Sunday Matinee: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

Right at the crest of the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons there was a minor wave of swords-and-sorcery films that were, more or less, blatant attempts to cash in on the trend. 1980’s Hawk the Slayer was, in my opinion, one of the better efforts.

Unlike some of the other films in my Sunday Matinee series, this one doesn’t offer much of anything in the way of social commentary. Or, for that matter, fine acting or special effects. But when it hit Cinemax, this fourteen year old was entranced, and watched it literally hundreds of times. It was, almost literally, a D&D game brought to life.

The evil Voltan (played by Jack Palance; just imagine Jack Palance deliberately trying to over-act, and you’ll have an inkling of what he’s like in this film) has kidnapped an abbess, and is demanding a ransom from the church for her return. The church cannot, by policy, pay the ransom, but suggests that the warrior Hawk, who has been an agent of good in the past, may be able to assist. Hawk re-assembles his band of adventurers with the help of a witch (whom he has saved from being burned at the stake); we have the dwarf, the giant, the elf, and the one-handed crossbowman who was sent to fetch the hero in the first place. Each has a short scene that sets the stage for who he is, and really works for giving a background to the characters.

Seeking the money to pay the ransom, the heroes attack Sped, a slaver on the River Shale (and a thoroughly disgusting character that nobody is sorry to see get his head staved in). Voltan’s son, Drogo, learns that they have the ransom money and attempts to get it for himself, but is slain in the process, sending Voltan into a fit of rage. The party heroes are betrayed by one of the nuns, seeking to win the return of the abbess by letting Voltan into the strongly-defended abbey. We are treated to a flashback of backstory, wherein Voltan and Hawk are revealed to be brothers, with the evil Voltan killing the bride-to-be of the saintly Hawk. Eventually, Voltan slays the dwarf, Hawk slays Voltan, and all is set right with the world.

This film defines the B-movie of the 1980’s. The soundtrack is cool, but repetitive. The special effects are unbelievably cheesy (we are treated to a barrage of luminescent ping-pong balls as a magic spell at one point), and half of the effects budget must have been spent on fog machine rental. Jack Palance is, well, Jack Palance on steroids, but there is a surprising amount of talent in this movie, including veteran character actor Roy Kinnear as the innkeeper.

What really makes this movie are the interactions between the characters. They are really well portrayed as a group that has a history. The elf is aloof, but deadly with his bow (infamously, there are scenes where he jumps over the same log over and over and over, shooting bad guys each time) and is a sort of mentor for Hawk, and the dwarf and the giant have a continuous battle of wits and insults, but all good-naturedly, leading up to the touching scene of the giant weeping over the dwarf’s death. There is a lot of humor throughout the film, and it is used to good effect. But the star, John Terry, makes Keanu Reeves look positively flamboyant by comparison.

Nothing but fluff, and B-grade fluff at that, but it’s still a lot of fun. Oh, and it turns out there’s finally a sequel in the works! 30 years late, but still welcome.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

13 thoughts on “Sunday Matinee: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

  1. I loved Hawk the Slayer as a kid! I'd love to see it again these days though I know full well it won't hold up to my memories. I was a big influence on my early conceptions of D&D.

  2. Hawk The Slayer was (and remains) a major influence on how I see D&D "in real life".

    I wouldn't get too excited about the sequel though. There has been no noise from there for over 18 months and I fear it's stuck in development hell 🙁

    I hope I'm wrong, but the 'official' Hawk The Hunter blog – – hasn't been updated since January 2009!

  3. "just imagine Jack Palance deliberately trying to over-act, and you'll have an inkling of what he's like in this film"

    Also, he was born Volodymyr Palahniuk. Try stumping your friends with that one on trivia night.

    "I wouldn't get too excited about the sequel though. There has been no noise from there for over 18 months and I fear it's stuck in development hell"

    At least other incredibly unlikely sequels are still on-track:

  4. For all of its flaws in production values, Hawk the Slayer remains one of my favorite fantasy movies for what it gets right. The characters are interesting and each has a role, magic is important and (it seems) lurking around every corner, and -as best it can- it treats the fantasy world seriously.

  5. I love it, and have the tie-in novel which gives the characters a smidgin more depth. The cinema programme at my local had an interview with the writer who envisioned sequels as quests for other magic stones to be added to the mindswords hilt, allowing new powers.

    I love how the soundtrack revels in it's 80s synth textures.

    And the spaghetti western inspired standoffs always make me smile.

  6. I loved Hawk the Slayer, but the fact it was one of the better entries in '80s S&S film says awful things about that genre.

    I liked The Sword and the Sorcerer and Deathstalker, too, but the former was for the screaming weird faces at the beginning and the shooty-sword, and the latter was for the rocking boobage.

  7. Joe,

    I'm trying to send you stuff but am getting:
    : host[] said: 550
    : Recipient address rejected: User unknown in
    virtual alias table (in reply to RCPT TO command)



  8. One of my all-time favorite guilty pleasure films.

    @Scott . Sword & the Sorcerer and Deathstalker are way up there too.

    I remember my Dad got roped into taking me and my D&D group of 13? year old boys to see Sword and the Sorcery in the theatre. He was soo embarrassed by the boobage and gore he apologized to the other parents.

    It was a major score for us as kids though as this was all pre-internet, and boobie sightings were very hard to come by.


    The Elf in Hawk the Slayer has a major impact on me at the time. He is the inspiration for all Elves in my old home campaign. Aloof, Logical, almost Vulcan like. They didn't believe in the Gods and instead trusted in Nature and the Spirits of the Forrest they could see and interact with.

    And that Bow I mean camon. Who didn't beg their DM to let them Shoot that fast and that accurately.

    And the Crossbow the old Fighter had, pure awesomeness!

    ~ Thuffer Mudfoot – Hool Marsh Trapper
    (a.k.a Gwarh – Chris McNeil)

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