There was none of your internet when I was a wean, none of your streaming, your satellite or cable TV, or indeed your video tape cassettes. The telly was three channels, eventually four; great late-night movie programming, for sure, but that was your lot. Much of my enthusiasm for films, particularly sci-fi and the likes, was stoked by reading about them. I’d pore over the features in my dad’s back issues of Photoplay (the Empire of the ’70s) while all but memorising the likes of Denis Gifford’s Monsters of the Movies and especially Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now.
Sci-Fi Now was published on the back of the upsurge in popularity of “fantastic” genre films in the wake of the then recent successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A slim volume – basically an extended essay on science fiction movies and their history – it served as my introduction to The Final Programme, Fantastic Planet, The Cars That Ate Paris, Death Race 2000, A Clockwork Orange … the list goes on. There were loads of pictures too, most of them on the enticing side of weird. I was fascinated by these movies, most of which I wouldn’t see for years. Which brings me to The Ultimate Warrior – Frank is enthusiastic about Robert Clouse’s post-apocalyptic thriller (“an excellent and atmospheric movie”) while noting that the film’s violence was “pervasive and not for the squeamish”.
So, recently I sat down to watch The Ultimate Warrior for the first time. Over the thirty-plus years since I first read it I’ve seen many if not all of the films from Frank’s book which had sparked my interest, most of them years ago and some of them now firm favourites. It seemed unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior could live up to that kind of expectation. As it turns out, while I won’t say it sits beside the very best in the genre, it’s a good film.
New York city of the near future (well, 2012) has been overrun with gangs and general lawlessness in the years following a worldwide ecological disaster which has rendered all food crops non-viable. One city block is controlled by Baron (Max Von Sydow) who heads a peaceful community numbering among its members his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and her husband, a botanist who has developed fertile plant seeds. Also in the ranks is a young Stephen McHattie. The rest of the neighbourhood is controlled by William Smith, whose villainous character is saddled with the name Carrot. Yul Brynner stars as Carson, a sort of wandering mercenary who throws in his lot with Von Sydow’s group as their head of security. He is tasked by Baron to take his daughter and son-in-law – and more importantly the crop seeds – to an island safe haven. Cue plenty of fighting and a lengthy game of cat and mouse through the disused subway system as Carrot gives chase.
Firmly in the “deserted city streets” school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the film looks good and is competently directed by Enter the Dragon helmer Clouse. Yul Brynner is good if oddly cast in a very physical role. The jazzy score struggles to settle – slightly mismatched to the visuals in places, in others, such as a street chase scene, lending greatly to the atmosphere. The film’s inconsistencies come close to derailing it – protagonists Brynner and Von Sydow – with their respective Russian and Swedish accents – are supposedly from the USA, the biological pandemic which has brought civilisation to its knees seems also to have somehow rendered guns and motorised transport unusable and the strange introduction to Brynner’s character – he stands motionless in the street for days until someone hires him – goes unexplained. It seems to be setting up some kind of mystical martial arts hero as per the film’s title but once he’s on board with the Baron’s people, Carson is a perfectly normal guy – just one who’s particularly useful with a knife. Surprisingly, the film isn’t nearly as violent as Alan Frank’s observations in Sci-Fi Now might have us believe. While there is some grisly imagery, much of the actual cut and thrust, as it were, occurs off-camera.
There is a hint of optimism in there but with its bookending montages of stationary-shot landscapes and its largely grim view of human nature, The Ultimate Warrior is a downbeat, slightly melancholy film. That atmosphere lends it weight beyond its limitations.