A genre that has been around for decades and gets talked about too rarely, sword and sorcery can encompass many films and sub-genres. So, what makes a sword and sorcery film better than the others? What makes it worthy of being the best? For some it will be how closely it follows the genre’s established rules and typical stories. For others, it will be how well-written and directed they are. For us, it’s how enjoyable they are, so, yes, some will deviate a bit from the usual rules of the genre, but all will be fun. So let’s take a look at what we consider the best sword and sorcery movies!
The Green Knight (2021)
A more recent offering in a genre that doesn’t seem to get enough representation lately, The Green Knight is a fantastic adaptation of the writings by The Gawain Poet. The source material may not have seemed like a straightforward thing to adapt to film, but those familiar with it have dreamt of a version that was more like a film for themselves. This adaptation by David Lowery is well-written, well-directed, has a great cast, and looks absolutely fantastic in its darkness. The performance by Dev Patel gives the film life and the special effects are lovely to look at, even in the darker scenes, especially a specific group of sequences with The Green Knight. It’s one of those films that begs to be seen on the big screen, so any re-release or single night screening should be highly considered.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
This is the movie most people seem to think about when sword and sorcery films are brought up and for good reason. This adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s work by writer/director John Milius and co-writer Oliver Stone brought the stories and character to life in a fun way for fans and it really brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the forefront for most audiences. Yes, the man had done films before this, but this was really the one that brought him to the general film-going public’s consciousness. It also led to a fun sequel 2 years later and then Red Sonja in 1985 (which is not a sequel, but definitely in the family).
Yes, this one may be more fantasy than sword and sorcery, but it is still considered part of the genre and the film is excellent. It’s one of those movies that some grew up on, some discovered in adulthood, and most just love. The added fantasy elements, the sheer beauty of some of the scenes, the absolute perfection of Tim Curry as Darkness should be plenty to entice anyone to watch this film. However, if that is not enough, there’s Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, a definite goth aesthetic in some of the sequences, and directing by Ridley Scott. Get your hands on the director’s cut if you can as it is a must see.
John Boorman directing Helen Mirren. That’s all you should need to convince yourself to watch this. Also, this film is amazing. It’s one of those movies that sets the bar pretty high for the genre. Merlin, Arthur, the Round Table, Camelot, you know the story. This here is an example of how to adapt a story for the screen in a way that makes it magical in and of itself. This is an adaptation that gains from multiple viewings.
The Beastmaster (1982)
A Don Coscarelli entry in the sword and sorcery genre, The Beastmaster is our lead here, a hero who has animal helpers and can wield magic to get to his goal, in this case a search for revenge. This was Coscarelli’s follow-up to Phantasm and it seemed like a surprising choice at the time, but at this point in his varied career, it feels like it fits as the era was full of these types of films and the man needed a new movie that would be successful. These days, the film is a bit of cult one for those with a strong sense of nostalgia for these types of films. Nonetheless, this is a really fun and enjoyable ride and ranks as one of the best sword and sorcery movies.
Solomon Kane (2009)
A somewhat recent entry, this one seems to focus more on sorcery at times, but it has some good sword moments as well. With James Purefoy in the lead and written and directed by M.J. Bassett, this adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s work is one that pulls you in early on and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. Purefoy gives a fun performance as a mercenary who has given up violence to then find himself in an impossible position that leads him to pick up the sword again. Mix in the threat of hell for our lead and his battle is one that is both internal and external. This is one of those adaptations that seemed to fly under the radar in the US upon release but has since found its audience on streaming platforms.
The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
The early 1980s were filled with these types of films and it seemed like plenty of them were just not that great. The Sword and the Sorcerer is one of the better entries in the genre from that period. The story is pretty much as expected, a mercenary carrying a sword is in fact a royal who must help a princess against a dangerous sorcerer. This film decided to go all out and give the lead a three-bladed sword, and if that is not enough to make you check this one out, what is? It’s also an Albert Pyun film, a man who was known for putting his all into any film he made, for better or worse, usually for better as his movies are highly entertaining. Surprisingly, the was one of the highest grossing sword and sorcery movies of the eighties.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
A kids’ movie? Yes, a kids’ movie. Early on, 20 years before the 1980s craze for the genre, Disney made their own sword and sorcery film about Merlin and a boy named Arthur. It was their way of adapting part of the story of King Arthur and the Sword, making it about a kid who pulls the sword from a stone and adding some of that trademarked Disney magic. This one is cute, but it’s also so much fun. To this day, the film is represented at the Disney parks with a sword in a stone that kids (and grown-ups) can try to pull, and it sometimes gives way and crowns a new royal. The fact that the attraction and the film are still beloved says a lot about the film itself and how well it worked for generations of kids. It’s also a great place to start off your kids if you have a love for the genre, but need something less gruesome or scary for them to get into and go from as they get older.
From that era of plenty for the genre, Krull came from director Peter Yates, the man behind Bullitt and The Deep, and writer Stanford Sherman, a man who had written on Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., this team up was interesting at the time and still is today. This was not their genre of choice it seemed, but they made something truly memorable here. While watching this, look for young Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane (who’s dubbed). The story here is bigger than a lot of the others from the era, bringing hordes of evil Slayers and a few heroes trying to save their world. It’s like Conan the Barbarian meets Star Wars, with a heavy dose of Dungeons and Dragons.
Also from the early 1980s, Conquest goes the bow and arrow route over swords for the lead, but the spirit of the sword and sorcery is fully there. Being one of the few non-horror films from Lucio Fulci that most film fans know, it’s a great place to go to see what else the man was capable of. Now, this isn’t perfect, but it is fun and fun is why we watch sword and sorcery film, fun and the fights. This film gives both and brings the Fulci-style approach to evil. It’s one of those films many seem to have skipped, but definitely should go back to it. It’s not as much of a classic as the others, but perhaps it should be.
Of course, a ton more films fit within the sword and sorcery genre, so many in fact that going over them all to find the 10 best is practically impossible and some favorites had to be left off of the list such as the recent takes on King Arthur (so many of them), Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice, more kids movies like Willow and The Princess Bride , and of course Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All are well worth a watch.