FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * metaphysical, psychological*
The first half-hour of THE BARBARIANS suggests that it could be a better than average sword-and-sorcery flick. Ruggero Deodato's direction is brisk and efficient, and the costume design people come up some nice outfits, making the fantasy-world look a bit like a MAD MAX derivative. And the initiating conflict is established not through exposition but through action.
A caravan of gaudily garbed people called "Ragniks"-- a tribe that specializes in traveling entertainments-- is attacked by the evil ruler Kadar (Richard Lynch), his soldiers, and his pet sorceress, the oddly-named China. The attackers know that the Ragnik queen Canary is charged with the ruby, but one of her subjects escapes with the gem in order to hide it. One of Canary's three fosterlings, a little girl named Kara, also flees the caravan, but the significance of this plot-thread won't be revealed until later.
The other two fosterlings, twin boys, don't retreat: when Kadar threatens their surrogate mother Canary, one of the kids bites off two of Kadar's fingers. Canary, seeking to save the boys from Kadar's vengeance, swears to do anything the warlord wants. In return for her favors-- which Kadar must figure includes yielding the location of the magic ruby-- the ruler swears not to either kill the twins or let his servitors kill them. However, he has an elaborate plan to make them kill each other. He has his gladiator-trainer "Dirtmaster" (Michael Berryman) separate the twins, raise them to be gladiators, and then pit them against each other some ten years later.
Years later, Kadar has become so besotted with Canary's erotic charms that he no longer visits the other women of his harem. He also seems to have pretty much forgotten about the ruby and whatever grand plans he meant to use it for. However, Kadar hasn't forgotten about the twins, blessed with the oddball names of "Kutchek" and "Gore" (real-life bicep-happy twins Peter and David Paul). He holds his gladiatorial game, and decides to make Canary watch the deaths of her surrogate sons. However, during the fight the Barbarian Brothers doff their helmets and recognize each other. They turn their swords against Kadar's soldiers and escape.
After this fairly bracing beginning, BARBARIANS trundles steadily downhill. Part of the problem is that despite their impressive physiques, the Paul Brothers are largely charisma-free, essentially playing a sword-and-sorcery version of DUMB AND DUMBER. (They are, forever, far from the worst actors in the film, as that honor goes to a horribly mugging Michael Berryman.) But the other problem is the episodic script.
First the brothers seek out the region of the Ragniks to get support in order to fight Kadar and rescue Canary. The Ragniks have been reduced to poverty and can't be of help without a supply of good weapons. However, the brothers meet a spunky young girl named Ismena, being held by the Ragniks for thievery. She talks her way out of a hanging by claiming she can help them find an arsenal. She then ends up following the Barbarians throughout all of their dangerous exploits, though based on what we know of her, she ought to take the first opportunity to sneak away. Ismena's inconsistency of character gets even worse later, when it's revealed that she's really that other fosterling Kara. However, she acts like she never encountered the Ragniks before, making no attempt to gain clemency by citing her past association with the tribe. She doesn't have the usual motive of the female sidekick to a male barbarian, where she's warm for the hero's form; she doesn't show any interest in either twin and they seem insensible to her (admittedly tomboy-ish) charms. So, even more than the twins and Kadar, Ismena /Kara is totally defined by the script.
The girl who's really Kara leads the twins to a tavern to buy weapons, even though none of them have money. This eventuates in a big barfight, easily the film's best action sequence. Somehow, during this chaos, Kara gets hold of info about Kadar's palace. She takes the brothers to a secret passage, and they manage to enter the lord's harem. Canary's a bird in an iron cage, so they can't get her free without a lot of commotion. As a consolation prize, she tells them where to find the ruby (possibly because of the magic tie between her and the gem), but with the caveat that they'll have to fight a guardian dragon. Off go the guys, but another harem-maiden overhears the colloquy. The maiden tells China, who tortures the info out of Canary (she couldn't have done that ten years ago?), and then China is off with some soldiers to grab the ruby. Slightly later Kadar finds out what's been going on, and he too decides to go after the ruby and the Muscle Beach Barbarians. For some reason, he drags Canary along.
Somehow, despite the barbarians' head start, China and her entourage get to the ruby first, but the (very phony looking) dragon eats them all. The barbarians do manage to get weapons from some old barrow, and this serves them well when they fight and beat the dragon. Kara takes possession of the magic ruby.
At this point the epic battle between "good brothers" and "bad father" is only about twenty minutes away, but two more weird scenes ensue that prove much more interesting.
Deodato then cuts back and forth between Kara, who's got the ruby, and Canary, who seems to have an affinity for the stone. Canary, after having tolerated Kadar's attentions for ten years, suddenly gets the idea that this is a good day to die. From miles away Canary taps into the gem's power and creates an illusion in which she fades away. The besotted warlord reflexively strikes out with his sword, and then is really, really sorry when he stabs Canary to death. Richard Lynch gets the signal honor of being (I think) the first evil overlord in a S&S film to weep for a lost love.
The second weird scene takes place when Kara-- separated from the Barbarians, I forget why-- seeks out the Ragniks. The ruby's magic power has faded because of Canary's death, and when the Ragniks realize this to be the case, they enact a Cinderella-style ritual in which they try the ruby-- a.k.a. the "Belly Stone"-- to see if it fits the navels of any of the tribe's virgin daughters. All of the girls fail to bond with the stone-- not necessarily a slur on their virginity-- and so the Ragniks try it on Kara. Despite her protestations that she's not a virgin-- the film's only genuinely good joke-- the stone bonds with Kara, and she's the new Ragnik Queen. After all that, the climactic battle of heroes and villain is something of a letdown.
From a myth-finding point of view, the most interesting thing about this silly thud-and-blunder flick is this transfer of power from symbolic mother to symbolic daughter, even though the adult versions of these characters never share a scene together. In the final frames, Kara ascends to queendom, and I guess the brothers go on to serve her as knights-- making this one of the few barbarian flicks without an erotic payoff.