Badass Hall of Fame: Darkwolf

Fire and Ice movie poster Frank Frazetta

You could be forgiven for thinking a film called Fire and Ice would perhaps be something to do with George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. But Fire and Ice, an animated movie directed by Ralph Bakshi (Lord of the Rings), actually predates the megaseries by nearly ten years. It’s a pretty basic story: the ice kingdom of the evil Nekron and the folk of Firekeep are at war and caught in the middle is Princess Teegra and the wandering nomad Larn. Yet we don’t give a shit about them or their world. No, what elevates this film from mediocre to memorable is one guy, one axe-wielding dude with a wolf’s head for a hat. Lets get together and talk about DARKWOLF.

CATS AND WIZARDS

If you’ve never heard of him, Ralph Bakshi is an American director of animated films. But not any old Disney pants. I’m talking adult cartoons. Well before the cult craze of anime hit Western shores, Bakshi was making films like Fritz the Cat (1971) about taking drugs and scoring with women. Fritz the Cat has the distinction of being the first animated film to be given an X-Rating. Let’s be fair – it no longer holds up to the likes of the rape scene out of Ninja Scroll. Yet seeing various cartoon animals like prostitute horses, Nazi rabbits and hipster cats all smoking crack, getting their tits out and having sex is still kind of unnerving, even today.

As a fan of 80’s anime my Dad, who’d seen the film at the time of release, taped a late night showing on television. He thought I’d enjoy it, but I didn’t understand the appeal. Maybe I was still brainscarred from the two other animal based cartoon horror giantsAnimal Farm and Watership Down. Perhaps it was the 70’s continued insistence on cool people calling everyone Man or Cat (no pun intended) that turned me off. Regardless, it made Bakshi a force to be reckoned with. He followed Fritz up with a few other “Dirty Disney” films (Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, Hey Good Lookin’) before shifting to fantasy, a genre he’d enjoyed since he was a kid.

War Wizards (or Wizards as it became known after George Lucas stuck his nose in) delved into a post apocalyptic future of dueling magicians who also happened to have guns and weird mutant armies. It made a little bit of money and afforded Bakshi the opportunity to do the animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings in ’78. As a cost-cutting experiment on Wizards, Bakshi used the animation technique of “rotoscoping” to capture some of the larger battle sequences. Rotoscoping basically means filming the shot with live-action actors, then tracing over it. The result is unusually realistic motion. This technique was used to capture every character in Lord of the Rings, and while people did get pissy over the fact it sort of ended half way through the story (basically at the end of the Two Towers for you Tolkien nerds out there), it still banked a cool $30 mil.

fire and ice darkwolf

ENTER FRAZETTA

Come 1982 and the world was awash with Conan the Barbarian rip-offs. The Oliver Stone/John Milius-helmed Arn vehicle spawned a wave of loin-cloth clad, broadsword-wielding savage clones like Deathstalkers and Beastmaster (a personal fave of mine). With the hype train hurtling at full speed, Bakshi decided to get on board with long-time friend, the iconic artist Frank Frazetta.

For the uninitiated, Frank Frazetta was a legendary artist who’d started his career working in comics and book covers. In the 70’s he’d started doing covers for the likes Flash Gordon, Mad Magazine and most significantly Conan. His work on Conan actually redefined the sword and sorcery genre. Usually featuring the muscle-bound barbarian, some devilish foe (a beast or sorcerer) and some scantily-clad maiden, it was arguably the high marketability of Frazetta’s art that got the Conan film made in the first place.

Guys and girls, he was so good that he’d just paint a picture and then the writers would pen something to fit. His covers would sell that many! Anyway, he and Bakshi were good mates, so they decided to get in on the barbarian craze and collaborate. From their efforts, Fire and Ice was born.

fire and ice larn

FIRE AND ICE

Bakshi would direct and Frazetta would do the concept work. They also both closely directed the live action scenes together. Written by Conan (the Marvel comics version) veterans, Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, the team was rounded off by background artists James Gurney (Dinotopia) and Thomas Kincaid. Peter Chung, of Aeon Flux fame, did the layouts.

The backstory of the film is that the evil ice queen Juliana raises her son, Nekron, to be the most nasty, spoiled, little brat-sorcerer in history. Using his ice-powers, his kingdom of frost is creeping across the planet, devastating everything it touches. He also commands legions of subhuman mutants, who jump out of the ice to murder any poor people who try and resist. Our hero, Larn, is from one such unlucky village of loin-cloth wearing plebs. His mates and family are brutally massacred, and he only escapes by playing dead.

Meanwhile, Juliana has commanded some of the more competent mutants to travel to the last bastion of good in the world, Firekeep, to offer terms to King Jarol. She knows that fire generally beats ice and shit, so she wants to bully the king into surrender with terms like “surrounded”, “hopeless” and “totally fucked”. As a double-backup, she also tells them to kidnap his daughter. Of course the king and his bullheaded son refuse to give up, so after some impressive castle-wall scaling, they beat up Princess Teegra’s mate, stab her friendly panther, and make off with her.

fire and ice teegra

It’s during these early scenes that you begin to see the power of rotoscoping. All the running about by Larn, along with the idling/lounging motion of Teegra is just so accurate that it could never have just been drawn from the mind. I don’t care how slick Studio Ghibli are, they aren’t that good dammit. However, the lack of shading sometimes makes their faces look really unusual (especially Teegra’s).

It’s also odd that there is quite a lot of blood when that panther is killed, but not much gore anywhere else. Equally so the film readily shows off Teegra’s “assets” at points; in fact she escapes from the mutants by getting her bikini super wet and see-through. By putting on a sexy show she somehow paralyses them into inaction. It’s an odd combination of adult violence and sexual exploitation one minute and He-Man-levels of family entertainment the next.

Anyway, while Teegra just keeps running and hiding from the mutants, Larn has made good his escape and is sauntering through some wasteland. All too soon his musky scent (I suspect it’s the lack of ass-cheek protection offered by his loin cloth) is picked up by a pack of ravenous black wolves. He shanks one quick with his spear, but now weaponless and outnumbered, he has to make a run for it. The bastard wolves give chase. It’s only after an arrow takes one of them out that they think twice and scarper. But who fired that arrow? Larn doesn’t hang about to find out. Instead we see some shadowy figure, eyes-glowing green, riding some fuck-off horse watching from the shadows. Who is this badass?

Fire and ice darkwolf

FUCKING DARKWOLF

Darkwolf isn’t named in the film. I suppose he’s called Darkwolf because he’s kind of mysterious, and he has a wolf-pelt for head decoration. He wears that shit like a Batman mask. And like in the Batman comics, we can’t see his real eyes through the holes. Instead we can only see glowing green triangles. Are those his real eyes? Why are they green? Like much about Darkwolf in the film, we never get answers to these vital questions. All we know is the following:

  1. He’s a badass.
  2. He’s good at killing things.

He comes across an unconscious Larn again after he’s battled some giant lake octopus. Teegra is once again in the hands of Nekron’s goons. This time, instead of just helping him and fucking off into the mist, he sticks around. Larn wakes up and immediately think’s Darkwolf is there to take him to Nekron. He won’t go quiet, and he’ll have to kill him before he lets Nekron get a hold of him. “Don’t hunt for death boy. It finds us all soon enough”. That’s some grim philosophical shit that you’d find in a Conan story right there.

The pair join forces, though it’s more Larn coming along for the ride as Darkwolf has a horse and can track the warband who’ve taken Teegra. While it’s not explored, Larn was probably a shop assistant or something before Nekron raped his village with a giant glacier. Plus Darkwolf has a giant freakin’ axe. Larn only has some weak-ass knife and is still injured. Darkwolf is also way bigger. In terms of physique, Larn is gunning for that Brad Pitt from Fight Club look. Darkwolf is all about the size. When’s not slaying or hunting wolves for food, he’s big on protein shakes and heavy lifting. Suffice to say he could probably snap the little blonde dude in half should he need to.

Fire and ice darkwolf and larn

On horseback they head off together after Teegra. Note that the horse has red eyes. The last time I saw a horse with red eyes was the Peter Jackson version of Lord of the Rings. But Darkwolf isn’t some evil black rider. He’s a barbarian killing machine who just so happens to be helping this young guy rescue this girl he wants to poke. Red doesn’t have to mean evil remember. Didn’t Knightrider have that red light thing? He wasn’t evil.

They come across the mutants at night. Darkwolf tells Larn to go get the girl while he’ll distract the others “There must be fifty of them!” “That sounds about right”.

Now, the smart (and equally lame) strategy would be to sneak your way through the camp, slitting the throats of each subhuman you come across. Darkwolf doesn’t do this dishonorable, pussy move though. Instead he just starts hacking away. Like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, he easily dispatches everyone who squares up to him. He can even sense mutants coming from behind. When Larn can’t find Teegra (she’s slipped away, again), Darkwolf decides they’ll make their stand on some hill. After thinning the subhuman numbers with thrown rocks (Darkwolf throwing fucking boulders), he boots Larn off the top, telling him to find the girl. The mutants charge and Darkwolf screams a battlecry. He can’t possibly win.

25 MINUTES LATER

By this point we’ve not seen or heard from Darkwolf for a while, like a third of the film. We totally think he’s dead. Teegra has been taken before Nekron and he’s totally not interested. He gets off more on watching guys dueling to the death in front of him instead. His magic is so powerful, he can make friend attack friend. Teegra’s brother, who has finally arrived to discuss terms, is instead made to kill his friends before finally stabbing himself to death.

Larn, despite wearing a little piece of cloth to hide his cock, balls and anus, has managed to negotiate his way through the ice kingdom to Nekron’s castle without freezing to death. He nearly manages to kill the evil sorcerer too. But Nekron merely strips off and decides to fight him one-to-one as he’s impressed he’s survived this long. It’s only after Larn manages to cut him, that he starts using his magic to turn the tide. Instead of killing him, he saves him for later, and casts him into the dungeons along with Teegra. After surprising a guard, he escapes out into the frozen tundra. But this time it’s really fucking cold, and the mutants are after him.

Stumbling to the ground weak and beaten, the finally death blow is soon to come. But out of nowhere Darkwolf appears, saving the young dude once again. He picks him up and they head back to Firekeep to tell the king his son is dead and his daughter captured.

fire and ice darkwolf gif

I theorize it’s taken Darkwolf so long to get back to business because he was busy killing every one of those fifty mutants. Like Kurt Russell in Tombstone, he wouldn’t have been happy with letting a few get away. Hell no, he’d hunt the shit out of them. In my mind one actually managed to escape for enough to time to renounce Nekron, settle down, find a nice lady subhuman, build a house, get a job and father some weird mutant offspring. One day while bumping Junior off his knee, the door is kicked in and all their heads are cut off by Darkwolf who has taken months to track them down. He’s a professional and professionals don’t leave loose ends. We don’t see this in the film because decapitated youngster mutants probably would have soured the audience towards Darkwolf, but I’m 99% sure that was what he was doing in the 25 minutes he was off screen.

Not one to mince words, Darkwolf tells the king that they need to attack. He needs his Dragonhawks (basically big prehistoric pterodactyls) so that they can get inside the castle to kill Nekron. “There’s too few”, argues the king.  “Enough to get us in. One might make it through”. By one, he means himself. Fuck the rest of those pussies.

True to form, the rest of Firekeep’s warriors all die on entry. Using his Dragonhawk as a human shield, Darkwolf manages to penetrate the throne room. Larn, meanwhile, rescues Teegra from the dungeon.

THE FINAL SHOWDOWN

Nekron isn’t in the throne room. He’s up top, dancing about on the ice, laughing as Firekeep’s warriors all die. Darkwolf approaches and challenges with a scream of “NEKRONNNNN!”. Taking up his sword, the white-haired sorcerer tries to bring his magic to bear on the huge warrior. But it isn’t working. He can’t command him to kill himself. Instead all he can is sort of push him away.

Straining against the unseen force, Darkwolf screams again, starts glowing in a weird blue light and finally plunges his axe into the ribcage of Nekron. It looks super painful. All the ice starts to crumble as Nekron’s power fades. Darkwolf isn’t finished though. He hacks away at the dying dude one last time for good measure. Maybe it was seeing Juliana howling in rage in the background that made him want to dig one last shot in?

Larn and Teegra escape on one of the remaining Dragonhawks as the glacier crumbles. The king has released his lava which melts all the ice and incinerates all the remaining subhumans. You wonder for a moment why he didn’t do this in the first fucking place.

Later, when Larn and Teegra regain consciousness they see a shadowy figure atop a mighty steed watching over them from afar. It’s Darkwolf once again. He smiles as he watches them wander into the distance.

fire and ice darkwolf

CONCLUSION

So who is Darkwolf? In reality, he was voiced and acted by a dude called Steve Sandor. He’s a former steelworker and US air force police officer who appeared as a heavy in all the great 80’s TV shows like the A-Team, Knightrider, Star Trek and so fourth. Watching this cool Making of video, and you do get to see some of the live action footage. As described, to ensure the animation looked right, they had to go 100% when fighting and it looks like Steve is really messing people up.

From a creative standpoint, Darkwolf shares an appearance to some earlier Frazetta works, notably Barbarian and Deathdealer 1. In fact, at certain points in the film, Darkwolf assumes poses from Frazetta work, almost as visible nods to the paintings. He also isn’t named in the film, and is only mentioned in the actual trailer. In terms of character development, he remains as mysterious as other great nameless characters in cinema history. Similar to The Man With No Name or the driver in Drive, we only get glimpses and notions of a possible history.

However, I feel there is more to this dude than just a wicked axe and a crazy mask. There’s mystical shit at work. Look closely enough and you’ll see him at the beginning of the film, on his badass horse, watching Larn’s people get murdered by Nekron’s forces. At the time we don’t know who he is or why he is watching. Why is he there? How does he know to be there?

Again, in the ruins where Larn and Teegra meet, there is carving of his very face, overgrown with vines and weathered with age. Was he the king of this place? If so, what happened to it?

fire and ice darkwolf statue

One theory is that he’s Nekron’s Father. While there is no real evidence for this, it’s possible that Juliana sought out a great warrior to sire the son she wanted to rule the world. It’s argued that this is why he can resist Nekron’s magic and is so fucking angry at Juliana. While there’s hardly a precedent for blood relations being able to ignore magic in like any film ever, it could explain it I guess. It’s either that or because he’s such a badass that he can power through that shit. Either explanation is valid in my eyes.

Plus, listen to the vitriol in his voice when Larn asks him if he’s fighting Nekron. He responds: “Him and his Mother, that wolf bitch Juliana”. Come on. That’s some bitter ex talk. We’ve all heard it before. Plus he’s already planted the seed in Larn’s head that he is to kill Nekron. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on Darkwolf’s part that he won’t actually have to kill his son. But screw Juliana, he’s going to have one more stab at her, if you know what I mean.

He watches over Larn (from the very beginning), to ensure someone is there to pull the trigger. Ironically, Larn isn’t up to the task and it’s he who has to put a stop to Nekron’s icy shenanigans. We don’t see him dealing with Juliana though. It’s assumed she dies when the ice castle collapses. However, we don’t see Darkwolf escape either. Maybe, just maybe, he got to have a little extra revenge off screen too.

fire and ice nekron

I think it’s fair to to say that this film isn’t very good. The entire chase in the middle goes on for way too long, and there too many lost opportunities to really delve into the world. There are literally minutes spent on watching the Subhumans shuffle about grunting and moaning. Maybe Bakshi focused too much on the actual animation (which is stellar) and not the story (which is poop). One criticism that I think is fair is that this plays much like an episode of Masters of the Universe. It’s that basic, and not enough to fill out 90 minutes. Hell, some episodes of He-Man were far more story-packed than this.

But it is elevated from mediocrity by the presence of such a cool and unexplored character. We don’t need to know too much about Darkwolf to like him or to appreciate him. As my old man used to say, Less is More, and Frazetta & Bakshi sure took that approach here. Because we’re given so little, we naturally want to ask these questions, which in-turn, keeps us interested. For me, it turned an otherwise uninteresting swords and sorcery movie into something I thought about for days afterward.

Ultimately, Larn is the hero. But it’s Darkwolf who gets shit done and actual saves the universe. The fact that he appears out of thin air from time-to-time to brutalize bad-guys makes him a badass. That wolf-mask thing? That makes him a legend.

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