MST3K: The Sword and the Dragon (1994)
Starring: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, and Kevin Murphy.

The Plot: In the not-too-distant future, Mike Nelson is a regular worker at the Gizmonic Institute until being abducted by his boss and shot into outer space. His boss, Dr. Forrester, then sends the very worst movies that he can find in order to document his reactions. Mike teams up with the two robots on board, Crow and Tom Servo, and they do their best to improve this bad situation by having a good time and riffing on the movies. In this episode, Dr. Forrester forces Mike to watch The Sword and the Dragon. A fantasy film imported from Russia, The Sword and the Dragon follows Ilya Muromets who begins our story as being crippled. Sitting in his home, his wife is kidnapped by a group of Asiatic roughians and Muromets is left with no course of vengeance. However, when a magic potion and sword is given unto him, he gains tremendous strength and is no longer crippled. Now, with all of his faculties in order, Ilya begins a quest to bring his wife back home!

The Review
When you combine the worlds of Roger Corman’s wild exploitation and the silly adventures of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’re probably going to get something fairly interesting. Gunslinger wasn’t a perfect episode, but it was certainly memorable and I still recall the brilliant opening for that movie thanks to the great riffing. Looking back on previously covered episodes, the movie that our feature today has the most in common with would obviously be The Magical Voyage of Sinbad. Both Sinbad and Sword and the Dragon were originally Russian fantasies that were picked up by Roger Corman and then “American-ized” with the hopes of turning a profit. In both cases, the films have surprisingly high production values for the time and era that they were made. The American/silly version of these epics has certainly increased their unintentional humor, and of course this made The Sword and the Dragon ideal material for the Mystery Science Theater crew to riff on. Sure enough, the basic concept does produce a highly entertaining episode that thrives off of the unmistakably odd nature of this amalgamation of cultures. The movie may have been great in its original language, but after Corman’s intervention it has become a cinematic oddity that produced a quality episode of MST3K.

When Roger Corman imported this title he gave it the laziest and least creative name that any fantasy film could possibly have. The Sword and the Dragon sounds like something that might have adorned a Nintendo game back in the mid-eighties, before people actually expected creative marketing or intelligence within their digital storytelling. During the importing process, a great deal seems to have been lost in concern to this Russian film. Originally titled Ilya Muromets, this story is based upon a “Bylina,” which is essentially a Russian form of epic poem. Originally, the story focuses on a bogatyr (best thought of as a Russian “knight”) named Ilya Muromets. The basic structure of this story can essentially be seen in the finalized American product, but so much of the texture within the original product is lost. Indeed, it is far more interesting to go searching and reading about these original tall tales that inspired this movie than it is to actually watch the imported version. Characters such as Nightingale the Robber are given names as generic as “the wind demon,” and the movie loses many of the qualities that would have otherwise lent to its otherworldly atmosphere. This is an entirely different culture and a different form of storytelling, but the editors killed that in the hopes of dumbing things down for a wider audience.

Although I won’t try and convince readers that Ilya Muromets is apparently some kind of brilliant piece of unseen fantasy fiction that we are all doomed for having never seen, but the fact that this movie turns out as lame as it does probably isn’t the fault of the original production. Indeed, Corman likely didn’t show a great deal of respect for these titles. At the height of the Cold War, he may have even felt it necessary to remove the Soviet fingerprints that were found on the original film. However, as time has went on, this sort of treatment has been shown to hinder these films more than anything. In the modern age, audiences can do research with a much greater ease, and the film comes off as being far more interesting when you do just a basic amount of research. Thankfully, we have something like Mystery Science Theater to point out how utterly ridiculous this movie turns out to be. Going back to Roger Corman for a minute, it is slightly surprising that he and his company did not attempt to transform this film into a Hercules story. Considering the epic strength that our leading man seems to have, and the way in which Corman created his Sinbad story which took place in a very Russian landscape, I wouldn’t be surprised if this idea did in fact come up at some point.

The special effects in the movie may be the one area where it still, even after all of this time, manages to stand out from the crowd. There is a character named the Wind Demon in the film, previously mentioned up above, who has cheeks that puff out as he unleashes a giant torrent of wind in the direction of anyone who tries to pass him by. It appears that this effect, which see his cheeks inflating as if they were stuffed with two softballs, appears to have been done using a bladder system, which was impressively ahead of its time. The wind demon is only the first of many impressive creatures that pop up during the movie, and there are numerous other technically efficient practical FX sequences that pop up along the way. The makeup used on the Asiatic villains that are in the movie turn out to be a bit weak, but for the time and era that this movie was made they still look fairly well done. In comparison to the makeup used on John Wayne for his role as Genghis Khan, I have to say that the Asian-izing of the actors in this movie looks slightly better. It may not have a “realistic” look to it, but it has a distinctive style that I find enjoyable.

The Roger Corman version of this film seems to do so many things wrong that I’m hard pressed to find many things that I truly like about this translation of the movie. Everything that I do end up liking is more thanks to the original feature. The visuals within the movie are incredible. It is actually a shame that such a movie, made in 1956, hasn’t made a larger mark on the world of genre cinema. The special effects, the wild set design, and the fun atmosphere are all visible within even this version of the movie. Unfortunately, the original performances can not be felt, nor can this movie’s plot truly be trusted. The language that our characters speak within Roger Corman’s version of the movie sound as if the script was written in the King James form of speech. Due to this, much of the dialogue comes across as ridiculously pretentious. The snooty dialogue seems far from casual, and at times this becomes heavily distracting. This dialogue becomes an area of contention for Mike and the bots, as the movie at times seems as if it is unintelligible because of the silly dubbing. Yet, despite the ridiculous dialogue, the movie remains relatively easy to navigate. This is likely due to the simplistic nature of the actual plot.

Overall, as an episode of Mystery Science Theater, The Sword and the Dragon is a definite classic. Featuring the perfect combination of awesome in-movie riffing as well as fun bumper segments, this is a strong episode that really rounds off the Volume XXIV boxset. A bit that film geeks are bound to enjoy would be the bumper segment where Mike presents a “joke,” as told by Ingmar Bergman. What follows is one of the most bland and vanilla jokes you have ever heard, but told in the most stilted and pretentious way possible. A perfect parody of the worst aspects of arthouse cinema, this may have very little to do with The Sword and the Dragon, but it is one of the most dead-on spoofs found in the MST3K library. Thankfully, in terms of riffing, the guys are very accurate with this episode as well. I think that part of the success comes from the plot being filled with enough action and adventure that the crew do not have to struggle to find things to talk about. The riffs come fast and furious throughout the course of the movie, and although things get a little tired by the final act, they still manage to make the most of it.

The Conclusion
At this point, we have discussed almost everything that there is to say about The Sword and the Dragon. An incredibly fun episode of MST3K, it is certainly worth tracking down. I give it a four out of five. Although it may not be the first episode I would point out for a beginner, this one definitely provides a ton of entertainment. Fans of the Mike years will certainly want to have this one in their collection.

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