If you played D&D back in the day, you’ll remember him. He would have been around three bills, including the weight of that massive beard, probably had a small collection of medieval weaponry, and a tendency to answer questions with painfully unfunny skits. He knew everything about the Middle Ages as he would be the first to tell you. On his bookshelf, nestled between books of Boris Vallejo artwork and pornographic manga, there would be a line of paperbacks with a word scrawled on the spine: Gor. A series of sword-and-planet books that runs the gamut from John Carter ripoffs to BDSM sex fantasies, the Cannon group adapted it into a film in 1987. They have yet to apologize.
More Accurate Tagline: Gor! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.
Guilty Party: This is a tough one to assess blame for, since it probably lies with whatever freak at Cannon greenlit the thing (presumably only after trying to remake Roots and being told that, no, that’s not what it’s about at all). Considering the poor reputation John Norman, the author of the Gor series, has among genre writers, I’ll blame him. If he even can hear me over the neverending catfight in the slave pit of his sweaty imagination.
Synopsis: At a small college somewhere in America, a fucking lunatic teaches a class on physics. Instead of teaching his students about normal things, like why you shock yourself on doorknobs or how dwarves fly through the air (the secret is love), he’s talking about the parallel dimension of Gor. Explaining that he has a magical ring that will take him there, his students spend half the time openly laughing at him and the other half wondering how much of this asshole’s insane ravings will be on the test.
The asshole’s name? Tarl Cabot. Tarl. Maybe he came up with Gor because he wanted to live in a world where his first name didn’t sound like a medieval birth control device.
Anyway, Tarl is really psyched about his upcoming vacation with his TA, Beverly. She’s not feeling it and dumps Tarl for Imhotep, presently disguised as every ‘80s stereotype possible (I’m not joking here, Arnold Vosloo, who played Imhotep in The Mummy is the bully college professor. Also: there’s a bully college professor. Awesome.). Tarl, depressed about his vacation being ruined and about being named Tarl, drives off through the rain. Soon, his ring starts beeping, and in an unknowing demonstration of the danger of cellphones, Tarl crashes into a tree. As the camera pans over the car, Tarl is gone!
He wakes up in the middle of a desert. Sensing plot just over the next rise, Tarl wanders until he hears the clash of swords. Horsemen raid a small town for slaves. The local inhabitants fight back, including one woman, Talena, that the camera keeps hunting for. She’s very pretty in a good-god-what-the-fuck-did-you-do-to-your-hair sort of way. If she looks like she was in every metal video in the late ‘80s, that’s because, well, she was. Seriously though, with that hairdo she had to apply to the local city council for a special zoning variance just to walk down a street.
The bad guys are dressed like someone heard about an Battlestar Galactica S&M convention and decided that sounded like a fantastic idea. Led by Sarm (Oliver Reed. Yes, the Oliver Reed), they’re really after this warbling anal polyp called a Heartstone that the locals revere. Imagine the Shankara Stone from Temple of Doom and make it retarded. So the bad guys steal the Heartstone and a bunch of people including Talena’s dad Marlenus, who is cultivating a personal farm of snow-white chest hair. The bad guys try to take Tarl, but through the power of incompetence, he kills a couple, including Sarm’s son. Sarm swears vengeance, which would be important in a better movie.
Tarl has managed to faint after the accidental slaying of several trained warriors. He wakes up, now dressed in a loincloth that is one sparring session from being a thong. The old guy explains that Tarl is on Gor, and he’s clearly the warrior of the prophecies, mostly because irony hasn’t been invented on Gor yet. Time for a training montage! Though Tarl’s flailing was good enough to kill a couple guys, the heroes think it might behoove the professor to learn how to swing a sword without looking like the thing just farted. This looks like it takes all of one afternoon.
Then it’s time for a trek across the endless deserts of Gor. Unlike desert dwellers of earth, who usually prefer lots of breathable silks and whatnot, Goreans appear to prefer leather thongs and crop tops. Skin cancer kills more Goreans than slavers and atomic wedgies combined. A black guy attack later, and the heroes come upon a small town. Talena explains that women aren’t allowed to be free, which means she’s going to have to wear a leash and Tarl will have to treat her like chattel. For those not keeping track, yes, it’s like a slashfic writer just hijacked the script.
Because the movie wasn’t actively slapping a woman across the face, someone decided to deliver a misogyny injection in the form of a bar on catfighting night. I’m serious. The scene is clearly intended to be sexy, but all I can think is where did these savages acquire hairspray and crimping technology? Anyway, Talena has to get in a really long, drawn out catfight and the group acquires a dwarf. Look, I don’t like it any more than you do. This scene makes no sense, lasts about three days, and accomplishes so little Congress is still consulting with it to find out how to suck worse at their jobs.
After some more wandering through the desert the heroes find some caves. Unfortunately, there’s a minor zombie infestation, but nothing to get too worked up for. Once they put out some traps, it should be fine. Now it’s time to sneak into the enemy city, which of course it’s time for Talena to be a slave again. When did this turn into a Joss Whedon project?
Tarl pretty much immediately gets captured because he’s an idiot. In fairness to the film, this is a constant character trait. So, you know. Bravo. Anyway, instead of taking him to a dungeon, they take him to a crazy bisexual orgy that looks to be populated exclusively by performers from the Flamingo. Sarm, conveniently forgetting that whole blood vendetta thing, wants Tarl to brand a slave. You know, guy shit. So he brings up a hooded woman, and who should it be, but Talena. Well, Tarl has had enough of this. He Hulks out and escapes with Talena. On a crazy run through the caverns, they rescue the rest of the slaves from the first town, Talena’s dad Marlenus, and find the Heartstone. Which still looks like an anal polyp. Everything is coming up Milhouse for the heroes, but alert readers will remember one thing: Tarl sucks.
The heroes wander right into Sarm’s ambush and get captured. Sarm postures a little and throws a near extra into the flaming pit he got at Thulsa Doom’s garage sale. Then Tarl shoots Sarm through the neck with an arrow. Sarm dies. That’s it. Tarl doesn’t even do an action hero quip. Not even a defiant look to the camera and a muttered: “Road house.”
So back at the village where everything is cool, Tarl and Talena sneak off to fuck. They run into Jack Palance, who I’m pretty sure is playing himself. He acts a little creepy, but nothing really comes of that. Later, in a cave somewhere, Tarl is finally getting a little action. The village has inexplicably allowed Tarl and Talena to borrow the Homestone. The polyp starts warbling, and Tarl has two options: 1) throw his ring as far as he can and get some or 2) check out the rock. He checks out the rock, because, altogether now, Tarl sucks! He gets transported home. Way to save yourself the trouble of some sex there, buddy!
Back on earth, Tarl runs into Imotep and Beverly and acts like an alpha male douche. Of course, this makes Beverly love him. The “action” cuts back to Gor, with Palance wandering around in a silly hat and narrating to himself. It would be insignificant, except for the fact that they were setting up a sequel.
Life-Changing Subtext: Slavery is awesome! Although just for chicks.
Defining Quote: When Tarl angrily demands if a pleasure slave wants to be free, she responds with this gem: “No, master. I only wish to satisfy you.” That was written one handed.
Standout Performance: Oliver Reed as Sarm. I once described Oliver Reed’s acting style as him attempting to drunkenly seduce whoever is opposite him, and this is no exception. He rarely speaks above a purr, although he’s prone to bizarre fey outbursts. And in one scene, his gestures are so large and bizarre, he looks like he’s preparing to be rotoscoped by Ralph Bakshi.
What’s Wrong: Other than chintzy costumes apparently made out of Korean knock-off Deep Space Nine models and the pervasive sexism, there is one thing that sinks this as a passable action film. The action. The swordfighting is just atrocious. The actors all look like they’re trying to tickle each other gently with their swords and hoping no one’s mom calls them for dinner.
Flash of Competence: Talena is attractive in an extremely trashy ‘80s kind of way.
Best Scenes: Remember, Tarl faints after slaying Sarm’s son using the only martial art that’s taught to the tune of Yakety Sax. After he wakes up, the old guy has to explain that Tarl is on Gor. Tarl completely forgets the opening scene of the film, in which he expressed a sincere belief in Gor to a college Physics class. It’s like this movie was written by the Memento guy. The old man explains that Tarl somehow killed Sarm’s kid and the only way home is through the Homestone. Tarl takes a long time to believe any of this. Maybe someone should record one of his lectures and play it for him. I can see the horrified look on his face: “What the fuck is this? Gor? I’m supposed to be talking about the velocity a hurled dwarf!” Maybe he has the world’s most specific case of Tourette’s.
In another example of its short-term memory loss, Sarm gets his meaty hands on Tarl, the guy that killed Sarm’s son, and… takes him to a massive bisexual orgy? Talk about mixed signals. Sarm even calls over a pleasure slave for Tarl. So this is what happens when Sarm swears vengeance? What’s his idea of a war crime? A handjob and a steak dinner?
Transcendent Moment: In the final reel, after Sarm is dead and the holy anal polyp is returned to the town, Jack Palance wanders out of one of the buildings, like he just got lost on set that day. “Wait a minute,” thinks Palance, “this isn’t City Slickers 3, The Legend of Curly’s Priapism!” Palance is the third billed star in the film, despite appearing in maybe three minutes total. The hilarious part is that it’s not just the audience that’s surprised to see him. As he comes out of the door, a nearby woman turns around, sees him and gets this look on her face like, “What the fuck? Is that Jack Palance? Do… do I have to touch him?”
Watching Gor is like having someone with a massive head wound trying to explain the plot of some Conan fanfic. But the worst part of it, worse than the rampant sexism, worse than the ridiculous costumes, worse than Tarl even is… there’s a Gor 2.
And I will watch it.