative lighting using colored gels, for example, and while this occasionally does work, all too often the color is mostly red — to the degree that you think someone’s getting ready to develop a photograph. But if you were a kid in 1962, it was all pretty cool — and I’m not convinced that Gordon was ever much more than a big kid. Even when he gets ambitious like he does here, his movies have the clunky enthusiasm of something made by kids in the backyard. There’s something sweetly entertaining about that.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Magic Sword Thursday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.