The new “Conan the Barbarian” movie is out this week, and Ed is celebrating with a look at “Ator: The Fighting Eagle”. It’s “Conan” with spiders!
Deja View is a Telly Award-winning series that explores foreign remakes of popular American films.
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Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this, a warrior destined to seek revenge against the mighty tyrant who slaughtered his people.
But this isn’t the Hyborian Age. It’s Italy, 1982.
And I’m getting that familiar feeling of Deja View.
The terrific success John Milius’s 1982 “Conan the Barbarian”, based on the stories of Robert E. Howard, led to a flood of sword and sorcery flicks in the ‘80s. Many of these were cash-ins aimed at the insatiable home video rental market. And several of them were Italian.
But perhaps the most blatant… was “Ator: The Fighting Eagle”!
“Ator: The Fighting Eagle” — or “Ator l’invincibile” as it was released in its native country — tells the story of the titular hero Ator, prophesied to overthrow the all-powerful Spider King. When his parents are killed, his village decimated, and his new bride abducted by the Spider King’s soldiers, he vows revenge.
Over the course of the film Ator teams up with a fiery blonde thief, just like Conan; is seduced by an evil witch, just like Conan, and must save a young woman from an evil cult leader, just like Conan.
These and other similarities map out a skeleton structure for “Ator” to follow, but the film fleshes out the rest of its plot with original adventures. Whereas Conan burglarizes one of Thulsa Doom’s temples and takes on a quest to save a King’s daughter, Ator tangles with Amazons, battles blind swordsmen, and quests for a magical mirror.
Playing James Earl Jones’s Thulsa Doom equivalent is actor and wrestler Dakar. His character is the high priest of a ruthless cult whose deity is the spider, differentiating itself from Thulsa Doom’s snake cult. And speaking of James Earl Jones, Dakar’s English language dub is suspiciously evocative.
But the most interesting piece of casting is the replacement for Conan’s sidekick Subotai. Ator’s companion… is an adorable scene-stealing bear cub named Kiog.
One of the film’s drawbacks is that its financial limitations are unfortunately noticeable. During his journey Ator encounters foes that are conspicuously budget-conscious, including, in one scene, his own shadow. And Dakar’s forces appear minuscule compared to those of Thulsa Doom.
“Ator” is also 40 minutes shorter than “Conan”, and therefore has little time for the deliberate character development seen in the first half hour of Milius’s film. This results in some key differences in character. Whereas Conan is fierce and aggressive — a genuine warrior — Ator, on the other hand, is naive and and lacks temerity, having been spared the brutal and grueling upbringing of his Cimmerian counterpart.
Central to “Conan the Barbarian” were issues of religion and cultism. Indeed, Thulsa Doom was almost certainly based to some extent on cult leader Jim Jones, who instigated the mass suicide of 900 followers just 4 years prior. “Ator the Fighting Eagle”, on the other hand, touches on none of this, content to tell a more straightforward adventure tale.
As with many Italian genre films of the era, one of its primary goals was to be sold to foreign markets. That meant forging a more marketable American pedigree and doctoring the credits. Thus, writer/director Aristide Massaccesi became David Hills.
But not everyone involved was secretly Italian. Ator himself is played by American actor Miles O’Keeffe, who had starred the previous year in MGM’s “Tarzan, the Ape Man”. And British actor Edmund Purdom plays Ator’s enigmatic mentor, Griba.
Overall, the film strikes one as a “junk food” version of “Conan the Barbarian”. The limited budget, straightforward writing, and utilitarian cinematography lacks the scope, gravity, and meticulously composed look of its inspiration. But it is nevertheless entirely enjoyable.
“Ator” was successful enough that it spawned 3 sequels of its own: “The Blade Master”, “Iron Warrior”, and “Quest for the Mighty Sword”. But interestingly, instead of borrowing exclusively from Conan, “Iron Warrior” took inspiration… from the Man of Steel! [The film features an trial scene almost identical to the opening scene from Richard Donner’s “Superman”.]
And this story shall also be told. Or maybe not.
Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.