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Ever since the release of Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney has dominated the children and family markets for live-action adventure films but that hasn't stopped some enterprising producers and directors from offering an alternative. The early sixties, in particular, saw major studios such as 20th-Century-Fox, Columbia, United Artists and others attempt to rival Disney in this area with such releases as Misty , Snow White and the Three Stooges  and Jack the Giant Killer  but some of the more offbeat entries came from independent filmmakers such as Bert I. Gordon who made up for their lack of big budget production values with imaginative storylines and inventive special effects in spite of obvious limitations.
Gordon was better known as a producer/director of science fiction and horror films where the size of the title creature became the major preoccupation in such movies as The Cyclops , The Amazing Colossal Man , Attack of the Puppet People  and Village of the Giants . Some horror movie geeks even refer to him as "Mr. B.I.G." and this obsession with size is readily apparent in the two children's films he made during his peak years - The Boy and the Pirates , which features a tiny genie in a bottle dwarfed by his gigantic master, and The Magic Sword , a fantasy-adventure based on the legend of Saint George and the dragon.
The Magic Sword is easily the more ambitious production of the two and has a tongue-in-cheek charm and enjoyably tacky art direction which attempts to distract the viewer from the cheap sets with colored lights, bubbling pools of dry ice, faux medieval costumes and Halloween makeup effects. Despite the fact that Saint George is one of the most revered saints in Christianity and the patron saint of England, Portugal, Russia, Greece, Catalonia and too many others to name, Gordon wisely avoids the issue of religion in his pop fantasy and treats the legend as a children's fairy tale in the best Hollywood tradition with a dashing knight, a virtuous princess, a wicked wizard, a befuddled sorceress and terrifying monsters.
The storyline, which takes significant liberties with the St. George legend, opens with Princess Helene (Anne Helm) being kidnapped by the evil magician Lodac (Basil Rathbone) in revenge for past crimes committed against him by her father, the king. Within seven days the princess will be fed to Lodac's two-headed, fire-breathing dragon unless the king's best knight, Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), can rescue her in time. Sir George (Gary Lockwood), a young knight who is smitten with Helene, joins Sir Branton on his mission, accompanied by seven resurrected knights and the gifts bestowed on him by Sybil (Estelle Winwood), the sorceress - an enchanted horse, invincible armor and a magic sword. As the group advances on Lodac's castle, they must survive seven challenges put in their path by the evil wizard but only a chosen few will reach the end.
While children may enjoy some of the film's more fantastical elements - a giant, gorilla-like ogre, a boiling quicksand pond that turns men into skeletons, a birdcage filled with miniaturized victims of Lodac, the Siamese-twin assistants of Sybil who speak in unison, a deformed vampire hag in the guise of a sexy, shape-shifting maiden (played by Maila Nurmi, who was the original TV horror hostess "Vampira") - adults can enjoy the scene-stealing performances of Estelle Winwood as the mischievous but slightly addled Sybil and Basil Rathbone, looking especially foppish in his scarves, turbans and robes, as the malicious Lodac.
Gary Lockwood and Anne Helm fare less well as the romantic interest and are clearly out of their element here, looking too contemporary for a costume fantasy. Their performance style is equally anachronistic and more suitable for an Elvis Presley movie; in fact, both actors would appear with "The King" within a year - Helm in Follow That Dream  and Lockwood in It Happened at the World's Fair . Lockwood would later comment on The Magic Sword, stating "It was an insignificant film. We all did it for the money and nothing else." If anything, The Magic Sword reveals Lockwood's inappropriateness for a children's fantasy film; he would appear to much better advantage playing cerebral, tight-lipped characters under strong direction from Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey  and in Jacques Demy's Model Shop .
The Magic Sword certainly didn't disappoint the young audiences it was made for during its initial release and most critics at the time gave it favorable reviews with this quote from Variety, voicing the most typical assessment of the movie: "Razzledazzle fantasy for kiddies...The fun house in Coney Island has nothing on The Magic Sword...Actually, had [the moviemakers] so chosen, they might have cooked up a pretty ingenious tongue-in-cheek approach to the venerable tale, so that even the more sophisticated and discriminating of adults might have discovered more than the average share of screen jollies, with no significant loss of tot appeal...The ingenuity absent in the story is made up for in the production, which is a credit to Gordon's flair for special visual effects, his forte."
Producer: Bert I. Gordon
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay: Bernard Schoenfeld; Bert I. Gordon (story)
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin
Music: Richard Markowitz
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Lodac), Estelle Winwood (Sybil), Gary Lockwood (Sir George), Anne Helm (Princess Helene), Liam Sullivan (Sir Branton), Danielle De Metz (Mignonette), Merritt Stone (King), Jacques Gallo (Sir Dennis of France), David Cross (Sir Pedro of Spain), John Mauldin (Sir Patrick of Ireland), Taldo Kenyon (Sir Anthony of Italy), Angus Duncan (Sir James of Scotland), Leroy Johnson (Sir Ulrich of Germany).
by Jeff Stafford